Do The Math: Mr. McKibben Goes To Washington

Activists gathered outside the White House on Sunday to protest the Keystone XL pipeline after's "Do The Math" event.

In the weeks after the election, Washington insiders are trying to interpret the complicated national politics of climate and environmental issues.

Would Congressional Republicans support a carbon tax as part of a deficit reduction deal? Is the Obama Administration distancing itself from pricing carbon, hoping to let conservatives lead on the issue? What kind of trade-offs would environmental groups accept in exchange for a climate deal?

The White House plan to “lead from behind” became clear last week when press secretary Jay Carney said: “We would never propose a carbon tax and have no intention of proposing one.”

So while the President once again fails to lead on the central issue of our time, what is the climate movement to do?

Enter environmental movement-builder Bill McKibben of, who rolled into town yesterday afternoon with a very simple message: Don’t listen to Washington.

Joined by other leaders of the climate activism movement, McKibben was at the Warner Theater yesterday — just blocks from the White House — discussing his new “Do The Math” campaign, which lays out the case for divesting from fossil fuel companies. It’s a no-nonsense, make-no-apologies approach to limiting carbon emissions by attempting to weaken the finances of companies responsible for climate change.

When the lights dimmed and McKibben walked on stage to a theater full of roughly 1,800 cheering supporters, the large screen above his head prominently displayed a new mantra within the climate activism movement.

“We’re going after the fossil fuel companies.”

Simple. Aggressive. And a campaign waged almost completely outside the paralysis of national politics.

Do The Math is based on a very simple premise. In order to have a serious chance (better than 3 in 4) of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius — a threshold needed to prevent catastrophic climate change — the world can only emit about 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050. We will burn through that carbon in 16 years at our current rate. Fossil fuel companies have reported their intent to burn reserves of carbon five times that amount. So preventing uncontrollable global warming means keeping roughly 80 percent of proven carbon reserves in the ground.

The International Energy Agency backed up those calculations in a report last week that concluded two thirds of carbon reserves need to stay in the ground by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Rather than wait on a weak signal from Washington that would likely result in very modest carbon reductions, activists are attempting to create a carbon price of their own by exposing the financial unhealthiness of fossil fuel companies.

Do The Math is modeled after a divestment campaign in the 1980’s that put pressure on American colleges and universities to pull money out of South Africa — a strategy credited with helping put an end to the country’s apartheid system. Environmental groups want to characterize fossil fuel companies in the same way.

“It is high time for us to play offense. These companies have lost their social license,” said McKibben to the crowd. “This is a rogue industry.”

Vilifying and boycotting fossil fuel companies is not exactly a new strategy. But this campaign is unique. It’s the first time that any environmental organization has attempted a divestment strategy of this scale. And the targets outlined by McKibben — the actual math in “Do The Math” — creates a very clear case for campaigners when putting pressure on institutions to wind down their investments.

“I don’t think that anyone has done something on this level in the environmental movement before,” said NASA climatologist James Hansen to Climate Progress. Hansen, who was one of the first scientists to publicly warn Americans about the threat of climate change in the late 80’s, has become one of the most outspoken scientific advocates of pricing carbon.

“I think it could be a really effective campaign. It puts people on the spot and is a way to hold organizations accountable for their investments in fossil fuels,” Hansen said after the event.

It also marks a significant shift for the environmental movement, which has been largely focused on trying to spur change from inside Washington under the Obama Administration. While there have been a number of incremental victories on new clean air regulations, fuel mileage standards, and renewable energy development, groups pushing for greater urgency on climate change have been frustrated by the cool reception from the White House and outright hostility from Congress.

But McKibben, who does his thinking outside the Beltway from his home base in Vermont, is clearly not deterred. He brings the kind of audacity and naivete to national politics that many insiders lack.

“My rule on thinking about Washington is that I have no idea what they’re actually doing, so I just do the things I think I should do and see how it goes. If we’d bothered to ask about the chances on Keystone XL, I’m sure everyone would have told us not to bother,” McKibben told Climate Progress yesterday evening as around 3,000 activists demonstrated against the tar sands pipeline outside the White House after his presentation.

Indeed, in the spring of 2011, almost everyone in Washington considered the Keystone XL pipeline a done deal. But after a wave of protests elevated environmental concerns about the pipeline, the northern portion of the project was delayed by President Obama. Now these groups are stepping up another round of protests in order to force Obama to kill the pipeline once and for all. Large Washington-centric environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, are also making Keystone XL one of their biggest immediate climate priorities.

