Author turned environmental activist Bill McKibben is leading the urgent charge. McKibben, author of the first book on global warming and now founder of the international climate campaign group 350.org, recently launched a 20-city nationwide rallying tour called “Do the Math.” The tour came to the Orpheum Theatre in Boston on November 15.
Billed as “not your typical lecture,” Do the Math includes an opening musical performance, special video messages and interactive segments. The tour follows up on McKibben’s widely read piece “The Reckoning” published this past summer in Rolling Stone magazine. In this article and now on stage, McKibben explains how averting complete climate catastrophe depends on understanding three simple numbers.
The first is 2°C, which refers to the maximum amount of warming that nearly every nation on Earth agreed we should not surpass during the 2009 United Nations climate conference held in Copenhagen. As McKibben points out, however, we have already raised the global temperature by 0.8°C and the results are clear. Half of Arctic ice is now gone, devastating droughts and heat waves are becoming common, and water was pouring into New York subway stations in the wake of Sandy. The next crucial number, 565 gigatons, represents the amount of carbon dioxide that climate scientists say we can dump into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have hope of staying below 2 degrees Celsius warming. The third number McKibben emphasizes (and the most terrifying) is 2,795 gigagtons – the estimated total amount of carbon available in fossil fuel reserves. And the oil and gas and coal companies, he reminds us, plan on burning all of it. This figure is already built into their business model, a model that is designed to “declare war on life on Earth,” according to Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, who joined McKibben on stage. “We want the end of their business model,” she said, “not because we hate them, but because our survival depends on it.”
McKibben and 350.org are now turning to a divestment strategy to go after fossil fuel companies’ money – a strategy that McKibben understands will not have a huge impact, since these companies are the wealthiest on Earth, but will hopefully make a huge statement. Modeled after the divestment movement that helped end apartheid in South Africa, the current divestment movement is already taking off across college campuses, including at Williams College in the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts.
Zoe Grueskin, a junior political science major with an environmental studies concentration at Williams, is an active member of Thursday Night Grassroots (TNG). This student environmental activist group is currently organizing and leading the Williams divestment campaign. According to Grueskin, the students working on divestment are targeting the 3 percent of the College’s 1.8 billion dollar endowment that is directly invested and managed by a Board of Trustees investment committee. The students are starting by requesting that there be no new direct investments in coal. As Grueskin pointed out, currently the College has no direct investments in coal, so their request is on the modest side. But, she said, “this is just the beginning. We know that’s not anywhere near sufficient if Williams College is really sincere about bringing its endowment in alignment with its values.”
The Williams divestment campaign held its kickoff event on Friday, November 16, featuring a performance from the band Darlingside and a personalized video message from McKibben. The same night, Helen Song, a junior Environmental Policy and American Studies major, organized a group of Williams students that went to the Do the Math event in New York City. The event was free for these students – the College provided transportation and Song was able to get free tickets after she contacted 350.org and mentioned that they were a student group.
According to Song, the students all had a very positive reaction to McKibben’s message. “We were all really riled up about it afterward I think,” she said. However, she also praised McKibben for acknowledging that in order for this movement to succeed, it cannot rely solely on students. “Tenured professors, or adults, or alumni, everyone can do something about it,” she said.