A climate change 'bummer outer' comes to Washington

Johnsburg, N.Y. -- If you think the record droughts, famines, storms and floods that many scientists say are being caused by climate change are bad now, Bill McKibben is setting out to assure you that these effects will only get worse, more expensive and harder to avoid.

A gaunt, soft-spoken environmental writer who has spent 21 years and almost a dozen books trying to convince the United States to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, McKibben, 50, sometimes describes himself to adoring college audiences as a professional "bummer outer."

He explained his approach to ClimateWire during a hike up a mountain near this tiny Adirondack town where he spends his summers: "I think my job as a writer and journalist is to tell the truth, and not to write it so that you make people feel better than we should about this. I think the course we are on is not working."

McKibben's mission is to change the course, to try and drag the nation's environmental movement with him into the streets to gain more attention and, sometimes, for civil disobedience. A new chapter starts tomorrow, when he will help lead a sit-in in front of the White House. There, he hopes, he and 2,000 other people will be arrested for civil disobedience while calling for President Obama to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would import oil with an unusually large carbon footprint from the tar sands of Canada.

The effort will continue for two weeks, with 50 to 100 people signed up to be arrested every day. Some are protesting land-use issues; others worry about oil spills. McKibben's protest is that further exploitation of one of the world's largest fossil fuel reserves may doom the cause of preventing climate change, one that Obama has said he supports.

McKibben has derided Obama for ducking frank discussions of the impacts of climate change by focusing on what he calls "focus group favorites," such as green jobs. He sees the pending U.S. decision on the Canadian pipeline as a major test of Obama's concern about climate change. "This is a presidential decision, not a congressional one. Given a clear shot at the basket, the question is whether he'll take it, or not."

This will be a busy fall for McKibben and his many activist-supporters. On Sept. 24, his Internet-driven group, called 350.org, will sponsor a worldwide day of protest, staging demonstrations in more than 100 countries. Many of them will involve people riding bicycles because the theme McKibben has set -- "Moving Planet" -- is intended to push the globe's transportation away from vehicles that emit greenhouse gases.

'We could change our habits'

In between these events, McKibben will be taking potshots at some of his favorite targets. They include Obama, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and moderate environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). In a recent essay, McKibben asserted that EDF and other more conventional groups pressing Congress for limits on carbon emissions "wore nice clothes, lobbied tirelessly, and compromised at every turn." The result so far, he added, has been "total defeat, no moral victories."

McKibben's frustration with better-known U.S. environmental groups is partly due to what he regards as their elitism. "I've spent my life struggling with the image that environmentalism is what rich, white people might do when they've taken care of every other problem."

Elitism is a subject he knows something about. He was president of The Harvard Crimson newspaper in college. After a five-year stint writing for the New Yorker magazine, he quit and hiked into the Adirondacks to write a book, called "The End of Nature." Published in 1989, it was the first book written for the layman about the threats of climate change, and it became a bestseller, translated into 24 languages.

He argued that man's greenhouse gas emissions have fundamentally changed the relatively benign climate that the Earth has enjoyed for the past 10,000 years. "We may be able to create a world that can support our numbers and our habits, but it will be an artificial world, a space station."

"Or just possibly," he added, "we could change our habits." He wrote about how he and his wife had substituted local bicycle rides for long vacation trips. Instead of installing a hot tub, they installed thermal windows and experienced winter in the Adirondacks by setting their thermostat at a chilly 55 degrees.

A disciple of James Hansen

Many of the climate theories in the book -- and the future career path of McKibben -- were shaped by James Hansen, who was then and is now the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Starting in 1988, Hansen had begun to testify before Congress that greenhouse gas emissions had begun to change familiar weather patterns on the planet and, without action to limit them, the changes would become more obvious and dangerous in the 21st century.


As Hansen explained and as McKibben later found out, the people who were most vulnerable to the flooding, famine and drought and the spread of tropical diseases lived in developing countries. McKibben was interviewing people in the slums of Bangladesh in 2006 when he was hospitalized with dengue fever, which is still untreatable. As he watched others dying, he recalled in a later book: "Something in me snapped. Nothing concrete had come from my work, or anyone else's."

