Among environmental scribes, Bill McKibben is a legend. That’s not only because he had a knack, in such books as The End of Nature (1989), The Age of Missing Information (1992) and his most recent Eaarth (2011), of telling an important story before anybody else, but also because he is a mensch, and so darned helpful reviewing and blurbing books for other writers. Including at least one of mine.
That’s why it got attention when McKibben largely stopped writing and became a climate activist, best known as the founder of 350.org. The reasons for that are in an article he wrote for Rolling Stone last summer. “The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius,” he wrote. “It’s become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.” And we’re already three quarters of the way to overshooting that target.
The group’s title refers to the 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide considered to be the upper safe limit to concentrate in the atmosphere. Well, the bad news is that we’re already at 391 parts per million and counting. No wonder McKibben feels such urgency, and he’s not alone.
I was struck by this story in the Boston Phoenix, in which Wen Stephenson, a former member of the media establishment—card-carrying NPR editor and Boston Globe editor—describes how he followed in McKibben’s footsteps and resigned from the media business for much the same reason. Stephenson wrote, “On our current trajectory, it’s entirely possible that we’ll no longer have a livable climate—one that allows for stable, secure societies to survive—within the lifetimes of today’s children.”
350.org hasn’t changed the world yet, but it’s had an impact around the world. A growing percentage of people believe climate change is real, helped perhaps by such evidence as a new NRDC report that we're effectively losing winter sports because of warming temperatures. I wrote about that five years ago, but couldn't get much traction on the issue. Now it's unavoidable.
350.org's current “Fossil Free” campaign is aimed at convincing colleges to divest their oil stocks, and McKibben is on a 21-city campus tour in a biodiesel bus, speaking and raising hell. He called me from the road, shortly before taking delivery of his new Ford C-Max plug-in hybrid.
The UN-sponsored climate talks are on in Doha, Qatar, but McKibben isn’t there. “The Doha talks are a joke, a charade going nowhere,” he said. “We’re all but boycotting the process.” Did I say there’s a sense of urgency here? The Doha negotiators, between desultory sessions about maybe, possibly starting a process in 2015 that would actually take effect in 2020, are arguing about how the poor countries are going to get financial compensation from the rich countries.
That debate, fraught though it may be with issues of environmental justice, has stalled any meaningful progress in the international negotiations, through Copenhagen and Mexico City. Sure, the wealthy countries in Europe and North America emitted most of the CO2 that’s now threatening Pacific Islands and other low-lying regions with uncontrolled flooding or inundation, but the actual bill is so huge nobody’s going to pay it.
Disinvestment is an end run around the painfully slow UN process. “The fossil fuel industry is a rogue industry,” McKibben said. “We stand to emit five times as much CO2 as even the most conservative government says is safe. The fuel will definitely be burned unless we change the story line. Here's some video on that:
McKibben’s reference points are Big Tobacco (which hasn’t lost the war yet, but is sure losing on points), and the successful college-based divestment campaign over investment in apartheid South Africa. “This is a different kind of animal, but it’s about an industry that is behaving recklessly and irresponsibly and deserves to lose its mandate.”
It could be worse. The Bush/Cheney energy plan called for a whopping 200 coal-fired power plants to be constructed in the U.S. The reality is that 170 of those have been blocked, though there are still 1,274 of them operating.
In an article for the Huffington Post, Christian Parenti claimed that a carbon tax would be a better way to go after Big Oil, since the petroleum interests aren’t really dependent on making money in the stock market. But McKibben says that misses the point—the goal isn’t to bankrupt ExxonMobil, but to weaken it politically. It’s a battle for hearts and minds as much as an oil company’s bottom line. “Exxon will pay a premium,” he says. “It will begin to have an effect on them.”
We now face a glut of oil discoveries, plus big supplies from unconventional sources such as Canadian tar sands. Natural gas, cleaner than oil but still a fossil fuel, is available in unprecedented abundance (thanks to hydraulic fracking). Peak oil, it’s not happening. “If only we were so lucky as to run out of oil,” McKibben says. “We have to actually restrain ourselves.”
The big hurdle here is that people don’t exactly have a sterling reputation when it comes to restraint—for our planet or anything else. But as McKibben can tell you, this time it’s fundamentally different—we’re fighting for the survival of the Earth as a livable habitat.
Also on HuffPost:
In September, the Dalai Lama was one of nine Nobel Peace Prize laureates who <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/09/07/nobel-peace-prize-winners_n_952248.html" target="_hplink">sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama</a> urging him "to say 'no' to the plan proposed by the Canadian-based company TransCanada to build the Keystone XL, and to turn [his] attention back to supporting renewable sources of energy and clean transportation solutions."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was among<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/09/28/nobel-prize-winners-oil-sands_n_985171.html" target="_hplink"> a group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates</a> who signed letters to both U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, urging the men to stop the Keystone pipeline.
Gore has said it is essential to stop the Keystone pipeline because the tar sands oil it would carry is "the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/al-gore/the-dirtiest-fuel-on-the-_b_944186.html" target="_hplink">dirtiest source of fuel on the planet</a>."
