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The climate change movement is not resonating with the public 

Only 150 people attended a climate change rally in Raleigh on Saturday.

Photo by Bob Geary

Only 150 people attended a climate change rally in Raleigh on Saturday.

It was a brilliant, breezy Sunday afternoon in Raleigh, and I was torn between two events, each at 3.

Climate change activists intended to encircle the Legislative Building in a planetary embrace. Runners were invited to Moore Square for a Boston Memorial run, a chance to donate money for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and show solidarity with the seat of our American Revolution.

I'm a runner. My father grew up in Boston, an Irish-Catholic related to many a Boston cop. My nephew was working in a television truck near the finish line of the marathon, about halfway between where the first bomb went off and the second. His text message saying he was fine was the first I'd heard of the attack. For the rest of the week, I obsessed over the manhunt. I wanted to do the run.

But I'm also obsessing over climate change, so I went to the Climate Convergence on Raleigh instead, reasoning that my small efforts would matter more if aimed at planetary survival than at Boston's catharsis. That, and I was curious to see—as I wrote last week—whether a mass movement is taking shape in North Carolina to help tackle global warming before it's too late.

The answer: No.

A movement, perhaps, but it's not a mass movement. Not even close. Not yet.

In fact, it was impossible not to notice that the climate-change event, which organizers said might draw thousands, attracted only dozens to its Saturday workshops and 150 to the Sunday afternoon rally, not even enough to encircle Art Pope's house.

Meanwhile, the hastily organized memorial run, expected to draw a couple hundred, attracted almost 3,000 participants, with more on hand to watch them go.

Lessons?

Obviously, the Boston bombing and manhunt were fast-moving events, tragedy and triumph in a single week, all on TV. The run in Raleigh was a discrete, easily understood opportunity for the public to respond.

Climate change, by contrast, is a slowly unfolding disaster. On those few occasions when it's depicted on TV or by mainstream (i.e., corporate-controlled) media, it's presented as unproven, despite the dramatic scientific evidence that ice caps are melting and the planet is warming.

Beyond that, however, I think the climate change movement is beating on the wrong drum—or is missing the chance to beat on a different drum as well.

Think about what happened in Boston. Two bombs went off on a Monday, and did you think then that the perpetrators would be identified and in custody or dead before the week was out? I didn't.

Boston reminded us what can be achieved when the public is committed to a goal—and willing to move heaven and earth to get there.

We don't need to move heaven to attack global warming. The sun and the wind are, as conservationist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Bobby's son and JFK's nephew, says, "free energy from heaven," in contrast to coal, oil and natural gas, the greenhouse-gas producing "energy sources from hell."

But we do need, down here on Earth, to move the public to believe that climate change is a far more deadly threat than any terrorist attack—and that it can be defeated.

In North Carolina, anyway, the public is sidelined, as Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition, an environmental group based in Western North Carolina, acknowledged.

"We're trying to build a movement," Friedman told the Climate Convergence audience on Saturday, "but it's not happening."

The reason, Friedman argued, is that movement leaders are tailoring their message to what they perceive is possible in the Republican-dominated political atmosphere of Raleigh, rather than fighting for the dramatic policy changes that science demands.

The activists are defending an unacceptable status quo, Friedman said, which excites no one. Worse, doing so throttles all efforts to convey the urgency of the problem and the solutions needed to overcome it.

Specifically, Friedman pointed to environmentalists' defense of the state's 2007 renewable energy standard, which calls for utilities—read: Duke Energy—to generate 12.5 percent of electricity from solar, wind and other clean-energy sources by 2021. That standard is under attack in the General Assembly; Republican-sponsored House Bill 298 would repeal it.

The 12.5 percent standard, however, is pitiful compared to what's needed, Friedman said. Don't just defend it, he urged. Demand that the General Assembly adopt a goal of cutting electricity usage in half in a decade while converting to 100 percent renewable sources.

"We can't wait for the right political moment," Friedman said. "We have to get out there and tell [the General Assembly] what we want. We have to create the right political moment, right now."

The goals Friedman described are contained in House Bill 401, "Efficient and Affordable Energy Rates," which has a dozen Democratic sponsors but no Republicans. It would create incentives and low-interest financing for families and businesses to invest in power-saving appliances, solar energy panels and weatherization. Money would come from utilities' savings as power plants were mothballed or not built.

HB 401's goals are doable, Friedman said. What stands in their way are state policies that reward Duke Energy with a guaranteed rate of return on its investments in power plants—the more expensive the better.

It's time that state policies served the state, not Duke Energy, Friedman said.

Reminiscent, in its way, of Boston Red Sox slugger David "Big Papi" Ortiz, when he dropped an f-bomb to the delight of a roaring Fenway Park crowd last Sunday. "This is our fucking city. Nobody's going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong."

This article appeared in print with the headline "A movement with little motion."

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