The feeling deepened last year when a cumbersome bill to cope with climate change barely passed the House and collapsed in the Senate. By then, McKibben was organizing his second global day of demonstrations and was thinking of other ways to take his case to the streets.

Working with a handful of students at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he sometimes teaches, McKibben used the Internet in 2007 to organize 1,400 climate change demonstrations around the United States in a single day. Having activists stay home to demonstrate was an emission-saving alternative to organizing a march on Washington. "Our organizing model is closer to a potluck supper," McKibben explained. "We suggest a date and theme and everybody brings a dish."

In 2009, he took the model global, organizing activities all over the world. By then, his group was called 350.org. The group's name comes from a more recent report by Hansen that explains there are so-called tipping points that could send the Earth's rapidly changing climate to dangerous levels unless carbon dioxide levels are held down to 350 parts per million. The current ratio is measured at 392 ppm.

In his most recent book, "Eaarth," McKibben depicts more recent severe droughts and storms, melting glaciers and rising acid levels in oceans as signs that we have entered the period in which the old, more human-friendly Earth might not recover -- a point he makes by giving our planet a new name.

Some of McKibben's agenda may be self-defeating. For example, his campaign against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, perhaps the most powerful group lobbying against limits on carbon emissions, is based on his premise that it doesn't represent a lot of local chamber groups. He hopes to line up some of them under the slogan "The U.S. Chamber Doesn't Speak for Me." (A spokesman for the chamber declined to comment on the campaign.)

Putting the U.S. economy into 'graceful decline'

While some companies have been critical of the chamber's lobbying, McKibben will have great difficulty convincing them about another premise of his, which is that to cope with the more expensive food, weather, health and energy challenges of a climate-changed world, the growth of America's economy can't continue.

He talks about federal policies that put the economy in a "graceful decline," one that stimulates small-scale, organic farming and has more of a focus on activities in neighborhoods, towns and states than on national and international affairs. "We need to scale back, to go to ground," he says in "Eaarth."

What McKibben says he wants from Washington is a "stiff price on carbon" emissions. He calls cap and trade, the Democrats' most recent legislative attempt to impose a price on carbon emissions through an economywide emissions trading scheme, "an incredibly complicated legislative scheme that gives door prizes to every interested industry and turns the whole operation over to Goldman Sachs to run."

"I know that Bill knows you don't pass legislation in this country without negotiations and compromise," countered Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. He was one of the leaders of a coalition of major environmental groups and corporations that pushed cap and trade through the House. The measure failed in the Senate not because EDF worked with industry, added Krupp, but "because we didn't make the case."

Asked about McKibben's advocacy of civil disobedience, Krupp said "that's a matter of personal conscience and personal choice. It's not among the tactics that EDF uses."

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a small, Washington-based environmental group, is among those lining up alongside McKibben. "There were groups that played nice with some of the businesses, persuaded their buddies to go along with some kind of deal. It didn't happen. It [cap and trade] is a tested and proven failure."

Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton administration White House aide, has known McKibben for 15 years. "He tends to posit grandiose philosophical questions, and yet when you actually read his detailed recommendations on issues, he can be quite pragmatic." Bledsoe called it an "interesting duality."

Bledsoe, who now works with Washington's Bipartisan Policy Center, said he isn't surprised by McKibben's move toward civil disobedience. "Because climate impacts will hurt and potentially devastate the poor disproportionately, the moral and social justice elements of climate are much greater than many other environmental problems," Bledsoe said.

In the interview here, McKibben explained that his group, 350.org, gets about $1 million a year in donations, most of it coming from foundations. Most of its activists are volunteers, led by 20 to 30 staffers "who are paid very little." Financially, it is outgunned by the U.S. Chamber and fossil fuel companies, which is why he has organized it as a "movement" to raise public awareness. "Our currency is bodies and spirit," he said. "This [climate change] is the biggest thing that's ever happened."

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