My Road Trip With a Solar Rock Star

Or Notes on the White House Enthusiasm Gap

I got to see the now-famous enthusiasm gap up close and personal last week, and it wasn't a pretty sight.

The backstory: I help run a global warming campaign called
In mid-summer, we decided to organize an effort to ask world leaders to
put solar panels on the roofs of their residences. It was to be part of
the lead-up to a gigantic Global Work Party
on October 10th (10-10-10), and a way to give prime ministers and
politburos something easy to do in the hope of getting the fight against
global warming slowly back on track. One of those crucial leaders is,
of course, Barack Obama, who stood by with his arms folded
this summer while the Senate punted on climate-change legislation. We
thought this might be a good way for him to signal that he was still
committed to change, even though he hadn't managed to pass new laws.

And so we tracked down the solar panels that once had graced the
White House roof, way back in the 1970s under Jimmy Carter. After Ronald
Reagan took them down, they'd spent the last few decades on the
cafeteria roof at Unity College
in rural Maine. 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, not to mention
allowing the college's sustainability coordinators to help manage the

And so, on the day after Labor Day, we set off in a biodiesel college
van. Solar road trip! Guitars, iPods, excellent snack food, and for
company, the rock star of solar panels, all 6 x 3-feet and 140 pounds of
her. We pulled into Boston that first night for a rally at Old South
Church, where a raucous crowd lined up for the chance to sign the front
of the panel, which quickly turned into a giant glass petition. The same
thing the next night in New York, and then DC, with an evening at one
of the city's oldest churches headlined by the Reverend Lennox Yearwood,
head of the Hip-Hop Caucus.

It couldn't have been more fun. 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 you'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.

That's what we kept telling reporters as they turned out along the
route: if the Obamas will put solar panels back on the White House roof,
or on the lawn, or anywhere else where people can see them, it will
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 historical
relic returned home, and if they'd commit to installing new ones soon.
We'd even found a company, Sungevity, that was eager to provide them
free. Indeed, as word of our trip spread, other solar companies kept
making the same offer. Still, the White House never really responded,
not until Thursday evening around six p.m. when they suddenly agreed to a
meeting at nine the next morning.

As you might imagine, we were waiting at the "Southwest Appointment
Gate" at 8:45, and eventually someone from the Office of Public
Engagement emerged to escort us inside the Executive Office Building. He
seated us in what he called "the War Room," an ornate and massive
chamber with a polished table in the middle.

Every window blind was closed. It was a mahogany cave in which we
could just make out two environmental bureaucrats sitting at the far end
of the table. I won't mention their names, on the theory that what
followed wasn't really their idea, but orders they were following from
someone else. Because what followed was... uncool.

they spent a lot of time bragging about all the things the federal
government had accomplished environmentally, with special emphasis on
the great work they were doing on other federal buildings. One of them
returned on several occasions to the topic of a government building in
downtown Portland, Oregon, that would soon be fitted with a "green
curtain," by which I think she meant the "extensive vertical garden"
on the 18-story Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building with its
massive "vegetated fins," the single largest use of stimulus money in
the entire state.

And actually, it's kind of great. Still, I doubt many people are
going to build their own vegetated fins, and anyway I was beginning to
despair that nothing could stop the flow of self-praise until one of the
three seniors from Unity raised her hand and politely interrupted.

Now, let me say that I already knew 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

One after another, respectfully but firmly, they asked a series of
tough questions, and refused to be filibustered by yet another stream of
administration-enhancing data. 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? When the administrators proudly proffered a clipping from some
interior page of the Washington Post about their "greening the government initiative," Amanda calmly pointed out that none of her neighbors read the Post, and that, by contrast, the solar panels had made it onto David Letterman.

To their queries, the bureaucrats refused to provide any answer. At
all. One kept smiling in an odd way and saying, "If reporters call and
ask us, we will provide our rationale," but whatever it was, they
wouldn't provide it to us.

