Do the Math: Bill McKibben’s Tour to Save the Planet

By | November 15, 2012 at 7:09 am | No comments

Photo by snre via flickr

Bill McKibben spoke at San Francisco’s Green Festival on November 10 as part of his Do the Math Tour. Over the course of an hour, he laid out his twofold strategy to take on the most radical group on the planet – the fossil fuel industry.

While the CEO of ExxonMobil considers climate change an “engineering problem” with “engineering solutions”, it is actually a simple math problem. Back in July, McKibben first broke climate change down into three important numbers in is viral Roling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”. He explained that 2 degrees Celsius is the most that we can increase global temperatures and still recognize the planet we currently inhabit. (So far, we have raised the mercury by 0.8 degrees Celsius.) 565 gigatons is the amount of carbon dioxide that we can send into the atmosphere before 2050 and still be able to stick to our 2-degree goal. But one more number stands in our way – 2,795 gigatons. This is the amount of carbon that the fossil fuel is literally banking on burning; their accountants already have it on the books. Notice that the amount of carbon available is over eleven times as much as we can allow in the atmosphere before our survival becomes questionable.

In other words: “Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.” The fossil fuel executives are ready to party, but we cannot live with the consequences.

To solve the math, McKibben wants to attack the structures that threaten to release that carbon, and he is asking for your help. The scale of this problem requires a movement of a similar scale. As he explains, the math of climate change does not work one person at a time; individual changes in our daily lives will not solve the problem. The movement must focus directly on our political leaders and the fossil fuel industry that pulls their strings.

In the past, the environmental movement has focused on protesting presidential administrations, but McKibben is advocating a different approach. He argues that activists need to do all they can to support President Obama so that he can stand up to the fossil fuel industry. McKibben used this strategy during 350.org’s protest of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Participants held signs that displayed a quote from President Obama that expressed his concern for the environment. The goal was to provide enough support for the president so that he would veto the construction of the pipeline that would green light Canada’s tar sands project. While President Obama did not ultimately veto the project, he did suspend the project for one year in an effort to gather more scientific information regarding its potential environmental impacts. It is a step in the right direction.

McKibben aims to weaken the fossil fuel industry in a number of ways. He suggests that students and alumni demand that their schools divest from coal, oil, and natural gas companies. He calls on protesters to support 350.org’s demonstrations that are spreading across the nation and the globe. Currently, the organization is planning demonstrations to take place at the headquarters of various oil companies across the nation. Activists must be strong in numbers and in commitment. In particular, McKibben called on older activists to step up and set an example for the next generation. It is unfair that both the environmental consequences of climate change and political activities to fight it be laid upon youth. It can be tough finding a job with multiple arrests on one’s record, even if one is fighting for the common good. Instead, McKibben supports those activists who have less on the line. As he said, “After a certain age, what can they do to you?”

Time is running out, and we have some serious work to do. As McKibben understands, we will never outspend the fossil fuel industry. Instead, he calls on activists to supply the “currency of the movement”, with their spirit, passion, and sometimes even their bodies. In order to keep that carbon in the ground, we must reach more than minds with charts and graphs; we must use art, music, and performance to reach hearts, as well.

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