Do The Math: McKibben Starts His Roadshow Taking On Big Oil

Photo: Rae Breaux

by Wen Stephenson, excerpted from Grist

It was game time. The Saturday night crowd on the Vermont campus was festive, boisterous, pumped. People cheered and whooped when told that one of their heroes, climate activist Tim DeChristopher — serving a two-year federal sentence for his civil disobedience opposing new oil and gas drilling in Utah — would soon be back on the field.

When the man on the stage,’s Bill McKibben, said it was time to march not just on Washington but on the headquarters of fossil fuel companies — “it’s time to march on Dallas” — and asked those to stand who’d be willing to join in the fight, seemingly every person filling the University of Vermont’s cavernous Ira Allen Chapel, some 800 souls, rose to their feet.

McKibben and 350, the folks who brought us the Keystone XL pipeline protests, are now calling for a nationwide divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel companies’ bottom line. Beginning with student-led campaigns on college campuses, modeled on the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, they’ll pressure institutions to withdraw all investments from big oil and coal and gas. Their larger goal is to ignite a morally-charged movement to strip the industry of its legitimacy.

“The fossil fuel industry has behaved so recklessly that they should lose their social license — their veneer of respectability,” McKibben tells his audience. “You want to take away our planet and our future? We’re going to take away your money and your good name.”

I was there in Burlington on Saturday to spend some time with the team, watch their run-throughs, and attend the night’s show, a sort of “dress rehearsal” for the 20-city Do The Math tour, officially launching in Seattle on Nov. 7, the day after the election. The tour builds off of McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which appeared in July and is one of the most widely read pieces in the magazine’s history. Buzz is clearly building, and not just in McKibben’s home state of Vermont. The Seattle show is sold out. The Boston show, on Nov. 15, sold out in less than 24 hours and has moved to a venue three times larger, the Orpheum Theater, with 2,700 seats. (Full disclosure: McKibben sits on Grist’s board of directors.)

Part multimedia lecture — with video appearances by allies like Naomi Klein, James Hansen, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — and part organizing rally, with a live musical performance, the Burlington event gave a taste of what’s to come. The tour will “evolve,” with different elements and onstage guests along the way — for example, Klein and filmmaker Josh Fox, of Gasland fame, will join McKibben onstage in various cities. Although it was a little rough around the edges on Saturday night, nobody seemed to mind (McKibben was playing, wisely, to his hometown crowd). The basic structure and central message of the show were well in place — and, just as important for 350′s objectives, the organizing wheels were well in motion.

As 350′s Matt Leonard, serving as “tour manager” for Do The Math, explained it to me, the tour isn’t simply about “getting butts in seats” for a lecture or concert (thus the relatively low emphasis on the musical guests in each city, most of whom are yet to be announced). It’s about getting “the right people” in those seats. “This isn’t just for publicity and outreach,” he says. “We’re putting tremendous effort into making sure students, community leaders, college trustees, and influential decision-makers are a part of this event, because they are the ones that will turn this from a talk into a hard-hitting campaign.”

Sure enough, there in Burlington, students at UVM and other area colleges were already talking up divestment campaigns. Elsewhere in New England, a student-led divestment movement, spearheaded by the network Students for a Just and Stable Future, is off and running — at Harvard, Tufts, Brandeis, Amherst, UNH, and a dozen other campuses. Similar campaigns are being discussed on campuses around the country. And on Saturday night, McKibben told the crowd that Hampshire College in western Massachusetts, the first to divest from South Africa in 1977, is the first school in the nation to move toward divestment from fossil fuels.

This is real. And it’s just getting started.

Clearly, McKibben and 350 know their audience for this tour, and it’s not simply the general public. Far from attempting to communicate climate science to the uninformed, or disinformed, in a lowest-common-denominator way, Do the Math is about lighting a fire under the movement, rallying the troops, and mustering forces for a major new offensive — what the Do the Math website bills as “the next phase of the climate movement.”

