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The Fossil Fuel Resistance: Meet the New Green Heroes

Students, scientists, reverends and more are on the front lines of the most pressing environmental issue of our age

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Time is running out for our future on this planet, but the human race isn't going down without a fight. In recent years, a bold new wave of environmental activists has stepped up to stop the fossil fuel industry before it's too late. This movement "has no great charismatic leader and no central organization," writes Bill McKibben in his latest Rolling Stone feature, "The Fossil Fuel Resistance." "It battles on a thousand fronts. But taken together, it's now big enough to matter, and it's growing fast."

Meet the leaders of the new green revolution – from college students to reverends to high-finance investors.

Billy Parish and Wahleah Jones

Will Klein

Billy Parish and Wahleah Johns: The Crowd-Funders

Can we crowd-fund our way to a solar revolution? That's the vision of Billy Parish, the co-founder of Mosaic, an Oakland start-up that enables individuals to invest collectively in solar projects. So far, the company has channeled more than $1 million into solar panels atop housing complexes and community centers. The idea that crowd-funding could catalyze the shift to green energy was inspired by Parish's wife, Wahleah Johns, a founder of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, which advocates for a transition to renewables on the impoverished Navajo Nation in the Southwest. Decades of dirty-energy production on Navajo lands have left a legacy of pollution, even while thousands continue to live without electricity. "Solar can generate revenues for communities," Johns says. "But we have to find ways of financing these projects. Tribes don't have the capital." At current rates of traditional, top-down investment, a worldwide change to renewables will take about 400 years. Parish, who dropped out of Yale in 2002 to become a full-time activist, thinks his financing model could supercharge that process. "We're trying to find new capital but also get people invested in clean energy, literally."

Jeremy Grantham

Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images for ReSource 2012

Jeremy Grantham: The Financial Crusader

74-year-old investor Jeremy Grantham's firm manages more than $100 billion in assets thanks in part to his legendary knack for identifying and profiting from market bubbles. Over the last 15 years, Grantham has been ringing the alarm about the carbon bubble in the atmosphere, whose bursting threatens more than a temporary economic downturn. The former oil analyst entered the energy debate fray in 1997 when he co-founded the Grantham Foundation For the Protection of the Environment, which is to climate change what the Gates Foundation is to malaria. The foundation supports major environmental advocacy organizations from the World Wildlife Fund to the Nature Conservancy, as well as two London climate-research institutes bearing his name. Grantham also uses his widely read newsletter as a platform for warning the investment community about the limits of growth and the looming dead-end of profit-driven, short-term planning. Sometimes he speaks in the language of investment advice, explaining profits will be hard to turn in a future of soaring commodities prices, food scarcity and wild social, climatological and geopolitical instability. Other times, he'll make direct appeals to investors to free their minds, hoping their portfolios will follow. "We humans have the brains and the means to reach real planetary sustainability," wrote Grantham in a 2011 newsletter. "The problem is with us and our focus on short-term growth and profits, which is likely to cause suffering on a vast scale. With foresight and thoughtful planning, this suffering is completely avoidable."

Last year, Grantham took to the pages of the scientific journal Nature to call for bolder public involvement by the scientific community – including acts of civil disobedience resulting in arrest – to counter the climate-denialism machine lavishly funded by his fellow billionaires in the fossil fuel industry. "Scientists are understandably protective of the dignity of science and are horrified by publicity and overstatement," wrote Grantham. "These fears, unfortunately, are not shared by their opponents, which makes for a rather painful one-sided battle. This is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species' existence."

Sandra Steingraber

Mike Groll/AP Photo

Sandra Steingraber: The Toxic Avenger

Sandra Steingraber had plans to attend medical school when she received a diagnosis of bladder cancer at age 20. Her suspicion that the illness was linked to contaminated water in Tazewell County, Illinois, where she grew up, set her on a path to understand the public health impact of common carcinogens released into the environment – first as a biologist, now as one of the most celebrated writer-activists-ecologists of her generation. Her trilogy of books about environmental health – Having Faith, Living Downstream, and Raising Elijah – wraps complex science lessons in finely drawn memoir and has earned her comparisons to her hero, Silent Spring author Rachel Carson.

In 2011, she received a Heinz Award worth $100,000 and used the money to seed New Yorkers Against Fracking, a coalition of anti-fracking groups in her current home state. By then Steingraber had made opposing fracking her life's work. "My anti-fracking work has absorbed my toxic chemical work," she says, "because the road to chemical reform runs straight through energy policy – green energy solves both toxic chemicals and climate change."

