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Wisconsin's new slogan -- Live Like You Mean It -- received much criticism for being unoriginal. Many suggested more appropriate slogans, and I would like to offer one too. Following the state's example, mine is also recycled, but I figured recycling would be OK since Earth Day is almost upon us.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has predicted that Wisconsin winters may soon look and feel a lot more like Iowa's unless swift and sweeping action is taken to halt global warming. So why not share Iowa's slogan: Life Changing.

However, a comma should be added between the words life and changing. Because life is changing in Wisconsin -- and around the world -- much faster than many scientists originally thought it would.

The adverse effects of global warming are snowballing.

Climatologists prefer the term positive feedback loop to describe what happens when a warming trend causes events that induce further warming, but I'll stick with snowballing. And not only because it carries a big load of irony.

The melting of the Alaskan permafrost, which is releasing thousands of metric tons of methane gas into the atmosphere, is an example of a snowball effect. Methane traps heat in the atmosphere 20 times more effectively than CO2.

And so global warming accelerates and widens, like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Wisconsin doesn't have permafrost, but we do have vast forests that are being made more susceptible to stress and fire by warming temperatures and drier soils. Not only would these forests release large amounts of CO2 into the air if they died or burned, they wouldn't be around to soak up CO2 as they do now. Our thousands of lakes are reflecting less solar radiation back into space because they're remaining unfrozen more days of the year.

According to Michael Notaro, associate scientist with the Center for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, all the climate models show more warming in our state's future. Most predict wetter springs and drier, hotter summers. Spring floods are increasing in frequency and intensity, as are summer droughts. The snow season is expected to shorten dramatically by the end of the century.

Until very recently, many climate scientists thought we might have decades to stabilize the atmosphere. Because of snowball effects, some of those same scientists are now positing that we may already be past the point of no return.

If you feel the hope melting faster than a glacier in the Alps when you read this, take heart: Political will can also snowball.

In "Multiplication Saves the Day," an article that should be required reading for every activist, Bill McKibben points out that an estimated one quarter of 1 percent of Americans took part in a protest during the civil rights movement. Yet that tiny fraction brought about change. They didn't do it by trying to integrate every lunch counter in the South. Rather, they used the drama of the fight over a few lunch counters to help drive the Civil Rights Act, making segregationist practices illegal in all of America.

In other words, their creative, symbolic action created a snowball effect., the group McKibben and his students at Middlebury College founded and which takes its name from the parts per million of atmospheric carbon scientists say is the safe limit (we're already at 388 ppm), is calling for a day of worldwide climate action on Oct. 24. Already over 500 symbolic actions are in the planning stage. The idea is to pressure world leaders, meeting in Copenhagen in December, to draft the strongest possible climate treaty.

But we can't wait until Oct. 24. We need to get our snowball rolling right here in Wisconsin today by flooding our state representatives' offices with demands that they quickly pass the climate bill soon to be released by Gov. Jim Doyle's task force.

Letters and calls can be ignored. It would be much harder, for example, for foot-dragging legislators to dismiss busloads of schoolchildren who, say, delivered 350 cups of coffee (fair trade, naturally) to the Capitol to help their representatives wake up to the reality of global warming. Especially if news cameras are present to witness the event.

Gaylord Nelson would have loved it. As the founder of Earth Day, the former Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator understood the power of bold, symbolic action. He understood the power of snowball effects.

A bucket brigade, which is what most of our efforts up to now amount to, may slow global warming but won't stop it. If we want our grandchildren to inherit a world in which they can make real snowballs, we need to fight fire with fire and snowballs with snowballs. And we can only do that with bold, symbolic action. Now that would be living like we mean it.

Rick Chamberlin lives in Sauk City.

Rick Chamberlin - 4/20/2009 6:58 am