The education of a climate upstart with a 'weird' name

A trip to the United Nations' climate talks in Bali sounds like every young activist's dream. But when a group of recent Middlebury College graduates trekked there in 2007 to continue the environmental work they began in school, at least one found the scene more daunting than inspiring.

The aspiring young leaders had orchestrated rallies in all 50 states that year to push for slashing greenhouse gas emissions -- only to be greeted in Bali by "endless meetings about long-term targets, most of which weren't going well," one of them, Phil Aroneanu, recalled recently.

Just as Aroneanu began "falling a little into despair" at the task of slowing global carbon, the Middlebury friends got a new email from their friend and adviser Bill McKibben. Government climatologist James Hansen, he told the young greens, was setting 350 parts per million as the atmosphere's CO2 safe zone in his newest research.

McKibben also suggested that since 350 ppm was about to become a very important climate number, why not rename their group after it? Jamie Henn, now the group's communications director, remembered his initial reaction when the email arrived during a moment of reflection on the beach: "That's totally weird."


People would undoubtedly assume the name was 360, Henn thought at the time. But then the former classmates realized that the number's initial obscurity also illustrated its potential to pique curiosity among potential converts.

"It poses a question," Henn said. "Then you get to start talking to them about climate change. I get that debate every day."

Since that day in Bali, has talked about climate change on an impressive scale given its young age. More than 24,000 people attended 22 sold-out shows for its "Do the Math" tour, a stylized live delivery of a McKibben article on the global carbon budget. When seized on a then-unknown oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast, calling on fellow climate activists to protest Keystone XL at the White House gates, lions of the environmental movement joined more than 1,000 others to get arrested (Greenwire, Aug. 19, 2011).

It's tempting to say their meteoric rise takes the founders by surprise. But much like the young Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who backed the emissions-cutting targets of their first campaign, which they called Step it Up, the group's young upstarts envisioned their place in history from the beginning.

"Clearly, a lot of people were concerned about climate change, but it didn't look like the movements we'd studied in school with protests and songs and visual imagery and analyses of power and all these intricate things," May Boeve, now the group's executive director, said in an interview.

The Middlebury friends wanted to change that. And they are making progress on the savviest of shoestrings.

Revenues at totaled $3.6 million in fiscal 2012, according to its most recent Internal Revenue Service report. That's less than one-thirtieth of the Sierra Club's haul -- or what might remind you that Exxon Mobil Corp. makes in one hour. (For a look at financial information for five major environmental groups, click here.)

But the youngest of the major green groups counts tens of thousands more Twitter followers and Facebook likes than both Sierra and the Natural Resources Defense Council, while extending its volunteer network to 188 countries. After its 2011 merger with 1Sky, an allied climate nonprofit that had mobilized domestic grass-roots activists while worked internationally, revenue at the group more than doubled.

Henn echoed other original members of the group's Step it Up precursor in invoking social movements, from civil rights to women's suffrage, as a model for fighting climate change. Yet he looked to a more digital-age model for what the group hopes to achieve today.

Gay rights "became something that people had to be on the right side of" as same-sex marriage supporters and other advocates "used iconic action in a powerful way to create a political narrative around this issue," Henn said in an interview. "They used losses in an incredibly powerful way."

The $5.4 billion KXL offers a similar opportunity: "If it doesn't go our way, I still think it'll be an incredibly powerful step" toward building a long-term climate movement in the United States, Henn posited.

Even so, he added, "we fully intend to win."

Heeding, and shaping, the 'zeitgeist'

In deriving its inspiration from historical upheavals driven by mass shifts in public opinion and demographics, consciously breaks the mold cast with little variation by older green groups that share its national footprint. Though it does push for specific goals such as divestment from fossil fuels and the rejection of KXL, the group's central goal is building a strong global community of climate activists working independently of outcomes on a single bill, rally or regulation.

Jason Kowalski,'s U.S. policy director, describes this ethos as a "culture of ambition" different from an American environmentalism "that has been so focused on protecting existing policy progress."

Many of's partners "were founded after major environmental bills had passed Congress and set up to defend them," he added. "Some have 'Defense' in their name, and that's awesome. We couldn't do what we do without them."

What doesn't do is actively promote federal proposals that would slow emissions. Even the group's most inside-the-Beltway campaign, on the Alberta-to-Gulf-Coast pipeline that it made a household name, looks to President Obama in the aftermath of the unsuccessful fight to pass cap-and-trade legislation in Congress.

But Kowalski would not rule out a future foray into the sort of vote-whipping and favor-courting that failed to secure a climate bill in 2010.

"There may be a point when we drop everything and say, ' is running a legislative campaign, and we're going to pass a climate bill'," he said. "If that's where the zeitgeist is, that's what we'll do."

McKibben planted a seed for that effort earlier this year by joining Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to unveil a bill that would charge large polluters and return most of the revenue to legal U.S. residents (Greenwire, Feb. 14).

