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The Planet

Beating the Heat

The Planet, July/August 1997, Volume 4, number 6

by Marie Dolcini

By demanding increased efficiency, educating weather forecasters and pressing for international accords, Club energy activists are fighting to curb global warming.

[Aerial photograph of flooded homes]

Was this California flood caused by global warming? We can't know for sure. No individual flood can be directly attributed to global warming, however, many scientists say that global warming will increase the incidence of floods.

Everybody talks about the weather," said Mark Twain more than a century ago, "but nobody does anything about it." These days that observation isn't entirely true. Every day we pump millions of tons of pollution into our atmosphere, pollution that traps heat from the sun and alters our planet's climate.

Despite consensus among the world's leading climatologists that human activity is a key factor in increasing average temperatures worldwide, some industrialized nations, the oil and auto industries and most big polluters would have us believe there's still not enough evidence of global warming to justify action. And while the Clinton administration occasionally talks tough about the need to curb global warming, it continues to sit on its hands when it comes to taking concrete measures to stem the planetary threat.

Sierra Club volunteers and staff working on the Global Warming and Energy program believe we must act now. They're working to protect the Earth's environment from the biggest pollution threat we have ever faced. They are, in effect, doing something about the weather.

"Global warming's potential impacts are staggering and far-reaching," says Global Warming and Energy Program Director Dan Becker, "but it still boils down to a simple pollution problem, and the biggest single step we can take to curb global warming pollution is to make cars and trucks go further on a gallon of gas."

This year, for the first time ever, all three United States automakers have failed to meet minimum Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE)standards. "Time and time again," says Becker, "the Big 3 have shown they'd rather stick with primitive, heavily polluting vehicles than adopt newer, cleaner technology. CAFE is the only effective tool we have to promote cleaner cars."

Driving Home a Stronger CAFE

Pollution from our cars and trucks is a huge part of the global warming problem, and one that the Sierra Club has long worked to curb. The ongoing state and local letter campaign by Sierra Club staff and volunteers has successfully urged hundreds of elected officials from state and local bodies to endorse raising the standards to 45 miles per gallon (mpg) from 27.5 mpg for cars and 34 mpg from 20.7 mpg for trucks, minivans, and sport utility vehicles.

Steering Committee member and former Sierra Student Coalition volunteer Sanjay Ranchod was instrumental in getting the Rhode Island state Legislature to nearly unanimously pass a resolution supporting the Club's position.

"The United States should take action and be a leader in preventing global warming," says Ranchod, who now works on CAFE and other issues as a legislative aide to state Sen. Byron Sher (D) in Sacramento, Calif. He's currently working to stop a resolution by state Sen. Ray Haynes (R) to freeze CAFE standards at current levels.

"Whatever you care about will potentially be catastrophically affected by global warming," he says, "We have to bring the issue home and emphasize the local effects -- not talk about the small islands in the Pacific Ocean that will be flooded, but the nearby beach that will lose shoreline and the local economy that will suffer."

Getting a Grip in Minnesota

When retired aerospace engineer Gary Carlson learned of the alarming impacts of global warming, he rolled up his sleeves to educate fellow Minnesotans. "Working on global warming can be hard and scary," he says. "People prefer to concentrate on smaller, shorter-term issues, like saving a wetland or stopping a subdivision."

Carlson sought out ways to make the issue less abstract and get public officials to take it seriously. Following a suggestion from his local state legislator, he and other North Star Chapter activists organized a town meeting last fall in St. Paul, which drew 200 participants, including a dozen legislators. The conference, which attracted University of Minnesota professors and students, community groups, public officials, environmentalists, and business and industry representatives, concluded with a participant- written set of global warming policy recommendations for the state legislature. "We're trying to get state research funding to assess the impacts of global warming on Minnesota and working to educate and involve as many more organizations and individuals as we can. We can't fix global warming by riding our bikes alone -- it really has to be addressed politically and internationally."

Generating Public Heat

Rich Hayes of San Francisco agrees. A member of the Sierra Club Global Warming Steering Committee, he says the immediate challenge is the upcoming December summit in Kyoto, Japan -- where 165 nations will convene to negotiate binding international treaties to reduce global warming pollution.

"The big question," says Hayes, "is whether U.S. representatives will commit to something meaningful or just symbolic. No one knows when there will be another such meeting, so grassroots pressure is vital."

Hayes is doing his share to keep up the heat, from writing op-eds and letters to the editor to pressing for commitments from public officials like Tim Wirth, Undersecretary of State for Environmental Affairs, who spoke on global warming in San Francisco last year.

"I told Wirth that we applauded the administration's strong words on global warming but that followup was lacking," says Hayes. Wirth's response showed that he was fully aware that the Club opposed the administration's emissions trading scheme -- a practice whereby a polluting corporation can "trade" pollution credits with developing countries rather than reduce emissions at home. Hayes told Wirth that the administration has to make the treaty stronger to gain the Club's support.

Pitching the Prognosticators

In August, Club organizers and volunteers will take their concern about the weather to those people who predict it -- local television meteorologists and weather forecasters. They will urge them to talk about global warming on the air and broadcast segments of the Climate Report, a series of short, Club-produced informational videos on the effects of global warming. Last year dozens of stations used the report.

"The summer heat wave is an ideal time to pitch news reports on the local impacts of climate changes," says Becker, who is also coordinating house parties where the tape will be shown.

Another major effort this summer will be to stop an appropriations rider to hobble CAFE standards expected to be offered in Congress. Last year, congressional anti-environmentalists passed a one-year moratorium that forbade the Clinton administration from strengthening CAFE. This year, many of those same legislators are pushing H.R. 880 and S. 256, which seek to freeze CAFE standards permanently and repeal the president's authority to raise them. Campaign members are also encouraging parents to send letters with photos of their kids to the White House encouraging President Clinton to do the right thing on global warming at the Kyoto summit. "Clinton said earlier this year in Australia that a greenhouse is no place to nurture our children," says Becker. "We need to remind him that our kids and grandkids will pay the price if we don't act now to curb global warming."

To take action: Mail a photo of your children to President Clinton along with a note urging him to take the biggest single step to curb global warming -- raise automobile fuel economy standards -- and to push for binding international agreements to reduce emissions. Write: President Bill Clinton, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20500.

Contact your local weather forecasters and urge them to cover global warming issues.

Contact your representatives and senators and demand they support tough action to curb global warming. Urge them to oppose H.R. 880 and S. 286 and push for a minimum standard of 45 mpg for cars and 34 mpg for light trucks. Call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Write: U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510; or U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20510.

For more information: Visit the global warming campaign Web site at or contact Dan Becker, (202) 675-6694,; Gary Carlson, (612) 574-9921,; Rich Hayes, (415) 566-0849,; or Sanjay Ranchod (916) 445-6747,

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