Bill McKibben’s Math: Climate Change Hits Home (in a 22-City Tour)
It shouldn’t take a hurricane to blow open the debate about climate change. But Sandy might help 350.org prove what’s at stake in a nationwide campaign to divest university endowments from the fossil fuel industry.
by Phil Aroneanu
posted Nov 05, 2012
Flooded Bridge photo by Barry Yanowitz
Photo by Barry Yanowitz.
Phil Aroneanu is an organizer with 350.org
For two hours last Monday night, New York City got pummeled by Hurricane Sandy, along with much of the New Jersey and Connecticut coast. The windows started bowing and rattling with every gust, and rain pelted the glass sideways. Nobody was on the streets.
Sitting in our third-floor apartment in Brooklyn, my wife and I pretended to read our books and traded nervous looks each time a gust shook the hatch that leads up to our roof. I’d been following the reports closely, so I knew we weren’t in danger of getting flooded. But like many people around the world, I was glued to the white glow of my smartphone as my Twitter feed flooded with images of rising waters on the Jersey shore and in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Sitting in my apartment last week, it felt like all the work I had done over the past few years had come to naught—we’d failed in our mission of, and this was the beginning of the end.
That night, I finally understood what many of my friends in Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and countless other places on the planet must feel each time a massive typhoon or record flooding hits. Climate change finally hit home for me: I was experiencing it in my own house and on my own skin.
For the first time since 2009, when the United States Senate voted down an ill-fated climate bill, politicians seem to be connecting the dots between extreme weather and climate change. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo broke the election-year silence around the issue in a press conference just 36 hours after the storm passed, and Mayor Bloomberg trumpeted President Obama’s climate credentials in an endorsement the next day.
Times Square photo by 350.org
As Hurricane Sandy barrels down on the East Coast, a group of activists with 350.org unfurls a giant parachute banner.
Photo courtesy of 350.org.
“Climate change is a reality,” Cuomo said. “Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.”
It shouldn’t take a hurricane to blow open the debate about climate change. But sometimes—especially in politics—reality needs to bust in at gale force to push back the millions of dollars that fossil fuel companies have spent in a 20-year effort to strongarm, threaten, and lobby politicians to stay quiet about climate.
And yet, sitting in my apartment last week, I wasn’t thinking about climate science or politics. I was emotional: tired, raw, and defeated. It felt like all the work I had done with my colleagues at 350.org over the past few years had come to naught—we’d failed in our mission of warning the globe about climate catastrophe, and this was the beginning of the end. How could we possibly fight the fossil fuel companies who insist on dumping carbon into the atmosphere, blocking progress on clean energy, and warming the planet, when we’re busy recovering from the second “once-in-a-lifetime” storm in just two years?
As I watched people in my neighborhood pick themselves up, clear trash and branches off the sidewalks in front of their houses, and get back to work, my fatigue gave way to the fighting spirit that New Yorkers showed after 9/11—I was angry. Righteously angry.
It’s that fighting spirit that we’re bringing to Do the Math, 350.org’s 22-city tour that connects the dots between climate change, politics, and the fossil fuel industry.
taxicabs hurricane sandy by Dave S-555.jpg
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In an effort to silence action on climate change, coal, oil, and gas companies have dumped more than $153 million into the 2012 presidential election alone. That’s a cynical move, as these companies already possess reserves of oil, gas, and coal that, if burned, would release five times the amount of carbon that the planet’s atmosphere can safely hold. It’s clear that the fossil fuel industry has become a rogue force—its business model is predicated on burning up the planet, and it consistently frustrates progress on clean energy.
In each of the 22 cities, 350.org and a whole crew of partners will kick off a campaign to divest University endowments from any stocks, bonds, and funds that include fossil fuel companies. It will echo the divestment effort of the 1980s that brought South Africa’s apartheid government to its knees. Student activists across the country are already sounding the alarm on fossil fuel investments, making the case that a Sandy-like future is no future at all. Folks from East Texas to the Pacific Northwest to New England are leaning into local and regional fossil fuel infrastructure campaigns, fighting tar sands pipelines and coal ports.
Fossil fuel companies have already increased the world’s temperature by one degree, and Hurricane Sandy, along with the wildfires, droughts, record heat, and floods of 2012, is the result. It’s time to fight back.
Phil Aroneanu wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. In, 2007 he co-founded the Step It Up campaign with a small group of students and author/activist Bill McKibben. In 2008, the group built on the success of Step It Up to launch the innovative 350.org. Phil currently serves as campaign director of 350.org.
