Longtime environmentalist and climate change educator Bill McKibben’s sustainable tour bus rolled into Chicago last night as part of a global movement to take down the fossil fuel industry. Progress Illinois was there for the festivities. Here's a rundown on the tour's main talking points and messaging for Illinoisans, particularly the state's college students and young adults.
Longtime environmentalist and climate change educator Bill McKibben’s sustainable tour bus rolled into Chicago last night as part of a global movement to take down the fossil fuel industry.
McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour, springing from the 350.org grassroots climate change campaign he founded, is making it’s way across the United States, rallying students and the environmentally-minded in 20 different cities to demand that their schools, religious institutions and local governments cut off all investment ties with the fossil fuel industry.
“What we need students doing everywhere is stepping up to take control of this fight,” McKibben told reporters before the show. “It has to be the high-profile issue on campus.”
Since the tour kicked off three weeks ago, 100 campuses across the country have launched divestment efforts, McKibben said to the crowd of nearly 1,000 at the Athenaeum Theatre in Lakeview.
The Unity College in Maine became the first school earlier this month to agree to divest its endowment from fossil fuels, he said.
And the Harvard University student body recently voted three-to-one to demand divestiture from direct or indirect ownership of fossil fuel stocks and bonds within five years.
A divestment tool kit can be found at 350.org’s newly-launched website gofossilfree.org.
In remarks before the show, McKibben said institutions often boast “correctly and happily about their commitments to sustainability.”
Colleges and universities, for example, often tout their green buildings and sustainability efforts on their websites, he said.
“If you’re going to green the campus, why wouldn’t you green the portfolio?” he said. “Why isn’t that a part of your mandate? I think it’s going to be powerful and painful sometimes, because we’re asking good people who say they share their concern about this stuff to actually do something about it.”
McKibben’s cross-country tour was born after his popular July Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”
Like the article, the crux of the “Do the Math” show, which kicked off the day after the presidential election, is based on three key numbers.
The first: 2 degrees Celsius. That’s the temperature scientists and countries around the world have agreed is too much to warm the planet by, McKibben said, adding that if the planet became just 2 degrees warmer, it would be “complete and utter calamity.”
So far, the planet has warmed nearly 1 degree Celsius. The damage of that 1 percent includes a third of the summer sea ice in the Arctic that’s disappeared and 30 percent more acidic oceans, among other detrimental effects, McKibben said.
Next is 565 gigatons, which is the amount of carbon climate scientists say can be poured into the atmosphere between now and 2050 if there’s a chance of staying below the 2 degree cap.
By comparison, about 31 gigatons of carbon are released into the atmosphere per year.
So that’s about 15 years before the gigaton mark is met, which would “break the planet,” McKibben said.
But the very worst number, the one that caused McKibben to write the Rolling Stone piece and start the tour, is 2,795 gigatons.
That’s how much financial analysts predict fossil fuel companies currently have in their reserves.
The 2,795 gigaton projection is five times as much as the most conservative government on Earth says would be safe to burn, McKibben said.
And the fossil fuel industry can’t get away with wrecking the planet any longer, he said.
“We’re causing unbelievable problems for people around the world who have done nothing to cause this situation,” McKibben said backstage.
It’s now estimated that about 400,000 people die per year as a result of climate change.
“Most of the people who die, let’s be frank, are in places where nobody’s burning any fossil fuel at all,” he said. “They just get the effects, so that’s unethical.”
He said it’s also unethical to constrain the lives of future generations.
“We’re making choices in these few years that will ramify for geologic time for thousands of generations that follow,” he said.
On a local level, Illinois and other states should work on renewable portfolio standards and demand that a certain amount of its energy be renewable, he said.
“People in Illinois, like people everywhere, yes you need to work hard at improving your community, getting the buses to come and all that, but you have to save some of that energy for working on a national and global level.”
McKibben, who’s written a dozen books about the environment, acknowledged that saving the planet won’t happen over night.
Hypothetically, if appointed as the U.S. energy czar tomorrow, the first thing he’d do is kill the Keystone XL pipeline system from Canada to the United States for good.
“Leave some carbon in the ground,” he said. “Prove that you’re up to that task of leaving some carbon alone and in the ground. That’s 900,000 barrels of oil a day and the president could do it by himself.”
McKibben’s 350.org movement has coordinated 15,000 climate-related rallies across 189 different counties since 2009.
And young people have been the driving force behind it.
“Our problem is old people are just so set in their ways and so addicted to whatever exact set of conditions that they’re used to that they can’t image any kind of change,” he said prior to taking the stage.
The Rev. Lennox Yearwood, who’s joined McKibben’s climate efforts, told the multi-generational crowd that the only way to successfully take down the fossil fuel industry is to “break down the barriers even within our own movement.”
“We cannot have a segregated progressive movement,” he said to the crowd.
Karla Bizub, 38, a Chicago resident who lives in the Streeterville neighborhood, volunteered to promote the “Do the Math” banner in the theater’s lobby.
The white banner — covered with signatures — travels on the tour bus to every city.
Bizub predicts the banner has several thousand signatures from people who’ve attended the show across the country.
“It’s practically filled up at this point,” she said. “I think it’s really interesting for people to see how many people support this movement.”
The “Do the Math” tour hits Madison, Wisconsin tonight and will finish in Salt Lake City on December 3.