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Originally published Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 4:19 PM

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Guest columnist

A quieter, more powerful message this Earth day

The U.S. Senate is poised to begin considering climate-change legislation, but change is already happening in homes and communities across the nation, writes guest columnist Chip Giller.

Special to The Times

FOR months now, the U.S. Senate has been lurching toward introducing meaningful climate legislation. That much-anticipated event may well happen early next week, and kudos are certainly due to U.S. Sens. John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman for their bipartisan efforts to keep things moving. But all indications suggest that the best-case bill will be riddled with holes big enough to steer an Escalade through.

Even if the legislation were entirely dreamy, the acrimony dominating D.C. politics makes it doubtful that it would pass. Those hoping for a reprise of the sweeping decade of environmental change inspired by the first Earth Day in 1970 — which included creation of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Environmental Protection Agency — shouldn't hold their CO2-laden breath.

But there is good news to be found. Our environmental future isn't wholly dependent on the sclerotic halls of Congress. The real action is taking place far outside the Beltway, in cities and towns all over the country, where leaders, entrepreneurs and ordinary people are taking matters into their own hands.

From coast to coast, sustainable solutions are springing up. Much of this citizen-led progress is happening in our cities, which is only fitting. Since they contribute an estimated 70 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, urban areas are major contributors to the problem of climate change. Now they must also take the lead in creating the solutions we so desperately need.

In 2008, for the first time ever, more than half the planet's inhabitants lived in cities. By 2030, the number of city dwellers will swell to more than 5 billion, as more and more people move back into city centers, attracted by the convenience of living near jobs, stores and cultural offerings.

This metro-momentum is creating a demand for smarter transportation systems, walkable neighborhoods and innovative programs like bike-sharing. This Earth Day, Denver is unveiling the nation's largest such program, putting 400 bikes on its streets and encouraging people to reach them by light rail or bus.

Energy efficiency is also gaining steam, with cities retrofitting structures ranging from high-profile landmarks like the Empire State Building and the Sears Tower to lesser-known public-housing units. A national organization called One Block Off the Grid (1BOG) helps urbanites negotiate group discounts for solar power. Some cities are experimenting with programs that allow homeowners to pay for upgrades over time through their regular bills. President Obama even declared that insulation is sexy!

Hungry for another example of an area seeing major progress? Try food. An entire urban-agriculture movement is growing from the pavement up, and not just in hippie-crunchy strongholds. In Kansas City, Oakland, Detroit, Milwaukee and beyond, entrepreneurial outfits like Growing Power and People's Grocery are helping people connect to, and take control of, their food sources. With increasing demand for food that's not only better for the body but better for the planet, sustainable choices seem literally to be popping up on every other block.

While Congress dawdles, our cities are transforming before our very eyes. Forty years ago this week, more than 20 million Americans took to the streets for the first Earth Day. They were parents, students, clergy, businesspeople and union leaders. They made it clear to Congress they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

This year, by contrast, millions of Americans are sending a quieter message, one that may ultimately prove even more powerful: "Hey Congress, good luck with your endless blathering. We'd watch you on C-SPAN, but we're too busy in our homes and 'hoods, building a stronger, smarter, healthier world."

Chip Giller is the founder and CEO of Grist.org. For more examples of locally led change visit www.hopensource.org

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