3:15 PM CST, December 2, 2012
I recently had the privilege of hanging out backstage with Bill McKibben on 350.org’s “Do the Math” tour. Any regular reader of this column has heard me talk about McKibben before. He’s the author and environmentalist who began his career with the prescient “The End of Nature” back in 1989.
To summarize: we have currently managed to raise the temperature of the planet 1 degree Celsius by burning fossil fuels. The scientific community and nearly every country on the planet agree that to raise it 2 degrees would usher in catastrophe. In fact, based on the effects we’ve seen, 1 degree appears to be plenty scary enough. To have any chance of staying below 2 degrees Celsius, we can burn no more than 565 gigatons of fossil fuel by midcentury. However, currently fossil fuel companies like Exxon and petro-states like Saudi Arabia have proven reserves on their books of 2,795 gigatons. In other words, these entities are planning to burn and profit from five times the amount of hydrocarbons it’s scientifically safe to release into the atmosphere. Written into their business plans is the formula to destroy the Earth as we know it.
The goal of the 350 movement, as McKibben put it, is to, “Make people understand that [fossil fuel companies] are a rogue industry, that they’re outlaws against the laws of the—not the laws of the state; they write those—but outlaws against the laws of physics.”
Since the late ‘80s when scientists began to get seriously worried about climate change (and “The End of Nature” came out), we’ve managed to do hilariously little about one of the greatest challenges human civilization has ever faced. Al Gore made a movie, BP dumped 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, and after twenty years and the near-death of the American auto industry, Barack Obama managed to raise fuel efficiency standards. Natural gas is helping to fight coal, which in aggregate is a good thing, but hardly the kind of massive energy (and cultural) shift we need.
So what’s a committed Person Who Wants to Avoid the End Times to do? One of the answers that McKibben is touting on the “Do the Math Tour” is divestment. Blatantly stolen from one of history’s greatest and most effective protest movements, divestment may not cripple Exxon-Mobil any time soon, but McKibben sees it as a down payment on a larger goal.
“I do think it can do for the fossil fuel industry what people did with other tactics to the tobacco industry: Take away their veneer of respectability,” he told me.
While Ronald Reagan and movement conservatives defended (and even touted—there’s a part of history I’m sure they’d rather forget) the apartheid regime in South Africa. Activists led a movement to demand universities divest from the country. The movement not only had the effect of putting economic pressure on the racist government but turning the world’s attention to that abhorrent regime. McKibben sees the potential for divestment in fossil fuel companies to play a similar role.
“What we need students doing everywhere is stepping up to take control of this fight,” he said. “They don’t even have to win the fight—at least not right away, but they have to make the fight. It has to be the high-profile issue on campus: Why are we in bed with this rogue industry? Why are we paying for our education with investments in companies whose business plans guarantee there will not be a planet on which to carry out that education? Institution after institution boasts correctly and happily about their commitments to sustainability… If you’re going to green the campus, why wouldn’t you green the portfolio?”
I’ve admired McKibben since I began to take climate change seriously in college. I was taking a general education requirement for Miami’s liberal arts curriculum, some geology class, and the professor spent a throwaway fifteen minutes explaining why small shifts in the amount of atmospheric CO2 could shepherd in ice ages and set off scorching planetary heat waves. Then he kind of shrugged and said, “And that’s over the course of thousands and thousands of years. We’re about to run the whole experiment in about two-hundred years.”
I remember thinking, “Well, that sounds pretty f***ed up. How has it taken me to sophomore year of college to hear that?”
And trust me, the more you read and understand, the more you become a frustrated lunatic on the subject. You try not to sound crazy, but it’s difficult to overstate the urgency and magnitude of the problem we face. Society is going to have to reinvent its energy, food, transportation, and land use systems, and it’s going to have to do it virtually overnight. I’ll often talk to perfectly smart, reasonably informed people who give me the blankest of blank stares on the subject, or, even worse, say something like, “Do you think the planet’s never warmed before? This is natural.”
And you just want to freak out and go beat your head against a wall.
I brought up to McKibben that I attended this summer’s “Climate conference” sponsored by the Heartland Institute, a fossil fuel-funded denialist operation, during which I sat down with a spokesperson named James M. Taylor. It reminded me that there was something Taylor said that truly struck me: He said he objected to, “being called a ‘holocaust denier.’”
There was a note of defensiveness to this admonition, but more than that, there was an incredulity: How could you compare something so heinous to mere opposition to a scientific view?
At the time I wanted to laugh because, as perverse as it sounds, climate denial is far more dangerous than holocaust denial. Both groups are either purposefully deceitful or woefully misinformed, but holocaust denial is backward-looking. It’s historical. Sure, holocaust deniers are weird assholes, but to deny what’s happening to the planet right now actually means we may not do something about it. It’s a fight we’re all sitting square in the middle of with history waiting to judge us with all its severity.
Because World War II is the only historical analogy most Americans have any interest in, let’s stick with that: We have this inflated sense of ourselves, that it was fore-ordained that the Allies’ might and righteousness would defeat Hitler’s Army, but at the time it was certainly an open question. Furthermore, had Hitler had access to oil the way the Allies did, had he not had to gasify coal to run the tanks and planes, plenty of historians think the fascists probably would have won. It’s a mistake of geography and geology that the Allies had what amounted to a bottomless well of the right hydrocarbon.
Similarly, with the climate crisis, there’s this daffy, absent-minded notion, pervasive among those who are aware of what’s happening but not that concerned: It’ll all work out. We’ll get going with solar or biofuels sooner or later, and we’ll have a few hot summers, and we’ll grow some crops in some different places or something.
Unfortunately, we’ve pretty much run out of “sooner or later.” As we saw from this summer’s horrific drought and catastrophic “Frakenstorm” Sandy, it’s already crunch time. We will either get our act together in the next decade and put climate change on the top of our political and economic radars or the next generation will come of age in a world that’s falling apart.
As McKibben says in his show, the movement still needs to play defense: It needs to stop the Keystone pipeline and do everything in its power to keep Canada’s highly dangerous tar sands in the ground. It needs to fight the export of coal from the West Coast. It needs to push the Obama administration to use the EPA’s power to begin regulating carbon. But it also needs to play offense, which is the idea behind divestment.
Every movement begins with big ideas expressed by quiet voices. For the sake of us all, let’s hope these voices begin to get louder.
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