“Do The Math,” the new campaign from climate change activist Bill McKibben and his organization 350.org, was conceived well before Hurricane Sandy wrought widespread destruction on New York City and the surrounding area. The first date in McKibbens national tour was weeks before Sandy made landfall.
But Sandy was clearly at the forefront of McKibben’s appeal to the New Yorkers who filled the Hammerstein Ballroom Friday to hear him lay out the latest battle plan in his fight against climate change.
“Y’all should not have had to go through what you had to go through with Sandy,” McKibben told the crowd at the outset, claiming that if only the world had listened to him when he began talking about climate change more than 20 years ago, the devastation of the hurricane might have been averted.
Do The Math relies for its central premise on the same dire calculations McKibben laid out in his popular Rolling Stone article from July: First, that a 2-degree-celsius increase in average global temperatures over pre-industrial averages represent a red line, a threshold beyond which any hope of avoiding cataclysmic climate change becomes terrifyingly scant; Second, that we can only release some 565 more gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere without pushing temperatures past that 2-degree mark, and third, that the proven oil, gas, and coal reserves the extraction industry is counting on selling amount to roughly five times that threshold.
Moving on from this chilling calculation, the Do The Math campaign aims to target the oil, gas and coal industries head on.
“We’ve really come to think that after 20 years of sending scientists up to Capitol Hill and getting nowhere, maybe there’s a lesson there,” McKibben explained in an interview before his presentation Friday. “That the fossil-fuel industry is behind this, that they’re the real power, and it’s time to take them on directly.”
With catastrophic weather like Hurricane Sandy persuading more and more Americans of the real and immediate problems of climate change, McKibben said, the bottleneck in making change lies in a government beholden to fossil fuel interests.
“They’re spending $440,000 a day lobbying congress,” McKibben said. “We’re not going to come up with $440,000 day. We have to find other currencies.”
One of those currencies, clearly, is capitalizing on the anger of a region still stunned by a historically powerful storm.
“New Yorkers are particularly pissed off at the fossil fuel companies right now,” said journalist and activist Naomi Klein, who joined McKibben on stage Friday. “People are still traumatized by what happened.”
In a November 2011 article in the Nation, Klein argued that environmentalists needed to stop pretending that climate change could be controlled without a radical political and economic change, “shredding the free-market ideology that has dominated the global economy for more than three decades.” Klein soft-pedaled that message Friday, but still urged environmentalists to move beyond small-scale experiments in sustainable living.
“It’s no longer enough to build alternatives in our little corners,” she said.
With Do The Math, McKibben aims to refocus attention on the central villain in his climate change story: “As of tonight, we are taking on the fossil fuel industry.”
McKibben has come in for criticism in the past for painting apocalyptic scenarios with a certainty that the science can’t quite back up. As climate-science author Michael Lemonick argued in our interview with him last summer, there’s no question the more carbon we burn the worse shape we’re in, but setting a do-or-die limit at 2 degrees celsius is arbitrary, and opens climate change activists to charges of unscientific scaremongering by climate-change deniers.
McKibben wasn’t troubled by this possibility when the Voice asked him about it before he took the stage Friday.
“You’ve got to have some place to stand and fight,” he said. “2 degrees is actually much to high. The most interesting thing is there’s been no push-back from the fossil fuel industry on our numbers at all.”
But McKibben’s battle plan is puzzling. With Do The Math, he’s calling for a divestment campaign on college campuses modeled on the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.
“We’re asking people who say they believe in climate change to stop profiting from it,” he said.
But it’s unclear whether the fossil fuel industry is vulnerable to divestment as a political tool at all. Exploration and extraction are certainly capital-intensive endeavors, but these companies are already making, to use Klein’s term, “stupid money,” and for every university endowment that sells its stock, there will surely be a private equity firm or sovereign wealth fund prepared to buy it.
As a reboot of climate-change activism, Do The Math is sorely needed. It is a movement on its heels. Discussion of climate change has been all but entirely absent from American political discourse for years, the Obama administration has waffled through every international conference on the subject, and legislators who four years ago felt compelled to acknowledge the reality of man-made climate change now once again feel safe expressing their agnosticism.
As an effective strategy for ending the stranglehold of the extraction industries on American politics and thus on the world’s future, Do The Math is at best a beginning, an opportunity to fire up a new generation of student activists, to put oil, gas, and coal companies on the defensive again in the public sphere, and to provide cover for politicians willing to engage with serious solutions. How well it will succeed, and where it will go from there, remains to be seen.