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In a political sphere where climate change, if accepted, is usually viewed as a problem that we should prepare for somewhere in the distant, murky future, his words might sound sensationalist at best, run-for-the-hills at worst. But read his detailed, three-decade coverage of continental ice melt and hurricanes like giant whirlpools spinning the warming seas, and his words start to sound sane—especially coupled with his equally detailed, three-decade coverage on why nothing's being done.
One of McKibben's most widely read pieces—"Global Warming's Terrifying New Math"— appeared last summer in Rolling Stone. It outlined several things. The Copenhagen Accord, an agreement signed by world leaders in 2009, set a cap of 2 degrees Celsius average global temperature rise. When the article ran, scientists estimated that industrialization had already caused an average bump of 0.8 degrees, which had by then caused one-third of the Arctic's summer ice to disappear and made the world's oceans 30 percent more acidic. That marker was contested by two leading climatologists, James Hansen of NASA and Kerry Emanuel of MIT, who predicted that 2 degrees could churn up wetter, stronger, deadlier hurricanes and obliterate low-lying island nations and most of Africa. But it stuck.
And so a "carbon budget"—the amount of CO2 that can still be allowed into the atmosphere before we reach 2 degrees—was set at 565 gigatons, which the global economy will reach in about 15 years, according to many analyses. And the amount of oil and gas reserves that energy companies and countries like Venezuela and Kuwait (which "act like fossil-fuel companies," McKibben writes) already have right now—that amount would release five times the carbon budget. According to McKibben, those reserves are "figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against [them], nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony."
In other words, he says, they want to burn it all.
The scariest thing about McKibben's armageddon is that it's real. He may be shouting fire, but he's no outlier. While the exact course that temperature rise will take is difficult to predict, a staggering 95 percent of the scientific community believes that unless we do something soon, we'll roast. More tidal waves will crunch coastal homes. More Yosemite camp-outs will be replaced with photos of sequoias charred in a pink, dreamlike haze.
And as McKibben wrote over 20 years ago in The End of Nature, rising temperatures could be escalated by "feedback loops." If the arctic disappears, there will be less white stuff reflecting light and heat back into space. And if the arctic tundra goes, there will be a whole lot less springy, moss-colored vegetation soaking up CO2. And so one thing—like that infamous butterfly wing—can set off a chain reaction in which this whole beautiful, devastated orb dissolves in wind and flames.
But McKibben didn't run for the hills; he took to the streets. In an email interview—he was zipping from rally to rally at the time—I asked when he finally switched from impartial journalist to activist.
"Right about the time the Arctic melted in 2007," he replied. "It [was] pretty clear physics was forcing the pace of the discussion."
He added that 350.org was also created with "the desire to go on offense against the fossil fuel industry, not just playing defense against bad projects. We need people to understand that they are today's tobacco industry, a set of thoroughly bad actors that we must take on if we're ever going to get rational policy out of D.C."
But when the fate of cap-and-trade legislation is to litter the Senate floor, when Chevron donates millions to keep republicans in the House and when nearly half of the country is still unconvinced by climatologists near-unanimous statement that, yes, this is man-made—what can 350 do?
The only thing they can, say members. Expose the Chevrons of the world, and hope that someone takes notice. And do it everywhere, not just in D.C.
'We're with our supporters, standing on the side of the political system looking in," says Jay Carmona, a divestment campaigner with 350.org. "We're working with the folks who are saying 'It's a pretty rigged game.'"
The nonprofit aims to be a traditional grassroots organization, empowering individuals instead of political reps. Along with marches like the one in Richmond, it tries to do this through an ambitious website, which is a basically a one-stop-shop for activists in training. Visitors can read the works of NASA climatologists and learn the ins and outs of divesting their schools, churches and city governments from pension funds or endowments in companies like Chevron or Shell. They can start petitions and sign up for "de-escalation" trainings, where they'll learn how to politely risk arrest. And they can educate themselves about everything from the Keystone Pipeline to fracking in Delaware to India's battle with coal.
Sonoma County's chapter mirrors national's loose structure.