California Energy Markets / Bottom Lines
[May 3, 2013 / No. 1230 ]
Bill McKibben's Climate-Change Story Strikes a Chord With College Students
There's something both charming and hopeful about an enthusiastic college audience, and that was certainly the case when environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben came to Whitman College this week. McKibben -- founder of 350.org, a grassroots effort to stall climate change -- spent most of the day on April 29 meeting with students at the liberal arts school here in Walla Walla, Wash., before presenting a free public address that evening.
Whitman students -- "Whitties," as we townies call them -- were clearly in McKibben's camp. Even before he started his talk, "350: The Most Important Number in the World," hoots and claps broke out from the crowd. It reminded me of rock concerts without the light shows and funny smoke, though the point of the evening was considerably different.
The number 350, McKibben said, is the parts-per-million of carbon dioxide that scientists believe is the maximum the earth's atmosphere can handle without leading to significant negative changes in climate, weather, and the environment. Unfortunately, we're likely to pass 400 ppm within a few weeks, he said.
McKibben apologized to the audience for being a professional "bummer-outer," with his message that we are already too far down the road of climate change from CO² emissions to avoid its ill effects. There's 20 percent less Arctic sea ice left in the summer now than 80 years ago, he said, while the additional CO² in the atmosphere has already made the ocean's chemistry 30 percent more acidic, affecting small marine creatures and oyster farmers, too. Warmer air holds more water vapor, leading to more droughts and floods, and the catastrophic weather events we've seen in the past several years.
All this with a temperature increase of one degree, McKibben said, adding that temperatures could rise by four or five degrees by the end of the century.
Why haven't we done anything yet, he asked, when we've known about the climate-change problem since the 1980s? According to McKibben, it's because of the power of the fossil-fuel industry, which helped foster a "25-year bipartisan effort [in Congress] to accomplish nothing."
That's part of what led McKibben to start 350.org in 2007, with the help of seven students at Middlebury College, where he is the environmental studies scholar in residence. McKibben reviewed the organization's accomplishments, including mobilizing over 5,200 actions in 181 countries on one day in October 2009 to bring attention to the climate-change issue; and two weeks of demonstrations in Washington, D.C. in 2011 to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, which led to the arrest of 1,253 people -- the most there in 30 years, McKibben said; the protest likely led President Obama to delay a decision on the pipeline's permit.
But we won't stop global warming one pipeline at a time, McKibben told the audience; we need to play offense. That's what's behind 350.org's latest campaign to convince institutions -- including colleges like Whitman -- to divest from the 200 companies with the largest fossil-fuel reserves (Northwest utilities are not among them). McKibben hopes the fossil-fuel divestment movement will have an impact like that of the 1980s campaign to divest from companies that did business with South Africa's apartheid regime, which helped lead to its downfall. Such divestment won't bankrupt big oil companies like Exxon, McKibben said, but would affect the social role of these companies and their ability to influence government policy.
Moral authority belongs to young people who will have to live with the impacts of climate change, McKibben added, encouraging the Whitties to participate in a march around campus, after his speech, to promote divestment of Whitman's endowment fund.
"There is nothing radical about what we've been talking about," McKibben said, and suggested that the real radicals are those who work at oil companies: "They are willing to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere to make money. If it's wrong to wreck the climate, it's wrong to profit from its wreckage."
It was only in closing that McKibben mentioned what I had been waiting -- and expecting -- to hear: the importance of weatherization and energy efficiency as tools to reduce the need for CO2-emitting fossil fuels.
McKibben described such measures as appropriate economic responses to the downturns that were possible from the disruptions of climate change, but said little more. In so doing, he shortchanged the enthusiastic crowd by providing an impetus for action, while barely covering one of the most important elements of the climate-change debate: What do we use to power our economy if we stop using coal and oil?
Those who truly believe our use of those fuels is responsible for climate change need to suggest alternatives. And they're out there: energy efficiency, weatherization and other conservation strategies, renewables, combined heat and power, distributed generation, microgrids and smart grids are all good, proven candidates.
Whitman professor Phil Brick, who directs the college's environmental studies department, said McKibben's earlier discussions with students were also very general. But McKibben includes technical details on the potential capacities for wind and solar, for example, in his latest book, "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet," which was required reading for all Whitman freshmen this year.
The book also points out that we have tremendous investments in the existing fossil-energy infrastructure, which aren't going to be shut down until investors have recovered the capital investments made in them, Brick said.
McKibben also made it clear that we may be just a little too far down the line, Brick said. "This problem that was supposed to be our grandchildren's -- [it turns out] our grandparents should have solved it. What we have is an apocalypse without any real possibility of redemption -- but that's not a reason to give up." Brick said McKibben likened it to knowing you're going to be in a car crash -- but will it be a 50-mph or a 20-mph crash? "You're not going to avoid it, but you'd prefer the 20-mph crash."
Whitman's current students are members of the "Lorax" generation, Brick told me -- referring to Dr. Seuss' 1971 book that addresses the plight of the environment through the Lorax's story of the decimation of his forest.
"Many of them are hard-wired green, and one of our main tasks is to take some of those things they've assumed and get them to question those assumptions," Brick said. "I've never talked anyone out of being an environmentalist, but we want to make them more reflective, more critical thinkers when it comes to this issue."
I'm not sure marching around campus to promote divestment is the best way to do that. I'd rather see them demanding more investment in all the fossil-fuel alternatives instead [Jude Noland].
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