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

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, 350.org’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 350.org 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 350.org 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.