Environmentalists say they’ve sensed a green tipping point.
“The debate about climate change in the scientific community has been over for ten years,” says Mike Tidwell of Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “The debate in the media ended right around Hurricane Katrina.”
Environmental activists say that lawmakers invite them more often to testify—and House speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered an energy audit of the Capitol. Big companies are partnering with conservation organizations. Venture capitalists are investing billions in clean-energy projects.
Al Gore organized Live Earth, a star-studded, seven-continent concert event that made ecoliving ecocool. The green glitterati frequently visit here to lobby lawmakers. Brad Pitt is working with Global Green USA on rebuilding a sustainable New Orleans. Robert Redford, Leonardo DiCaprio, and James Taylor sit on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s board. A board member of Conservation International? Harrison Ford.
“Celebrities have been particularly helpful in getting out the message that the stakes are high but there are solutions,” says the NRDC’s David Hawkins.
Doing the work in the trenches are members of Washington’s environmental establishment—lobbying Congress on renewable energy, fighting for international bans on overfishing, kayaking local rivers to track pollution. They’ve taken some of their battles to the Supreme Court—and won.
We asked more than a hundred environmental activists to name the region’s biggest changemakers. We haven’t included some obvious names—for example, Will Baker at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is well known for doing everything he can to clean up the bay, while Patrick Noonan, founder of the Conservation Fund, has helped protect more than 6 million acres of land in the United States. We dug deeper. Sometimes all it takes is an individual with a dream to make a big difference.
Here are 30 Washingtonians working to make the region—and the world—a greener place.
Fred Tutman, 50; Ed Merrifield, 60; Michele Merkel, 40: Waterkeepers
“The river needs an advocate.”
In 1999, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. cofounded the Waterkeeper Alliance to empower citizens to protect their local waterways. It was created to support waterkeeper programs, including 14 in the Washington region; among them are programs for the Patuxent and the Potomac.
Individuals are attracted to the job from all walks of life. Merrifield, the Potomac riverkeeper, is a retired chiropractor. Tutman, the Patuxent riverkeeper, spent 25 years in various mass-media roles including as a media consultant. Merkel, regional coordinator of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, spent about five years trying to get power plants to lower emissions. She’s hoping to organize all 14 waterkeepers into a single powerful voice.
Describe a typical day. Tutman: I get up at the crack of dawn and patrol my waterway by boat. Sometimes I fly above the river in a Cessna. I’m looking for bad dumps, illegal practices. I’m in courtrooms, in administrative hearings. I’m writing, planning, planting trees.
What is the biggest problem facing local waterways? Merkel: One is apathy. Everyone knows what the problems are and what we need to do to fix them, but every year the same news is reported. People have expected government to take care of the problem. It’s no longer just about seeing oysters or crabs at historic lows; you’re seeing waterman towns disappearing, whole ways of life.
What drives you? Merrifield: When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, they wrote into it the goal that we’d be putting zero of our pollution into the water by 1985. We haven’t come close to that. That’s what drives me—getting to 1985.
Lisa Heinzerling, 47: Law professor
“I could not have written a better opinion.”
Heinzerling, who teaches at Georgetown University Law Center, helped win the landmark Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007. The case held that the EPA has the power to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
Why is this case important? It means cars, power plants, all sources regulated under the Clean Air Act can be regulated by the EPA. One argument had been that the state of California can’t regulate greenhouse gases from cars because the EPA can’t. Now that argument goes away.
What went through your mind when you heard the decision? It’s a big deal to have the Supreme Court open an opinion with a paragraph talking about climate change. Justice Stevens wrote that “a well-documented rise in global temperatures . . . [has] resulted from a significant increase . . . in the atmospheric concentration of ‘greenhouse gases’ . . . .” That was huge.
How did you celebrate? I had dinner with my family. I have a 9- and a 12-year-old, and they had to deal with me working weekends. They were happy to have me home. Everybody got to say, “We won!”