The TH Interview: Jeremy Osborn of Step It Up 2007!

Step It Up 2007!, the US national day of action on climate change, was a huge success. Over 1400 communities gathered in all 50 states demanding that their Congressional representatives enact bold climate legislation and cut carbon 80% by 2050, and many TreeHuggers were also in on the action. We thought it would be interesting for our readers to hear how the event came about, so we emailed Jeremy Osborn of Step It Up with a few questions. Jeremy is a recent college graduate, and leading up to the Step It Up effort, Jeremy was also involved in the inception and advocacy work of the Middlebury College Sunday Night Group. He also spent a summer driving the country advocating fuel efficiency with Road to Detroit, a project of Energy Action. Now that Step It Up was such an overwhelming success, Jeremy and the rest of the crew are helping to document what happened, and are already at work on the next steps of this national movement. Read on for more juicy details…

TreeHugger: How did the Step It Up 2007 coalition come about, and who were the main players?

Jeremy Osborn: Our small group came together after six of us decided that we wanted to put our collective student organizing experience at Middlebury College to good use for the national movement around climate change. We approached Bill McKibben for advice, and he pitched us Step It Up. He was, as ever, persuasive, and we dropped all our other plans and jumped in with him. Our crew was never exactly the ‘main player’ though. The coalition around Step It Up was incredible – from the big greens like NRDC, the National Wildlife Federation, and Sierra Club to regional or community groups like Chesapeake Climate Action Network to the fourteen hundred plus organizers on the ground in these communities. All these people were the players in Step It Up; we mainly sat hunched over our laptops just making sure everyone was connected and had all the resources they needed.

TH: It was very much a decentralized, grass-roots protest. What was the thinking behind this?

JO: Three quick thoughts: The first is that we need serious Congressional action on global warming. We guessed that the best and easiest way to connect members of Congress with people in their districts who care was to organize distributed actions in those districts. The ‘iconic’ photos that we asked people to take on the day of action make it incredibly easy for members of Congress to see where organizers are coming from and what they care about. The second point is that we want the network and movement around global warming to build, and nothing builds movement like face-to-face interaction with people in your area – people you’ll continue to see in the coming weeks and months that can continue to motivate you to do good work. The final point is simply that we didn’t want tens of thousands of people spewing carbon trails getting to a march on Washington to rally for carbon reductions. Holding local rallies made much more sense.

TH: Did it work? Did you get the anticipated numbers, and what are the indications that the media, and ultimately, congress were listening?

JO: Completely, overwhelmingly, yes, it worked. We had originally hoped for something on the order of a hundred actions. Fourteen hundred pretty much blew our socks off, and it seemed to blow the socks off of everyone else as well. Local organizers worked hard pulling in their local papers, and blogs (including yours) helped us go viral with the message. We just recently received a (incomplete) compiled list of media on Step It Up events that is 322 pages long! As for Congress, over twenty members (from both the House and Senate) attended rallies, and Bill was called to testify before a House committee three days after Step It Up. The real test on the quality of Congressional ears, however, will be the strength of climate legislation – anything less than 80% by 2050 doesn’t measure up to the science, or to the call of the 1400 Step It Up rallies around the country.

TH: The environmental community often seems to fall into two camps - those who focus on centralized government and corporate action, and those who advocate personal responsibility and individual efforts. Is there a contradiction between the two, or are they two sides of the same coin?

JO: It’s definitely not a contradiction, but more an issue of equity and access. We should all be changing our light bulbs without a doubt, since CFL’s will lower electric bills and it helps everyone. But many people simply can’t, for instance, ride bikes to work, no matter how much they’re asked or what arguments are made to them. That’s were governmental and corporate action come in to provide for things like mass transit or more fuel efficient vehicles. We can all make important individual changes within the system, but unless the system itself changes, I don’t think we’ll ever make all the changes we need in order to deal with climate change.

TH: Have we reached a tipping point in terms of public awareness of climate change and/or other sustainability issues?

JO: Definitively yes, and I think one of the most successful things about Step It Up was tapping into that new energy. From our conversations with people all over the country, after Katrina and then An Inconvenient Truth, the public is now overwhelmingly ready to take on global warming. Step It Up was the first big opportunity for a lot of those folks, and it was incredible to hear and see all these people who had never organized anything before come out in force. The time is right, and global warming is now a top priority for the country. Our work now is simply to make Congress realize that fact and act upon it.

TH: Where next? Will there be a Step It Up 2008, and what will it look like?

JO: There are already a bunch of great projects in the pipeline. Two in particular worth highlighting here are Climate Summer, a season long push in key primary states to get presidential candidates to commit to 80% by 2050, and Focus the Nation, a national day of discussion around climate solutions. As for the Step It Up crew, we’re taking a bit of time to research and see where the political landscape now stands, write a bit, and lend a hand to our friends in these important efforts. When another opportunity arises or a vacuum needs to be filled, however, we’re ready. Living and working with your friends provides a lot of time for discussion, and so we’re already talking…

Tags: Bill McKibben | TH Interview