Bill McKibben on Climate Movement: The Next Generation?

Our guest blogger is Bill McKibben, founder of is a little more than three years old; it was born with NASA scientist Jim Hansen’s crucial paper showing that 350 ppm co2 is the most we can safely have in the atmosphere if we want a planet “similar to the on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” We do want that — and we think that one reason we’re not getting it is the lack of a mass movement around global warming.

It’s not that we haven’t had an environmental movement — we have, with big, well-respected, well-funded, and powerful groups centered in Washington. But not big enough or rich enough to take on the fossil fuel industry — that was demonstrated last summer with the demise of cap-and-trade efforts, despite every compromise and conciliation. Senators can tell when there’s not enough juice behind the smart and committed green lobbyists; we need to generate that juice, and fast. Since we’ll never match the oil industry in money, so we have to find a different currency: bodies, creativity, spirit.

We’ve been a kind of beta test for that movement. Beginning with myself and seven college students and no resources, we’ve managed to at least demonstrate that there’s a chance to build something big: our first day of action, in October of 2009, coordinated 5200 rallies in 181 countries. Last year, in the fall of 2010, we hosted an even bigger Global Work party: 7400 events in every country on earth save North Korea. People everywhere — most of them poor, since most of the world is poor — are joining around that scientific target to demand real action. We don ‘t exactly ‘organize’ all this — it’s more like a potluck supper, where we have a date and a theme, but where tens of thousands of volunteers do the work, knowing what’s possible in their place. And then we bring the images together to make the whole thing more than the sum of its parts. If you want some hope, look through a few of the 30,000 pictures in our Flickr account. You’ll notice that they’re wildly diverse, except for that wonky scientific data point that everyone is organizing around.

You might think it’s odd to take a number as a rallying cry.

But it made logical sense, since Arabic numerals cross linguistic boundaries. More importantly, that target defines the scale and the urgency of the action required. We’re already past 350 ppm — the atmosphere today is 390 parts per million co2, which explains why the Arctic is melting, the ocean acidifying, and the weather getting more violent. It also explains why we need quick and dramatic action — if we’re not off fossil fuel fast, then the temperature will spiral up past the point of civilizations to cope.


We could make large steps quickly — Climate Progress and Joe Romm have demonstrated time and again the off-the-shelf steps that could be speeded up considerably if we had the political will. We need to build a movement strong enough to generate that political will — and strong enough to overcome the financial power of the fossil fuel industry, which is the main thing holding us back. That’s why, among other things, we recently merged with 1sky, the grassroots American climate campaign, to form the new

Hence, in America this year we’ve got two big campaigns. One is in coordination with people around the globe: it’s our next big worldwide day of action, set for Sept. 24, which we’re calling MovingPlanet. It’s going to focus on bicycles this time, both because they’re part of the solution and because they’re one of the few technologies used by rich and poor alike.

And we’re also fighting hard to make it clear that the biggest fossil fuel lobby — the US Chamber of Commerce — does not, as it claims, represent ‘American business.’ We’ve already enrolled thousands of businesses large and small in our ‘The US Chamber Doesn’t Speak for Me’ campaign.

No guarantee we’re going to win this fight — there are scientists who say we’ve waited too long to start. But we’re determined to find out, and if we don’t stand up noisily we never will. We set ourselves up as more a campaign than an organization — everyone can join in, regardless of affiliation. It’s been wonderful to see environmental groups around the country and the world pitch in in so many ways. And, crucially, regardless of whether you think we’re ever going to be able to get back to 350. That is a relentlessly tough goal; if it daunts you, then think of the number as a way of explaining forcefully that we’ve already gone too far, that climate change is not a future worry but a present crisis.

Bill McKibben