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Vermont's "Step It Up 2007" Leads National Climate-Change Action

Local Matters


Published February 6, 2007 at 9:44 p.m.

BURLINGTON - Will Bates, a recent graduate of Middlebury College, will be 66 when Step It Up 2007 achieves its overarching goal - that is, if it does. Bates is one of the organizers of the newly created movement, founded by environmental author Bill McKibben, that implores in its tag line: "Step It Up Congress! Cut Carbon 80% by 2050." The imperative refers, of course, to the primary culprit behind global warming, a looming catastrophe the 23-year-old Bates calls "the challenge of our generation."

This week, Bates was one of a half-dozen former "Midd Kids" who set up headquarters in the green office building at 12 North Street in Burlington, from which they will coordinate a "national day of climate action" scheduled for April 14. Bates explains that Step It Up 2007 is "not really an organization." Rather, he says, it's "just a group of people who care about the issue." Less than a month after Middlebury scholar-in-residence McKibben and his protégés hatched the idea, that group has witnessed phenomenal growth. More than 550 global warming awareness events are already being planned in 47 states; a graphic of the U.S. on the website - - keeps count as an assortment of actions large and small pop up across the country.

The viral potential of the Internet has given new meaning to "spreading the word," as the Howard Dean for President campaign demonstrated. "It's been astonishing to us as well," Bates admits. "The biggest draw so far is Bill's weekly stories on the Grist [an environmental webzine], which reaches lots of active and sympathetic readers."

For his part, McKibben - who just returned from a 10-day research trip to Antarctica, a place he calls both "sublime" and "disturbing" - credits the energy and enthusiasm of the Middlebury student activists. Step It Up's crew was involved in the college's "Sunday Night Group," a student-run, issue-oriented salon. And McKibben gives props to Bates for organizing the March Across Vermont last Labor Day weekend. "I'm not really good at this kind of work," McKibben demurs. "Left to my own devices, I'm best left alone sitting in a room and writing."

That's a modest assessment from the man who raised the alarm about the environment with his 1989 book The End of Nature. Since he arrived on the Middlebury campus several years ago, McKibben's teaching, writing and frequent public speaking around Vermont and beyond have helped give global warming code-red status.

The success of last fall's march in Vermont inspired the Middlebury group to "go national." While persuading Congress to take dramatic action seems like a monumental task, McKibben suggests the group's goal is more limited: "to provide a venue for people around the country to have a voice for the need for rapid change. We think there are all kinds of people who have wanted to do that," he says. "We think there have been all the pieces here for a movement, but not the actual movement."

Bates says McKibben - his senior thesis advisor - came up with the idea for Step It Up 2007, "but we joined in to make it happen." He also notes that the nascent environmental movement is not simply a consortium of enthusiastic twentysomethings, but also includes "scientists, economists, even some politicians," and collaborative efforts from such national organizations as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the PIRGs. "There are also a lot of small, statewide organizations," Bates adds. "We're still reaching out to businesses, to extreme sports . . ."

Vermont's delegates in D.C. are helping to lead the legislative way. "Bernie [Sanders] just reintroduced Jim Jeffords' climate bill - definitely the most bold action in Congress," Bates says. And this week, Rep. Peter Welch vowed to make his offices in Washington and Vermont "carbon-neutral." That is, he plans to offset the greenhouse-gas emissions related to his newly elected position - including those generated by travel between Burlington and D.C. - so they won't contribute to global warming. Welch is also a cosponsor of Rep. Henry Waxman's Safe Climate Act, which calls for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, to be achieved in part by greatly improving mileage standards for automobiles.

Eighty percent, and 2050, seem a long way off. Is the goal achievable? "Absolutely!" Bates declares. "We certainly expect that to come along with shorter-term, immediate goals. It's going to be a challenge," he concedes, "but, as is often discussed, there is great opportunity that comes along with the challenge - all sorts of technological innovations, and rethinking, redesigning our communities."

Vermont, Bates adds, "is one of the great places to be right now to see the transition to a new society."