Students on strike for the climate
Youth holding signs at the School Strike on Friday at the National Mall in support of taking action to reverse climate damage (Photo: Earth and Main, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

The steep hike up from Ander­son Pass, in the Olympics yield­ed to an over­look of a vig­or­ous glac­i­er and close-up of a 7,300-foot sum­mit seen dis­tant­ly from Seat­tle. I did the hike twen­ty-five years ago.

One part of the scene has rad­i­cal­ly changed: The Ander­son Glac­i­er is no longer there. It has melt­ed away in a quar­ter century.

Cli­mate dam­age is impact­ing the North­west in vis­i­ble and breath­able ways.

We’ve had the nation’s worst air from fire smoke over a cou­ple of summers.

The fire sea­son is much longer. Our moun­tains are los­ing their ice mantle.

Bee­tles are killing our forests.

The cli­mate cri­sis was felt mas­sive­ly in the Gulf of Mex­i­co last week, where eighty-six degree waters caused Hur­ri­cane Lau­ra to climb overnight from a pre­dict­ed Cat­e­go­ry 2 to a Cat­e­go­ry 4 storm. As of this writ­ing, fifty-five fires are burn­ing in Cal­i­for­nia with parts of the Bay Area is get­ting the world’s dirt­i­est air.

The first pre­dic­tions that cli­mate would become a major pres­i­den­tial cam­paign issue came thir­ty-two years ago, in the hot sum­mer of 1988.

George H.W. Bush was promis­ing to become “the envi­ron­men­tal pres­i­dent.” A pol­lut­ed Boston Har­bor was used against Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee Michael Dukakis.

The cli­mate cri­sis has sig­nif­i­cant­ly wors­ened in the decades since.

So have pre­dic­tions, ear­ly in pres­i­den­tial years, that the warm­ing of the earth would light a fire under the electorate.

It hasn’t happened.

Always, always cli­mate and envi­ron­ment get eclipsed as Elec­tion Day draws near.

Al Gore jumped on best­seller lists in 1992 with his sem­i­nal cli­mate jus­tice book, Earth in the Bal­ance, and was picked as Demo­c­ra­t­ic vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee lat­er that year. Sad­ly, the urgency of the book was nev­er reflect­ed in admin­is­tra­tion poli­cies, although Clin­ton did des­ig­nate won­der­ful nation­al monuments.

Dick Cheney took charge of ener­gy pol­i­cy under George W. Bush, and turned to the fos­sil fuel indus­try for coun­sel. Barack Oba­ma had the Great Reces­sion to attend to, and Democ­rats in Con­gress tied to the fos­sil fuel economy.

This year held promise, in no small part to cli­mate advo­ca­cy in the brief pres­i­den­tial bid of Wash­ing­ton Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee.

Though Inslee exit­ed the pres­i­den­tial race after the sec­ond round of debates, rivals moved to copy the envi­ron­men­tal agen­da he offered.

In the past few months, how­ev­er, the Unit­ed States has been hit by the world­wide nov­el coroan­virus pan­dem­ic and an ensu­ing eco­nom­ic slow­down that has cost thir­ty mil­lion jobs, and a reck­on­ing over sys­temic racism.

The wretched response of the Trump regime has moved these crises front and cen­ter. Envi­ron­men­tal atroc­i­ties, like the loos­en­ing of methane reg­u­la­tions, have moved to back pages of the New York Times. The admin­is­tra­tion has opened the door to oil and gas leas­ing in the Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge. Attor­neys gen­er­al have gained lit­tle pub­lic atten­tion for their legal defense of the Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act, the nation’s basic envi­ron­men­tal law.

Joe Biden has an impres­sive­ly decent cli­mate plan, for­ti­fied by clean ener­gy pro­pos­als from the Inslee camp, and a bold bold pub­lic lands plat­form pro­posed ear­ly this year by Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren. The issue becomes what pri­or­i­ty giv­en as the coun­try digs out from the Trump disaster.

Just as the pan­dem­ic sets pol­i­cy, so too does cli­mate dam­age. We can watch it in the mas­sive Green­land icemelt, and in U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey mon­i­tor­ing of year-by-year melt­ing of the South Cas­cade Glac­i­er, or hik­ers’ wit­ness to the rapid shrink­ing of the Lyman Glac­i­er deep in the Glac­i­er Peak Wilder­ness Area.