Before heading up to Burlington, I asked McKibben what that means. “Fighting Keystone,” he told me by email, “we learned we could stand up to the fossil fuel industry. We demonstrated some moxie.” But, he added: “We also figured out that we’re not going to win just fighting one pipeline at a time. We have to keep all those battles going, but we also have to play some offense, go at the heart of the problem.”

The Rolling Stone piece and McKibben’s Do the Math lecture leave no doubt what the heart of the problem is. Drawing on a widely-circulated report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a group of UK financial experts and environmentalists, McKibben shows that the fossil fuel industry’s known reserves contain five times the amount of carbon needed to raise the planet’s temperature more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the point beyond which, according to international consensus, all bets for a livable climate are off.

As McKibben points out, we’ve already burned enough carbon to raise the global thermometer almost 1 degree C, with disastrous effects. At the current rate, we’ll have burned enough additional carbon in the next 16 years to propel us over the 2-degree line this century. To prevent that from happening — to slow the process down and ultimately stop it — the fossil fuel industry would need to commit to keeping 80 percent of its reserves in the ground, forever, and help bring about a rapid shift to clean energy.

Obviously, given the sheer amount of money at stake — many trillions of dollars — the odds of anything like that happening under current political conditions are nil. McKibben is arguing that, if there’s any hope at all of preserving a livable climate, those conditions must change decisively. And they can — but only if and when enough people understand the simple climate math and realize that the fossil fuel industry is prepared to cook humanity off the planet unless somebody stops it.

Far more than money is at stake. At risk, the Do the Math presentation makes clear, are countless human lives. The most affecting display in Burlington was a show of faces of people, all around the world, who are already suffering the impact of climate change — in Kenya, Haiti, Brazil, India and Pakistan, and many other places, including the United States. Projected on the screen behind McKibben, they’re a powerful reminder of the human face, and cost, of global warming.

Likewise, this tour, and the movement it aims to galvanize, are about far more than math. They’re about justice and injustice, right and wrong — what you could call the moral equation.

This is an excerpt from a longer piece published at Grist.

Wen Stephenson, a former editor at The Atlantic and The Boston Globe, contributes frequently to Grist and has written about climate and culture for the Globe, The New York Times, and Slate.

27 Responses to Do The Math: McKibben Starts His Roadshow Taking On Big Oil

  1. Sasparilla says:

    This is a great idea and I salute the entire team involved in putting this together and making it happen.

    I wish McKibben, in particular, had a Secret Service detail…its a lot of money and power that is being threatened.

  2. Son of Krypton says:

    Shame the tour isn’t making a stop over the border. Ottawa in particular could definitely benefit from McKibben’s message

  3. If it takes as long to end fossil fuels as it did to end apartheid, we are all (title of Kunstler’s blog).

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Great idea, Bill. Please drop by St. Louis (Arch Coal and Peabody), San Ramon (Chevron) and Houston (Conoco Phillips), as well as Dallas.

    Our friend Randy Hayes can help you find soldiers through RAN, especially for a San Ramon action.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    Maybe you could get universities to not only divest, but to take the money being thrown at them by BP, Exxon, and Chevron and make sure that it is used to take away their markets via clean energy development. That will get people’s attention.

    A lot of us old Cal guys are furious that oil money is draining onto the campus. Let’s let them know that knowledge does not have to be corruptible.

  6. Kim Feil says:

    Hey what about the universities in Texas like UTArlington and TCC campuses that have onsite natural gaswells? How can we get the “mostly silent on the subject” student bodies to get onboard? I believe they are afraid to make waves.

  7. Joan Savage says:

    Bill McKibben previewed the Do the Math tour at Syracuse University on October 10, to a full audience at Hendricks Chapel (capacity 1100). He pointed to the University of California’s divestiture of South African investments, a move that helped bring down apartheid.
    He called for universities to commit to stop investing in fossil fuel companies now, with a five year process of gradual divestiture of existing holdings.

    The divestiture approach differs from the success story of South Africa in some ways to keep in mind.

    Many personal 401K retirement plans and group pensions rely on income from the ‘blue chip’ fossil fuel companies. The pensioners (and there are a lot of Baby Boomers entering retirement) need a very big ‘landing field’ if they are to move out of carbon investments en masse. Finding – or generating – billions of dollars worth of alternate stock – that pays regular dividends – is mind-boggling.

