james hansen

“SEVEN ACTION-PACKED WEEKS IN OUR NATION’S CAPITAL” (Wednesday, December 8, 2010 – Sunday January 30, 2011) – PART ONE

I didn’t think I’d be in Washington, DC seven weeks after the conclusion of the ride, but nothing happens quickly in this city. If you want to make an impact, you have to stick around and seize opportunities as they present themselves – something to consider as we gear up to protect our childrens’ futures in the nation’s capital. “Lobby days” and “lobby weeks” are simply no match for the legions of K Street lobbyists swarming the halls of Congress round-the-clock. It will take an army of determined citizen activists responding in kind to bring some climate sanity to what NASA scientist James Hansen colorfully describes as a “well-oiled” and “coal-fired” Congress.


Shortly after arriving in DC, I pedaled my rocket trike over to Capitol Hill, where I received special permission by the Seargent at Arms to bring the trike into the building. After being swept by a bomb-sniffing dog at one security gate, then clearing another at the loading dock, I managed to just fit the trike into the freight elevator and ride up to the office of U.S. Representative Jared Polis. Congressman Polis was so taken with it, he asked if he could sit in it. He then asked if he could ride it, and proceeded to take it for a spin through the halls of Congress. I followed suit, enjoying by far the smoothest ride of the entire trip rolling over Congress’ hard, marble floors. You can watch both videos here:

We then met for ten minutes or so to talk about the need for congressional leaders to push for a green energy moon shot. When Jared had to excuse himself to speak on the House floor, I continued the conversation with his very interested environmental legislative aide, until we were interrupted by a gun threat warning, directing everyone in the building to lock their doors (they called off the lock-down several minutes later – false alarm). We agreed to meet again soon. Jared made the following statement to the press: “Our nation has a serious addiction to fossil fuels,” said Polis, “and it’s going to take innovative initiatives like Tom’s ride to break the habit and turn our country around. By moving to renewable forms of energy we will create millions of jobs, turn around our economy, and improve our environment and public health all at the same time.”

I then rolled the trike down to the Longworth Cafeteria for a lunch meeting with one of my best friends, Joel “Heart of the Hill” Segal, a senior legislative aide to Congressman John Conyers (D-MI). But I had tarried too long. The snow I’d seen starting to fall outside the window of Congressman Polis’ office was now 2 inches deep on the ground, and I had never ridden the trike in the snow. Time to go. You can see what that was like here:

Having not succeeded (yet) in getting a face-to-face meeting with the President and First Lady, I eventually settled for faxing the “100% by 2020” petition – with the names, cities and states of those who signed it – to the White House. For good measure, I hand-delivered a copy to the White House’s office of Council on Environmental Quality. I also personally delivered copies of the petition to the offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid; House Speaker John Boehner; and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. They have been put on notice – more than 40 states were represented on the petition. I want to extend a very special thanks to everyone who signed it!!


But I hadn’t pedaled 2,400 miles across America’s heartland to leave things at that. More had to be done. I just hadn’t quite figured out exactly what yet. Then I saw an article in The Washington Post announcing Chinese President Hu Jintao’s upcoming visit to the White House for a state dinner. It was the opening I was looking for. The plan came together a few days prior to his visit over a series of phone conversations with my good and great friend, Paul Alexander. We weren’t about to let this moment pass – the presidents of the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitting nations meeting together at the White House – without demanding some accountability.

Working closely with Lester Brown, I drafted an open letter calling on Presidents Obama and Hu to place the global climate emergency at the top of their policy agendas. The letter also called on both leaders to embrace a goal of reducing carbon emissions to 350 parts per million (the level top climate scientists say is safe for humanity) by committing to 80% carbon cuts by 2020. By now, we were only two days out from Hu’s arrival, so I emailed the letter to some key allies, asking for a sign-on response within 48 hours.

Anticipating protests by Free Tibet and China pro-democracy activists during Hu’s visit, I thought I had better do a dry run to the White House to scope out the scene in advance. An ice storm had hit DC the night before, so this is what I woke up to:

The protesters I had anticipated were there, just not in the numbers I had expected. And White House security officials I spoke to indicated I would be able to bring the trike to Lafayette Park (directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House). Satisfied, I pedaled back to Capitol Hill to make some final recruitment calls and send a press advisory out to my media contacts. By the time I had shut down my computer for the night, nearly two dozen prominent environmental, business and religious leaders – including the head of the Sierra Club – had signed onto the open letter. Never in the history of the environmental movement had so many major organizations gone on record calling for 80% carbon cuts (based on 2006 levels) by 2020. It was an unprecedented display of climate leadership. A new line had been drawn in the sand.

