Hot Fight in a Hot World

Bill McKibben
Originally published: 
October, 2017

by Elizabeth Wason

Bill McKibben, climate change activist and powerhouse behind, visited campus last Thursday to talk about resistance against accelerating climate change. He came to present the 2017 Peter M. Wege Lecture on Sustainability, U-M’s flagship lecture on sustainability, sponsored by the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) with support from U-M’s Center for Sustainable Systems, Bicentennial Office, Eisenberg Institute, and others. This was the keynote event in the weeklong series "MC2: Michigan & the Climate Crisis," organized by a committee of faculty and students.

Activist group Science for the People shared flyers for Friday’s Rally for Climate Justice at the doors to Hill Auditorium. The audience inside buzzed as an energy pop quiz flashed on the projector screen above the stage. (Correct answer: 75% of employees drive solo to work.) Taking the stage, McKibben apologized in advance that his admitted "profession in the world is just bumming people out." And so it began.

The increase in temperature provoked by human-induced climate change equals 400,000 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs. The Great Barrier Reef is the biggest living structure in the world, "but it’s only half as living as it was 18 months ago," he said. This year’s Hurricane Harvey obliterated any existing record for rainfall—world records challenged by Hurricane Maria just a few days later. In some places on Earth, it’s getting too hot to work, sleep, or survive, he said. "But this is the world in which we currently live."

We must act now, he said. And we can.

McKibben recalled his prior action plan: "I just kept writing more books, and giving more talks," he said. He believed he was participating in an argument about the environment which, by writing more, he could help win. Before long, he’d thought, politicians would capitulate, and things would change.

But after living under that misconception for a long while, McKibben realized he was actually part of a fight that he should help win—that although both science and the fossil fuel industry agreed for years that the evidence favored climate change, they nonetheless argued in support of their different interests.

"The question became how to fight," he said. "I recognized that writing books wasn’t going to move the needle anymore."

McKibben and his early collaborators chose to organize around the number 350—reflecting their goal of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million—foolishly, he said, as a giant global goal. "There were seven continents; each of seven undergraduates took one. The student who took Antarctica also had to take the internet.

"We didn’t know if it would work. We didn’t have any money." All the members of the early group were volunteers, most were women, and more than expected were teenagers. "I was told that environmentalism was something that rich white people did," McKibben admitted. But he couldn’t help noticing that most of the people doing this activism were black, brown, and young—because that’s who populates most of our world. Even as they live and protest in countries everywhere, "Basically, all their hearts are in the exact same place."

"Sometimes we win these fights," he said. "In fact, we win them more and more and more."

He flipped through a slideshow of activists across the world representing the 350 movement, including photos of babies and kids who’d inherited the cause, from a collection nicknamed "350 adorable." In one photo, 3,000 people stood in the dry bed of a recently extinct river in Santa Fe, flipping up blue blankets as a satellite camera drifted overhead, to represent their dream of a healthy ecosystem. The crowd was a small patch of blue in the scorched, brown riverbed snaking through the landscape.

"If it’s not drought, it’s flood," he continued. In more photos, McKibben showed that people could stand comfortably on sand where once they would have been covered by the Red Sea, while elsewhere, the biggest floods since Noah deluged Pakistan.

Addressing the campus crowd, McKibben listed some opportunities to rise in protest against rising temperatures and tempers right here in Michigan. Judging from his raised voice, the Line 5 pipeline in the Great Lakes presents the most egregious current problem to solve. Hidden underwater, the pipeline runs oil from Canada, takes a shortcut through Michigan, and runs the oil back up to Ontario. "That’s insane!" he insisted.

He was incredulous that U-M’s millions of dollars of investments in fossil fuels exceeds that of the country of Haiti, which can’t divest—Haiti has no investments in fossil fuels. Further, Haiti can’t reduce their reliance on fossil fuels—they barely use any. "The many and the small versus the big and the few," he said. "Really, that’s the battle we’re engaged in."

He pointed out the diversity of age in members of the audience, appealing to older listeners to act in resistance against climate change. "Young people shouldn’t have to be the cannon fodder for this fight. After a certain point," he said, referring to the risk of arrest and censure, "What the hell can they possibly do to you? You should act the way elders need to act in a working civilization."

"There is nothing radical about what we’re talking about," McKibben pressed as his main point, defending rational appeals for a healthy environment. "When you think about it, that’s a deeply conservative demand.

"If you wake up in the morning and make your fortune by changing the chemical composition of the environment," then you’re committing the most radical acts on the face of this Earth, he said. "And it’s our responsibility to check that behavior."

"It’s not all going to be ok. Stopping climate change is no longer on the menu," McKibben said, but not before reiterating his earlier apology. At worst, we’re just trying to keep our societies literally alive.

But he finished with a reminder for the audience to join Friday’s Rally for Climate Justice, insisting that we and everyone should engage however we can to improve the odds of success in our fight against climate change—even if just a little bit.