    Yet it must be addressed.

    Disclosure: Over a decade ago, I inherited fossil fuel stock and sold it off, without making a public issue about why.

  8. Steve says:

    Isn’t the “heart of the problem” that, directly and indirectly, we ALL buy and consume — excessively, addictively, luxuriously, and often wastefully — the PRODUCTS of these corporations… not that a few universities happen to hold positions in their common STOCK as part of a diversified portfolio?

    Even if several universities dumped their stock holdings in Big Oil, absent a fundamental change in gasoline-consumer purchasing practices impacting the companies’ bottom lines, someone else will snap up the shares, probably through program-trading buy orders. Do you think a Romney-type hedge fund manager is going to balk at buying these stocks? Does anyone even project the stock prices will move in response to this campaign?

    I spend a lot of time with other moderates and with conservatives. They shake their heads in bewilderment at these types of climate activist tactics. I respect and appreciate the enthusiasm, energy, and commitment being exhibited here, so don’t get me wrong on that front. But is there anything going on here other than the highly symbolic?

    And, say, Big Oil responds to the “pressure” by restricting supply — that is, keeping the bad stuff in the ground as the students are requesting — then US prices at the pump will go up, no? I personally think that is fine, if not great — it will force personal and commercial adaptation to peak oil pricing and/or to a carbon tax, or both.

    But if gasoline prices do go up, will CAP and other progressives/liberals be complaining or cheering? (History suggests it will be the former, which for the life of me I do not understand, nor do most non-Americans who comment here.)

    Polls show most people “get it” on climate science. (As for those who do not, remember that a lot of people don’t “get” much of anything intellectually.) What is now lacking is firm leadership on getting people to DO SOMETHING (beyond the token light bulb replacement) on the personal lifestyle level and on the business/community investment level… other than finding some political or economic punching bag.

    This is a collective, rapidly deteriorating global public health crisis — physically, nutritionally, psychologically, and existentially. It’s being framed, however, as a contest among rival political and economic interests, and as a result, the urgency and severity of the message is being diluted.

    Most people don’t hate oil companies the way environmentalists do. They don’t get excited about all this (until, maybe, fracking contaminates the local water supply)… Big Oil is no better or worse in their eyes than any other large corporation. This is special interest political messaging; not general interest public health messaging.

    So what am I missing? I’m no expert with a career devoted to all of this. I’m just an observer willing to learn.

  9. Steve says:

    While my other comment is in moderation, let there be no misunderstanding: I have the greatest respect for Bill McKibben and his efforts, leadership, thinking, and concerns in this area… along with everyone else in the organization.

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Steve, one part of the answer is to have rapidly growing renewable-based electricity so that even the uncommitted help but which ever way it goes over there, there is going to be major hardship for many, ME

  11. Joan Savage says:

    Oil companies buy back their own stock to keep the market price stable. Their practice could absorb some of the stock available through divestiture.

  12. It is unfortunate that Bill McKibben has no positive message for the fossil fuel companies.

    That message should be pointing out that they would actually profit a lot by selling less. Selling less gets prices up, and with it the value of their deposits.

    Once they understand that, they will become allies instead of opponents of climate protection. That would be a rather massive shift.

  13. Gingerbaker says:

    “Selling less gets prices up, and with it the value of their deposits.”

    Not if there is less demand. The more renewable electricity we produce, the less demand here is for carbon fuels. Why do you think the Koch brothers hate wind energy?

  14. There will always be demand for non-fuel uses. Prince Turki ibn Faisal al Saud of Saudi Arabia understands this. He just said this (Source: Guardian):

    “Oil is more precious for us underground than as a fuel source,” he said. “If we can get to the point where we can replace fossil fuels and use oil to produce other products that are useful, that would be very good for the world. I wish that may be in my lifetime, but I don’t think it will be.”

    And, whatever the level of demand, producing less will always increase prices compared to not reducing production.

