In a bold change of direction for the movement to stop climate change, environmentalist writer Bill McKibben and his global advocacy network 350.org unveiled a new strategy this week in Seattle: chip away at the power of the fossil-fuel industry through a large-scale stock-divestment campaign modeled on the one that helped bring down South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s.
Seattle's 1,900-seat Benaroya Hall was sold out on November 7 for the first stop on McKibben’s planned 22-city tour. The audience delivered multiple standing ovations as McKibben explained the strategy: to curb worldwide CO2 emissions and global warming by pushing universities and other institutions to purge their stock portfolios of oil, coal, and natural-gas interests. 350’s slogan for this tour is "Do the math."
That math is simple but stomach-dropping. Global leaders who drafted the 2009 Copenhagen Accord—including representatives of the United States and China, both countries that resist climate action—agreed that a rise of two degrees Celsius (about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures is the absolute upper limit humanity can approach and still avoid catastrophic climate change. In order to stay within that limit, we can emit no more than 565 additional gigatons of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. But fossil fuel corporations already hold oil, gas, and coal that would release 2,795 gigatons of carbon if burned. That’s five times the safe amount.
"Eighty percent of that," said McKibben, "has to stay underground."
As of this year—when Arctic sea ice shrank to half the average minimum area it had covered between 1979 and 2000—the Earth's temperature has risen about one degree Celsius since the industrial era began.
Despite these difficult numbers, the mood on Wednesday was anything but forlorn. For the first time, McKibben is pushing climate-change action that identifies fossil fuel companies as the primary agents of the problem and hits them where it hurts: stock prices. Twenty-one years ago, South Africa’s apartheid regime was toppled, in part because more than 155 colleges and 90 U.S. cities committed to economic sanctions against the country. Looking to that model, McKibben believes that students and alumni will be able to pressure their universities into dumping their shares in fossil fuel companies, and investing their endowment money in other sectors.
On November 8, Unity College in Maine became the first to join 350.org in pledging to erase dirty energy from its portfolio.
McKibben is addressing Americans, because, he says, the global asymmetry of climate change leaves Americans in the hot seat. Poor people worldwide are suffering from climate change caused by energy consumption in the developed world. He cited the deadly cholera outbreak that has been sweeping across Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which itself killed dozens of people. Those people, said McKibben, “have done nothing to cause this."
McKibben was frank about the impact of climate activism so far: “It’s not enough. It’s nowhere near.”
Yet this new campaign may bring the struggle against climate change to a new level. If every college student or alumnus to hear McKibben this season helps push their university to divest, millions of dollars in investments could quickly disappear from the coffers of ExxonMobil, PetroChina, and Russia’s Gazprom.
Josh Fox, the documentarian behind Gaslands, addressed the audience by video, to describe what would make that happen.
“If we’re going to commit to this, and actually change the course of history, which is what we’re tasked with doing, we can’t just put our finger in the cracks of the dam like the little Dutch boy, and fight back one fracking well, one pipeline, one coal mine at a time. What we have to do is. . . take all of those fingers and make a fist.”
For help with beginning a local fossil fuel divestment campaign, visit 350.org's new website www.gofossilfree.org.
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