“This may be a mildly depressing beginning of this talk, because I find myself mildly depressed right now,” prefaced Bill McKibben on Thursday night to a crowded lecture hall of Boston College students and professors.
McKibben had just returned from a trip to the South Pacific, where he set foot on islands that will likely be underwater by the end of the century. The carbon dioxide warming our atmosphere and rapidly melting ice sheets, and the thermal expansion of our oceans have secured their fate. The coral reefs that defend these islands against monster waves are already dying, in real time, and the animals that rebuild them are suffocating under ever-rising sea levels.
This is why “the most influential environmentalist of our time,” as he was introduced, is depressed. The kind of changes he and the scientific community anticipated are happening faster than ever imagined. Futuristic scenes of exodus are already playing out in the headlines of daily newspapers.
At the end of March, a massive drought in the Philippines caused widespread rice crop failures. Farmers protested the government for relief, but the gathering turned violent when the army began firing on the farmers, killing at least one.
In Syria, drought unlike anything the “Fertile Crescent” has ever seen has been called the fundamental destabilizing factor in the region. The U.S. Department of Defense considers climate change to be a “threat multiplier,” in other words, something that noticeably aggravates tensions and violence.
These two events are a “harbinger of what we will see on a much grander scale as the century wears on,” said McKibben.
Suddenly, the room went black, serving for an unintended dramatic effect. When the lights came back on, a composed McKibben joked, “That’s just to save energy,” harkening back to a time when turning off the lights or swapping in energy efficient bulbs felt like sufficient environmentalism.
As McKibben described it, what we’re up against could be the end of civilization, as we know it. And the most agonizing aspect of the climate issue is that it shouldn’t be an issue at all anymore, because the science itself is decidedly in.
97% of peer reviewed scientific papers state that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. In fact, as early as the 1980s, Exxon executives had a comprehensive understanding of climate change, having sent out convoys of scientists to research carbon dioxide absorption into the oceans.
Realizing a warming globe posed a significant threat to its business model, Exxon and other fossil fuel companies spent tens of millions of dollars spreading disinformation and denial; meanwhile, Exxon elevated their drilling rigs in preparation for coming sea level rise.
Climate science hasn’t been an argument since the 1990s; “We won that,” said McKibben. Rather, the subject of climate change is a fight in which the two opposing sides—climate activists and the fossil fuel industry—bombard one another with money and with power. And the activists are losing.
“I’m no theologian, but my firm belief is that these guys have more money than God,” said McKibben, to a chorus of laughter. “So we had to find another currency to work with.”
Passion, spirit and creativity are McKibben’s weapons of choice. And a willingness to go to jail doesn’t hurt either.
When McKibben founded his climate activism network 350.org in 2007, it was with seven inspired undergrads at Middlebury College in Vermont. Since then, 350.org has organized protests in every country on Earth (except North Korea). “It was like a potluck supper,” said McKibben. “Everybody just went to work.”
At first, it seemed this kind of rolling education and awareness spreading might be enough. But in an action movie, the hero never has unlimited time to diffuse a ticking bomb, and so as climate change accelerated, 350.org had to get more forceful with its methods.
Demonstrators handcuffed themselves to the White House Fence. Kayakers (creatively called, kayaktivists) paddled into the paths of oil ships in the Pacific Northwest. The largest climate march in world history with a stunning 311,000 participants surged through the streets of New York, and Bostonians were arrested in West Roxbury protesting a proposed oil pipeline.
The climate change advocates are making themselves heard and they are winning individual battles—perhaps most notably killing the proposed Keystone XL pipeline—but there is still a pervasive sense that it’s already too late to save the planet as we know it.
But, that’s not to say that it’s too late to impact how severe these changes will be. In fact, the technology needed to slash fossil fuels emissions in the U.S. is already in existence and steadily improving.
The price of solar panels has dropped by 80 percent in the last decade, and this past summer, there were several days in which Germany generated 75 percent of its power exclusively from the sun—a feat that could certainly be replicated in more southerly, sundrenched countries like the U.S.
Add a smorgasbord of other green energies, like wind, nuclear and hydroelectric, and the U.S. would be well on the way to environmentally sustainable, independent energy.
“In a rational world we’d be doing everything we could to solve this problem,” said McKibben. We would take heed of the scientific consensus, make rapid use of our renewable technologies, and stop exploiting carbon-emitting resources.
What the fight to arrest climate change currently lacks, and desperately needs, is political will. The strength to turn away from what Pope Francis calls “deified markets” and to take control of our own planetary fate.
For McKibben, the victory against Keystone XL in November 2015 stands out as the “first time we’d convincingly demonstrated it was possible to beat big oil on something they wanted to do,” he said.
He cheered on the Climate Justice BC students’ plan to sleep outside Father Leahy’s office that night, holding their own leader accountable for his obedience to big oil. If leaders’ decision to address climate change is not going to come from goodwill, McKibben and his followers, and CJBC members will ensure that it at least comes from insufferable pressure.
Still, McKibben reiterated several times throughout the night that the climate justice movement is anything but radical. “All we’re asking for is a world that’s a little bit like the world humans emerged from,” he said. “Radicals work at oil companies, selling products that change the chemical composition of our atmosphere.”
A notorious example of this radical profit seeking that McKibben enumerates in his Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” is the fact that fossil fuel companies currently have in ready-to-burn reserves five times as much carbon as would be needed to raise the global temperature by the consensus upper limit of two degrees Celsius.
Unless the world’s biggest emitters—the wealthiest countries—change course politically and reign in the fossil fuel industry, our planet’s temperature will surely burn past this two-degree marker.
As for the people most immediately impacted by the effects of climate change and its accompanying rising sea levels, they are primarily poor, Asian and Pacific Islander, and generally not the people causing the problem to begin with. “There’s a perfect inverse relationship between how much of the problem you’ve caused and how much you suffer from it,” said McKibben.
He flashed through photos sent to 350.org in its years of campaigning: Kids in Haiti hold signs that read, “Your actions affect me. Connect the dots.” Pacific Islanders raise their slogan, “We are not drowning! We are fighting!” defiantly in the air.
McKibben clicked forward to a photo taken near Newcastle, Australia; island peoples in canoes and kayaks block a metal goliath of a ship in the harbor of the biggest coal port on the planet. A man in tribal clothes strikes a prideful pose on his boat, as if it is he who dwarfs the encroaching ship, and not the other way around.
By its nature, this movement requires that participants step outside of their comfort zones. McKibben admitted, he is miles outside his own.
“I don’t like going to jail, but it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “The end of the world is the end of the world.” Everyone is the room laughed. “That’s why we do the work that we do,” McKibben finished resolutely.
In other news, the biggest coal company in the world, Peabody Energy, filed for bankruptcy last week. That, too, is why McKibben and his 350.org followers do the work that they do.