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This is how they treat their friends?

I got to see the now-famous enthusiasm gap between liberals and conservatives up close last week, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

The back-story: I help run a global warming campaign called 350.org. In mid-summer, we organized an effort to urge world leaders to put solar panels on the roofs of their residences. It was part of the lead-up to a gigantic Global Work Party on Oct. 10 (10-10-10), and a way to give prime ministers and politburos something easy and visible to do in the fight against global warming. One of those crucial leaders is, of course, Barack Obama.

And so we tracked down the solar panels that once had graced the White House roof, back in the 1970s under Jimmy Carter. After Ronald Reagan took them down, Unity College in rural Maine put them on its cafeteria roof, and they’ve remained there since. That college’s president, Mitch Thomashow, immediately offered us a panel to take back to the White House. Better still, he encouraged three of his students to accompany the panel.

And so, on the day after Labor Day, we set off in a biodiesel college van. It couldn’t have been more fun. Guitars, iPods, excellent snack food, rallies each night. Wherever we could, we’d fire up the panel, pour a gallon of water in the top, point it toward the sun, and eight or nine minutes later we’d have steaming hot water coming out the bottom. Thirty-one years old and it worked like a charm — a vexing reminder that we’ve known how to do this stuff for decades. We just haven’t done it.

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That’s what we kept telling reporters as they turned out along the route: If the Obamas would put solar panels back on the White House roof, it would help get the message across — the same way that seed sales climbed 30% across the country in the year after Michelle planted her garden.

There was just one nagging concern as we headed south. We still hadn’t heard anything conclusive from the White House. We’d asked them — for two months — if they’d accept the old panel as a historic relic returned home, and if the president would commit to installing new ones soon. We’d even found a company, Sungevity, that was eager to provide them free. Finally, on a Thursday evening, the White House agreed to a meeting at 9 the next morning.

The two bureaucrats who met with us in the Executive Office Building spent a lot of time bragging about the administration’s environmental accomplishments, including the great work they were doing on federal buildings. I was beginning to despair that nothing could stop the flow of self-praise when one of the three seniors from Unity raised her hand and politely interrupted.

I already knew that these students — Jean Altomare, Amanda Nelson and Jamie Nemecek — were special, but my guess is the bureaucrats hadn’t figured that out. Unity is out in the woods, and these kids were majoring in things like wildlife conservation. They’d never had an encounter like this. It stood to reason that they’d be cowed. But they weren’t.

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One after another, respectfully but firmly, they asked a series of tough questions and refused to be filibustered by yet another stream of platitudes.

Here’s what they wanted to know: If the administration was serious about spreading the word on renewable energy, why wouldn’t it do the obvious thing and put solar panels on the White House?

The bureaucrats refused to answer the question. One kept smiling and saying, “If reporters call and ask us, we will provide our rationale,” but they didn’t provide it to us.

They also refused to accept the Carter panel, or even pose for a picture with the students. Asked to do something easy and symbolic to rekindle a little of the joy that had turned out so many of us as volunteers for Obama in 2008, they point-blank said no.

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If you want to know about the much-discussed enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican bases, this was it in action. As Altomare told the New York Times: “We went in without any doubt about the importance of this. They handed us a pamphlet.” Nelson added: “It was really shocking to me to find out that they really didn’t seem to care.”

The normal way to handle a failure like the one we had at the White House is to claim some kind of victory. We could have said we had an excellent exchange of views and that the administration had taken seriously our plea. But that would have been lying.

Alternatively, we could have rounded on the administration and taken our best shot. It would have been easy enough right then and there to chain ourselves to the White House fence with the panel next to us. It would have gotten some serious press.

But I couldn’t stand to make that enthusiasm gap any wider, not seven weeks before an election. True, it’s the moment when we might have some leverage. But no less true: The other side is running a long slate of Senate candidates who boast that they don’t believe in climate change.

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And a confession. We’d walked past Obama’s official portrait on the way out, and despite the meeting we’d just had, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that he was president. I could remember my own enthusiasm from two years ago that had me knocking on doors across New Hampshire. I admired his character and his smarts, and if I admire them a little less now, the residue’s still there.

And so I couldn’t help thinking — part of me at least — like this: The White House political team has decided that if they put solar panels on the roof, Fox News will use that as one more line of attack. Jimmy Carter comparisons aren’t what the administration is after.

If that’s their thinking, I doubt they’re on the mark. As far as I can tell, the right has a far better understanding of the power of symbols. Witness the furor they’ve kicked up over “the mosque at ground zero.” My feeling is that we should use the symbols we’ve got, and few are better than a solar panel.

Actually, I’ll be surprised if the White House doesn’t put up solar panels within a year. But even if they do, that would just be the barest of beginnings. Which is why, with other environmental leaders, we recently issued a call for ideas about a campaign of civil disobedience next spring — at power plants and coal mines but at White Houses too, if they don’t turn at least a little green.

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We’ve run out of spare decades to deal with climate change — the summer’s events in the Arctic, in Russia, in Pakistan proved that with great clarity. We know what we need to do, and we must do it. Enthusiastically.

Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and the author most recently of “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.” He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. A longer version of this piece can be found at tomdispatch.com


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