Text excerpted from the book: PROTECTING THE PLANET-Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN 978-1-63388-225-6)
Budd Titlow & Mariah Tinger
In 2007, renowned Climate Change activist, Bill McKibben, started a nationwide environmental campaign that he called “Step It Up”. Step It Up’s primary goal was demanding that the US Congress take action on Climate Change. On April 14, 2007, McKibben organized hundreds of rallies in cities and towns all across America. The “battle cry” of Step It Up was “Curb Carbon Emissions By 80% By the Year 2050”. The Step It Up Campaign spread like wildfire and quickly earned the unified support of a wide variety of environmental, student, and religious groups.
On November 3, 2007—again under McKibben’s leadership—Step It Up 2 took place. In addition to the “80% by 2050” slogan from the first campaign, the second added a 10% reduction of emissions in three years (“Hit the Ground Running”), a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, and a “Green Jobs Corps” to help fix homes and businesses so those targets could be met.
In the wake of Step It Up’s achievements, the same team announced a new campaign in March 2008 called 350.org. The organizing effort—aimed at the entire globe—drew its name from the now famous contention from climate scientist James E. Hansen that any atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) above 350 parts per million was unsafe. “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.” With offices and organizers in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, 350.org attempted to spread the 350 warning number in advance of international climate meetings in December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
On Oct. 24, 2009, 350.org coordinated over 5,000 demonstrations in more than 180 countries. It gained wide acclaim for its creative use of Internet tools, with Critical Mass’s website declaring it to be “one of the strongest examples of social media optimization the world has ever seen.” Additionally, Foreign Policy Magazine lauded it “the largest ever globally coordinated rally of any kind.”
Because of all he has done in devoting a significant portion of his life to Climate Change awareness and response, Bill McKibben is featured as one of our premiere Climate Change Heroes.
Bill McKibben—Climate Change Hero #1
We tracked down Bill McKibben in a windowless makeshift basement conference room in Paris, France. This ad hoc office space was the hub for 350.org’s massively successful civil disobedience actions at the COP-21 Climate Changeconference. At well over six feet tall, signature Red Sox ball cap included, McKibben’s presence is commanding, yet gentle. We could sense his exhaustion—he and his team had been working around the clock, doing everything (tweeting, texting, emailing, posting on Facebook) they could to raise awareness for strong civil disobedience actions at COP-21 to stop Climate Change.
When we asked him what brought him to the cause he said, “I was a journalist and this seemed such a huge story to me—the most interesting possible story. But partway through writing the first book on it, I realized that I was not objective in the strictest sense. I did not want the world to heat up, dry up, and blow away. At some other level, perhaps I was even more objective than in the past. You know, I sort of understood what the basic reality was so… (he grows quiet) I mean, there are times when I wished that I hadn’t stumbled across all this, because there are other things that I may have wanted to do with my life. But you know, this has been a good place to be engaged in a good fight.”
Some of our heroes strategically avoid the words fight, conflict, battle as too incendiary for the politics around Climate Change. But for McKibben, this is a fight and indeed, it is personal. It is becoming apparent that many of the fossil fuel companies have known about the science for over twenty-five years. In his opinion, they have robbed him of a life that could have been devoted to something different (vs. “rhetorical battle with retrograde congressmen” as he puts it in Oil and Honey).
More than that, climate change may rob him of the beauty that satiates and fills his soul. McKibben says, “I think the next big front in the climate fight…may be trying to peel back all that we can learn about Exxon and what it and other oil companies knew twenty-five years ago. And I think I take that one fairly personally in a sense because I have been working on this a very long time. I wrote the first book about climate change, so I am getting uncomfortably close to thirty years of steady work on this, and knowing that twenty-five years ago, Exxon could have ended the whole faux/phony debate about it, simply by saying what they knew, makes me aggravated. Because then we could have spent the last quarter century working on solutions. We would not have solved the problem by now, but we would be well on the way. We would have turned the corner. And instead, we wasted what may turn out to be the crucial quarter century of geological history on this. In summary, McKibben believes we have already lost lives, species and landscapes that could have been saved twenty-five years ago.
McKibben is adamant that it is far too late to stop Global Warming. That is not one of the possibilities at this point. The temperature of the planet is already 1°C warmer, and there is momentum that will raise it further than that. For him, the pertinent question now is “Can we still stop it short of damage so severe that it threatens our ability to have civilizations like the ones we are used to?”
There are only so many large physical features on Earth that can absorb carbon. Once you have run through the Arctic, the Antarctic and the world’s oceans it becomes a runaway train. The question now is not are we going to make the changes and transitions needed to head toward a renewable future. We clearly are. The question is—are we going to do it quickly enough to even begin to catch up to the physics of climate change. “That I am less convinced of, and that is why we have to keep pushing hard!”.
And McKibben has been pushing hard—really hard. We gave you the background about 350.org and its inception in Part Three. 350.org has now “organized more rallies than Lenin, Gandi, and Martin Luther King combined”. What McKibben has done with 350.org has been “the most satisfying work of my life, endlessly difficult and endlessly interesting”. He has won countless victories, the biggest of which was Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline on November 6th, 2015.
McKibben takes great hope in the fact that the movement keeps growing and it is working. If one builds big movements, then change starts inexorably to happen. He wants it to continue to grow until it is big enough that everybody’s part in it makes sense. His optimism is cautious, however. He explains, “It is anybody’s guess whether we can build it in time or not. As I say, we will find out, and we will find out in our lifetimes. It is going to take many generations to win this fight, but we can easily lose it in the next five or ten years if we keep pouring carbon into the atmosphere”.
The next phase in the climate fight for McKibben is to get companies to pay for their injustices – which we can all hope will fund the transition towards renewable energy sources. He says, “The most important thing is the mobilization of a big movement. Once that happens it opens up all kinds of space. Now there are lots of politicians who are suddenly moving in the right direction”. Bill stated his great optimism for the world’s ability to solve the Climate Change crisis. Ever the realist, however, he couched it by saying we have about a five year window to take swift actions before the warming trend is irreversible.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need.Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.