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No, Really. Read It

by Miriam Axel-Lute on August 1, 2012

When people started passing around Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” I didn’t click through. Not even when it was my wife recommending it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you didn’t either, for similar reasons—I’m already convinced, and reading about it again makes me feel depressed and overwhelmed because change is so slow.

Which is why it is important that my wife didn’t just paste the link on Facebook. She talked to me about it. And her summary of how the article affected her convinced me to actually read the whole damn thing.

There are two parts to what he says. The first is a simple, clear description, using just a few key well-substantiated facts, of how soon we are headed past the threshold that will create 2 degrees average warming—the one thing all the nations of the world can agree upon is a Seriously Bad Thing. Sixteen years. That’s just about when I will be sending my daughters out into adulthood. This is no longer about what sort of abstract world our grandchildren will inherit. For my generation it never was, but this crossed the threshold of real enough to sink in on a different level. That was seriously important.

The even more important part is his framing of what needs to be done and how. McKibben is very clear that calls to change individual behavior are not going to cut it. Not while the major fossil fuel companies have on their balance sheets right now income from selling and burning fossil fuel that is currently under the Earth. How much? Five times that which we could burn and stay below that 2-degree rise. Their business plan, their stock prices all assume that all of that will be gotten out one way or the other and burned. Their facades about research into sustainable energy alternatives crumble in the face of that reality.

And so, McKibben says, we need to recognize that these companies’ business model, and therefore, as they are now structured, these companies, are the enemy. We need to tax and regulate carbon enough that we keep it out of the air, and because that will be fought tooth and nail, wads of cash and anti-democratic suppression of activists, we need a movement–much like the anti-apartheid movement to divest from South Africa—that targets these companies and weakens them by removing their investments and making it conventional wisdom that their profits are illusory. We need a movement that says, we can’t let their short-term profit-maximizing juggernaut cause (any more of) the kind of chaos and suffering that a rapidly warming world is going to generate.

It’s still daunting, enough that I can’t even hold it in mind all the time and still function in the rest of my life, but it actually feels much easier to get my hands around than previous rounds of the alarm. Like my wife said to me, it’s scary, but it’s concrete and specific enough to feel like it could lead to action. This is what needs to happen. Period. It that way it was almost hopeful despite its bleakness.

It reminds me of the Story of Change video that points out that we have much more power to create change as citizens than as consumers. We cannot fix this mess by pouring all of our energy into making sure we minimize our personal fossil fuel energy use. We will need to do that, and the sooner and more widespread the better, but right now if the choice on limited personal energy is political action or lifestyle adjustment, we need to go for action. We cannot halt climate change with a guilt trip campaign to change light bulbs.

McKibben’s article was read by almost half a million people. People are kicking surveyors for the Keystone XL pipeline off their land in Texas, threatening to confiscate trucks moving Keystone materials through Native American lands in South Dakota, blockading mountaintop removal coal mining sites in Appalachia, and marching against fracking in D.C. McKibben is calling for a divestment campaign to start on campuses.

I don’t know what shape the national movement to grow out of all of this will take or what my role will be. But to start with, I’m promising myself that I won’t tune it out any more. I’ve played out the snide comments about how this weather is the new normal, get used to it.  Whether you want do it for your children or someone else’s, it’s time to put on our big girl pants and act.