Cue the math: McKibben’s roadshow takes aim at Big Oil
It was game time. The Saturday night crowd on the Vermont campus was festive, boisterous, pumped. People cheered and whooped when told that one of their heroes, climate activist Tim DeChristopher — serving a two-year federal sentence for his civil disobedience opposing new oil and gas drilling in Utah — would soon be back on the field.
When the man on the stage, 350.org’s Bill McKibben, said it was time to march not just on Washington but on the headquarters of fossil fuel companies — “it’s time to march on Dallas” — and asked those to stand who’d be willing to join in the fight, seemingly every person filling the University of Vermont’s cavernous Ira Allen Chapel, some 800 souls, rose to their feet.
McKibben and 350, the folks who brought us the Keystone XL pipeline protests, are now calling for a nationwide divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel companies’ bottom line. Beginning with student-led campaigns on college campuses, modeled on the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, they’ll pressure institutions to withdraw all investments from big oil and coal and gas. Their larger goal is to ignite a morally charged movement to strip the industry of its legitimacy.
“The fossil fuel industry has behaved so recklessly that they should lose their social license — their veneer of respectability,” McKibben tells his audience. “You want to take away our planet and our future? We’re going to take away your money and your good name.”
I was there in Burlington on Saturday to spend some time with the 350.org team, watch their run-throughs, and attend the night’s show, a sort of “dress rehearsal” for the 20-city Do The Math tour, officially launching in Seattle on Nov. 7, the day after the election. The tour builds off of McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which appeared in July and is one of the most widely read pieces in the magazine’s history. Buzz is clearly building, and not just in McKibben’s home state of Vermont. The Seattle show is sold out. The Boston show, on Nov. 15, sold out in less than 24 hours and has moved to a venue three times larger, the Orpheum Theater, with 2,700 seats. (Full disclosure: McKibben sits on Grist’s board of directors.)
Part multimedia lecture — with video appearances by 350.org allies like Naomi Klein, James Hansen, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — and part organizing rally, with a live musical performance, the Burlington event gave a taste of what’s to come. The tour will “evolve,” with different elements and onstage guests along the way — for example, Klein and filmmaker Josh Fox, of Gasland fame, will join McKibben onstage in various cities. Although it was a little rough around the edges on Saturday night, nobody seemed to mind (McKibben was playing, wisely, to his hometown crowd). The basic structure and central message of the show were well in place — and, just as important for 350’s objectives, the organizing wheels were well in motion.
As 350’s Matt Leonard, serving as “tour manager” for Do The Math, explained it to me, the tour isn’t simply about “getting butts in seats” for a lecture or concert (thus the relatively low emphasis on the musical guests in each city, most of whom are yet to be announced). It’s about getting “the right people” in those seats. “This isn’t just for publicity and outreach,” he says. “We’re putting tremendous effort into making sure students, community leaders, college trustees, and influential decision-makers are a part of this event, because they are the ones that will turn this from a talk into a hard-hitting campaign.”
Sure enough, there in Burlington, students at UVM and other area colleges were already talking up divestment campaigns. Elsewhere in New England, a student-led divestment movement, spearheaded by the network Students for a Just and Stable Future, is off and running — at Harvard, Tufts, Brandeis, Amherst, the University of New Hampshire, and a dozen other campuses. Similar campaigns are being discussed on campuses around the country. And on Saturday night, McKibben told the crowd that Hampshire College in western Massachusetts, the first to divest from South Africa in 1977, is the first school in the nation to move toward divestment from fossil fuels.
This is real. And it’s just getting started.
Clearly, McKibben and 350 know their audience for this tour, and it’s not simply the general public. Far from attempting to communicate climate science to the uninformed, or disinformed, in a lowest-common-denominator way, Do the Math is about lighting a fire under the movement, rallying the troops, and mustering forces for a major new offensive — what the Do the Math website bills as “the next phase of the climate movement.”
Before heading up to Burlington, I asked McKibben what that means. “Fighting Keystone,” he told me by email, “we learned we could stand up to the fossil fuel industry. We demonstrated some moxie.” But, he added: “We also figured out that we’re not going to win just fighting one pipeline at a time. We have to keep all those battles going, but we also have to play some offense, go at the heart of the problem.”
The Rolling Stone piece and McKibben’s Do the Math lecture leave no doubt what the heart of the problem is. Drawing on a widely circulated report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a group of U.K. financial experts and environmentalists, McKibben shows that the fossil fuel industry’s known reserves contain five times the amount of carbon needed to raise the planet’s temperature more than 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels — the point beyond which, according to international consensus, all bets for a livable climate are off.
