I DON’T THINK of myself as especially hard working. I started my career at The New Yorker as a young staff writer — and in those days in New York publishing circles, the day began at ten a.m. That’s when the receptionist arrived, the switchboard opened. As a result, twenty-five years later, if I’m sitting at my computer by nine-thirty I still think to myself, “I’m early!” (Not only that, but twenty-five years later every place else I’ve ever lived still seems cheap by comparison.) Still, even with that laggardly start, I’ve managed to get done most of what I set out to do, and I’ve never spent a lot of time whining about how hard it all is. If Americans are supposed to be good at anything, it’s hard work.
Which is why it’s so depressing to work on climate change. Year after year, for more than two decades now, the hard work essentially goes undone. Our political class holds conferences, takes testimony, considers scientific reports, gathers in enormous international conclaves like last year’s Copenhagen session – and from it all, nothing happens. In this country, our twenty-year bipartisan record of doing absolutely nothing at the national level is unblemished. In 1988, running for his first term as president, the old George Bush said, “I’m going to fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” Good line.
This was all supposed to actually change when Barack Obama took over, and indeed, he’s done more to fight climate change than all the presidents before him combined. Also, I’ve drunk more beer than my twelve-year-old niece. And anyway, before anything really big can happen, it has to work its way through Congress, and right now the signs are not especially good. In a fit of hard work, the House managed to pass a giant pork-laden “cap-and-trade” bill last summer, only a few months behind schedule. But then the bill headed to the Senate, where it ended up circling the runway behind the health-care jumbo jet that just refused to land. And now that, several decades late, the Senate has finally done something about health care, its members appear to be completely exhausted.
Here’s a Democrat, Claire McCaskill of Missouri: “After you do one really, really big, really, really hard thing that makes everybody mad, I don’t think anybody’s excited about doing another really, really big thing that’s really, really hard that makes everybody mad. Climate fits that category.”
And here’s a Republican, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, describing some of his colleagues: “Go talk to Blanche Lincoln. ‘Hey, you want to do energy and climate? You want to do immigration?’ Go talk to [Jon] Tester, to Ben Nelson, give them a shout-out,” he said. “I just think the idea of doing hard things has been tainted because the blowback they are getting on health care has made them risk averse.”
And here’s an Independent – no, a member of the wonderfully named Connecticut for Lieberman party. It’s Joe Lieberman: “I don’t think the Senate has an appetite for another such epic, polarized legislative war this session.”
I think we can all sympathize. Most people’s work doesn’t involve doing more than one hard thing every couple of years – no, wait. Most people get up and do something relatively difficult every single day. If we didn’t, no one would pay us, because doing relatively difficult things is pretty much the definition of work. If you’re a senator, it would seem as if dealing with the Largest Problem Humans Have Ever Faced would fall within your job description – maybe not ahead of Hosting a Reception, or Going on TV in a Red Necktie, but still.
Which is why a bunch of us around the country and around the world are organizing a slightly different kind of political protest. October 10, 2010, will be a day of Global Work Parties; 350.org is coordinating with the UK 10:10 campaign to host thousands upon thousands of events on that Sunday afternoon. People will be up on roofs putting in solar panels; they’ll be down in the dirt digging community gardens; they’ll be out in the road painting bike paths. On and on.
We’re not doing it from a conviction that we can prevent climate change one community project at a time. We surely can’t. It will take national and global legislation to do that – legislation that finally puts a price on carbon, so that we start using less of it. The only places that can happen are Washington, and Beijing, and Delhi, and the UN.
But if a whole lot of us get out there and get our hands dirty, we’ll most certainly do some good – there’s no such thing as a useless community garden. And more to the point, maybe we’ll be able to shame a senator or premier or two. I mean, we’ll have millions of people able to say to their putative leaders: “If I can get up on the roof of my kid’s school with a hammer and put in some solar panels, maybe you can get up on the floor of the Senate and do some Senate-ing. If I can get down on my hands and knees and pull rocks out of the dirt, then maybe you can pull your head out of your – ” No, that’s not constructive. These people are hurting. They’ve been doing some serious heavy lifting. It’s going to be very difficult for them to undertake “another really, really big thing that’s really, really hard.” So we need to be encouraging. “It’s not so hard,” we need to say. “Working together can be kind of fun. One of us brings the shovel, and another one brings the two-by-fours, and someone else makes sure there are cold drinks. Really, you can do this.”
I’m not actually certain what it will take to get useful legislation out of our Congress. I’m not completely sure they’re actually capable of it. It’s possible that the lifting really is too heavy – that the combination of vested interest and inertia will forever smother serious action on climate. Or it’s possible that they’ll make the load so light, by crafting a bill so filled with giveaways to the coal companies and the electric utilities, that passing it won’t actually make any difference.
But we’ve got no choice. We’ve got to keep pushing. Because physics and chemistry are pushing every single day – as I write this, news comes of a giant chunk of a Peruvian glacier that broke off and fell into a lake, setting off a seventy-five-foot-high wave that swept people downstream and wrecked the region’s only water-processing plant. Something like that happens pretty much every day now someplace around the world. The climate blogger Joe Romm, one of the capital’s most careful Congress-watchers, said recently: “If we don’t get something done this year, I don’t see it happening before 2013,” when the electoral cycle might next give environmentalists an opening. Twenty thirteen. It’s a good thing it’s not anything crucial they’re working on.