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Bill McKibben Brings Climate Math to Berkeley

By Gar Smith
Friday November 16, 2012 - 11:07:00 AM

Author and climate activist Bill McKibben is hitting the road on a 21-city cross-country bus tour in a last-ditch attempt to change "the terrifying math of the climate crisis." On Friday, November 9, McKibben brought his "Do the Math" crusade to Berkeley's Martin Luther King, Jr. High. McKibben's warning is stark: global coal, gas and oil corporations are on track to destroy the planet and we may have less than 15 years to stop them. The coal, gas and oil that is still buried beneath out feet must remain buried—or it will be our funeral. 

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune got the evening going on a positive note—with a celebration of November's election victories. Then he turned serious. "I grew up in the Jersey Shore community of Chadwick Beach, in a home my father built," Brune recalled. "That house is now underwater and martial law has been declared in the town where I grew up! As time goes on," Brune reflected, "I think many of us with be touched by climate change." 

Turning to the Big Picture, Brune called attention to "two tipping points." The first is the obvious chaos of extreme weather, unprecedented storms and drought that have now become the "new normal." The second "tipping point," Brune argued, was the growing grassroots response to the threat of fossil-fueled climate collapse. 

Brune noted that grassroots action successfully blocked the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney plan to build more than 200 new coal-fired power plants across the country. Beginning with one successful protest against a single plant (organized by a solitary Sierra Club staffer), the Coal Rebellion quickly spread to communities across the nation. To date, 170 of the 200 plants approved for construction have been blocked. The message from the grassroots to the government and industry was clear: "The coal rush is over!" 

Of course, that still leaves 1,274 coal boilers operating across the country, but Brune happily reported that 124 soon will be retired—to be replaced by wind turbines. Wind already is replacing coal in Texas, Washington State and the South Side of Chicago Brune noted, while Iowa and South Dakota are drawing up to 25% of their electricity from wind power and solar panels and wind turbines are producing 30% of Idaho's power. 

"And here's another good statistic," Brune added: "In September, what do you think the figures were for the introduction of new power? Coal? Zero! Gas? Zero! Solar and wind? 100 percent!" 

A Biodeisel Bus to the Rescue 

McKibben, whose biodiesel-powered bus had just traveled down the West Coast from a Road Show event in Seattle (the first leg of a 21-city cross-country tour running from November 7 to December 2), ambled onstage to wild applause and immediately expressed his delight at returning to Berkeley, which he hailed as the home of environmental legend David Brower. 

"It's been 25 years since I wrote The End of Nature," McKibben reflected. At the time, "I assumed people would read my book and things would change." But that didn't happen—at least not to the degree that McKibben had hoped. 

He came to realize the importance of the lesson Berkeley's Free Speech Movement communicated to the nation in the 1960s: Before there can be real change, there must be action, and that involves risk. 

McKibben rose to the challenge, stepping away from his laptop long enough to organize—an unprecedented global campaign that called on world leaders to reduce the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a "survivable" 350 parts-per-million. McKibben's campaign went viral and triggered thousands of pro-Earth demonstrations in 191 countries around the planet—on a single day. 

Tackling the Tar Sands Pipeline 

Faced with the prospect of a government-ordained pipeline that would transport dirty Canadian tar-sand oil across the American Midwest to Texas refineries (which would sell the fuel overseas for private profit), McKibben led a Washington, DC protest that concluded with the largest number of nonviolent arrests the Capitol had seen in 30 years. As Van Jones (who was a member of the Obama's energy team at the time) recalled in a videoclip shown on the auditorium screen: "The Keystone XL Pipeline was considered a 'done deal' by the pols in DC." But that changed when 1,253 Americans showed they were willing to do jail time to stop it. 

Recalling his time in a DC jail cell, McKibben assured the crowd: "Being in jail isn't the end of the world. The End of the World is the end of the world!" 

(The battle over the XL pipeline is not over. McKibben has announced a new demonstration against the Keystone project, set for November 18 in Washington, DC.) 

