Math sparks a movement
On November 28, I joined over 30 North Shore folks pile into vans at Plaza Del Lago heading to a highly anticipated, hot ticket event. No, Bruce Springsteen was not back in town. We were heading to the sold out “Do the Math” Chicago event. Environmental advocate Bill McKibben and 350.org launched this 21-city, 27-day roadshow on a biodiesel bus starting the day after the election. The ambitious tour was designed to rally people across the country to stand up to the fossil fuel industry before they raise the earth’s temperature too high. At the Athenium Theater we were joined by an enthusiastic audience of nearly 1,000 people, including students from nearly every Chicago area university. Motivated by Superstorm Sandy, the Midwest drought and perpetual foot dragging in Washington, I sensed we all went seeking a real solution for the climate crises. I’ll share my notes on how McKibben, along with Van Jones, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Naomi Klein, Gasland‘s Josh Fox and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others, proposed to push meaningful change through a divestment campaign.
See 350.org’s Do the Math video above.
The Simple Math
McKibben’s message revolves around these three key numbers:
2 degrees celsius The global consensus is that we cannot raise the planet’s temperature more than 2° celsius, the last safe threshold to avoid catastrophic consequences. The earth has already warmed 0.8 degrees, and we are currently on a trajectory for a 4 degree increase by 2100.
565 gigatons Scientists estimate that humans can emit roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below 2 degrees. Well emit 565 gigatons in about 16 years at current rates.
2795 gigatons According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, there are 2,795 gigatons of carbon contained in the worlds proven coal, oil and gas reserves. This is five times higher than what climate scientists think is safe to burn. Therefore, we need to keep 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves (worth about $20 trillion) locked away underground to avoid a disastrous fate.
Climate Change’s Destructive Impact
As Bill McKibben noted, he hates to be the chief bummer-outer. But millions of people around the world are already suffering the consequences of climate change. Last year the 350.0rg Connect the Dots global demonstration collected over 40,000 pictures from around the world to illustrate the links between climate change and extreme weather. (Winnetka’s Christ Church was a participant). In the video below, see images of scorched wildfire sites, dry lakes, bleached coral reefs, tornado ravaged homes, flooded neighborhoods, snowless mountains… McKibben mentioned one photo that haunts him. Five kids in Haiti holding up the sign “Your actions affect me.” He noted the devastation by hurricanes in Haiti has been far worse than Sandy. “The climate is changing through no fault of their own. They can’t burn less (fossil fuels). That’s our job”.
See 350.org’s Connect the Dots video above.
Fossil fuels are to blame
Given the hard math, we need a real break with the status quo of burning fossil fuels, especially now that developing countries are emulating us. At this point, McKibben believes effective action would require keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the ground and investing in clean, renewable energy. However, the fossil fuel industry, the most profitable industry in the history of money, couldn’t want anything less. The U.S. is now on track to be the #1 oil producer in the world. In the relentless pursuit of fossil fuels, energy companies have turned to extreme energy offshore deepwater drilling miles beneath the sea, tar sands strip mining in Canada, hydrofracking and removing mountaintops for coal with little regard for the toll on human and environmental health. Recently I heard NRDC’s Susan Casey Lefkovitz and Niel Lawrence speak about Shell’s Arctic drilling, how it couldn’t be worse place for oil extraction with floating ice masses demolishing gear, frozen over conditions 8 months out of the year, and no realistic way to clean up a spill. Meanwhile, energy companies have walked back from clean energy sources. Remember the BP campaign “Beyond Petroleum”? They shifted back to their traditional business model three years ago (alas spill, baby, spill). Fossil-fuel companies have used their tremendous money ($137 billion in annual profits) and political clout to block carbon legislation, bankroll climate denial, and falsely pit jobs vs. a healthy environment. This is no different than the tobacco industry. For years, they lied about the dangers of their industry. While some oil executives have acknowledged that global warming is real, their only solution is adaptation. McKibben states the fossil fuel industry must be defeated because “simply put, their core business plan will destroy the planet… Either Exxon or physics has to give in.
Bill McKibben’s Thought Bubble video above outlines Fossil Fuel Inc’s sweetheart deal.
