There’s a famous aphorism about fishing that seems apropos to the fight against the continued exploitation of hydrocarbons in the age of climate change. It goes something like this: To continue doing what doesn’t work is a sign of insanity.
The origin of this little bit of fishing wisdom is a quote from Albert Einstein, who said that, “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Bill McKibben, the now iconic author-turned-climate-activist, has taken those words to heart, and has decided to focus his soft-spoken, science-based wrath on the oil industry, rather than the spineless politicians who have failed us on the climate change file.
McKibben is one of America’s finest journalists, but once he had researched and written The End of Nature, the first popular book about the implications and impacts of climate change, this shy Sunday school teacher from Vermont just couldn’t let go. So he put his writing on hold and founded 350.org, one of the most potent advocacy organizations in the mad push to make our politicians do something to prevent the coming climate catastrophe.
But McKibben has had another epiphany. This political strategy has largely failed. While advocates like McKibben have built the largest environmental movement since the birth of nuclear power, neither the American nor Canadian governments have done anything meaningful to solve the climate problem — and Canada, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s zealous pursuit of Hydrocarbon Heaven, is in full retreat from the empty commitments it has made.
So McKibben, ever the resourceful environmental warrior, is changing tack. Like a football coach at halftime, he has analyzed the opposition’s strategy and found their weaknesses, and he is making the necessary adjustments. Forget the politicians; it’s time to go after Big Oil directly.
“It’s time to march on Dallas,” McKibben told a boisterous crowd at the University of Vermont, where he kicked off a 20-city Do the Math Tour, which will be officially launched in Seattle on November 7, 2012, the day after the election. “The fossil fuel industry has behaved so recklessly that they should lose their social licence — their veneer of respectability. You want to take away our planet and our future? We’re going to take away your money and your good name.”
Here are the numbers prompting McKibben’s peaceful assault on the hydrocarbon industry. According to the overwhelming majority of scientists, we can only put 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere if we want to stay below 2 C of warming, which McKibben (and most of the world’s national governments) agree is necessary to avoid risking catastrophe for life on Earth. The Earth has already warmed by 0.8 C; even if we shut off all human-caused carbon today, the climate will warm another 0.8 C. So we don’t have much wiggle room.
But the fossil-fuel industry doesn’t seem all that interested in climate math. In fact, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists estimates that the proven coal, oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela, Kuwait and Canada) that act like fossil-fuel companies, contains almost 2,800 gigatons of CO2 — or five times the amount we can release to maintain 2 C degrees of warming.
Even my seventh-grade daughter can see that the math just doesn’t add up. That’s why McKibben and 350.org are hitting the road to, according to the Do the Math website, “build the movement that will change the terrifying math of the climate crisis.” This movement needs to be strong enough to stand up to the fossil fuel industry so that it can “mount an unprecedented campaign to cut off the industry’s financial and political support by divesting our schools, churches and government from fossil fuels.”
Rather than build a movement to convince our seemingly incapable politicians from adopting meaningful laws, policies and regulations that will phase out dangerous hydrocarbons, McKibben and his crew are going to cut the fossil-fuel industry off at the knees by asking individuals, and the banks and investment funds to which we are all connected, to simply cut off the funding to these obdurate, corporate giants that prefer profiting from the past rather than investing in a sustainable future.