“The equation is changing a bit. It’s no longer just the ragtag operation at The biggest environmental groups of the country are now quite clearly stating that this is the line in the sand,” McKibben told Climate Progress.

Now he’s hoping to rally both local activists and large environmental groups behind the divestment strategy — eventually forcing a change in Washington in the same way that the Keystone fight did.

Toward the end of his Do The Math presentation, as attendees prepared to funnel into the streets toward the White House, McKibben made a final plea to the crowd in his characteristically soft-spoken, take-no-prisoners style.

“Remember this moment. This is when we got serious,” he said.

47 Responses to Do The Math: Mr. McKibben Goes To Washington

  1. catman306 says:

    Daily or weekly reports about the stock prices of major fossil fuel companies will show if divestiture is working.

    Someone will tell us.

    Move your investment money from fossil fuel to sustainable energy sources, like wind, solar, and geothermal.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Divestment is an important step, but an early one. It must lead to pressure on the fossil fuel companies in the form of nuisance lawsuits, criminal prosecutions against repeat offenders such as the Kochs, rolling boycotts, and much else.

    The main thing is McKibben’s stated goal: going after the fossil fuel companies. They have shown they are not going to go down without a fight. Let’s finally give them one.

  3. Amy Luers says:

    This is a great campaign. However, I urge caution with the “game over” line. This could encourage a fatalistic thinking.
    More on this on my Stanford Social Innovation Review post — Blinded by Urgency, here:

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Hats off to Mr. McKibben. Hopefully the divestment campaign leads to some progress.

    Had to remark on this statement:

    “But after a wave of protests elevated environmental concerns about the pipeline, the northern portion of the project was delayed by President Obama.”

    I think this is a little over-reaching.

    The pipeline was delayed because it became public knowledge that the U.S. State Department let the prime consultant for the Canadian Oil company running the pipeline, (and a single person at that), write the environmental impact statement of the pipeline (which the U.S. State department and Mrs. Clinton was ready to rubber stamp with its approval) – after this got out into the public (and the issue with the original route going over a large aquifer in the west) then the administration had to step back and wait for a new one to be written up for the new updated route. If it weren’t for the environmental impact corruption getting leaked out into the open I doubt the XL extension would have been delayed last year despite the protests. JMHO…

    I’d love to see Obama not approve it, but I don’t have a bit of faith he will….

  5. David Goldstein says:

    I went to Mr. Mckibben’s Portland stop and was really glad to b there. I have to say- the 565 gt of carbon to have a 3/4 chance to limit to 2C warming is, according to many recently emerging studies and developments a VERY optimistic assessment. Of course, barring a major world wide collapse, it is probably not germane because there seems to be about much chance of limiting to 565 as there does for my Philadelphia Eagle’s to win the super bowl (as they say ‘slim and none and slim just left town’. Maybe I am a bit burnt out but…the engine of world growth capitalism is a montstrously strong one and it just loves its fossil fuel diet.

  6. Mark Shapiro says:

    Consider the following strategy shift:

    Don’t go after the companies. Go after the people who lead those companies down the wrong paths.

    Companies have billions for PR, marketing, and lobbying. They have thousands of loyal, hardworking employees and millions of loyal, hardworking customers. They have tons of “goodwill” to protect them from boycotts and divestiture, and zero feelings or morality.

    The leaders — the CEOs and board members — have none of those vast defenses. More important, they are the people making the bad decisions.

    Our fight isn’t against fossil fuels, or even fossil fuel companies, and we shouldn’t make it against the 99.999% of us who use them. it’s against the people at the top blocking the path to clean energy and global security. They are easily identifiable. And unlike faceless companies, they have personal reputations and legacies.

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Part of that 565 gigs needs to be reserved for producing enough solar to cover all populated areas, ME

  8. Zimzone says:

    Well stated, Mark.
    Much of it boils down the four letter word Koch.

    The recent campaign for President, according to many reports, spent over $2B in campaign ads.

    The ‘real winner’ was our media-industrial complex, charging exorbitant rates for candidates to reach voters via their media.

    Free speech? I don’t think so!

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    My point is twofold.

    If you attack an entire industry that everyone in the industrialized world knows they depend on, millions of people will stick with the folks who keep the lights on and gas in the tank. Why should they join dangerous protesters?

    Ordinary folks are much more likely to support you if they don’t feel that you are attacking them, but rather some powerful miscreant.

    It’s much more work to identify CEOs and put their names in the public eye, rather than simply saying: “Exxon bad”. But criticizing an actual human being, who has a name and a face and probably children, who can decide between good and bad, who has the ability to mend his evil ways, makes a much, much better story.

    Plus it has the advantage of being true.

  10. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    A corporate CEO’s top priority is the maximization of shareholder value. Failing that, the board of directors will bring in another CEO – someone who WILL maximize value. What would make a fossil fuel company CEO not burn their reserves and continue searching for more? Could a carbon tax make a CEO chose to divert the corporation’s vast resources – capital and human – into renewable energy, and less into the fossil fuel end of the business? Could the value equation be changed?

  11. Mark Shapiro says:

    The point is to let everyone know who stands in the way of clean energy. Yes, that includes the board of directors. They know how to make money without funding deniers or lobbying against clean energy.

    They can maximize profits with any politically possible level of carbon tax. In fact, their finance and strategy teams could probably calculate a carbon tax that puts them on the most profitable path out of fossil fuels.

    They have lots of smart, agressive people. Can we get them to work for us rather than against us?

  12. Mike Roddy says:

    True for Koch, a wholly owned company, but not for the rest of them, who don’t act much better.

    If Tillerson, Boyce, and the rest of them were fired tomorrow and their Boards started a search for someone more socially conscious, they would end up with someone who talks a softer line- and acts the same. The shareholders and Boards want one thing: more money. We have to think of ways to deny it to them.

  13. Steve says:

    Pick the one company (and CEO/Board) most receptive to your objectives and secure commitments on those objectives — 1) more clean energy research/investment/
    acquisitions; 2) cleaner/safer extraction standards at the company level (steeper than EPA and other regs); 3) commitment to keep certain of its reserves in the ground; 4) promise to refrain from contributions to the more egregious campaigns (e.g. Sen. Inhofe) and “think tanks”… etc.

    Now, rally the troops. This is not TOO hard for the participants to do: All it requires is finding and patronizing, exclusively, the one brand most friendly to your cause. Then, promise to DELIVER those brand-loyal customers, and DELIVER them. It should be one brand to the exclusion of all others (unless stranded with a nearly-empty tank in the middle of the desert). You can even track it, anonymously or otherwise.

    The “troops” (that is, that magical fraction of the 99.999% whom we dare not attack for their consumption patterns, but who are actually willing to “do something” rather than check a box on a poll that says the government should do something about climate change) SHOULD be doing a heck of a lot more than voting that their college endowments dump oil and gas sector stock holdings. And I think a lot of them are doing, and are willing to do, even more if shown the way. But for the sake of this discussion point only, if they buy gasoline, then they must commit to buying exclusively from the company with which your movement has made a pact.

    The pact ought to be renewable year-to-year. As you get more troops behind the movement, then you can bargain for more in exchange. And then get it out there in the “social network” like wildfire … like this: Leading Climate Activist Bill McKibben says, “Only one oil company deserves your patronage… and it is xxxx. I’ll let you know if that changes.”

  14. MarkF says:

    Great idea, I hope it works, and I wish him well.

    If this campaign shows signs of being effective, Mr.McKibben should be careful for his own well being.

  15. atcook27 says:

    When is everyone else going to realise that the President doesn’t actually run the country. The government within the government runs the country and they allow the President to tinker around the edges. Something as important as how society derives its energy is off limits, there is simply too much money involved. If Obama was to attempt to mess with this they would rearrange his anatomy just like at JFK’s intervention. I have come to the point where I go to bed each night and prey for the arrival of the highly inteligent, tecchnologically superior, morally enlightened (aka Aliens) to get thier arse’s back here soon to sort out the rogue hairless monkeys that are on the verge of destroying the joint.
    I know that it sounds crazy but it has just as much chance of happening as a lot of the scenarios talked about here.

  16. Brooks Bridges says:

    I think you and Dennis @10 are articulating the only realistic course – convince them to search for possible ways to increase shareholder value while steadily decreasing the amount coming from fossile fuels.

    In the end, this effort must be added to Socolow’s and Pacala’s “wedges” if we are to have any hope.

  17. “Why should they join dangerous protesters?”

    Let me count the ways:

    • Their home was just flattened by Hurricane Sandy
    • They love their children
    • The lost their farm to the midwest drought
    • They might soon lose their farm to the midwest drought
    • They understand the implications of Arctic amplification
    • They used to live in New Orleans.
    • They have asthma
    • They like hiking in the woods
    • They live in Minnesota and its 55º in December
    • Their neighbor let a gas company frack and their house is worth zero bucks
    • They live on the Gulf coast and are tired of picking up globs of oil and dead birds on the beach

    More anyone?

  18. Mike Roddy says:

    I disagree, Amy. Our situation is unique, and the phrasing chosen to express the dangers has not been well tested for results in influencing public opinion.

    We need to tell the truth and kick some ass. If you had gone to Berkeley instead of Stanford, you would understand.

  19. Mike Roddy says:

    Good post, Sasparilla. I am just another battered activist futilely hoping Obama will wake up about Keystone and everything else- but there is no evidence to support that hope.

  20. Darrell says:

    Question: How does divestment of oil company stock reduce the amount of gasoline Americans burn in their cars? Why not go directly after the latter as the more substantive public action?

  21. Mark Shapiro says:

    Yes, people have every reason to join us. So make it easy for them. Direct their ire at the top people — the deciders — who block sensible clean energy policies.

    Don’t ask them to attack the companies who power their lives. That’s psychologically difficult. It’s also the wrong target.

    Blame the people in charge.

  22. Can’t agree with you Amy.

    Part of doing the math is trying to figure out models for questions like How bad will it be? How soon? and How much is inevitable? and then the big question: What are humans willing to do to adapt?

    We only have conjectured answers to those questions.

  23. I think we should be careful for the well being of all of us.

  24. ToddInNorway says:

    It is not enough to target fossil fuel companies, but it is a good start. We need to also name and shame the makers of gas-guzzling autos/trucks. They are creating the demand the inspires oil companies to produce more carbon. Fuel efficiency standards are set to increase substantially in the next years but even more should be done. Only when demand for fuels and crude oil is truly falling will oil companies feel the pressure.

  25. With the IEA and Bill McKibben agreeing that a large part of the fossil fuel needs to stay in the ground, someone should start thinking about exactly _which_ of the reserves are off limits. There would seem to be a need for some kind of procedure to identify individual deposits and take them off the market for the next couple of decades.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Fatalistic thinking’ is only rational when you have a universal death sentence hanging over your head. Better than delusion.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Absolutely! In Australia we have brutal class war and brutal political character assassination of despised groups, such as Greens, Aborigines and Moslems, and it is entirely one-sided. The Right has the entire MSM led by the Murdoch apparatus to prosecute ferocious campaigns of hatred and vilification, all in order to sustain an evil and utterly self-destructive system-plutocratic end-stage capitalism. Using the law, although it and its priesthood are completely partial towards the centres of power, is a tactic that must be utilised. The absolutely vital thing is to act, and to discard, without remorse, those political and social ‘leaders’ who have no stomach for the fight, or who are Trojan Horses.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Normally one recommends driving a stake through the heart of such creatures, but, as these possess no such organ, through the wallet (their substitute for a heart) will have to do.

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The ‘worldwide collapse’ has begun, and, because it is synergistic and driven by multiple factors, it will swiftly accelerate, with agriculture plainly under great threat already.

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Kochs are a particularly extreme example of the type, but human self-destruction is being driven by the entire capitalist elite (with a very few sane and honourable exceptions)and a vast subaltern class of facilitators in management, politics, the military and the MSM-a sort of global sonderkommando corps.

  31. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Beware the cunning dissembler and confidence-trickster, in even the highest offices of the land.

  32. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The basic and ineradicable methods of operation of capitalism are radically antithetical to the diversity of life on this planet and to the integrity of the biospheres that sustain our species, Ergo, capitalism goes or humanity does, and the hour is getting very, very, late.

  33. Stephen says:

    I read years back on a Peak Oil web site, something like “The proper use for our remaining oil is to enable us to wean ourself off it”. Even more true today, but extending to ALL fossil fuels.

  34. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    “Everything Marx wrote about Communism was false, and everything he wrote about Capitalism was true.” ~a not-so-ancient Russian proverb

    Unfortunately, we’re stuck with Mr. Smith’s Capitalism, and it has one hell of an inertia. MM, I agree with your assessment of Capitalism and wish it gone as a long term goal. But, as someone famously said, “In the long run we’re all dead.” With needs for action starting decades ago, we have no choice but to work within the system, no matter how amoral or decrepit it might be.

    If only we could return to the gift economy of our hunter-gatherer tribal ancestors. If only I could envision a functional model of such an economy with nine billion participants. But no amount of John Lennon lyrics can help me. I’m afraid we’re just stuck with this system that Marx derisively dubbed, “Capitalism”… in the short run – in the time frame where action is urgently needed.

  35. prokaryotes says:

    Why not just buy the leases and then not develop them?

  36. dick smith says:

    Will somebody please do the math–RIGHT.

    A year ago–in NOVEMBER 2011–John Fullerton did an article in CP citing a Carbon Tracker Initiative Report from JULY 2011 (based on 2010 figures)using 565 GtCO2 as the carbon budget to 2050 and 2795 GtCO2 as the known reserves. Here’s the Fullerton quote:

    “The report details three salient facts: in order to reduce the risk of exceeding two degrees Celsius warming to a 20% chance, our carbon-burning budget for the next 40 years is 565 GtC02. Total proved fossil fuel reserves are estimated at 2795 GtC02, nearly five times the remaining budget, implying 80% of these reserves should be left in the ground.”

    Almost 2 years have passed since those numbers have been issued. The budget is NOW down around 500 GtCO2. In 2011 and 2012 we’ve burned more than 30 GtCO2–and yet everyone–including Steve Lacy and Bill McKibben–is still using numbers that are almost two years out of date.

  37. Mark,

    I think you’re missing something. The heads of the corporations, if removed, will be replaced by more heads of corporations who act in the same way, maybe with a little bit of faux humility thrown into the mix. The Koch brothers happen to own their holdings, but Tillerson, et. al., are mere functionaries who serve at the will of essentially nameless plutocrats. (And they shall remain nameless so far as the vast majority of the public is concerned, because the media, which they own, will not name them.)

    The fossil fuel companies will not change their behavior because they must maximize profits every quarter. We must change or, if need be, eliminate their business model.

  38. Matt says:

    Capitalism is not the problem. plutocracy is.Our republic needs to get back to it’s representative roots.By representative I mean of the people, not the corporations who so aggressively lobby our government and own our media.

  39. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Capitalism is plutocracy. It is a system that everywhere and always (with one brief exception, in the West from 1945 to about 1975) throughout history immiserates the many to enrich the very, very, few. As the current era of elite rapacity has shown, where US median wages have stagnated for thirty years and household wealth in black and Hispanic communities has been destroyed in the last five years, while elite greed just grows and grows, there is no end-point to capitalist pleonexia. No end-point but the destruction of human society through ecological destruction, after a brief period of neo-feudal inequality and serfdom for the 99%.

  40. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Prouty’s book ‘The Secret Team’ reveals all about who really runs the USA. Obama is an employee who will be got rid of, with extreme prejudice, if he gets any JFK-like ideas above his station.

  41. That would be exactly my idea. As posted elsewhere a couple of days ago:

    “Here is one idea. Buy the coal in some deposit in Mongolia not yet mined. Use public funds for that purpose, and put the deposit under the authority of a suitable international organization, while leaving the ownership to the sovereign state that has provided the funding. Maybe the new Green Climate Fund could serve in that function for the time being.

    Then make a policy decision that the coal won’t be mined for the next thirty years. Finance the transaction with sovereign state bonds that run for thirty years. Once they are paid back, the asset is in public ownership.

    There are two nice things about this. For one, the creditors of these bonds would get the coal resource as a security, so their investment would be more secure than in a state bond without such a background.

    And two, fossil fuel prices are expected to go up in the future, especially if two thirds of the reserves are taken off the market permanently by such deals. That of course means that the countries providing the public funds are left with an asset that has gone up much in value.

    Right now, I have no idea if any of this makes sense. But anyway, as long as burning fossil fuel is not illegal everywhere on the planet, there must be one way or other to take some of the resources completely out of the market. If two thirds of the stuff needs to stay in the ground, one needs to start thinking about how that is supposed to actually happen.”

  42. Mark E says:

    If we GO AFTER anyone it is doomed to fail. We have to instead GO WITH transforming hearts and minds. Did Gandhi GO AFTER the English mills that made cloth? (Seen the movie on youtube yet?) No, he went to the mills to make friends and try to find common ground with the mill workers.

    As for GOING WITH to transform hearts and minds: (1) #1 is our own use of fossil fuel – fail at that and fail at the rest (2) then there are the board members of these companies… the stockholders…. the landowners who receive royalties….. the railroads that run the coal trains….. the people are not the enemy and we should not GO AFTER them. But we should try really hard to transform their hearts and minds.

    Remember what Gandhi always said: we do not want the British people to leave India. We only want their system of rule to leave India.

    Same difference.

  43. prokaryotes says:

    Karl-Friedrich Lenz, are you interested to make a blog post for this? If so please email me the post to INFO AT CLIMATESTATE COM


  44. Thanks for your kind interest, I just sent you a mail about this.

  45. harwhit says:

    If McKibben is right and we can’t wait around for government to pass a carbon tax (one of the few possibly effective remedies left), that leaves us with the following option: We the people must be the carbon tax – through our direct actions. I’ll leave the particulars to your activist imaginations.