Talking About a Revolution
Thursday, December 20, 2012 8:46 AM
BECKY HALBROOK, a retired attorney who worked for Big Oil for four decades, stood in front of the White House in the late summer heat along with a crowd of other well-groomed retirees holding signs against a proposed oil pipeline.
Illustration by Dan Kirchoff
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She was waiting to be arrested.
She had a hundred-dollar bill in one pocket, a piece of identification in the other. She knew she was minutes away from being taken to a detention center.
Her 27-year-old son, who had introduced his parents to the writings of Bill McKibben and the concepts of climate change and carbon debt when he was in college, had his doubts about his mother getting arrested.
It was the proposal to build a pipeline running though the Midwest from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico that got her attention. She had grown up in the Midwest, knew the farmland and aquifers that the proposed pipeline would cross and could threaten, and it sparked something in her.
It was almost 100 degrees and Halbrook was sweating. She had never publicly protested anything.
Minutes later, Halbrook was read her rights, handcuffed and shepherded into a van with other protesters. In all, 52 people, many of them retirees, were arrested that day.
That was Thursday. At the beginning of the week, when the first arrests came, no one knew about the protests and few people had heard about the pipeline.
By the end of the week, the Keystone XL project was on the front page of the New York Times.
NOW, A YEAR LATER, Halbrook was willing to go further. During her career she had been looking at the small picture. Now, she was looking at the big one. She was thinking about her grandchildren and the problems they would inherit and she was willing to act.
Bill McKibben is counting on it.
McKibben, the Harvard-educated environmental activist who wrote The End of Nature, his first book on global warming, in 1989, founded 350.org in 2008 to coordinate efforts by everyday people to combat climate change. He relies heavily on science to make his arguments, but reining in global warming has been elusive and highly politicized. There has been very little progress in the past 25 years.
And time, McKibben says, is running out.
That's why McKibben declared war this fall against Big Oil, Big Gas, and Big Coal. No more compromise. No more baby steps towards curbing climate change. No waiting around for government to act. No more Kyoto protocols.
None of that.
He's hitting below the belt, going right for the wallets of the fossil fuel industry.
McKibben is talking about a revolution.
People are listening.
Now, they are starting to act.
IN NOVEMBER, MCKIBBEN LAUNCHED a full-out effort against the fossil fuel industry in a month-long, 21-city Do The Math tour meant to rouse the public to action.
A big part of his message is to push universities and other institutions to divest thier stocks in fossil fuels in an attempt to dry up the gushers of money going to the industry. He wants a big, nasty black mark on Big Oil. He wants to put universities and other institutions on notice that, if they continue to invest in industries whose environmental credibility is as slippery as a Texas oil spill, they, too, play a big role in the climate fallout.
Overall, U.S. colleges and universities have around $400 billion invested in the fossil fuel industry.
This, says McKibben, is an ethical question they can no longer dodge.
MCKIBBEN SPOKE TO PACKED HALLS across the country and students rallied to the cause. By the end of the Do The Math tour at the beginning of December, people at over 189 colleges and universities had embraced McKibben's Fossil Free model and started protests to pressure their institutions to divest from oil, gas, and coal stocks.
The Fossil Free activism has caught on more in the Northeastern U.S. than elsewhere in the country. Unity College in Waldo County was the first in the nation to agree to divest. In Maine, Bowdoin and Bates students have been demonstrating and signing petitions. Petitions have also circulated at the University of Southern Maine, but students at the University of Maine in Orono haven't shown much interest.
The Universities of Vermont and New Hampshire have active movements afoot, as do Vassar, Tufts, Brown and Swarthmore.
Divesting stocks that are tied up in mutual funds and other complicated investments is not an easy task, by any measure, but not impossible, either.
MCKIBBEN SEEMS TO HAVE HIT A NERVE at the exact right time. Recent surveys by George Mason and Yale universities indicate that over 70 percent of Americans believe global warming is real and an Associated Press poll on Friday, December 14, indicated that 80 percent of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, believe climate change is a serious problem.
Apparently, so do some oil and gas companies. A hundred companies, including Shell, BP, Statoil and Iberdrola signed a Carbon Price Communique in November that supports "national and international discussions about climate policy and carbon pricing . . . (we support) carbon pricing, that along with other policies is part of an effective pro-business strategy for tackling climate change."
