Not Without a Fight

The world is reaching a tipping point. We can no longer ignore the devastating consequences of global climate change. Climate scientists have been signaling for decades that global warming is a result of our industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. For years their calls have been muted, disputed and spun. For journalist and activist, Bill McKibben, who has spent the better part of a quarter-century writing and organizing on behalf of action on climate change, it is time to do the math and follow the money.

BILL MCKIBBEN environmentalist activist 350 org

McKibben has been a writer all along, calling it his “particular art form.” He began writing for his junior high newspaper, went on to become the president of the Harvard Crimson, and landed a job as a staff writer at the New Yorker straight out of school. He has always displayed a profound love of nature and an acute awareness of social justice, “My father taught me to love hiking and the outdoors; my mother has a great moral sense,” he tells me. It is no wonder that McKibben has devoted so much focused energy towards calling attention to the implications of an increasingly warming planet.

The End of Nature, his first book, was published in 1989, when he was just 28 years-old, and when climate change was a not so oft-discussed issue. I asked him about the moment when he was struck with the realization that global warming was a severe threat to our planet and our people:

“I was living in the Adirondacks, the great wilderness of the American east, and completely in love with the surrounding woods and mountains. But I was reading the early scientific papers on climate change and gradually it dawned on me that this place would become steadily less wild, steadily more impacted by human appetites and economies. So that first book was written as much out of sadness as fear.”

When it comes to climate change, the numbers are stark. McKibben relays this without fear mongering, but rather, as a serious and sober warning of what has already been documented and what is likely to come. Half of the Arctic has melted, oceans are warming and have become 30 percent more acidic, and the atmosphere is 5 percent wetter. Human emissions of greenhouse gases have fundamentally altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere. As a result, Dr. James Hansen, the [just-retired] leading climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, warns that we are “loading the dice” for more frequent and severe extreme weather events.

In 2007, McKibben began to shift his focus from writing to organizing. He launched “Step It Up,” a national campaign that called for emissions reductions, a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, and a Green Jobs Corps. His innovative use of social media tools to connect and recruit supporters garnered attention to his efforts. Building on that initiative, McKibben founded his organization and quickly shook up the approach to environmental activism.

Using platforms like the photo-sharing service Flickr, and the microblog Twitter, connected the dots around the world to show the vast impacts of climate change, and offered an opportunity for people to speak out. “We were determined to give a voice to people in places that don’t normally have a voice—that’s always been very important to me. The pictures from demonstrations in Rwanda are as important to me as the ones from Washington.”

Next up for McKibben was a deftly coordinated set of actions to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, which was slated to carry carbon-intensive crude oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, through the great plains, and on to the Gulf of Mexico to be refined and exported. The tar sands represent the second-largest pool of carbon on Earth, and in a conversation with Dr. Hansen, McKibben was warned that approval of the project would be “essentially game over for the planet.”

To combat extreme weather, McKibben is determined to battle extreme energy. In the spring of 2011, with the presidential campaigns about to kick off, and its supporters circled the White House demanding that the project be nixed. McKibben calls it one of his proudest accomplishments: “It was leading the largest civil disobedience action on any issue in 30 years last year—1,253 people went to jail to protest Keystone, and at least temporarily it worked.” President Obama delayed the decision on the pipeline until further environmental impact studies could be assessed (after the election, of course).

Bill McKibben

McKibben had already become a star in the environmental community, but he suddenly breached mainstream consciousness with his piece in Rolling Stone magazine, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Perhaps not since Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” had the subject of climate change caught the attention of such a mass audience. The Rolling Stone article, tucked away in an issue featuring Justin Bieber on the cover, ended up getting about ten times as many Facebook likes as the teen pop star. In an age of social media, this is nothing to scoff at. With a grin, McKibben quips that it was “in part due to my soulful stare.”

Three numbers were at the heart of “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” and they set the stage for McKibben’s next campaign. The “Do The Math” tour kicked off the day after President Obama was reelected, and covered eighteen states. “When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math,” McKibben says.

The first key number is 2 degree Celsius. One of the few things that a large coalition of international governments have ever been able to come to an agreement on concerning climate change is that a 2 degree increase of average global temperature will be a breaking point. We are already halfway there, and many recent models show that we are on pace for a 4, perhaps even 6 degree rise. McKibben warns that this would create an Earth “straight out of science fiction.”

The second and third numbers focus on the amount of carbon yet to be extracted. McKibben’s contention is that there is a certain amount of market-accounted carbon below the ground (2795 gigatons); of those remaining fossil fuel reserves, we can burn about one-fifth (565 gigatons) of it. Otherwise, we will blow right through the 2 degree ceiling. The single biggest obstacle to action on climate change is that these untapped reserves are already priced into markets, i.e., they represent potential profit for energy companies and directly affect share price today. This creates a massive financial incentive for the fossil fuel industry to block any sort of policy response to the changing climate.

McKibben believes that nothing short of a widespread global movement can ignite real change: “We have to keep building it bigger, and making it stronger. Things like the Keystone fight show we can put up a spirited resistance, but now we have to go after the whole of the industry and not just isolated projects.”

With that in mind, the “Do The Math” tour did not overly focus on convincing people of the realities of global warming, but instead squares in on a target and lays out a plan of action. McKibben continues to support non-violent direct action against the Keystone pipeline, but the strategy has also shifted towards calling on students to pressure their university boards of trustees to divest from dirty energy holdings.

“We need to concentrate now on the actual corrupt center of the problem, the power of the fossil fuel industry.”

This new direction takes inspiration from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign in the 1980s to end apartheid in South Africa. As the new year began, McKibben and his allies had organized over 200 student campaigns at colleges across the country to call on administrators to divest.

Bill McKibben says his WILD Wish is to “leave the world in something like the shape we found it in.” His numerous campaigns—to pressure university administrations to divest, to take non-violent direct action in order to block the construction of the KXL pipeline, to take the fossil fuel industry head-on, to spark global cooperation on comprehensive climate action—it can all seem quixotic. But Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems impossible, until it’s done.” In that spirit, McKibben closes: “We’re not certain we are going to win, but we are certain that we are going to fight.”

text by: Blaine Skrainka

photography by: Livia Coullias Blanc

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