Climate change and the civil rights movement

IMG_8798Comparing civil rights movement of 50 years ago with climate action today

by Allen Best

On Monday, 50 years to the week after Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act, President Barack Obama announced details of the Clean Power Plan. This first, large step in taming U.S. greenhouse gas emissions has been a long time coming, and it’s hardly over the finish line. Some states insist they won’t participate. It’s possible a new president may turn his or her back on the program. All Republican candidates report opposition.

The Clean Power Plan is a direct result of a lawsuit filed by Massachusetts and 11 other states along with several cities. They argued that the Environmental Protection Agency had a responsibility to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had failed to articulate a reasonable basis for refusing to regulate emissions. The EPA later concluded it had no basis. This plan affecting electrical generation, which is responsible for 31 percent of U.S. emissions, is the result. It is not, however, scheduled to take effect until 2022.

The Voting Rights Act also had a long gestation. Soldiers returning from Europe to fight for freedom during World War II were insulted and dismayed to find their own freedoms severely restricted. In 1955, Rosa Parks was jailed for refusing to surrender her seat to a white man who had boarded a bus in Montgomery, Ala. In March 1965, residents of Selma began marching to Montgomery to make their case that being American entitled them the right to vote. After crossing the Alabama River, they were met by state troopers and a sheriff’s posse, who clubbed many, sending 17 or 18 people to the hospital, many with broken bones. The nation was outraged. Colorado Gov. John Love was among those who signed a letter directed to President Lyndon Johnson expressing dismay.

In January, with the 50th anniversary of that protest march imminent, I visited Selma, to walk that bridge and visit the important churches. When parents had faltered, fearful of losing their jobs, students had stepped up. Emboldened, the adults then risked their livelihoods and lives in crossing the bridge that day. I remain in awe of those ordinary Americans, most of their names even now forgotten.

On Monday, I compared notes with Auden Schendler, the vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co. about the parallels and dissimilarities between the climate change and civil rights movements.

Auden Schendler

Auden Schendler

“The thing that is funny about the Clean Power Plan is that it happened without popular pressure,” he said. “Obama wasn’t moved by people in the streets demanding action. Polling shows that climate is pretty far down on the list of people’s concerns. It’s different from the civil rights movement in that obvious way.”

Without marchers in the street or broad support in Congress, Obama moved on his own. “We have been lucky to have a president that understands climate, whose advisors understand climate, and knew he had to move on it,” Schendler said.

But the EPA was prodded to take action—and the Aspen Skiing Co. did its best to push. As the Supreme Court prepared to hear the case in 2006, Aspen filed a brief supporting the Massachusetts position. Did it matter? “I think it would be pretty hard to say that we had any big role,” said Schendler. “If you talk to lawyers, they say that amicus briefs generally don’t get read (by justices).” At best, justices may have noted the company’s support for regulation of atmospheric pollutants.

That filing was typical of Aspen’s strategy, a shotgun approach. Schendler was talking as he drove to Salt Lake City for a board of directors meeting for Protect our Winters, a group of snow enthusiasts supported by the Aspen Skiing Co. It is, he said, part of the company’s strategy of pushing lots of things. Occasionally, there are repercussions, “some more meaningful and some more effective than others.”

But the take-away of Aspen’s strategy is that corporations, individuals, or municipalities should be making noise as if they really cared about climate action. Investing in solar panels just isn’t enough. It requires national action, which means raising the voice.

That was the lesson in Selma. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Selma only after the local students and their parents had shown pluck and begun marching to the county courthouse in futile efforts to get registered to vote. Slowly, one step at a time, the effort built. Only after the bloodshed did Congress finally act, adopting the law that abolished flimsy pretexts for denying Americans the right to vote.

Schendler had another way of putting it. “Politicians don’t create political will,” he said. “People do.”

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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