As McKibben points out, we’ve already burned enough carbon to raise the global thermometer almost 1 degree C, with disastrous effects. At the current rate, we’ll have burned enough additional carbon in the next 16 years to propel us over the 2-degree line this century. To prevent that from happening — to slow the process down and ultimately stop it — the fossil fuel industry would need to commit to keeping 80 percent of its reserves in the ground, forever, and help bring about a rapid shift to clean energy.
Obviously, given the sheer amount of money at stake — many trillions of dollars — the odds of anything like that happening under current political conditions are nil. McKibben is arguing that, if there’s any hope at all of preserving a livable climate, those conditions must change decisively. And they can — but only if and when enough people understand the simple climate math and realize that the fossil fuel industry is prepared to cook humanity off the planet unless somebody stops it.
Far more than money is at stake. At risk, the Do the Math presentation makes clear, are countless human lives. The most affecting display in Burlington was a show of faces of people, all around the world, who are already suffering the impact of climate change — in Kenya, Haiti, Brazil, India, and Pakistan, and many other places, including the United States. Projected on the screen behind McKibben, they’re a powerful reminder of the human face, and cost, of global warming.
Likewise, this tour, and the movement it aims to galvanize, are about far more than math. They’re about justice and injustice, right and wrong — what you could call the moral equation.
The tone of the climate movement is shifting. Maybe it all goes back to 2009 and 2010, and the failure of Copenhagen, the collapse of climate legislation in the Senate, and the disillusioning, infuriating lack of climate leadership by Barack Obama. You could feel it in the air then — a palpable sense that the system itself was hopelessly paralyzed and corrupted, and that politics-as-usual would never be enough to save us. With a kind of desperation, but with history as a guide, people began talking and writing in earnest about building a grassroots movement based on something more, something broader and deeper, than all the lobbying money and the corporate-style, K-Street-friendly communications strategies. A movement built on something more like moral outrage.
McKibben’s tone has changed markedly as well. There were hints of it in those brutal opening chapters of Eaarth, released in the spring of 2010, where he surveyed the planet’s damage and the almost certain ravages to come. And when the watered-down-to-nothing climate bill died in the Senate that July, he let loose with a much-quoted broadside headlined “We’re hot as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” As though finally venting emotions long suppressed (he’s a native New Englander, after all), he wrote with trademark but now seething understatement: “I’m a mild-mannered guy, a Methodist Sunday school teacher. Not quick to anger. So what I want to say is: This is fucked up. The time has come to get mad, and then to get busy.”
Still every bit the soft-spoken, self-effacing speaker — and still witty, even laugh-out-loud funny, on stage — McKibben has both darkened and toughened his message. It’s as though, as a man of faith, he’s discovered his “prophetic voice.” (In all seriousness, you should hear him preach sometime. He knows how to use a pulpit.) He may not thunder — that will never be his style — but he’s become, I want to say, a sort of Jeremiah. (I’m sure he’d reject the comparison.)
McKibben seems to have remembered a basic truth of transformative social movements: that they’re driven not merely by positive visions — much less any simplistic, poll-tested “win-win” market optimism — but by sheer moral outrage at some deep, intolerable injustice. The movements that change the world are moral struggles.
At a key moment, maybe the key moment, in McKibben’s Do the Math talk, he plays a video clip of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at the Council on Foreign Relations in June. McKibben eviscerates him in a darkly comic back-and-forth that would make Jon Stewart proud. Tillerson, having made news by acknowledging that climate change is real, and that warming “will have an impact,” goes on to express confidence that “we’ll adapt.”
“It’s an engineering problem, with engineering solutions,” intones the onscreen Tillerson — who, as McKibben notes on stage, makes $100,000 a day.
“No,” McKibben replies. “It’s a greed problem. Yours.”
On Saturday, after McKibben, Leonard, and the rest of 350’s small production crew ran through the Do the Math script in the empty, echoing, freezing-cold Ira Allen Chapel, I tagged along with them for lunch a short walk from the UVM campus. Over soup, basmati rice, and lentils, McKibben and I had a chance to talk, and I asked him how the idea for the tour had been born.
It all goes back, he said, to that seminal 2011 report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative in London. When McKibben and friend Naomi Klein, a 350.org board member, read the U.K. report early last spring — and saw the numbers — they both realized the implications.
“It exposed a real vulnerability of the fossil fuel industry,” McKibben told me, “because it made clear what the outcome of this process was going to be if we continued.”
There was a long pause. “There’s always been this slight unreality to the whole climate change thing,” he continued. “Because most people, at some level, kept thinking — and rightly so — Yeah, but no one will ever actually do this. No one will actually, knowingly, destroy the planet by climate change. But once you’ve seen those numbers, it’s clear, that’s exactly what they’re knowingly planning to do. So that changes the equation, you know?”