Currently consumers are addicted to a powered lifestyle and the global oil cartel is happy to push their fossil fuel-based energy. But we don’t have a deathwish. Study after study show that Americans prefer to use cleaner, renewable power sources. We can make the switch to a new clean energy economy, it’s becoming more competitive and innovative every day. Germany has taken the lead in changing their energy mix. While not exactly known for sunshine, they now generate up to half their power from solar panels and renewables. Even in China, 25% of their hot water comes from solar rooftops, while in the U.S. only 1% of hot water comes from solar (used mostly to heat pools). We are not lacking in technology, but in political will. Currently clean energy in the United States is “a trickle not flood”. Why aren’t we making a more rapid leap? McKibben says the #1 reason is that the fossil fuel industry cheats. They don’t pay for emitting carbon dioxide, the most dangerous pollution the planet has ever seen. They need more incentive to make the transition from fossil fuel companies to clean energy companies.
Growing evidence shows we face a frightening future (see the recent World Bank report Turn Down the Heat). We must turn this around fast. As Rev. Lennox Yearwood said, “We have to come together to fight for the next generations. It’s about humanity.” In the quest for profits, the fossil fuel industry has become “rogue, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization…. It’s time for the fossil fuel industry to lose their social license.” We need to tap our collective moral outrage and weaken their public respectability and political grip. This Davy & Goliath fight won’t be easy, but it is winnable. Not only should we keep playing defense, but start to play offense.
McKibben is calling on student activists to lead the charge and urge university administrators to divest from fossil fuel companies and make this a high profile issue on campus. “If it is wrong for the fossil fuel industries to wreck the planet, it is certainly wrong for our schools
to be profiting from it. This is a tool that has worked at least once, to take down apartheid, and it’s a critical part of drawing a moral line in the sand against the most dangerous industry on earth.” Many universities are on record for saying they believe in sustainability. Green campuses can also have green, ethical portfolios. Northwestern student Paige Humecki, who attended the Do the Math rally and strongly supports divestment, said to Medill Press, It seems pretty bizarre to be at a university, investing in our futures, when theyre literally investing against our futures. So far campaigns to purge fossil fuel stocks are now underway at 153 colleges and universities across the country, including student interest at DePaul, Northwestern and University of Illinois. Recently 72% of Harvard students voted to divest the university’s multi-billion dollar endowment from fossil fuel companies, although the university immediately said no. So far, Unity College in Portland, Maine and the City of Seattle have pledged divestment. According to last week’s New York Times front page article, students see divestment as a tactic that could force climate change back onto the national political agenda. Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an enthusiastic endorser of 350.org’s efforts, has said beating apartheid would not have succeeded without the 1980’s divestment movement. See the Go Fossil Free for an information toolkit.
A radical agenda?
For this movement to work, we can’t july rely on students. We must take a stand in our personal investments, political donations, and college alumni giving. And urge our municipal leaders, workplaces, congregations, and organization affiliations to do the same. We need to join 350.org, sign petitions, participate in demonstrations (such as Keystone XL pipeline protests, read about my D.C. experience in Speak Your Mind), and even be willing to get arrested for civil disobedience. McKibben insists the oil companies are the radical ones. They want to alter the chemical composition of our atmosphere to make more money, jeopardizing the future of most living things. We just want the world to be a little like the one we were born into.
Check out pictures from the North Shore group’s trip to Do the Math.
Bill McKibben’s message is laid out in depth in the August 2012 Rolling Stone article Terrifying New Math and the NPR interview he taped prior to the Chicago rally with Worldview’s Jerome McDonnell. Also see Rolling Stones coverage of the Do the Math Tour. Quotes and paraphrases from the rally and these sources were used in this post.
**As an unfortunate post note, the annual United Nations climate talks just concluded in Doha, Qatar, ironically the highest per capita nation of carbon emissions on the planet. Considered a “Qatar-strophe”, negotiations dragged on with little effort to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and slow rising temperatures. While 194 countries agreed to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol through 2020, this excludes the United States and China, the worlds two biggest greenhouse gas emitters. Russia, Japan and Canada also pulled out of the treaty.
Please pass this post on – especially to any college students you may know!