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U.S. Environmentalists Finally Have a Leader
Ben Block, 18 Jul 08

by Ben Block and Christopher Flavin

On Thursday, politician-turned-activist Al Gore called for the United States to rely 100 percent on zero-carbon sources of electricity by 2018. Regardless of the logistical practicality of the goal or of the existence of political will to achieve this target in a single decade, Gore's statements made it clear: the U.S. environmental movement finally has a leader.

In the 20 years since global warming first entered the conscience of environmentalists, the ability to motivate progressive change has been, to put it mildly, a struggle. The opinions of scientific skeptics, supported by the fossil fuel industry, tended to resonate more powerfully in the public mind than the research generated by peer-reviewed international experts. Voters were not getting the message.

Now, that is beginning to change. A groundswell of voices - from Wall Street investors to the urban poor, from evangelical Christians to indigenous leaders, from defenders of national security to activists for world peace - say climate change is a threat and a solution is urgent.

Yet, who will lead? The environmental movement has not had a central, unified message since its inception during the first Earth Day in 1970. Rather than sticking to the core ethos of its foundation, the movement has settled for incremental compromises - for example, attempting to control pollution rather than transform the underlying economic causes.

Climate change will not solve itself with small steps that treat carbon dioxide as just another pollutant. A successful mass movement must set its sights high and settle for nothing less than a new economy. Gore has done just that.

At a Washington, D.C., event organized by his We Campaign, Gore challenged the United States to generate not a single megawatt of electricity from greenhouse gas-emitting power sources by the year 2018. He says a national push toward renewable energies would lower the prices of these technologies. The goal is "achievable, affordable and transformative," he explained, if it is coupled with the creation of a national electric grid, development of plug-in hybrid vehicles, and vastly improved energy efficiency.

Not only are his messages bold in their very nature, but Gore is connecting the dots in a way the greater environmental movement has often failed to do. The three major problems facing Americans - economic decline, national security, and environmental degradation - are interrelated, he said. "We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change."

If every major problem facing the United States can be solved with a clean energy revolution, then why aren't environmentalists storming Washington to create change?

Before Gore could even deliver his speech, some members of Congress were describing his statements as poorly timed, due to the rising prices of fuel and food. "Mr. Gore will yet again call attention to the policies called for by radical environmentalists that would result in even higher gas prices," Michael Steel, spokesman for House Republican Leader John Boehner, told The Hill newspaper.

In fact, Gore is offering the only realistic long-term solution to high gasoline prices - reducing America's addiction to oil by developing local energy sources that can be used to power a new generation of efficient, electric vehicles. This is a welcome contrast to those in Congress who are telling the public not to worry, that America can drill its way out of its energy problems. As Gore himself put it on Thursday, "When demand for oil and coal increases, their price goes up. When demand for solar cells increases, the price often comes down."

Instead of cowering to the fearmongering of the fossil fuel industry, the environmental movement must take the lead in embracing the vision of a new U.S. energy economy. By embracing Gore's vision, the United States can lead the world into the post-fossil fuel era of the 21st century, just as the country led the way into the fossil fuel era a century ago.

When civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. announced to participants during the 1963 March on Washington that he had a dream, his vision was not merely for some of America to live in equality. All men are created equal, King said. When championing for change, an all-or-nothing stance is sometimes the only choice.

Christopher Flavin is president of the Worldwatch Institute. Staff writer Ben Block can be reached at

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