Earth Day's biggest challenge yet
Three individuals tackle global warming with personal solutions - despite the global reach of the problem.
In the decade after the first Earth Day 34 years ago, people planted trees to fight smog, picketed toxic dumps, slogged through mud to clean up grungy river banks. Being Earth-friendly meant giving $25 to save the whales - or choosing unleaded gas at the pump.
But in the new millennium, using a trash can to "keep America beautiful" is not enough. One of the planet's most pressing problems - global warming - looks to be one of its most intractable. And that is proving frustrating to would-be activists.
Their challenge: How to get individuals to change their behavior for a problem that looms so large and is unlikely to be solved for generations.
"Environment took off as an issue in the 1970s because you could do something personal about recycling and pollution in neighborhoods," says Dale Jamieson, president of the International Society for Environmental Ethics. "One of the dangers of thinking about the global warming issue today is that it can be extremely impersonal, disempowering for people."
And yet, here and there, a hardy strain of personal action is taking root at the local level.
Ask Michael Charney about the clothesline across his living room or Seth Riney about his hybrid-car limo service or Melanie Aron about her congregation's solar panels. They all give the same explanation: "Global warming."
Dr. Charney, a psychiatrist turned environmental activist, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., has not owned a car since 1995 - the year he began pondering deeply the global warming issue. Instead he bikes, uses public transportation and last year joined "Zipcar," a car- sharing service that lets him grab a car on very short notice when he absolutely has to have one to go somewhere.
"I don't fly," Dr. Charney says, then recants: "I had to fly twice recently for family funerals. But otherwise I confine myself to ground transportation because jets are major contributor to global warming."
Charney was always an activist but only recently an environmentalist. While in medical school, he was a "Nader raider" in 1969, working on occupational health and safety issues. Later he joined the fight against big tobacco companies. But it was a professor's lecture at a 1988 reunion at Yale that shocked him: Global warming was coming, and it made all the other issues insignificant by comparison.
"I walked out of the lecture feeling so weak," he recalls. "It was overwhelming. Look at one smokestack and compare it to a cigarette. Then there was the exhaust coming out of cars and stoves and planes. It was everywhere.... I was overwhelmed. I couldn't touch it."
He spent seven years unable to grasp what he could possibly do about the problem, focusing on his psychiatry practice, playing cello, and a program to teach inner-city kids to play chess to counter violence. But global warming still lurked in the back of his mind, he says.
Then he quit everything and went to Alaska in 1994. Living in Bethel, a town of 5,000 in a sea of tundra the size of Ohio, he made ends meet working as a reporter for a local newspaper and interviewing native Alaskans.
"I became an environmentalist in Alaska," he says. "It re- awakened my concern about global warming. I still remember one native woman. She was complaining how hot it was that summer - 70 degrees."
A year later he was back in Boston with a mission. He began to educate himself by reading books on global warming. Though a neophyte in the environmental field, he began to realize a critical missing piece was public support - and he could contribute his skill at grass-roots organizing.
In 1998 he began phoning towns in New England, looking for anyone who was addressing global warming. Few were. But little by little, he and fellow activist Marc Breslow began pulling threads together, and the Massachusetts Climate Action Network was born - 15 or so cities and towns working to purchase clean power and use energy efficiently.
"I had a room with a phone and phone book," he says. "If you have a list of people to call, and time to do it, you can change the world."
Many see in climate change a problem so vast and complex that - in the absence of international treaties to cut emissions - individual actions may seem irrelevant. Yet global warming "is not primarily a scientific problem," Dr. Jamieson says. "It is an ethical and political problem concerning individual values."
And that's why Seth Riney started Planetran, the nation's first limo company that uses only low-emissions, hybrid Toyota Prius cars to ferry passengers to and from Boston's Logan Airport.
Trained as an astrophysicist, Mr. Riney worked as an engineer on satellite projects for an aerospace company in southern California. He shifted to a project to develop intelligent vehicles and lane-change warning devices. Then he leaped to a high-tech firm to write software.
