Bill McKibben Encourages Activism

On September 20, Bill McKibben, an environmental writer recently turned activist, spoke to a packed audience of entranced Williams students and Williamstown locals at the ’62 Center. McKibben focuses his efforts on finding new ways to compel our government to enforce policies that mitigate climate change and its effects on the global population. With seven Middlebury students, he founded in 2008, a movement that instigates demonstrations in countries all over the world calling for governments to create policies that cut down oil dependence. The name “350” was chosen because it is estimated that any value of carbon in the atmosphere higher than 350 parts per million will not sustain civilization as we know it. We are now at 393 ppm. As a global movement encompassing people of all races and financial situations, disproves the “trope that environmentalism is for rich white people.” Last year there were 7400 events in every country except North Korea.

McKibben began his speech with the bad news: the state of our global climate and the projections for where it’s going. “My basic role in life is to be a professional bummer outer of people,” he joked, acknowledging the grimness of the story he was about to present to us: “we’re going through the valley first.” We’ve known that climate change existed since the first IPCC report 22 years ago, the year McKibben wrote his first book. What we didn’t know, he explained, was how hard and how fast it would hit. The answer is: harder and faster than expected. McKibben argues that we have left the Holocene geological climate period, and we are entering a new one on a planet that is profoundly different. He calls this new planet “Eaarth,” the title of his most recent book. On Eaarth, we have already raised the temperature one full degree, our oceans have acidified by 30%, and the previously iced over North West and North East passages of the Arctic have melted. Warmer air holds more water vapor than colder air. Therefore, in arid areas there is more evaporation, causing drought. The increased water vapor in the air must come down somewhere, often in the form of extreme floods. McKibben cited an overwhelming number of extreme weather events around the globe including the unprecedented rains that Hurricane Irene recently dropped in Vermont: “on a different world, on a different planet, that rain is falling.” Attempting to lighten the mood he added that is as if, by making our world warmer and wetter, we are setting it up for “planet scale mosquito ranching.”

McKibben is currently supporting a national protest ( against the implementation of the Keystone XL pipeline planned to reach from the Tar Sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. If the Keystone XL is built it will open the second largest pool of oil on earth after Saudi Arabia, as well as damaging enormous swaths of landscape. If you could burn this oil reserve all in one night, the atmosphere’s parts per million of carbon would go up to 553. The decision of whether to build comes down to Obama; Congress has no say in the action but Obama must sign a certificate to ratify its realization, providing a perfect opportunity for the concerned public to showcase massive dissent. Demonstrators everywhere are yelling “Yes we Can stop the pipe line!” In the past few weeks, McKibben and 1,253 others have willingly gone to jail as a form of protest.  The final play will be a demonstration in DC on November 6, the year before the next election; protestors will encircle the white house in quiet, dignified dissent. Encouraging his Williamstown audience to charter buses down to DC to join in, McKibben explained that an important moment has emerged in which we must take a stand: “very few people get to say ‘right now I’m doing the most important thing I could possibly be doing.’”

“I’m not sure any of this is going to work,” admitted McKibben, but trying to change the odds of potential global disaster is “the only response for a moral human being.”

Written by Claire Lafave ’12, CES Research Assistant, 9/29