A New Battle and Some Terrifying Math 

But now there is a new battle—one that pits the short-term profits of the Carbon Cartel against the long-term survival of the planet. This is the battle that has driven McKibben onto the road at the helm of a biodiesel bus tricked out with solar-panels and onboard wi-fi. "But you can forget the rock-star fantasies about road shows and buses," McKibben joked. "This is not how I would prefer to be spending my time. But I'm not getting tired," he insisted (while raking his hands back over his head like someone trying to shake off the tug of exhaustion). "The truth is, it's the planet that is getting tired." 

"It’s simple math," McKibben explained as a Powerpoint presentation loomed overhead on the stage behind him. "Climate scientists have determined that we can burn 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C (3.6°F) of warming—anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on Earth. 

"The only problem? Fossil fuel corporations now have 2,795 gigatons in their reserves—five times the safe amount—and they’re planning to burn it all. Unless we rise up to stop them!" 

The planet has already seen much of the Arctic's ancient ice vanish with just a 1°C rise in summertime temperatures. This raises the ominous question: "What would a 2°C rise do?" 

The world's carbon energy companies are currently producing 30 GT of CO2 per year and that is increasing at the rate of 3% a year. At this rate, the planet is on track to pass the apocalyptic 2°C increase within 15 years. (Computer models warn that, even if we were to stop producing excess CO2 today, global temperatures will continue to rise another .8 degrees Celsius, putting us harrowingly close to the apocalyptic point-of-no-return.) 

Just one week into McKibben's tour, the International Energy Agency's (IEA) annual World Energy Outlook confirmed's dire math and issued a recommendation that, in order to prevent a planetary catastrophe, 75-80 percent of Earth's fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground. 

"This is the basic, horrifying math of the planet we live on," declared. "Business as usual will bust us." Unless, that is, we get to work "blocking the Keystone EX tar sands pipeline, stopping coal ports on the Pacific Coast, ending mountaintop removal, and cracking down on rampant fracking. Easy, long-term gestures aren't enough any more." 

Unfortunately, the energy conglomerates have no incentive to stop. In 2011, the top five oil companies reported $137 billion in profits (which works out to $375 million per day). Coal, oil and gas interests expect to make $25 trillion by continuing to drill, dig and pump until every last scrap of buried fossil fuel has been plundered and burned. 

Naomi Klein, Cellphone Activism and a Family Photo 

Next up was Naomi Klein, who made an appearance courtesy of a videoclip. The author of Disaster Capitalism had a stark message: "The oil companies' business plan is to wreck the planet." The Big Dirty Energy Lobby is "a weapon against your future." We need to undertake "the hard work of Carbon Detox." 

"Remember this moment," Klein concluded. "This is when we got serious! 

Returning to the podium, McKibben noted that the Global Carbon Cartel is "the only industry that is allowed to toss its waste into the atmosphere—for free. The mark of civilization is that we clean up after ourselves," he snapped. "Unless you're the fossil fuel industry." 

It was time for a halftime break. A Road Show staffer invited everyone at the sold-out event to stand, pull out their silenced cell phones, and forward their email addresses to McKibben's 50555 account. "By the time you get back home, there will a message with information on what you can do to take this to the next level!" 

With the crowd still on its feet, McKibben called for a "family moment." Bringing a tour photographer to the stage, McKibben faced the photographer with his back to the crowd and invited everyone to pose for a "group photo"—while punching their fists in the air. "Remember," he intoned. "There is no 'backyard' anymore." 

How to Halt the Carbon Cartel's War on the Planet 

McKibbon quickly got back to the business. The final half of the "Do the Math" Tour was devoted to strategies. What can people do in the face of powerful industries and entrenched political policies that seem determined, as McKibben put it, "to run Genesis in reverse"? 

McKibben's proposed solution is Divestment. 