The following morning, I rolled over to Kinko’s to pick up the banner I had ordered the night before, which read: “Presidents Obama & Hu: It’s Time to Declare a Global Climate Emergency.” After faxing the open letter to the White House from there, I pedaled from Capitol Hill down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Armed with copies of the letter for the media, I held a 5-hour vigil outside the White House gates. Joining me over the course of the afternoon to lend their moral support were two deans of the U.S. environmental movement, Brent Blackwelder and Brock Evans. Their presence was deeply appreciated.

Here’s Brent Blackwelder, President Emeritus of Friends of the Earth, at the White House:

Here’s Brock Evans, President of the Endangered Species Coalition, at the White House:

I read the open letter here:

True to form, no DC media outlets covered the event or the release of the open letter, but it did get picked up on some blogs and websites, just not enough to give the story “legs.” With no word that other groups had sent it to their media lists, I felt compelled to drop another $300 for a national media distribution. As luck would have it, Environmental News Service, which also has a news arm, was looking for an environmental hook for their story on the Obama-Hu meeting, which the open letter conveniently provided. Between this, and Paul Alexander personally forwarding the open letter to many hundreds of media, environmental, energy and other organizations, blogs and leaders in the coming days, the story got picked up on hundreds of websites worldwide and has taken on a life of its own. That is the true power of the internet. We can’t always break through to the traditional media, but we can create our own media.


The following afternoon, I received a phone call from actor and activist, Daryl Hannah, asking if it was too late to be added to the letter (she hadn’t seen the email due to her computer being in the shop). I promised her she would be included on all future distributions, the final version is below:

Open Letter to President Barack Obama & President Hu Jintao

January 19, 2011

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20003

Dear President Barack Obama & President Hu Jintao:

It is time to publicly acknowledge that the continued burning of fossil fuels threatens the survival of civilization. The science is incontrovertible on this fact, yet the response from government is business as usual. Our two nations dominate world carbon emissions.

No civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural support systems, nor will ours. It is with a deepening sense of dread over the fate of future generations that we call on you to acknowledge the severity of the global climate emergency by placing climate stabilization at the top of your policy agendas.

According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, 2010 tied with 2005 as the hottest year in recorded history. Last year was also the wettest on record in terms of global average precipitation, according to the Global Historical Climatology Network, with devastating impacts felt across the globe. Estimates by the World Health Organization are that the Earth’s warming climate contributes to more than 150,000 deaths each year. Here’s what else we’re facing:

• Crop-withering heat waves
• A melting Greenland ice sheet that threatens to raise sea level 23 feet
• Fires transforming carbon-storing tropical rainforests into carbon emitters
• Ocean acidification imperiling the base of the seafood chain
• Melting glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau threatening the dry season irrigation water supplies – and food security – of hundreds of millions of people
• Ever-deadlier storms creating growing numbers of climate refugees
• Scientists predicting 1/5 of living species being driven toward extinction by mid-century

This is just the beginning. Nature tells us time is running out, but we can’t see the clock. As we blindly reach critical climate “tipping points,” things promise to get worse, much worse. Central to the solution is a wartime-like mobilization by the governments of the United States and China to cut carbon emissions 80 percent (based on 2006 levels) by 2020. This is required if we are to reduce carbon emissions to 350 parts per million in the atmosphere, the level top climate scientists say is safe for humanity.

There is no more important measure of presidential leadership than living up to the expectations of our children to protect their future. Every day our respective governments fail to act, their future grows more perilous. We await your response.