Then, oddly, the energy company document starts to sound like a treatise from Greenpeace.
The current levels of global warming, it states, could "wreak havoc with our climate, increase extreme weather events, and raise sea levels dramatically, along with all the damage to livelihoods, infrastructure and the economy this would bring."
That's right. Big Oil and Big Gas are saying global warming is real, it is dangerous, and they are asking for a carbon tax.
It's hard to continue to deny climate change when BP and Shell are siding with environmentalists. While they don't mention McKibben, they agree with his math.
McKibben's Do The Math approach is based on the facts that he outlined in a popular Rolling Stone article earlier this year and that are widely acknowledged as accurate.
It is essentially this: Almost everyone agrees that the climate cannot exceed more than a 2-degree-Celsius temperature increase (just under 4 degrees F) without costly and deadly consequences. The math justifies the reasoning, but the outcome is simple, according to the International Energy Agency.
By 2017, if nothing is done to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide, we will reach the limit.
That's four years away.MCKIBBEN SAYS IT'S TOO LATE for small, individual actions to make a big enough difference. Volunteering to drive an electric car, eat locally and buy curlicue lightbulbs is not going to cut it. It will help, but not enough. Neither will shifting from gasoline to a "bridge fuel" like liquefied natural gas, as Senator Angus King has promoted
"Twenty years ago, I would have said sure," says McKibben. "Now, there isn't time for that. It's too late."
And even big companies stepping up and volunteering for a carbon tax is not enough, soon enough.
THE MOST COMPELLING PART of McKibben's argument to put massive public and financial pressure on the fossil fuel industry as a whole is that the industry bases their money-making projections on calculations that include oil and gas reserves that are still in the ground. That's a problem, because if those reserves are actually tapped, the global temperature will skyrocket five times beyond that 2-degree-Celsius upper, tippy-top limit of manageable climate change.
If the energy reserves are not tapped, then the Big Guys are playing a shell game, saying their worth is far higher than it actually is and drawing more investment and political clout as a result.
If the reserves are tapped, says McKibben, we are looking at environmental change at a pace to which humans, with all their technology, cannot adapt.
What that means, on the ground, could be more drought, changes in agriculture, changes in disease organisms, more melting polar ice resulting in more ocean water temperature changes and increasingly frequent "hundred year" storms.
All of that is already happening, of course, and trying to adapt to the current changes associated with climate trends is expensive enough.
Super-storm Sandy, for instance, will cost an estimated $42 billion in New York City and $30 billion in New Jersey, according to reports in the New York Times. The Midwest drought this past summer was the worst in the past 50 years and sent the price of corn soaring for everything from animal feed to corn syrup. The price of meat, eggs and dairy will rise in 2013 as a result, with beef an estimated 5 percent higher, according to the federal government.
McKibben somewhat creepily predicted the dust-bowl-type drought and the floods in New York subways.
"Good thing I didn't predict anything more," he says, half joking, at his Do The Math rally in Portland in November.
MCKIBBEN IS CALLING ON RETIREES like Becky Halbrook and her husband, Sam Jones, who is also a retired oil industry attorney, to add maturity to the call for action through civil disobedience, speaking out at alumni clubs, churches and other institutions where they are members, and encouraging those institutions to remove fossil fuel stocks from their portfolios - generally making Big Oil as persona non grata as Big Tobacco was in the 1990s and racial discrimination was in the 1960s.
While she worked for the oil industry, it hadn't occurred to Halbrook that her employers - Getty and Texaco - might be colluding to weaken environmental oversight. Both Halbrook and Jones worked to make environmental regulations clear to their oil company employers so regulations could be followed, not changed or thwarted.
It was good work, they say, but following the rules is not nearly enough now. Breaking them is what's called for.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline route was shuttled by President Obama after the publicity, although another existing pipeline will likely be used to carry the crude south.
Still, protesting the pipeline and seeing results emboldened Halbrook and Jones to work harder to combat climate change.
"What am I sitting around for if I?can have any influence at all that will make it better for the next generation?" says Halbrook. "It's better than sitting around watching reruns of NCIS. It takes getting yourself off the couch, putting yourself in a little bit of an uncomfortable position."
"I think there are a lot of 65-year-olds who are willing to do that."