For the moment, however, takes many cues from the same diffuse, energetic spirit that drove its collegiate founders to turn Step It Up into a permanent force. Younger activists are often the faces of its Days of Action, organized as unified, highly visual shows of force in support of emissions limits.

"You could hold a public forum, you could ski down a glacier, but at the same time we're setting a bunch of parameters because we know that just actions won't add up," Henn said of the concept.

Seven colleges have joined 22 cities and 19 religious institutions in agreeing to divest their endowments from fossil fuels under pressure from the group's student-driven Go Fossil Free campaign. Universities played a similar role in the 1970s and 1980s divestment effort to isolate apartheid-era South Africa.

The group's read on the environmental zeitgeist is also bringing it deeper into local battles over hydraulic fracturing through campaigns steered by its 501(c)(4) nonprofit arm, Action Fund.

Operations Director Jeremy Osborn traced's ability to communicate so effectively with members of the millennial generation, raised as digital natives, to the backgrounds of its founders.

"I graduated from college in 2007, and this is the only professional job I've held," he said. "It's a narrow perspective. It's a new perspective."

McKibben the 'prophet'

Osborn was not the only founding member of to trace its energy back to the small-scale, individual-driven message in vogue among environmentalists after the release of Al Gore's climate documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."

The group's mission sprang from the passionate belief of the students that "it's not light bulbs, not Priuses, it's large systemic change" that is truly necessary to defeat climate change, Osborn said.

That call for greater sacrifice imbues with a moral authority reflected in the popular writings of its president, who first met many of its student founders during a five-day walk across Vermont to raise awareness of climate risks.

"Even if you drive a Prius, you've failed," McKibben wrote of the popular hybrid Toyota automobiles in a recent column for Orion magazine. "Because there's a certain sense in which Prius-driving can become an out, an excuse for inaction, the twenty-first-century equivalent of 'I have a lot of black friends.'"

The potent phraseology of McKibben, a writer for The New Yorker before he became an activist, makes him the face of the group despite his avowal in an interview that he is deliberately "making myself less important all the time" to the leadership of

"The right model" for fighting climate change takes strength not from one individual but from the larger populace, McKibben said, pointing to the secret grass-roots campaign against the German occupation of France during World War II. "Nobody knows, and we still don't, who were the leaders of the French resistance. Effective resistance comes from every angle."

Yet McKibben's role in is often amplified by media coverage of its work, as well as the compelling speaking style he has displayed during TV appearances as well as on the Do the Math tour and at other public events, including February's Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C.

NRDC Director of Government Affairs David Goldston, describing his group's successful partnership with on KXL, pointed to the value its president brings to the table. "We feel it's been incredibly important to have support from an outside-the-Beltway group with a charismatic public leader," he said.

Perhaps the best measure of McKibben's influence is his digital reach. His lengthy Rolling Stone article on the global carbon budget, the Do the Math tour's inspiration, was shared more than 112,000 times on Facebook. When liberal columnist Jonathan Chait, a favorite of Obama's, recently accused environmentalists of a grave miscalculation by focusing on KXL to the exclusion of the U.S. EPA power plant emissions rules, he did so in notably personal fashion with a photo of McKibben's 2011 arrest at the White House.

Matthew Nisbet, associate professor of communication at American University, gave his academic examination of McKibben -- written in March for Harvard University's Shorenstein Center -- a title that reflects the famous environmentalist's religious connection to his work: "Nature's Prophet."

Nisbet credited McKibben with pushing "the U.S. environmental movement from an almost exclusive focus on insider lobbying, legal strategies and think-tank-style influence to focus greater resources on grass-roots organizing."

But, he concluded, "McKibben has failed to offer pragmatic and achievable policy ideas" that might avoid the catastrophic struggle for dwindling resources that he sees erupting as the planet continues to warm. Instead of that approach, Nisbet wrote, McKibben chooses to pursue "a mass consciousness in support of limiting economic growth and consumption."

Many in might point to other environmental groups as better suited to craft those "pragmatic and achievable policy ideas." To be sure, the notion of the group as uniquely McKibben's rang untrue for the group's leaders.

The bespectacled 53-year-old "isn't that well-known outside of the U.S.," Payal Parekh, a global managing director now working from Switzerland, said in an interview. "He's very, very American, which isn't going to work in all parts of the world."

McKibben pointed out that has "worked in every country on Earth except North Korea" and "in no more than two or three does anybody have any idea who I am. The important thing has always been the number."

KXL: 'the be-all, end-all'?

Another vitally important goal for comes from the pen of Hansen, the outspoken climatologist who retired from NASA in April to focus on environmental advocacy.

Four years after his 350 ppm essay gave a name to the Middlebury students' new group, Hansen declared that permitting the unchecked development of western Canada's oil sands would mean "game over" for the climate thanks to their higher emissions footprint compared with conventional oil.