  15. Steve says:

    There is a tendency to assume deployment of renewable electricity (solar and wind) materially impacts oil and gasoline consumption… it doesn’t. Few automobiles run on electricity. Jets don’t. Cross-country tractor-trailers don’t. Cross-oceanic container ships don’t. (As for food industry methane releases, cattle don’t.)

    We really need to educate and motivate on energy consumption and energy efficiency. Once people are engaged on a personal and community level, they will follow the state and national politics more closely and vote /petition accordingly.

    As an aside, since I think the Keystone experience has’s focus on Big Oil, you cannot get the industry to collectively agree among themselves to restrict output. It is a horizontal restraint of trade in violation of antitrust laws. You need companies to act unilaterally in deciding to keep their own reserves in the ground, which may be a sound long-term strategy for a particular company, but a risky short-term decision for any one company to do on its own.

    So, two choices for starts: 1) Massive education to reduce consumption (which, in conjunction with reduced supply, should keep prices relatively stable); 2) see if you can find an ally among the Big Oil players, and then see if you can deliver brand-loyal customers in exchange for reducing their production and/or for investing in renewables. French oil company Total, for example, bought a significant stake in a solar company a few years back.

    I agree with Mr. Lenz, though — a categorical declaration of war, so to speak, on Big Oil and Big Coal may not play out as well as planned. It polarizes the debate, motivates the opposition, justifies in their minds bringing the counter-attack to the next level, and takes this down the path of “being about” competing economic interests rather than “being about” a desperate need for collective action to avert a global public health crisis.

    By “public health” I don’t mean the narrow definition of, say, a flu outbreak or childhood obesity problem… Each extreme weather event comes with an assortment of acute physical and mental health impacts. As climate events accumulate and intensify, life is going to get different (and tougher) for those without preparation and resilience, creating chronic public health problems, broadly defined. Expect increasing substance abuse, violence, strain of families, strain on government disaster relief resources, malnutrition, and lots of really pissed off and really depressed people walking around….

    I still would put up billboards — “Climate Change is Happening Faster than Experts Predicted Just 5 Years
    Ago.” “Record Temperatures, Record Wildfires, Record Droughts, Record Crop Losses, Astonishing Arctic Ice Melt”… “Learn More. Do Something. Go to http://www…..?

    Lots of open billboard space on the desert drive from Southern California to Las Vegas. Hell, the Coalition of Solar Panel Installers (or whatever they are called) could sponsor it if the NGOs don’t want to…

  16. Jim Baird says:

    Being against oil is only one half of the answer. To be credible with the mainstream an alternative must also be offered and that alternative has to legitimately address the problem.

    Russ George recently sponsored an experiment locally to stimulate phytoplankton growth that has been widely and legitimately rebuked.

    Phytoplankton are however vital to the sustainability of the planet. A study published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science confirms the findings of an earlier Dalhousie University study that the 94 percent of the heat attributable to global warming that is accumulating in the oceans is causing the thermal stratification of the oceans that is cutting phytoplankton off from their food source and in turn is destroying both the base of the ocean food chain as well as the lungs of the planet.

    We already live in a greenhouse that is adding as much as 330 terrawatts of heat to the oceans every year according to a recent NASA study and this heat is the real problem.

    Even if we stopped adding CO2 to the atmosphere immediately this greenhouse will continue to accumulate heat for at least a thousand years and the viability of the oceans will persist, whereas many species, including possibly our own may not.

    The only way this damage can be reserved is by converting this ocean heat to productive use in accordance with the laws of thermodynamics.

    A video outlining how this might be accomplished is on line at .

  17. Jim Baird says:

    Steve, the hydrogen, ammonia or methanol renewable energy makes possible are viable replacements for oil.

  18. Jim Baird says:

    Typo, the viability of the oceans will continue to decline as will our chances for survival as a species.

  19. Bill Wilson says:

    I have tried to invest in companies that are ethical, socially valuable, and have good growth potential. Now I have mostly left the growth part out as we simply can’t rely on growth as a formula of value. We can rely on ethics and being socially valuable investments. Why?

