Sometimes positive change happens faster than you dare to imagine.
I recall in the early fall, 1999, our editors were sinking into despair. They were delving deep into the literature on global warming as they prepared the issue of YES! called Changing the Climate. Their research indicated that the speed and consequences of climate change would be worse than any of us at YES! had realized.
The double-entendre issue title spoke to our intent to help change the climate of public opinion and show possibilities for reversing the threat. At the time there was no public agreement that climate change was even real, let alone serious enough to inconvenience our lives. Big oil and gas companies were promoting disinformation, politicians were leery of addressing the topic, the majority of churches were silent, and the mainstream media, if it covered the issue at all, fed public uncertainty with “even-handed” treatment of scientists and skeptics. It seemed almost hopeless to think the climate of opinion could change enough to meet the challenge.
Now, eight years later, the climate of opinion has changed markedly. There are still skeptics, but when Time, Newsweek, and Vanity Fair simultaneously feature global warming on their covers, as they did in April, you know we have moved beyond denial. Across the country, 453 mayors have signed on to plans to meet or beat the Kyoto targets for cutting greenhouse gases; some businesses are boasting about reducing their carbon emissions; Congress has a new Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming; and Newt Gingrich and John Kerry are debating not whether the issue is urgent, but whose solution will work faster. The field of what is possible has shifted.
The shift is no accident. It's the result of relentless activism by organized groups and concerned citizens, persistent scientific and scholarly work, and effective communication through the independent media. That combination shifted the story in the mainstream press, changed the climate of public opinion, and enabled politicians and businesses to embrace the issue. Now the challenge is to move fast enough and at a sufficient scale to prevent the impending damage—the new front for creative activism, honest research, and effective communication. A great example was the April 14 Step It Up Campaign, which drew citizens in more than 1,400 communities across the United States to demand Congress move to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. Independent media, including YES!, did a heroic job of communicating this campaign far and wide—hopefully helping to shift the ground of what is possible.
Global warming is not the only topic on which the public is moving beyond denial. The futility of the war in Iraq, the dangerous consequences of an attack on Iran, the broken U.S. health care system, and the excessive power of corporations are other areas in which the climate of public opinion is shifting rapidly. That shift opens new possibilities for policy and action that previously would have been thought out of reach. This is a great time for ideas big enough to match the scale of the problems.
As our editors gear up for the next issue of YES!, they are taking on another challenge that sits below the radar, just as climate change did eight years ago. It's the challenge of curtailing the enormous power of giant corporations. Hopeless cause? Maybe so. Yet polls show that 93 percent of the public feels that corporations have too much power. Consumer and shareholder pressure have been surprisingly effective at changing corporate behavior. And a growing number of communities have succeeded in restricting the rights of corporations in their locales. So there may indeed be prospects for a significant shift in the role of corporations in our society. If we step it up to combine courageous activism, solid research, and widespread communication, that shift may come faster than we dare imagine.