Actor and environmentalist <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000602/" target="_hplink">Robert Redford</a> recently added his name to the list of prominent individuals who are calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/24/robert-redford-keystone-xl_n_1019789.html" target="_hplink">In a video for <em>The New York Times</em>, produced with the Natural Resources Defense Council</a>, Redford described the negative aspects of the proposed tar sands pipeline and said, "By deepening our reliance on oil, the pipeline would be a job killer." Redford has previously been vocal about calling for alternatives to oil. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-redford/keystone-xl-pipeline_b_978835.html" target="_hplink">Writing last month for HuffPost</a>, he said, "Let's build the next generation of energy efficient cars, homes and workplaces. Let's develop wind, solar and other cleaner, safer, more sustainable sources of power and fuel. Let's invest in high-speed rail and smart communities that give us better transportation options."
Actor <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0749263/" target="_hplink">Mark Ruffalo</a>, famous for films like "<a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0842926/" target="_hplink">The Kids Are All Right</a>" and "<a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443706/" target="_hplink">Zodiac</a>," is also an outspoken activist and opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline. Ruffalo <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/11/mark-ruffalo-tar-sands_n_924245.html" target="_hplink">said in a video</a> for the <a href="http://www.tarsandsaction.org/" target="_hplink">Tar Sands Action</a> group, "I've seen the kind of damage that out-of-control energy development can do to water and to communities near my own home, where fracking for natural gas is causing widespread pollution ... All these problems are connected -- we need to get off fossil fuels." In the past, Ruffalo has also expressed his ire for hydraulic fracturing natural gas extraction, or fracking. He told The Huffington Post, "The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/18/mark-ruffalo-fights-frack_n_810461.html" target="_hplink">world is already leaving us behind</a>. We're being left behind. America. Because the gas and oil industry has a strangle hold on us. And our politicians."
Environmentalist and author <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-mckibben/" target="_hplink">Bill McKibben</a> has expressed strong disapproval for the planned Keystone XL pipeline. In fact, he was <a href="http://www.tarsandsaction.org/press/releases/aug20/" target="_hplink">one of the first</a> of over 1,200 who were arrested at the Tar Sands Action sit-in at the White House in August. Referring to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/23/keystone-xl-frustrated-environmental-activists-obama_n_933648.html" target="_hplink">his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline</a>, McKibben told HuffPost, "The people who've carried this fight for three years are indigenous people on both sides of the border who have a huge stake in it because it's on their land, and farmers and ranchers from places like Nebraska," he said. He added, "It wasn't until I sat down and read <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-james-hansen" target="_hplink">Jim Hansen</a>'s analysis of how much carbon was in those things that I understood that this was not just a national issue, it's a global issue of the first order."
<a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000506/" target="_hplink">Julia Louis-Dreyfus</a>, known for her role as Elaine on the popular sitcom "Seinfeld," has released a video urging President Obama to reject the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. Dreyfus recalls when Obama said "Let us be the generation that ends the tyranny of oil." But she says, "Big Oil is still pretty much running the show." She claims that by rejecting the pipeline, Obama has a chance to "make good on [his] word." <a href="http://www.tarsandsaction.org/video-release-julia-louis-dreyfus-challenges-pres-obama-stop-keystone-xl/" target="_hplink">Louis-Dreyfus asks Obama</a>, "Denying the permit for a brutally stupid, money-grab like the Keystone XL pipeline is a no-brainer, right Mr President?"
Actress <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000435/" target="_hplink">Daryl Hannah</a> has also lent her voice to the movement against the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/keystone-pipeline" target="_hplink">Keystone XL pipeline</a>. In August, Hannah was one of the over 1,200 people to be <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/30/daryl-hannah-arrested-keystone-protest_n_942072.html" target="_hplink">arrested as an act of civil disobedience</a> in front of the White House. Shouting "no to the Keystone pipeline" as she was handcuffed, Hannah made it clear she opposed the proposed Canada to Texas pipeline.
Maude Barlow, a Canadian author and activist and chairperson of <a href="http://www.canadians.org/" target="_hplink">The Council of Canadians</a>, was arrested in September at a Keystone pipeline and oil sands protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/09/26/ottawa-oil-sands-pipeline-protest_n_981052.html" target="_hplink">She was one of over 100 protesters</a> of the demonstration's estimated 400 to be arrested. Writing for HuffPost Canada about <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/maude-barlow/maude-barlow-arrested_b_982487.html" target="_hplink">her first experience being arrested</a>, Barlow blogged, "I did it because I fear we are killing the planet and I can no longer be content to only write and speak about it. Today my feet spoke for me as I crossed that barricade and took away one more fear in my life." She also said, "By investing trillions of dollars into these pipelines, governments and the energy industry are ensuring the continued rapid acceleration of tar sands development, instead of supporting a process to move to an alternative and sustainable energy system."
<a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001718/" target="_hplink">Kyra Sedgwick</a>, star of the television crime drama "The Closer," has voiced her opposition to the pipeline. In a video for the <a href="http://www.nrdc.org/" target="_hplink">Natural Resources Defense Council</a>, Sedgwick said "Just like the BP oil spill, one glitch in the tar sands pipeline could destroy our clean water sources, possibly forever."
Joining several other prominent actors, David Strathairn appeared in a video urging President Obama to reject the Keystone Pipeline. He calls on his fellow Americans to join the November 6 <a href="http://www.tarsandsaction.org/" target="_hplink">Tar Sands Action</a> in Washington, D.C. <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000657/" target="_hplink">Strathairn</a>, who is known for his portrayal of journalist Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck," said, "Obama ran for office speaking of the dangers of our fossil fuel addiction, promising to fight climate change and fully embrace a clean energy future. The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/keystone-pipeline" target="_hplink">Keystone XL tar sands pipeline</a> is a dangerous step away from that commitment."
Also on The Huffington Post...