"We're going after the Fossil Fuel industry!" he declared, to a thunderclap of applause. "We're going to take away their money! If it's wrong to wreck the planet, then it's wrong to profit from it!" 

Divestment can be a powerful tool. In the 1960s, student activism—in the US and 21 other countries—helped end Apartheid in South Africa. McKibbon reminded the throng that, during his historic visit to the US, President Nelson Mandela made a point of stopping in Berkeley to salute the student activism that lead to the downfall of Apartheid and the dawn of democracy. 

The divestment campaign is already making changes. At the tour's first stop in Seattle, Washington, Mike McGinn became the first Big City mayor to take the municipal divestment pledge. "And just yesterday," McKibbon announced, Unity College in Maryland became the first US college to divest itself from all fossil fuel entanglements.'s goal is straightforward: "We want college and university presidents and boards (as well as religious and pension funds) to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within five years." has identified 200 publicly traded companies that control most of the world's coal, oil and gas reserves. They include Anglo American, BHP Billiton, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Gazprom, Lukoil Holdings, Shanxi Coking, Shell and Peabody Coal. The top college and university endowments account for close to $400 billion in dirty energy investments. 

"Together we’ll mount an unprecedented campaign to cut off the industry’s financial and political support by divesting our schools, churches and government from fossil fuels. This won’t be easy," McKibben admitted. "We’re up against the most profitable, powerful, and dangerous industry in history. But we have our own currency: creativity, courage and, if needed, our bodies." 

McKibben characterized the fossil fuel fellowship as "a rogue industry. Outlaws. Not against the laws of the state (because they basically get to write the laws of the state) but an outlaw against the laws of physics and chemistry." 

In this case, McKibben argued, it is environmentalists who are the "deep conservatives—trying to preserve a planet something like the one we were born on. Radicals work on oil companies. If you're willing to make your fortune by altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere, then you're engaged in an act more radical than any human act I can think of." 

Challenging the Carbon Cartel 

If oil is an addiction, then the companies that profit from it are the pushers. The Carbon Cartel shares the same business ethic as the drug cartel—profits first; growth at all costs. But while a drug cartel has the means to terrorize cities and villages, ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP have the power to devastate entire countries and critical ecosystems that support the Earth itself. 

The Dirty Fuel Barons have raised the tactic of the home-invasion robbery to a planetary scale. Under the false flag of being a "good neighbor," the Carbon Cartel has invaded our lives, co-opted our economy, infiltrated our schools, occupied our media, and maneuvered to seize control of government at all levels. 

In this light, the Carbon Cartel must be seen for what it is: a criminal enterprise whose ultimate end game—through the unregulated pursuit of profit-at-all-cost—risks the collapse of human society, the deaths of millions and the onset of a new Dark Ages. The last 40 years has made it absolutely clear that the highly paid CEOs of the world's oil, coal, gas (and nuclear) enterprises are nothing less than environmental criminals. 

Whether opposition comes in the form of mass protests, divestment campaigns, or the application of criminal sanctions (Eco-RICO laws), these petrochemical plutocrats and their deadly, polluting activities must be stopped. 

If the planet is to survive, the Carbon Cartel must be reined in. The world's as-yet-untapped oil, coal and natural gas must remain in the ground. Digging up and incinerating the final dregs of Earth's fossil fuels will, without question, lead to climate collapse and mass-extinctions. 

Do the math. McKibben has, and it adds up to disaster. 


Read Bill McKibben's Rolling Stone essay, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," at 

For more information, go to 

To start a divestment campaign, email 

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She's Alive... Beautiful... Finite... Hurting... Worth Dying for!
Vivek Chauhan / Sanctuary Asia
World leaders, irresponsible corporatism and mindless 'consumers' are combining to destroy life on earth. This short video is dedicated to all who died fighting for the planet and those whose lives are on the line today. The principal source for the footage was Yann Arthus-Bertrand's incredible film "Home" with additional footage from Greenpeace and Timescapes. The music is by Armand Amar.