It was all a little odd, to say the least. They refused to accept the
Carter panel as a historic relic, or even to pose for a picture with
the students and the petition they'd brought with them. 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. In a less than overwhelming gesture, they did, however,
pass out Xeroxed copies of a 2009 memorandum from Vice President Biden
about federal energy policy.

I can tell you exactly what it felt like, because those three
students were brave and walked out graciously, heads high, and kept
their tears back until we got to the sidewalk. And then they didn't keep
them back, because it's a tough thing to learn for the first time how
politics can work.

If you want to know about the much-discussed enthusiasm gap between
Democratic and Republican bases, in other words, this was it in action.
As Jean Altomare told the New York Times,
"We went in without any doubt about the importance of this. They handed
us a pamphlet." And Amanda Nelson added, "I didn't expect I'd get to
shake President Obama's hand, but it was really shocking to me to find
out that they really didn't seem to care."

Did I say I was impressed with these young women? I was more than
impressed. Nobody I went to Harvard with would have handled it as
powerfully as they did (maybe because they weren't looking for a job in
the White House someday). A few hot tears were the right response,
followed by getting on with the work.

Our next question, out there on the sidewalk, was how to handle the
situation -- which, indeed, we had to do right away, because in today's
blog-speed world, you're supposed to Put Out a Statement to reporters,
not to mention Tweet. So how to play it?

The normal way 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, and at, we long ago decided not to do that. The whole premise of our
operation, beginning with the number at its core, is that we had better always tell the truth about our actual predicament.

Alternatively, we could have rounded on the administration, and taken
our best shot. In fact, it would have been easy enough right then and
there for me to chain myself to the White House fence with the panel
next to me. It would have gotten some serious press (though not as much
as if I'd burned a Koran). And in fact, some of our supporters were
counseling that I head for the fence immediately.

We got an email, for instance, from a veteran campaigner I deeply
respect who said: "Show Obama you can't be taken for granted, and I
predict you will be amazed at the good things that come your way. This
is a watershed moment: if they think they can get away with this with
you, they'll judge they can get away with more in the future. If you
show them they can't get away with it (at the very least without
embarrassment), they will come your way more in the future. It's power
politics, pure and simple. This is how the game is played. Get their

And I think he was probably right. As he pointed out, Obama was even
then on the phone with the mustachioed Florida geezer, the stack of
Korans, and the following of 50 or less. But I couldn't do it, not then
and there. Because... well, because at some level I'm a political wuss.

I couldn't stand to make that enthusiasm gap any wider, not seven
weeks before an election. True, it's the moment when you have some
leverage, but no less true: the other side was running candidate after
candidate who literally couldn't wait to boast about how they didn't
believe in climate change. (Check out R.L. Miller's highly useful list of 'climate zombies.') That's why we're deeply engaged in fights this fall like the battle to defeat California's Prop 23
and save the state's landmark climate law. As a group we can't endorse
candidates, but I came home and spent part of the weekend mailing small
checks to Senate candidates I admire, men like Paul Hodes from New Hampshire, who have fought hard for serious climate legislation.

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
up on the roof, Fox News will use that as one more line of attack; that
they somehow believe the association with Jimmy Carter is the electoral
equivalent of cooties; and that, in the junior high school lunchroom
that now comprises our political life, they didn't want to catch any.

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: we should use the symbols we've got, and few are
better than a solar panel. Still, with the current craziness in mind, I
was willing to give them a pass. So we just put out a press release
saying that we'd failed in our mission and walked away.

At least for now, but not forever, and really not for much longer.

On October 10th, we're having our great global work party, and ever since Obama stiffed us, registrations for its events have been soaring. Last week, with the heads of Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network, I issued a call
for ideas about how to mount a campaign of civil disobedience around
climate. Not a series of stunts, but a real campaign. At coal plants,
and drilling sites -- and at the places where our politicians do their

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. 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. I may be a wuss, but I'm also
scientifically literate. We know what we need to do, and we will do it.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023