Is there still hope for the 2020 elec­tion, or are we rel­e­gat­ed to what a fun­ny Demo­c­rat, Dick Tuck, said when he lost a state Sen­ate race in Cal­i­for­nia: “The vot­ers have spo­ken, the bastards.”

The pos­si­ble positives:

The West flips the Sen­ate. Three West­ern states, and three pro-envi­ron­ment can­di­dates, hold the key: Mary Kel­ly in Ari­zona, Gov. Steve Bul­lock in Mon­tana, and ex-Gov. John Hick­en­loop­er in Col­orado. All face allies of the fos­sil fuel indus­try, although GOP incum­bents Steve Daines (Mon­tana) and Cory Gard­ner (Col­orado) have late­ly tried to sound green. If Democ­rats get a major­i­ty, Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, will be posi­tioned to lead in craft­ing a new ener­gy pol­i­cy tar­get­ed to wean­ing the coun­try form fos­sil fuels.

Young peo­ple show up. The most pro­gres­sive, grow­ing chunk of the Amer­i­can elec­torate often doesn’t show up. Young vot­ers were a key to elect­ing Barack Oba­ma. A scribe remem­bers the day he hit Bend, Ore­gon, for a rally.

Kids were camped out­side the door of the high school where Oba­ma would speak. A high school senior intro­duced him. The Oba­ma cam­paign assem­bled a pro­gres­sive coali­tion, of which vot­ers were a key. Joe Biden, at sev­en­ty-sev­en, is less excit­ing, but there’s a lot to like about his platform.

One or two severe hur­ri­canes threat­en the coun­try, or come ashore with the pow­er of Lau­ra. While cring­ing at con­se­quences, per­haps this is what’s nec­es­sary to fur­ther awak­en the New York/Washington, D.C. based big media to what’s hap­pen­ing out in the coun­try. We’ve seen a few signs that the glacial indif­fer­ence of the news media is melt­ing. Chuck Todd won’t per­mit cli­mate deniers to appear on Meet the Press. Jol­ly “Today Show” weath­er fore­cast­er Al Roker was dis­patched to Green­land, and came back with a fright­en­ing tale to tell.

Local think­ing push­es glob­al action. Years ago, when Pres­i­dent Kennedy promised to gov­ern with “great vigah,” Amer­i­cans looked for top down ini­tia­tives from their gov­ern­ment. Key exam­ples, the 1964 Civ­il Rights Act and the 1965 Vot­ing Rights Act. With paral­y­sis in the “oth­er” Wash­ing­ton, local­i­ties must lead.

A good exam­ple would be the cli­mate pack­age intro­duced last week by King Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Dow Con­stan­tine. Or for the state to wear down the oil com­pa­nies and final­ly levy a penal­ty on big polluters.

Envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice is a vital com­po­nent, for human health and polit­i­cal sup­port. Hur­ri­cane Lau­ra cut a path across the Gulf Coast indus­tri­al belt, where low income and minor­i­ty res­i­dents already breathe bad air and kids have high asth­ma rates. One com­pelling scene from the sto­ry was a major chem­i­cal plant fire.

A load of ear­ly con­ser­va­tion books (e.g. “The North Cas­cades: For­got­ten Park­land”) can be found on a shelf next to this scribe’s writ­ing desk. They car­ry mes­sages of ear­ly frus­tra­tion, and even­tu­al tri­umph as vast chunks of pub­lic lands were pro­tect­ed as wilder­ness areas, nation­al parks, and nation­al monuments.

Sup­port­ers of wild­lands were famous­ly mocked by a Seat­tle Times edi­to­ri­al­ist as “moun­tain climbers and birdwatchers.”

A pow­er­ful U.S. For­est Ser­vice super­vi­sor greet­ed a Fed­er­a­tion of West­ern Out­door Clubs del­e­ga­tion with the words, “Just what do you peo­ple want?”

The activists kept press­ing: Look what they achieved.

The issue now is not whether the Agnew Creek Val­ley will get logged, but lit­er­al­ly whether the Earth will remain hab­it­able. Words often used by Oba­ma in 2008 – “The urgency of now” – apply to the cli­mate crisis.

Activists, keep press­ing over the next six­ty days.

It’s not too late for an align­ment that will allow cli­mate action.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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