Lester Brown, President, Earth Policy Institute
Rev. Sally G. Bingham, President, The Regeneration Project & Interfaith Power & Light
Brent Blackwelder, President Emeritus, Friends of the Earth
David Blittersdorf, President/CEO, AllEarth Renewables, Inc.
Jan Blittersdorf, President/CEO, NRG Systems, Inc.
Michael Brune, Executive Director, Sierra Club
Lisa Daniels, Executive Director, Windustry
Brock Evans, President, Endangered Species Coalition
Ross Gelbspan, Author
Daryl Hannah, Actor & Activist
Paul Hawken, Author
Randy Hayes, Executive Director, Foundation Earth & Founder, Rainforest Action Network
Courtney Hight, Co-Director, Energy Action Coalition
Julia Butterfly Hill, Co-Founder, The Engage Network*
Chuck Kutscher, Former Chair, American Solar Energy Society & Principal Engineer, National Renewable Energy Laboratory*
Eric Lombardi, Executive Director, Eco-Cycle
Bill McKibben, Founder, 350.org
Erich Pica, President, Friends of the Earth
Phil Radford, Executive Director, Greenpeace
Kieran Suckling, Executive Director, Center for Biological Diversity
Rebecca Tarbotton, Executive Director, Rainforest Action Network
Mike Tidwell, Director, Chesapeake Climate Action Network
James A. Walker, Former President, American Wind Energy Association**
Tom Weis, President, Climate Crisis Solutions

*Institutional affiliation listed for identification purposes only
**My apologies for any confusion: the American Wind Energy Association does not support the views expressed in this letter.

The January 19 open letter to Presidents Obama & Hu marks a new chapter in the history of the planetary protection movement. Never before have environmental groups as diverse as the Sierra Club, Earth Policy Institute, Greenpeace, Center for Biological Diversity, 350.org and the Endangered Species Coalition joined forces with businesses and religious leaders to call for a “wartime-like mobilization” to stabilize the Earth’s deteriorating climate. It is worth noting that the final sentence in the letter to both presidents was: “We await your response.” But you know that President Obama is really awaiting ours, to see how serious we are. I’ll never forget how struck I was by the words of a climate skeptic a few years back. They read something like this: “I’ll believe it’s a crisis when the people who keep calling it a crisis start acting like it’s a crisis.” How profound, and true.


While in DC, I sought out sources of inspiration for the fight that is to come for our collective future. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass once famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” In particular, I wanted to pay tribute to two of humanity’s greatest leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both practitioners of non-violence who saw resisting oppression and discrimination as their personal duties. Imagine my delight when I discovered a beautiful statue of Gandhi outside the Indian Embassy mere blocks from where I was staying on DuPont Circle. There are few people in history I admire more than the father of India, who led a tireless mass movement of peaceful civil resistance to free his people from tyranny. He described how he persevered in this famous quote: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” Long a deep source of personal inspiration for me, Gandhi personified leading by example. One of his most famous quotes was:“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” His message to the world: “My life is my message.”

Later I read in The Washington Post that the memorial to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., long in the planning, was finally nearing completion, so one afternoon I pedaled my trike down to the Tidal Basin to see what I could. The statue itself is shrouded, as the sculptor applies the finishing touches, but the memorial site is coming together beautifully. It will be officially unveiled this summer on the anniversary of Dr. King’s historic “I Have A Dream” speech. What a glorious day that will be! I just wish I could be there, as no one has inspired my life more than Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s not just what he achieved during his brief time on this planet that inspires me, but how he fearlessly achieved it. The words that he spoke in 1964, upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, could just as easily apply to the global climate crisis we’re facing today: “Here and there an individual or group… rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity. So in a real sense this is a great time to be alive… Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible… Granted that we face a world crisis… But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom…” Our future clearly hinges on finding the “moral maturity” Dr. King saw from the mountaintop.

And then there is one who does not have a statue in Washington, DC, but should: the late, great David Brower. No one in the environmental movement has influenced me more than this man, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times for his tireless efforts to protect the planet. David helped define the contemporary environmental movement through the groups he founded, and by the principled philosophy he embraced: “We are to hold fast to what we believe is right, fight for it, and find allies and adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or them to win, then let someone else propose the compromise.” I had the good fortune of befriending David during the final years of his life. Despite battling cancer, he was eager to join me in my quest to inject a sense of environmental urgency into the 2000 presidential primary campaign. He rallied his frail body to travel in the dead of winter to the early caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, for a series of campaign rallies and events. He fought to the very end of his life, which was illuminated by a Goethe quote he lived by:“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” It was the daily reminder of this quote on my office wall, more than anything else, that prompted me to launch this ride. I asked myself more than once during the ride what David would do if he were alive today. Someday, he will be properly honored in our nation’s capitol.

Of course, no trip to Washington, DC would be complete without a visit to the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. And while it lost much of its luster for me after the 2000 election debacle, there’s also the Supreme Court.

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