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Eco-days are here again

A change of heart in Washington and new faith in Atlanta

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Justine Thompson figured the timing was auspicious.

On Monday, April 1, the Supreme Court ruled that George Bush's Environmental Protection Agency shirked its duties under the Clean Air Act by failing to regulate global warming. It was an unequivocal victory for environmentalists and a defeat for utilities, such as Georgia Power, that run greenhouse-gas-belching power plants.

So four days later, when Thompson, the executive director of the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest, filed a separate federal lawsuit against the EPA over an entirely different matter, she was a bit more confident than she might have been. The lawsuit claims the EPA is failing to enforce the Clean Air Act by not requiring Georgia Power to adequately cut down on pollution at coal-fired Plant Scherer near Macon.

"We're optimistic because the Supreme Court signaled that the courts are not buying the Bush administration's arguments anymore," Thompson says.

After six years during which Washington ignored many of the environmental protections it hadn't managed to eliminate, activists such as Thompson finally are smiling again – and not just because the courts are reining in some of the administration's excesses, or because Congress is in friendlier hands. A hard reality seems finally to have jolted the American people, namely that global warming can't be ignored anymore. And that realization is bolstering environmentalists' credibility on a long list of neglected issues.

Last Friday, as Thompson and company filed their lawsuit (which has nothing to do with global warming), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a 1,200-member body of scientists and government officials – was issuing a report in Brussels, Belgium, on the local effects of global warming. The panel, which may very well be the most authoritative scientific body on any subject ever, last fall reported it was more than 90 percent certain global warming was occurring. Last week, it got more specific.

Among its findings were that global warming is almost certain to spur the largest refugee crisis in human history – hundreds of millions of people are expected to lose their homes – as well as lead to an unprecedented wave of plant and animal extinctions.

Yet it's still difficult to predict global warming's impact on areas as small as North Georgia. Although the scientists say regions like the Southeast may temporarily enjoy a longer growing season, heavy storms, killer heat waves and more parasitic diseases are likely to sweep through the region in the last half of the 21st century.

The problem for us is that Georgia politicians and business leaders are less willing than most to deal squarely with the looming crisis. While governors from California to Virginia propose aggressive measures to prepare their states for climate change and to cut fossil-fuel emissions, a spokesman for Georgia's Sonny Perdue told the AJC last week the governor has nothing to say about the issue. While state officials thumb their noses at ideas that could reduce Georgia's dependence on fossil fuels (last week, Transportation Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl urged lawmakers to eliminate funding for a long-planned commuter-rail line south to Lovejoy), they're pushing new schemes to stretch sprawl, and commuters, even farther into the countryside.

The increased smog and greenhouse emissions that come along with sprawling suburbs and ever-longer commutes are particularly difficult to undo because they involve hundreds of thousands of people whose very lifestyles end up being built around the car.

"We're creating a system that's difficult to fix, and we don't have a lot of political will to resist it," Thompson notes, adding that's one reason her group finds Georgia Power's coal-fired plants a more promising target for a lawsuit than the amorphous issue of sprawl.

The utility and its parent, the Southern Co., are famous in their own right for foot-dragging on global warming and other environmental issues. But Georgia Power generates by most measures somewhere around half the metro area's air pollution and perhaps a larger share of the region's greenhouse emissions. And pursuing action against Georgia Power through the courts allows environmentalists to circumvent the grip that special interests, including the utility as well as developers, have on the state Legislature and its bureaucracy.

It's hard to imagine that grip loosening any time soon, but there are promising signs of change at the grassroots level.

Katy Hinman is executive director of a nonprofit group called Georgia Interfaith Power & Light, which since 2003 has been encouraging churches and congregations to use clean energy and to conserve. Hinman acknowledges that at first, Interfaith Power & Light drew interest mainly from liberal, intown congregations, such as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta and Bet Haverim, a gay-oriented synagogue.

Now, she says, "We're getting calls from new congregations every week." Her organization has involved more than 100 congregations in at least some sort of energy-saving program. While evangelical churches in rural areas tend to be more difficult sells, the growing alarm over global warming has attracted a more diverse group than ever to the organization's broad message.

"People are building those bridges because they can tell that global warming is an issue that will take all of us working together," Hinman says.

The approach of Interfaith Power & Light, which is apolitical and nonconfrontational, is a bit more like the traditional approach that conservationist groups have taken toward Georgia politics. Though environmentalists may argue with the characterization, Interfaith – which works closely with Georgia Power, for example – is sugar to the spice of groups such as the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest. Interfaith could play a huge role in raising the consciousness of people who previously haven't expressed much concern for the environment, and it also can build bridges between environmental organizations and the grassroots ones.

Until those grassroots groups are strong enough to change the way politicians and such influential companies as Georgia Power deal with global warming, however, it's nice to hear a different tune coming out of Washington.

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