That judgment rested on an assumption that all 168 billion barrels of crude in Alberta's oil sands could be extracted and refined, an impossible task, but nonetheless jump-started's involvement in the fight against a pipeline that may bring more than 700,000 barrels per day of the fuel to the Gulf Coast.

KXL has brought the group into the upper echelon of environmentalism and played to its strengths in pushing a powerful frame -- the pipeline as symbol of planetary destruction -- that underpins a simple goal. The $5.4 billion pipeline also has given an education in operating within what Aroneanu, now its U.S. managing director, called "the political pundit-industrial complex."

The political challenge is simple. The more talks about KXL, the less it discusses EPA climate rules that many in the environmental movement consider equally or even more important than a single oil sands crude pipeline.

The group sniffs at any zero-sum frame that pits goals against each other in competition for attention in the hothouse of Capitol Hill. "There are zero policies alone that would solve the climate crisis," Aroneanu said. "It's not just that we need to stop the Keystone pipeline, but it's a big chunk, and it provides a way for people to understand what we're up against."

He returned to a comparison of climate activism with the civil rights movement, referencing the sites of pivotal marches and demonstrations in the 1960s: "Was Birmingham or Montgomery a distraction from the Voting Rights Act? I don't think so."

Goldston, of NRDC, said the younger green group is learning how to contextualize the pipeline that put it on the map in Washington. "One thing we always emphasize to 350, which they have indeed heard us on, is that Keystone shouldn't be seen as the be-all, end-all of the climate debate," he said. "Keystone is a vital climate issue. It's not the only climate issue."

For Betsy Taylor, a prominent environmentalist who leads the climate consulting firm Breakthrough Strategies,'s pipeline and divestment campaigns show that the group is "willing to stand up to the more traditional environmental groups as well as the fossil fuel industry."

Greens "can't just go with an EPA strategy that is essential but not nearly sufficient," added Taylor, who has known the Middlebury College cohort of since their Step it Up days.

But the group's strategy also raises the question of whether a more sweeping climate policy could do what denying KXL is not guaranteed to: ensure that Canada slows down development of its expensive, emissions-heavy fuel. Imposing a global carbon tax, for example, likely would deliver a lasting blow to the oil sands, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and environmental economics expert John Reilly said in an interview.

"The bigger problem at the moment is probably coal power plants," not the pipeline, Reilly said.

In fact, has embarked on campaigns against coal-fired electricity projects from Massachusetts to Bangladesh. If the group's readiness to align with foes of individual fossil-fuel projects across the globe sounds like reaching too far, too fast, such is the mission implied by those fateful three digits suggested by McKibben.

"We stand by 350 as an aspirational goal and a symbol of where we need to be," Jon Warnow, the group's web director, said, not "because in our careers we intend to get back to this number."

Which is a good thing, because cutting atmospheric carbon dioxide from its current level of about 400 ppm to 350 ppm could not happen before 2100 even "if we stop all emissions of all greenhouse gases tomorrow," according to Reilly.

A logistical coming of age

On a more prosaic level, the group's leaders point to significant progress made in recent years on building the organizational infrastructure that they never dreamed of creating during the early days of the Bali talks.

Boeve, the executive director, dated the group's coming of age to the years before the 2009 U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Before then, "we didn't have a vision for becoming an organization at all," she said, and assumed that future actions could be planned remotely from afar, the same way that Step it Up had operated in 2007.

Today, Osborn coordinates staffers in South Africa, India, Brazil, Egypt and 14 other nations. Overseas climate activists are getting training in grass-roots organizing as part of the group's Global Power Shift, which kicked off in Turkey in June. Broadly speaking, is committed to expanding the international role that it played primarily before merging with the U.S.-based 1Sky in 2011.

"People view us as a U.S. organization with a lot of money," said Parekh, the global managing director, and "can be shocked when they see how small our staff actually is. We only hire people who are from the regions they're working with and actually living there."

What the group had not done in the run-up to Copenhagen was develop the internal structure that 1Sky, operating as its effective domestic counterpart, put in place as it fought from the left for a strong cap-and-trade bill in the early months of the Obama administration. Group leaders credit that loose, agile strategy with helping it score early victories, but most point to its merger with 1Sky as a point of palpable maturation.

After what many perceived as failed Copenhagen talks, "a lot of the messages going to 350 were 'go home and work, get your own government'" to buy in, said Taylor, the co-founder and board chairman of 1Sky who now advises By joining forces, the international, side could take advantage of the administrative framework that 1Sky already had built.

With that change came a new dose of formality for the Middlebury friends. In the beginning, Warnow said, "we took a lot of pride in the fact that we were all co-coordinators." The of 2013 features each of the half-dozen co-founders in more defined roles that play to their personal strengths, a transition that all have described as largely smooth.

Yet in some ways, the success of can be measured not in the coordination of its employees but in the dedication of its unpaid volunteers.

"Our sense is, whenever you can provide a plausible model for giving people some sense of control over an issue, a way to imagine they would be affecting things, then people will try the hardest," McKibben said.

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