McKibben incites environmental change, action

BY MÉLANIE TERRASSE ’13
Staff Writer

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist, scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, and the founder of 350.org, a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis, was the guest speaker at Common Hour Thursday.

Since publishing his first book, The End of Nature, in 1989, McKibben has written 14 books about climate change and was described by Time Magazine as “the planet’s best green journalist.” In July, Rolling Stone published an article written by McKibben, entitled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”

Nora Theodore ’13, president of the Environmental Action Alliance (EAA), introduced McKibben and explained the influence he had on her and other members of the EAA.

“As a generation concerned about the future and health of the planet, Bill McKibben created an opportunity for us to be a part of the positive change that we desperately wanted in the world,” Theodore said. “He made us feel like we could change the world.”

During his lecture, McKibben elaborated on signs of climate change, as well as explained the direction he and his organization, 350.org, were taking in terms of attempting to solve this issue.

“If we don’t understand the scale of the problem we face, we won’t understand the scale and pace of the solution,” McKibben said.

By discussing the record temperatures and drought of the past summer, McKibben demonstrated the urgency of this crisis. The early warm weather this year resulted in an early blooming of the trees and flowers, denoting the unusual nature of the situation. The heat returned in late spring and early summer, resulting in a series of droughts, wildfires in Colorado, and grain yields down 40 to 50 percent throughout the nation. This past June, there were 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States.

McKibben recognized the temptation of considering this a coincidence or an exceptional year without any necessary implications about climate change.

Nevertheless, he explained scientists had noticed a one-degree increase in global temperature, resulting in a shift of the bell curve of normal weather to the right. This has had noticeable global consequences, as there now only remains 25 percent of the ice that was present in the Arctic 20 years ago. McKibben also mentioned changes in the chemistry of seawater and the use of hydrology to demonstrate the impact this increase in global temperature has had on the planet.

He then focused on the fossil fuel industry, which he considers to be the most powerful force in this debate. He explained that unless there is a change in energy use and a significant decline in the usage of fossil fuels, the current one-degree increase in global temperature will rise to a four or five-degree increase before the end of the century.

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McKibben founded 350.org in 2007 with the help of seven seniors at Middlebury College. Their idea was to go beyond linguistic boundaries and engage people from all across the planet through the use of numbers instead of words. The number 350 stands for 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a number leading climatologists have set as a red line for global warming –– a red line that has already been crossed.

McKibben acknowledged while not everyone around the world considered themselves environmentalists, a majority of people were deeply concerned about issues such as hunger and decreased agricultural production. 350.org seeks to unite these people to raise awareness about the situation and encourage change, notably within the fossil fuel industry.

One of the organization’s first actions was to arrange a global day of action in order to educate people about global warming. CNN described this as “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” with 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. During Common Hour, McKibben showed pictures of demonstrations from all over the world, including Bangladesh, Wales, South Africa, the Dead Sea and Sri Lanka, among many others.

Despite the significance of such an event, McKibben still believes this is not enough.

“It has become entirely clear to me that what we need to do is figure out how to take on the fossil fuel industry more directly,” McKibben said.

The environmentalist explained that these corporations benefit from a carbon tax break, which allows them to generate immense profits.

“This explains why Exxon was able to make more money last year than any other company in the history of money,” McKibben added.

McKibben also highlighted 350.org’s protest against the Keystone Pipeline, during which volunteers circled the White House, leading to the postponing of the decision until after the election.

While this was not a complete victory, McKibben argued, it showed the fossil fuel industry was not invincible. McKibben presented the fossil fuel industry as the center of the problem. He believes blaming politicians is missing the point, as they also are embedded in a system that draws force from the fossil fuel field, which he described as a rogue industry.

“[Companies in the fossil fuel industry] are outlaws,” McKibben said. “They are not outlaws against the laws of the state as they are the ones creating them, but they are outlaws against the laws of physics and chemistry.”

McKibben compared his conception of the solution to climate change to the campaign that brought down apartheid in South Africa. He encouraged students to advocate for the Board of Trustees to divest stock in fossil fuel companies, adding that socially responsible investment have on average generated as much returns as holdings in fossil fuel corporations.

“It makes no sense to pay for one’s education with investments and companies that guarantee there will not be a planet on which to carry out that education,” McKibben said.

McKibben added that putting a price on fossil fuels would encourage these companies to allocate more funds to research and development, as well as find sustainable and renewable energy alternatives.

With the current reliance on fossil fuels, corporations do not feel the need to make these expenses. McKibben rationalized that creating this shift in demand was the first step, rather than searching for energy alternatives, as a decline in the need for fossil fuels will encourage companies to provide other options.

“I don’t know what the outcome of this fight is going to be,” McKibben said. “But I know that we can change the odds and change them soon and significantly if we work together and we work hard. All over the world, there are people ready and eager to join this fight.”

Questions? Email Mélanie at mterrass@fandm.edu.

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