McKibben: Take action against fossil fuels
It's time to squarely face the facts Hurricane Sandy is just the latest example of the terrible toll being wrought on communities around the U.S. by extreme weather supercharged by climate change.
This summer we experienced record ice melt in the Arctic. By summer's end, with more than half the ice gone, it was fair to say we'd broken one of the largest physical features on the planet. The drought and heat that wracked the Midwest drove up global grain prices 40 percent, bringing hunger to hundreds of millions. And, as we survey the damage from Hurricane Sandy, it's already clear that the human and financial costs are stark.
In response to the biggest crisis our civilization has ever faced, our politicians offer an "all of the above" energy strategy that may, someday, reduce our emissions. Meanwhile, American exports of coal set new records, and we may well pass oil giant Saudi Arabia as the planet's biggest oil producer.
By any measure the fossil fuel industry has nearly ground to a halt progress to solve the climate crisis. Faced with global evidence of rapid climate change, the industry's primary response is to explore for more coal and gas and oil, from the deep waters of the Gulf to the shale beds of the Appalachians to the thawing waters of the far North.
The folly of that quest can be laid out easily, in just three numbers: 2; 565; and 2,795.
Virtually all the world's governments, including China and the United States, have agreed that we should not let temperatures rise any more than 2 degrees. If the one-degree temperature rise we have already experienced is causing unprecedented melting in the Arctic, then, they argue, it is even more dangerous to do nothing and wait to see what two degrees will produce. It's a bright, red line.
Stopping short of that line, according to the scientists, requires that we emit no more than 565 gigatons more carbon between now and 2050. At the current rate, however, we'll blow past that line in just 15 years.
Alarmingly, fossil fuel companies (and nation states) already have reserves of 2,795 gigatons of carbon. Exxon alone controls 7 percent of the reserves necessary to take us past the two-degree mark, followed closely by players like Shell and Chevron, Conoco and BP.
That's why 350.org and a collection of other groups believe it's time to hold the industry accountable. We're calling on universities across the country, including in Utah, to freeze all new investments in fossil fuels and fully divest in five years. We hope this campaign spreads quickly to churches and pension funds. And we're starting to organize mass actions for the next 12 months, in the U.S. and around the world, to challenge the fossil fuel industry directly, with peaceful civil disobedience, with art and music, with our wits and our bodies.
We're not counting on our politicians anymore. After 20 years of general inaction on climate change, it's time to engage the real power: a reckless fossil fuel industry that has known for years the damage they're doing.
Until they cease exploring for new hydrocarbons and begin rapid conversion to companies installing renewable energy on a vast scale, they don't deserve the social license our silence grants them.
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. He is leading a 20-city tour to organize the divestment campaign and will be in Salt Lake City on Dec. 3.