default blog post image

Be the change

In March 2008, I went to Mumbai with a congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. We went in search of an answer of how to fashion an international agreement on climate change from today's Indian leaders. But I didn't find the answer from today's Indian politicians; I found it from long-gone Indian revolutionary, Mahatma Gandhi. His real life begs description. Trained as a lawyer, he made a personally wrenching transition from a stiff collared attorney handling civil rights cases and living in the finest traditions similar to the boys from Eton, to a world-changing revolutionary, scavenging for food, caring for goats, and wearing nothing but a twisty piece of homespun cotton as he reordered the civilization of south Asia itself. I stopped to consider the challenges he faced along the way. The most important challenge-what must have appeared to be insurmountable-was taking on the British Empire at the peak of its power, an empire with not only massive military resources but also an insidiously effective manner of subjugating whole peoples. I felt I was in a similar position as Gandhi. Not because I suffered under an empire, but because I was facing a fearsome threat just as daunting as the British Empire-the threat that the planet was to be shortly consumed by the fires of global warming. To me, global warming was a steamroller, a global monster, and an armored tank that would take the complete reordering of the world economy to defeat. To succeed, we would have to almost totally decarbonize the world economy, just as Gandhi would have to almost totally "de-violence" India if his plans were to succeed. In the days leading up to my visit, I had been bombarded with global warming facts. Pre-eminent national scientist James Hanson had just published a paper predicting an entirely new environmental epic that would remove us from the Holocene era and take us into a whole new climactic regime, even at current levels of CO2. Weeks before that, the head of the International Panel on Climate Change told our committee that even in the best case scenario, we had only a 50-50 chance of preventing 30% of the world's species from going extinct because of the massive impact of climate change on thousands of species. My first two days in India showed little political initiative. Just the quickest glance in the New Delhi newspapers or the packed streets of Mumbai told a grim tale. The papers reported worsening electrical outages caused by an explosion of electrical demand in the rapidly growing Indian economy. In the streets, millions of cars and three-wheeled taxis created the very definition of mayhem. One peek out the window of our bus revealed a simple truth-if India did not start to use radically different technologies to power their homes and cars, the earth's atmosphere would be effectively destroyed. There was much to love about India visible to me in just my first two days there, from its uniformly gracious people, to its intoxicating mix of religions, to it surprising food. But these national virtues could not hide the glaring fact that I was visiting the country, which could imperil the planet and the parallels to our situation in the United States.


Jay Inslee represents the First District of the State of Washington (Seattle area) in the United States House of Representatives. He is the co-author of Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy.