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 350.org, 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.