After the dot.com crash, he remained a freelance software consultant making good money - but searching for meaning. The idea for Planetran came in January last year. Plugged into the science of climate change since his undergraduate astrophysics days, he read "Natural Capitalism," by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. The book's thesis of the next century as one devoted to the efficient use, not just extraction, of Earth's resources supercharged him.
With his mind on cars, computers, and climate it wasn't a big leap to conjure up the idea of a limo company that used today's hybrid technology. It would be able to exploit a niche in the local transportation market: low mileage and low impact on the earth. He reasoned that people who used his service might pay a little more to feel good about helping the planet.
Immediately he discovered resistance to the idea of a new limo company in cab-glutted Boston. But he found a receptive ear in next-door Cambridge.
"It was something I knew I could feel passionate about as an entrepreneur," he says. "I wanted to change the world and that's what I'm doing first and foremost. I take something people don't think about that has a huge impact on CO2 and climate change - and use capitalist tools to begin changing that."
Planetran was born last summer when he used his savings to buy the first Toyota Prius car and a few months later got his first limo license. To his surprise, the service began immediately to generate business through word of mouth.
Three Priuses are part of the Planetran fleet now. Riney says there will be at least three more and, he hopes, a total of 8 to 10 by the time the Democratic convention arrives in Boston this summer. He's already gotten interest from state delegations that want an environmentally friendly ride to and from the airport.
"At the end of the day, I'm building a transportation company," he says. "But it's something that helps the environment that nobody's ever done before. I think I can change the Boston public auto industry for the better just by doing it - not by arguing policy with lawmakers, but doing it."
Individual religious and ethical concerns are also driving an awakening on the subject. In 1993, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment was formed in Amherst, Mass., bringing together the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
Amid that ferment arose the Interfaith Power & Light initiative, which has swept congregations in 14 states in two years. The California Interfaith Power & Light chapter includes hundreds of congregations focused on reducing their energy demands to save the planet - and, in the process, maybe their own souls, too.
Meeting the threat of "global warming resonates with people at the level of their spiritual relationship to God and the rest of His creation," says the Rev. Sally Bingham, environmental minister at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. "It's fundamentally about loving your neighbor on the other side of the planet."
She's deeply involved with California Interfaith Power & Light and helps advise parallel programs in other states.
"Your relationship to God is manifest in the way you treat other people," she says. "But where it gets difficult is that a lot of people can intellectualize that they love their neighbor - and still drive a gas guzzler or waste energy at home. We're inviting them to be more connected in a deeper way - to be mindful of one's behavior."
One Jewish congregation involved in the California program found its answer above - with solar power on the roof.
"I think global warming poses a special moral dilemma," says Rabbi Melanie Aron of Shir Hadash, a congregation in Los Gatos. "It's a huge problem, and it's the size of the problem that so often discourages people. 'So what if we decrease our electricity usage by a quarter - what does that do?' My response is: 'What if everyone cut their electric use by a quarter? Well, that would be something.' "
So after much prayer and discussion, the congregation in Los Gatos decided to install solar panels on the roof of its temple. In September 2002, the switch was thrown and 10 kilowatts of juice began to flow. It meets most of the energy needs of the congregation. But it's also had other effects.
"We know it has a trickledown effect as a hands-on example of what parishioners can do in their homes," Rabbi Aron says.
Lately, she's seen families in the congregation buying hybrid cars and giving up their SUVs.
"Global warming is a big issue for families because it's a terrible thought to leave this for your children," she says. "It's reaching people in a deeper way."
The following countries had the highest total carbon dioxide emissions in the year 2000 (the most recent data available). Fossil-fuel burning, cement production, and gas flaring were major contributors.
Rank Country Carbon (Thousands of metric tons)
1. United States 1,528,796
2. China 761,586
3. Russia 391,664
4. Japan 323,281
5. India 292,265
6. Germany 214,386
7. Britain 154,979
8. Canada 118,957
9. Italy 116,859
10. South Korea 116,543
Sources: Gregg Marland and Tom Boden of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Bob Andres of the University of North Dakota