I’ve been asked by several folks to comment on the recent Bill McKibben feature column in Rolling Stone magazine that has caused quite a stir. Bill, as we know, single-handedly willed 350.org into becoming one of the most influential climate-change movement and organization in the world today, essentially taking the awareness Al Gore created and turning it into significant and creative action. So anything he writes should be assimilated into our collective thinking.
Just as Gore expressed deep disappointment at the slow pace of planet-saving change following his Inconvenient Truth crusade, so does Bill today. Gore followed by launching Climate Reality. Bill is following by launching a movement against the fossil-fuel industry, starting with an Apartheid-like divestment movement featured in his Rolling Stone column.
The backdrop is the daunting three-number equation he opens with. In order to avoid a two-degree Celsius temperature rise — the first number, which he and most climate scientists now say is too high, but are sticking to in the interest of global consensus — the world can’t spew more than 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere from now on. That’s the so-called carbon budget that must somehow be distributed among the world’s countries, with developing states saying they should get a bigger slice to allow them to catch up with developed-country-level standard of living — the big equity debate. Regardless of how it’s distributed, we will consume that budget in a few short years at today’s record pace of emissions. Hence the crushing urgency we should all feel in doing everything we can to reverse course.
The third number is 2,795. That’s the gigaton level fossil-fuel companies are ready to emit in the coming years, or roughly five times the 565 planet-busting budget. The imperative, then, is to keep them from drilling, so those gigatons stay deep underground where they can do no harm.
For the answer on how to pull that off, Bill found inspiration in the successful 1980s campaign to persuade institutional investors to divest their holdings in any company that had anything to do with Apartheid in South Africa. Today, the focus will turn to institutional investors who own shares in Shell, BP, Exxon and their likes in the U.S. and around the world, a strategy aligned with what Ceres has been doing for years. While the Rolling Stone story doesn’t get into other initiatives, I suspect this divestment strategy is the first of many to come.
This is an absolutely brilliant idea, to take the Ceres-led shareholder revolution to a new level of intensity, pressure and results. If corporations respond to anything, it is to pressure from large and influential shareholders. It is using the core of the capitalist system to save it from itself.
But let’s not be lulled into any illusions here. First, climate is only half the problem, the one both Gore and McKibben have chosen to focus on. The other is resource depletion. Both are related, but even if we were to stay within the 565 and 2C targets on climate, resources would do us in. So let’s keep a watchful eye on both fronts.
Second, Bill’s focus — and this goes for the entire environmental movement — is still on the West. But we have to realize that the geo center of ecogravity has shifted to the East, mainly China and India, given their unfathomable size and relentless, unsustainable growth. Divesting from the Shells, Exxons and BPs would keep part of those 2,795 gigatons on the ground, but I suspect there are plenty of fossil producers who don’t respond to market pressures — who don’t issue stock, that is — and will gladly step in with far more than the 565-gigaton budget we have left.
Which means we need other solutions, and that’s the third observation we can make in reply to the Rolling Stone article. Bill rightfully laments the slow progress we’ve seen on the efficiency and demand side, as lifestyle changes have put hardly a dent on the march towards climate madness. But his conclusion is to basically turn our backs on those efforts and aim all our canons instead at the one battle that can presumably win this fight.
Not so fast!! The fossil-fuel battle is right on and must be waged, but we can’t afford to do without ANY front. ALL are musts. Those of us who have chosen to boost the demand side will press on, partly because it addresses climate AND resources, and partly because it holds the promise of penetrating China and India like no other strategy out there.
As Ceres, 350.org and others persuade investors to stop buying fossil-fuel stock, we will persuade consumers (individuals, companies and governments) to stop buying fossil-fuel energy — to switch not just to greater efficiency and renewable sources, but also to more biodegradable, recyclable, sustainable products that preserve the world’s “budget” of forests, water and ocean life.
And so onwards we go on ALL fronts. As Annie Leonard said in her latest and brilliant Story of Change video, change can and must happen everywhere, across many fronts. At work. At school. At home. At play. No matter what you do or where you are, you can be part of this Great Transition, the biggest transformation in human and planetary history.
Find your role, share your story and inspire others to do the same. Let’s go. We can do this.
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