Without making any apologies for the fossil fuel industry, I noted that the people who built the industry didn’t set out to wreck the planet. It’s an incredible historical accident that we ended up in this position.
McKibben nodded. There was, of course, “a sound historical reason” for the development of fossil fuels. “But that sound historical reason vanished the minute Jim Hansen basically explained, 25 years ago, that we’re about to do in the Earth. And now that we’ve melted the Arctic — it’s well under way — at this point, it’s outrageous, is all it is.”
That sort of gut-level outrage, I suggested, is very different from the sort of positive messaging we’ve been told will motivate people to act on climate.
“There’s been an endless discussion over the years, among people in the climate community, about the right framing or messaging, or whatever,” McKibben told me. “I’ve never paid that much attention to it. Because I’ve always had fairly good luck getting people to listen simply by saying what seemed obvious to me — each time we got a new set of facts, explaining it, setting it out.”
That raised my eyebrows, I admit. Then came the kicker: “Now we have the new, and in some ways, the most important set of facts since the original science around climate. This stuff on who owns what, in terms of reserves — it’s the Keeling Curve of climate economics and politics. These are the iconic numbers for understanding where we are now.”
So can divestment, I asked, be an effective strategy? Can it generate enough economic leverage to make a difference?
“I think it’s a way to a get a fight started,” McKibben said without hesitation, “and to get people in important places talking actively about the culpability of the fossil fuel industry for the trouble that we’re in. And once that talk starts, I think it does start imposing a certain kind of economic pressure. Their high stock price is entirely justified by the thought that they’re going to get all their reserves out of the ground. And I think we’ve already made an argument that it shouldn’t be a legitimate thing to be doing.”
In other words, as in South Africa, as with Big Tobacco, there’s economic leverage in the moral case?
What, then, I wanted to know, is the “theory of change,” right now, in Bill McKibben’s mind?
“It’s not a question of coming up with the right set of policies,” he said. “Nobody’s really come up with a new set of policy stuff for 20 years. We just haven’t ever tried the things that the economists all told us to try, because the fossil fuel industry got in the way. So it’s about figuring out what power is in the way.
“Look, our job as organizers, our most important job, is to take the next step — throw a big rock in the pond, see what ripples it creates, and then figure out how to surf those and how to launch the next one. We think that if we’re able to explain to people what the fossil fuel industry is doing, it will weaken their position — weaken it morally, politically, and economically. And that will make more things possible than are possible now.”
For all the cheering and whooping, the real emotional climax of the Burlington show came midway through, when musical guest Anais Mitchell sang a devastating, solo-acoustic cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” With images of this summer’s epic flooding in the Philippines on the screen behind her, Mitchell’s performance not only evoked the civil rights, antiwar, and early environmental movements of the ’60s. Her high, piercing vocal also captured the sadness and fear behind McKibben’s numbers. It was cathartic, I think, for the audience. It certainly was for me.
But McKibben’s presentation, and the whole Do the Math show, evokes much more than those emotions of sadness and fear. It also articulates what had been missing from climate advocacy, at least in public, for so long — that sense of outrage.
And yet, if anything, the show doesn’t punch hard enough. It spells out the new carbon math, and it shows us those human faces, but it never really spells out what science tells us are the all-too-likely impacts of runaway warming. It doesn’t paint the nightmare vision of the planet today’s children and future generations could inhabit if the fossil fuel industry and its political enablers have their way — what Joe Romm aptly calls “hell and high water,” and what McKibben himself already portrayed in Eaarth. New research suggests that 400,000 people are already dying around the world each year from the effects of climate change, a number that could well rise into the millions. The show could lay such numbers — such math — at the industry’s feet.
In fact, there’s another Dylan song that might be a better, more fitting, anthem. “You that hide behind desks/I just want you to know/I can see through your masks,” Dylan sings in “Masters of War.” Only now, instead of the bomb-building military-industrial complex, it’s the planet-burning carbon-industrial complex Dylan could be addressing. “You’ve thrown the worst fear/That can ever be hurled,” he practically spits. “Fear to bring children/Into the world …”
Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul
Some of the hardest, toughest, most prophetic song lyrics ever written. And if I have any advice for McKibben and my friends at 350.org, I’d humbly suggest that’s exactly the kind of thing we need. Maybe not Dylan; we need newer voices. But we also need that fierce moral indictment — pointed where it belongs, at the perpetrators of the crime unfolding against humanity and the Earth.
Full disclosures: Bill McKibben is a member of the Grist board of directors. Wen Stephenson serves on the volunteer working board of Better Future Project, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., that works closely with 350.org, and he helped launch the volunteer grassroots network 350 Massachusetts, in which he is active.