Last Call

In These Times | Ben Winters | January 21, 2002

Introducing one of America's champions of the environmental movement, as it relates to beer: "Global warming will affect everything in your life," proclaims Phil Radford, a jovial 25-year-old with a goatee and a head shaved as clean as a clear-cut forest. "It might even kill beer."

Thus begins a long and well-researched discourse on the subject, which Radford refers to, half-jokingly, as his Save the Ales campaign. Radford is a smart guy, a serious environmentalist -- but he knows that there is a large class of people who might never be convinced to care about melting polar ice caps. Hence, the Save the Ales campaign.

"All the hops that are grown in the United States for microbrews, or the bulk of them, are grown in the Northwest: Washington, Oregon and Idaho," Radford says. "Every three degrees that the temperature warms, these eco-systems will all shift north in latitude by one to two hundred miles. And there's all these Wal-Marts in the way! So if they have to shift 600 miles north, our forests are dead, our hops are dead, all these eco-systems are destroyed. No more beer."

Save the Ales is one of several campaigns touted on the website of Power Shift, Radford's half-year-old nonprofit, nestled alongside more serious endeavors like the solar community campaign and another targeting Citigroup. But rescuing endangered micro-brews isn't Radford's primary focus. It's just one of many creative strategies he's developed to capture reluctant environmentalists' hearts and minds.

With Power Shift, he's using the same strategies to wade into communities and convince them of the value of solar power as an alternative to fossil fuels. "The polls are showing right now that the bulk of the population agrees that global warming is a big problem," he says. "The question is not whether they care or agree with you or believe you, it's how deeply they feel about it."

The answer to the myriad ills of global warming is obvious to Radford, as it has long been to many a green: Switch over to renewable energy. Power Shift, based in Washington and comprised of Radford, five college-aged "fellows" and a board of advisers -- including his former boss, Greenpeace Executive Director John Passacantando -- is working with various state Ralph Nader-backed Public Interest Research Groups to draft reports about the logistics, both legislative and technical, of switching to solar.

Power Shift has had one palpable success in its solar community campaign, which last year was involved in lobbying San Francisco to issue a bond to buy 80 megawatts of solar panels to stick on city buildings. In November, the city passed a pair of ballot initiatives to eventually buy 60 megawatts; short of the goal, but, at present, the entire country produces about 60 megawatts. The bond issue is enough, according to Power Shift, to make "San Francisco the solar capital of the United States."

This effort, Radford hopes, will be just the tip of the iceberg. "If the solar market continues to grow at 40 percent, which it did last year, and if 10 cities do what San Francisco is doing, then solar could be competitive [with fossil fuels] in the United States by 2005," he says. "That's our primary campaign right now."

To that end, he explains, Power Shift is working with the International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives, which works with 100 communities "on reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, everywhere from Chicago to small towns in Massachusetts." Radford's group hopes to further ICLEI's goals by doing public education work while the ICLEI is in consultation with local governments.

Like many a modern eco-warrior, Radford is a suburban kid who got turned on to green issues in high school (he grew up in Oak Park, Illinois) and never looked back. In college he spent summers as a campaigner with the PIRG; after graduating, it was a stint in the Green Corps program, which led him right into Ozone Action, where he spent two years as a field director. Ozone Action merged into Greenpeace, and Radford ended up a climate campaigner there. In forming Power Shift, he picked a specific agenda and corraled all the high-power contacts he could find in the green community. But he plans to keep the organization small and to aim his message not at those in power, but at regular people.

A focus on the grassroots informs everything Radford wants to accomplish with Power Shift -- he would much rather be out talking to actual community members, forcing change from below, than waiting for action from legislators. There's nothing wrong with lobbying at the national level to stop global warming, he says, but "there aren't any national groups right now that are working specifically on pushing clean energy in communities."

Now is the perfect time. "From the bottom up," he says. "That's where we can win right now."In These Times: