Activists Feel Warming on Climate Change

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A rally that called for action to reduce climate change, featuring speakers from Arctic villages who said their landscape is being transformed by rising temperatures, drew several hundred people to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol yesterday.

The event, called a Climate Crisis Action Day, was billed in advance as Washington's largest demonstration ever on global warming. It was unclear whether that turned out to be accurate, but those attending said they sensed a powerful momentum building behind calls to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The event was held a day in advance of appearances by former vice president Al Gore, now perhaps the country's best-known climate change activist, in a pair of congressional hearings.

"This is the challenge of our lifetimes," Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) told the crowd. "Either we see the planet go down the tubes, or we reverse it."

The rally's organizers included the Alaska Wilderness League, the Episcopal Church and a committee formed by the indigenous Gwich'in people, who live in northern Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

Representatives from Arctic communities said that rising temperatures are reshaping their homes, causing permafrost to melt, seas to rise and populations of animals and fish to shift. Stanley Tocktoo, mayor of Shishmaref, Alaska, said his town needs to be moved because of encroaching waves.

Sarah James, a spokeswoman for a village in Alaska, said: "Today, I'm mourning. I'm wearing black because of global warming. Global warming, climate change, is very real in the Arctic."

Climate-change activists showcased their efforts to make the polar bear a symbol of their cause. People in polar-bear suits roamed the crowd. Activists want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bear as officially threatened because there could be less sea ice for them to live and hunt on.

"Let's face it, people. We all know polar bears can swim. But they can't swim forever," said Mollie Passacantando, a Fairfax County third-grader who started a blog focusing on polar bears.

Scientists say that climate change is caused by a group of gases, including carbon dioxide emitted by cars and power plants burning fossil fuels. The gases form a layer of insulation in the atmosphere, holding in heat that would otherwise escape into space.

Speakers called for support for bills in Congress that call for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, based on 1990 levels, over the next 43 years. Also yesterday, some utility company executives told a House committee that they might support a program to cap emissions of carbon dioxide.

It was one more sign of what people at the rally said they felt -- a changing political climate on climate change. Organizers said 2,500 T-shirts were picked up by participants in the day's events, which also involved lobbying members of Congress.

"I love this planet. I mean, I love life, and I want to see it go on. So that's why I'm here," said Cathy Stryker, 59, of Vienna. "It's too beautiful to let slip by."

At the back of the crowd were three teenagers from Brooklyn who had come down with a high school civics class. They said the mystery of the day was not that climate change is real but that people still need to be told so.

"It's so obvious, you know, you feel silly repeating it," said Yoscar Ogando, 17. But, he said, "maybe the more you repeat it, the more it sinks in."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company