For too many years, Earth Day has seemed a kind of hollow joke. We gather in our parks and on our beaches, we pledge to protect the planet's environment, and then we go home to continue living in President Bush's America, where virtually nothing happens to make the earth a safer place to live. How could it when the environmental committees in Congress were chaired by men who insisted global warming was a hoax? The stagnation had grown so bad that by last spring I hardly wanted to be a part of Earth Day at all.
What a difference a year makes. After Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," and after last fall's election, America feels different. Gridlock on Capitol Hill hasn't ended yet, but I sense it soon will.
Last weekend, working with seven new graduates from Middlebury College where I teach, I helped organize a nationwide day of global-warming protests. We launched our website, stepitup07.org, in January, asking people to hold rallies on April 14. Since we had no money and no organization, our expectations were low: We secretly hoped we might be able to organize a hundred of these demonstrations.
Instead, last Saturday, there were 1,400 demonstrations across the nation. All 50 states were amply represented. There were evangelical churches and sorority chapters rallying; demonstrations took place on ski slopes and bike paths. Even underwater scuba divers off the coral reefs of Key West held up the same sign as everyone else, demanding that Congress cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.
We couldn't have pulled off those rallies a year ago – and if we had, that 80 percent demand would have seemed extreme and radical. Instead, it's now emerging as a realistic request. Just in the past few weeks, presidential candidate John Edwards has made it the centerpiece of his energy policy. Most of his rivals haven't announced their targets yet, but expect them to be in the same range. Meanwhile, several bills have been introduced in Congress. Last Saturday, dozens of members of Congress took part in our rallies, including Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts, who will chair the new House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
None of this means change will come easily. The opponents – big energy companies chief among them – are some of the most powerful political players in the country. For 20 years, they've kept action on global warming at bay. But the science has grown too obvious, and the political demands too loud, for that shutout to continue. Instead, the special interests are trying to carve out the easiest deal they can.
After so many years of no progress at all, some environmentalists will find any deal hard to resist. But in fact, precisely because we've delayed action so long, we need to hold firm now for reductions in coal, oil, and gas use large enough to meet the minimum scientific requirements. Demanding an 80 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2050 is not pie-in-the-sky; it's the kind of signal we need to send if we're going to affect investment decisions, subsidy policy, and every other part of our policy.
So this Earth Day (April 22), the talk shouldn't be sentimental or vague – or discouraged. It should come with a couple of numbers – 80 percent by 2050. And it should be hopeful. Because even though the transition to a green economy has yet to begin, we can finally see it looming on the horizon. It's as pretty a sight as spring wildflowers spreading across the meadows.
• Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the author of "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future."