Bill McKibben — author, climate activist, and founder of 350.org — is in the midst of a 21-city “Do the Math” tour to build grassroots support for combating climate change. The target of the campaign is the fossil fuel industry, and McKibben and 350.org are calling for universities, colleges, and governments to divest themselves of oil and coal company assets. Yale Environment 360 caught up with McKibben by email last week in Boston and asked him five questions about his tour.
1. Your “Do the Math” college tour represents a frontal assault on the political and economic power of the fossil fuel industry. What led you to embrace this tactic?
It’s actually more than a college tour — we’re mostly going to big cities. Divestment by colleges and churches and cities is a big part of the plan, but we’re also trying, as you say, to simply psych up the environmental movement to go after the fossil fuel industry. It’s the math that persuaded us — the piece I wrote for Rolling Stone [“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”], which was confirmed by the International Energy Agency this week. We’ve got to keep 80 percent of [fossil fuel] reserves underground — that’s all there is to it. And to do it, we have to make people understand that this industry is now a rogue industry, the equivalent to the planet’s health of the cigarette industry for our individual health. So far so good — nine straight sold-out houses for the first nine shows. I’m backstage right now at the Orpheum in Boston, about to go out and talk to almost 3,000 people. It’s been a long time since the environmental movement rolled like this.
2. Did you launch this initiative because you felt 350.org was not sufficient and it was time to take the climate campaign to another level?
This is 350.org doing this tour. We’re also doing lots of other stuff — last weekend saw a huge Quit Coal India day, and a day of action across the Middle East. We’re planning to roll out this campaign against the fossil fuel industry worldwide. We’ve always tried new things, from the giant global days of action to the Keystone [pipeline] campaign. That experience showed us we could, at least for a while, stand up to big oil. But it also showed us we couldn’t win this fight one pipeline at a time — it would take too long. So we’re trying to take on the industry all at once.
3. A key to your strategy is persuading colleges, schools, and governments to divest themselves of all oil, gas, and coal company assets. This poses challenges far greater than the anti-apartheid divestment campaign of the 1980s. What is the key to the success of this divestment campaign?
I think for colleges in particular it lies in pointing out that they’ve made strong commitments to sustainability. Every single one has a Web page about how they’re greening the campus. If that makes sense, then greening the portfolio makes at least as much sense. We’ve got the fight going on at close to a hundred campuses now — and we won our first outright victory last week when the trustees of Unity College in Maine voted to divest.
4. How do you intend to move the American public to action on global warming, considering that until now people have largely been apathetic about the problem?
We have a reluctant ally in Mother Nature, who is showing us almost daily the folly of our ways. As a result, the percentage of Americans worried about climate change is spiking sharply. That’s really important — 80 percent of American counties have had a federally declared disaster in the last two years. There’s no escaping it any more.
5. After the “Do the Math” tour, what are the next steps in your campaign?
The tour is just to start the fires. Then we blow on them all winter long, and hope we can get a real blaze going. Perhaps the wrong metaphor for climate change, but you get what I mean! And simultaneously we head off to the other 191 countries in which we work.
Article appearing courtesy Yale Environment 360.