McKibben Discusses Deadlock On Global Warming
Published: Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 31, 2013 12:10
“For 25 years our best scientists have been going up to Capitol Hill, year after year after year, and explaining that the worst thing that ever happened on Earth is in the process of happening,” said Bill McKibben to a full McGuinn 121 audience. “We’ve won the argument—a long time ago—but we’ve lost the fight. So the question is why, and what do we do about it?”
Speaking last Thursday night in a lecture co-sponsored by the Lowell Humanities Series and the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics, McKibben addressed the extent of the global warming crisis and the growing movement to combat climate change. McKibben has a long history with the cause, after writing the first book on climate change for a general audience, The End of Nature, in 1989. In recent years, McKibben has placed himself on the national front lines of environmental activism, as the leader of the global environmental organization 350.org, an organizer for protests surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline, and an advocate for divestment from fossil fuel companies.
McKibben began his talk by addressing the scientific realities of climate change. He explained that what was an “abstract and theoretical problem” 25 years ago has become all too real. Citing evidence that the planet has warmed by one degree Celsius since 1989, McKibben said that the change could become four or five degrees if we stay on the same path. Mentioning last year’s drought in the Midwest, rainfall records in Japan, and widespread wildfires in Australia, McKibben argued that global warming’s recent effects have been visible across the globe.
In the political sector, McKibben argued that lack of will in Washington and the influence of money from the fossil fuel industries prevented progress. “We’ve had a 25-year bipartisan effort to accomplish virtually nothing, and it’s been highly successful,” he said.
Such frustration led McKibben to found 350.org with seven of his students. The organization takes its inspiration from scientist Jim Hansen, who identified 350 parts-per-million of CO2 in the atmosphere as the acceptable upper bound to avoid a climate tipping point. The movement soon took off internationally, as McKibben showed with pictures submitted from climate activists on an International Day of Climate Action in 2009.
From children on the streets of Ethiopia to religious communities in Cape Town to burqa-clad women in Yemen, the pictures showed activists from across the globe. McKibben theorized that the story became so popular because “people didn’t look the way they thought environmentalists should look.” While showing the pictures, McKibben stressed that many of the poorest faces seen would be hit hardest by climate change, despite not having contributed significantly to the problem.
As 350 expanded globally, McKibben focused his domestic attention on opposing the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Using methods of civil disobedience, activists protested outside the White House and many were arrested, leading President Barack Obama to reconsider fast-tracking the pipeline.
Still, McKibben acknowledged, “we’re not actually going to stop climate change one pipeline at a time, any more than we’re going to stop it one lightbulb at a time. We’re also going to have to play some offense, we’re also going to have to go after the fossil fuel industry.” This logic informed McKibben’s current campaign, which seeks to hit fossil fuel companies in the wallet by encouraging divestment. Referencing his 2012 Rolling Stone article on the math of global warming, McKibben pointed out that fossil fuel companies already have five times as much carbon in their reserves as is considered safe to burn.
As the lecture concluded, McKibben urged Boston College to set an example for other Catholic institutions by divesting, and commended the work of the student organization BC Fossil Free. During a Q&A session, audience members questioned McKibben about potential economic solutions to the problem and the negative effects of high-energy prices on working families. Meanwhile, members of 350.org’s Massachusetts branch and BC Fossil Free passed around sign-up sheets and information about upcoming events.
To conclude the evening, McKibben affirmed the necessity of collective tactics to address climate change. “There’s no way to address it by yourself,” he said. “It’s got to be everyone doing what they can, where they can.”