DOING THE MATH McKibben.
Environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben was at the heart of the remarkable uprising that forced President Obama to delay approval of the Keystone pipeline, which would funnel oil from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast.
But in an appearance at the Netroots Nation conference in Providence in June, he cast the big win as a bit of an outlier: President Obama, after all, had the power to make a unilateral decision, dampening the power of the fossil fuel lobby.
If activists want to make broad, lasting change, he suggested, they need to go after the industry directly.
A month later, McKibben published a story in Rolling Stone titled "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," that went viral. At the center of the piece, three numbers: the world has to limit the climb in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius to avoid cataclysm; scientists estimate we can pour 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have a reasonable shot at keeping below the 2-degree hike; and — here's where the terrifying part comes in — the coal, oil, and gas companies have proven reserves that would deposit 2795 gigatons of carbon into the environment, five times more than the 565-gigaton threshold.
Now McKibben is on a cross-country "Do the Math" tour in support of his story — delivering speeches to packed halls, splicing in video from the likes of Desmond Tutu and Van Jones, and trying to build a popular movement.
This week, he stopped at Brown University, where student activists are pushing the school to divest from the coal industry. The Phoenix caught up with McKibben for a Q&A by phone before his appearance. The interview is edited and condensed.
TELL ME HOW THE "DO THE MATH" TOUR IS GOING. The tour, so far, has been a great success. I think this is the fourteenth date in a row. We took a couple of days off for Thanksgiving, but we've been doing them back-to-back since the night after the election. Every one of them has been sold out, often in great, big venues — the Orpheum in Boston and places like that.
This is the kind of thing that the environmental movement hasn't tried in a very long time. And reaction's been very good. Probably even more importantly, it's already — over the course of two weeks — succeeded in sparking more than 100 campus-based, fossil fuel divestment efforts. We even have the first college in the country that's agreed to divest it's portfolio from fossil fuel: Unity College in Maine.
Last week, the Harvard student body voted overwhelmingly: we want to divest from fossil fuels. A higher percentage, even, than voted to divest from stock of companies doing business in [Apartheid-era] South Africa.
So I think we've touched a nerve. And it'll be very hard, since fossil fuel is the richest industry on earth. But I think we're making a beginning here.
THE "DO THE MATH" TOUR IS PART OF YOUR EFFORT TO TAKE ON THE FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY DIRECTLY. WHAT ELSE WILL WE SEE? Well, we're going to go after the fossil fuel industry in as many ways as we can. I think we'll see civil disobedience at shareholder meetings. But what we'll be doing over and over again is trying to make people understand that this is the tobacco industry of our time. Instead of killing people one at a time, they're taking planets one at a time.