    First in has a direct link to our quality of life. Second it keeps us away from the Enron’s and the Madoff schemes that hurt both the stock price eventually and the products delivered. Clean energy focus should be the clear winner in investing and people will flock to not just the best products but will want to profit from the best ones and service. I have been doing this for many years and while successful, i am too small to be meaningful, and the ethics in investments is being decimated by the gut the SEC moves on wall street like huge leverage, naked shorting, hit pieces like China, algorithmic programs and just blatant disregard for rules of the road that makes investing viable.

    So this is a perfect time for investing and for the goal of improving our quality of life. It just can’t get lower without a meltdown on wall street. The intrinsic rewards are large and products and services will improve if people demand it.

    One large farmer said they are ready to provide America with much higer and better food if they demand it. Should people demand better energy the Koch Brothers, API, Chamber of Commerce would soon get the msg. that business as usual is not acceptable as we demand their funding of alternatives and better practices.

    To stop the KeystoneXL and thus help dramaticall slow down the destruction of TarSands seems most important first start. When key government people take the corrupted industry data and money like Boehner and then invest that money in 7 different and related TarSands companies we simply must reverse Citizens United and call out the corruption in our government.

    As I tell people, Nobody will watch your money like you will and as more of us take control we take control away from destructive industries that refuse to change. Unlike smoking it seems critical that we do not let the attorney’s and government look at carbon as the cash cow they drool over and work toward. That msg. has to get through.

  20. Bill Wilson says:

    We have already started in ways just not recognized. For instance the whole idea of small is beautiful has people buying smaller homes and kids looking to delay car purchases to buy small gadgets to connect easier.

    Last time we had a national slowdown in the 70’s we had a reduction of hwy deaths of 25%. We can do this again and get us back into the small cars in safe way. Engineering, eduction, and enforcement as they say the three E’s can take us long way but the real benefits start when we recognize we don’t have to be slaves to growth and work far removed from the intrinsic rewards of local support and new skills for local economies. Not to replace the international trade but to reduce the redundant trade and waste would save billions once the VAT’s schemes etc. are removed. We would be energy independent faster than a rocket ship to the moon when the wasters see it no longer pays or is acceptable. Pleae take control of your IRA’a and 401k’s

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    JFK’s Secret Service detail were not much help-to the contrary.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The ‘value of their deposits’ has to be reduced to zero, hence their recalcitrance. No capitalist is ever going to forego tens of trillions in assets. They’d rather destroy their children than do that. Of course, being sentimentalists, they’ll destroy other people’s children preferentially.

  23. Only true if you discard non-fuel use and fuel use with CO2 capture and recycled use as synthetic fuel.

    As indicated in another response in this thread, Prince Turki ibn Faisal al Saud of Saudi Arabia already understands this, having said recently: “Oil is more precious for us underground than as a fuel source. If we can get to the point where we can replace fossil fuels and use oil to produce other products that are useful, that would be very good for the world.”

  24. I have argued earlier on my blog that we need an antitrust exception to enable the oil industry to produce less. When the Standard Oil case was decided 100 years earlier, the Supreme Court gave as one of the reasons that antitrust was necessary to avoid “a limitation of production”.

    Right now, that “limitation of production” is not contrary any more to public interest. It is in contrast urgently necessary for the reasons described by Joe Romm on this blog.

    Things have changed since 1911.

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And what of the other forms of pollution from non-combustion uses of hydrocarbons, eg plastics and other chemicals? I’ll go along with the thesis if you can promise nearly 100% recycling of the hydrocarbon products and near zero leakage as pollution.

  26. While that question needs to be addressed, it is different from that of the value of fossil fuel deposits in a world that uses them only for non-fuel purposes.

  27. Solar Jim says:

    RE: “At the current rate, we’ll have burned enough additional carbon in the next 16 years to propel us over the 2-degree line this century.”

    Precisely. That is because, from Bill’s article apparently based on Carbon Tracker figures, 565 billion tons (gigatons) of carbon dioxide results from oxidizing (combustion) 154 gigaton of CARBON (factor 3.66). Current global annual combustion of CARBON of approximately 10 gigaton gives the result of about 16 years.

    If this is the corrected assertion of the argument then 95%, not 80%, of these substances should not be ignited as “fuels.”