In March, Steingraber was arrested during a road blockade to stop the construction of a gas compressor near her home close to Seneca Lake. "New York has a temporary fracking moratorium, but the infrastructure is getting fast tracked," she says. "To see this happening so close to my home, I needed to let my body speak."

Rev. Sally Bingham

Bill Bradlee/The Regeneration Project

Rev. Sally Bingham: The Church Lady

Since launching the Interfaith Power and Light Campaign in 2000, Rev. Sally Bingham has organized 15,000 churches, synagogues and mosques into a formidable national network of faith communities who see climate change not as a policy or technical challenge, but as an issue of spiritual dimension. "In this country, we've never had the kind of cultural and social change climate change requires without religious involvement," says Bingham. "Anti-slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights – all of these movements succeeded because of their moral foundation." IPL started like most environmental networks and institutions: small and local. Bingham began with 60 California episcopal churches that agreed to purchase a portion of their energy from the renewable energy provider Green Mountain. The group's ranks multiplied fast. But in 2001, rising wholesale costs sabotaged California's fledging renewable market. "That's when I realized we had to get involved at the policy level," she says. IPL joined the fight for a California energy standard requiring utilities to derive a fifth of their energy from renewables by 2017. The bill passed in 2002 and has since been expanded twice, now mandating a third of the state's energy to come from renewables by 2020. Bingham, meanwhile, has taken her policy work to Washington. Each spring, she leads a delegation of 80 IPL state leaders to Capitol Hill for meetings with Congressional delegations. "We're trying to maintain a unique voice based in theology so we can have more Republicans within our community," she says. The strategy appears to be working. "We're starting to get some traction in red states like Oklahoma, Minnesota, Arkansas, Kansas," she says. "Eyes are opening in faith communities across the political spectrum that climate change is about values and a duty to protecting God's creation."

Kevin Grandia

Kris Krug

Kevin Grandia: The Muckraker

When "climategate" first surfaced, blogger Kevin Grandia knew journalists were missing the real story. The trumped-up controversy was based on over 1,000 stolen emails between the world's leading climate scientists that seemed to suggest global warming was a hoax, or lacked evidence. But Grandia had spent three days reading all of the emails, which totaled 20,000 pages, and he knew that the supposed scandal was nothing more than a few quotes taken out of context. Eventually the story would be debunked by six separate investigations, but its immediate results were disastrous: The release of the emails came weeks before the 2009 global climate summit at Copenhagen, where world leaders were poised to agree to binding emissions reductions. "Unfortunately, most journalists didn't have time to read the emails, and they just ran with the story," Grandia says. "To this day, climate-gate lingers in people's minds, and continues to sow doubt that global warming is real."

Grandia hopes something like that never happens again – which is why he now helps run DeSmogBlog, a Canadian website that does daily battle with climate change skeptics, aggregating the best research on global warming and dissecting misinformation campaigns backed by right-wing think tanks. He's traced much of the money that funds anti-global-warming research back to the fossil fuel industry and found that some of the most outspoken skeptics once worked for Big Tobacco. "They're using the exact same tactics they used to convince people smoking doesn't cause cancer," Grandia says. "It's a tactic that's been around forever. You can muddle up a debate for a long time just by creating doubt."

When DeSmogBlog started seven years ago, Grandia says he had to call reporters to get them to pay attention to his research, and many hung up. "Now we've got staffers in D.C. calling us, politicians in Canada, the UK, looking for information. We have producers at ABC News and the BBC asking for help on research," he says. "There's still a lot of work to do, but we think the tide is turning."

Tar Sands Blockaders

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tar Sands Blockade: The Monkey-Wrenchers

Last year, when president Obama approved the southern leg of Keystone XL – which will run 435 miles from Cushing, Oklahoma to refineries near Houston – he unwittingly unleashed the Tar Sands Blockade, a loose but relentless coalition of environmental activists and landowners angered by TransCanada's seizure of their property. "We see ourselves as people who are acting in an emergency capacity," says Ramsey, a 29-year-old Texan and former Green Party organizer with indigenous roots who interrupted a pipeline conference in January by locking himself to the stage. "This fight will be very intense, and it will be very polarizing."

Dedicated to disrupting 'business as usual,' the Tar Sands group does not shy away from putting their bodies on the line – members have locked their necks to excavators in Oklahoma, sealed themselves inside pipe segments in Winona, Texas, and stormed TransCanada's Houston offices. In one of the group's most dramatic operations, activists staged a tree-sit in a forested piece of private property in east Texas that had been claimed for the pipeline route over the objections of the landowner. After a three-month standoff, TransCanada re-routed the pipeline around the blockade.