“I think we should be calling hurricanes after oil companies,” Bill McKibben joked during an interview with The UpTake last Friday while on the Minneapolis leg of his nationwide “Do the Math” tour. “I think instead of naming them after perfectly innocent young women — everybody named Sandy in New York is gonna have to be the butt of bad jokes now for 15 years — it should have been ‘Hurricane Exxon’. And that way, when CNN was covering it, they’d report ‘Exxon is coming ashore on the coast of New Jersey at this hour and dealing death and destruction in its path! ‘ “
The “Do the Math” tour may be beginning to change the national conversation. When the 350.org architect returned home to Vermont on Tuesday, he opened his computer to see a front-page story in the New York Times headlined “To Stop Climate Change, Students Aim at College Portfolios”. The story echoed the message McKibben and his traveling band of environmental activists had proclaimed on their 21-city, 27-day tour across America: Citizens, and college students in particular, must be prepared not only to recognize climate change as an existential threat but to take the fight to fossil fuel companies that drive global warming, even as politicians and corporations drag their feet on the most important environmental cause of our time.
McKibben is encouraging colleges and universities to financially divest from fossil fuel companies — much as academic institutions were pressured to divest from supporting the South African government under apartheid in the 1980s. More than 100 campuses now have active divestment movements, and two schools, Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, have already agreed to dump their stocks in fossil fuels. Others, such as Harvard — which enjoys the largest endowment in the country at $31 billion, according to the Times story — have resisted that measure, though the Ivy League school’s student body recently voted to ask the school to do so.
“We are going after the fossil fuel industry,” McKibben told a rally at the University of Minnesota on Nov. 30. “This is the next great moral challenge of our time. We need the same tools to bring pressure on the corporations.”
The “Do the Math” rallies across the country, which began in Seattle the day after the presidential election, aimed to embolden college students and inspire divestment movements, but they also provided a moveable forum for a sobering lesson in mathematics. Human consumption of fossil fuels has already raised the the planet’s temperature by 1 degree Celsius — enough that if Neil Armstrong stood on the moon and looked back at Earth today, he’d see half as much ice on the polar ice caps as he did in 1969. The world’s industrialized nations reached a non-binding agreement during the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit to limit the rise of global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius — twice the amount that has nearly melted the poles. That translates to 565 billion tons of carbon released into the atmosphere, according to climate scientists. But a team of financial analysts in Britain determined that the world’s fossil fuel companies and fossil-fuel producing states already have five times that amount in their reserves, ready to burn — a potential climate catastrophe in waiting.
“I’ve traveled in the Arctic and the polar regions for 50 years,” explained Minnesota native, explorer and environmental activist Will Steger, who joined McKibben in Minneapolis. “Every region that I’ve crossed has either changed or has disappeared. Last summer two-thirds of the sea ice on the Arctic Ocean disintegrated. The last one-third is hanging on by a thread. Last summer, for the first time, we had a thaw right to the top of the Greenland ice cap.”
Also joining McKibben in Minneapolis was Native American leader and environmental activist Winona LaDuke, who in 2000 ran for Vice President on Ralph Nader’s ticket. LaDuke invoked Native American teaching and spirituality as she encouraged citizens to choose a different road than the one toward burning more fossil fuels. “Our prophets long ago taught our people that this would be the time of the seventh fire,” said LaDuke. “We as Anishinaabe people would be faced with two roads. One road, they said, was well-worn but it was scorched. The other road was not well-worn but it was green. And it was our choice on which path to embark.”
To speak about climate change in everyday language, McKibben brought up the death and destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy. The tropical storm, he said, measured 1,040 miles in either direction and yielded barometric pressures lower than ever seen north of Cape Hatteras.
“To watch the cold Atlantic filling up the subway tunnels in New York was to recognize how fragile the human enterprise is becoming and how close to the edge we really are,” said McKibben.
Asked whether 350.org would dispense thousands of demonstrators to the White House as it did last year to stop the Keystone Pipeline, McKibben expressed worry that President Obama will ultimately back the pipeline, which would transport dirty Tar Sands oil from Canada to be refined in the Midwest and the Gulf Coast. Nevertheless, McKibben and environmental activists will return to demonstrate in front of the White House on February 18, President’s Day.
McKibben also discussed whether the fight to convince institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies, and ultimately to stop global warming, was a winnable one. He recounted a recent conversation with a skeptical reporter who compared this challenge to a ‘David and Goliath’ story.
“I started to feel discouraged,” admitted McKibben. “And then I thought, wait no, I’m a Methodist Sunday school teacher. I know how this story comes out, you know … David wins!”