Another bunch of great ideas from Fran Korten-she and her husband have already explained how to re-tool our economy and society into a world that works for everyone-without any outside intervention at all. All it takes is “People Power”.
Photo by Alex Ferguson
As the midterm political season heats up, one word on every politician’s lips is “jobs.” And for good reason. People are hurting—they can’t pay their mortgages, send their kids to college, pay their dental bills. Young people are wondering if they have a place in the work world.
So the economic pundits cheer when car sales go up, housing starts rise, consumer confidence strengthens. But as the oily ooze in the Gulf tars yet another beach, we all sense something is terribly wrong. We can’t keep tearing up the planet to keep ourselves employed. There must be another way.
So—imagine a no-holds-barred “summit” that comes up with ideas to solve both our job and environmental problems. What might it come up with?
Here is my starter list. You can add your own ideas in the comments to this article on the YES! website.
1. More farms, less agribusiness. Agribusiness substitutes chemicals and machinery for labor and employs remarkably few people. Small organic farms are far more productive per acre and bring the people back.
2. More repair, fewer products. Instead of tossing those shoes, that toaster, that computer, let’s fix them—and employ repair people in the process.
3. More recycling, less mining. Ray Anderson of the Interface flooring company says we already have enough nylon to meet the world’s carpet needs forever. The same may be true for aluminum, steel, copper, and other easily recyclable materials. We just need good systems for recovering them.
4. More renovations, less construction. Our nation has 129 million housing units. We build new ones and let old ones deteriorate. How about renovating what we have and in-filling our cities to use existing sidewalks, gas pipes, water mains, and roads?
5. More restoration, less destruction. Whether it’s forests, Superfund sites, or oil-laced wetlands, it’s time to restore. Some restoration can even pay for itself, as in restoration forestry where folks make products from the fire-prone, small-diameter trees normally considered too small to market.
6. More bike paths, fewer highways. They both cost money, but one is good for our health and good for the planet. What’s not to like?
7. More local businesses, fewer megastores. Locally owned stores employ more people per goods sold and you can often talk to a decision-maker about your purchase.
8. More dishwashing, fewer throw-aways. What if we got rid of all the disposable containers in fast food restaurants? At my friend Ron Sher’s Crossroads Shopping Center near Seattle, the food court vendors share a common crockery supply. No trees needed. It works.
9. More education, less advertising. Let’s face it. Advertising is about making us feel inadequate for something we don’t yet have. What if we stopped subsidizing advertising with tax breaks and focused on educating people to lead satisfying lives?
10. More clean energy, less fossil fuel. Here we do need new stuff—wind turbines, solar panels, insulation, passenger trains. Politicians are providing some—though not enough—funding for these sources of “green jobs.” It’s the other items on this list they’re not even talking about—but need to.
You may be thinking that my list isn’t realistic because these options cost more or depend on government funding. But that’s partly because governments subsidize oil, agribusiness, nuclear plants, ports, highways, advertising, and other unhealthy choices.
So the next time you hear a politician talk about jobs, try comparing the solutions offered to this list. By breaking out of the narrow range of options that keeps policy discussions stuck, we can create jobs that not only sustain families, but also build community and restore the living systems of our planet.
Fran Korten wrote this column for A Resilient Community, the Fall 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Fran is publisher of YES! Magazine.
I love Yes! magazine. In a world full of bad news Yes! is the antidote-always something uplifting, empowering and hopeful. This article goes along with what I’ve been saying for a long time-we are far more powerful than we realize and violence is a trick to keep us blinded and suffering.
Tahrir Square, February 2011.
Photo by Kodak Agfa.
The first time I remember being in a very large crowd and feeling that I really belonged was in 1982.
Several months before, Israel had invaded Lebanon. I had heard rumors of a massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut as I walked to work in Israel. My Israeli coworker’s attitude, as he told me, was troubling. He was not bothered that Israel might have done something wrong—only that Israel would get blamed.
The next Saturday, my Israeli wife and I made the hour-long trip from Haifa to Tel Aviv for a protest. We got early seats at an outside table at one of the European-style pastry shops that surround this big square, where Yitzhak Rabin was later assassinated. It was like a huge family gathering. People poured in from all over the country; there were hugs and kisses and greetings of friends who hadn’t seen each other in years.
A reported 400,000 Israelis showed up for this protest, representing about 10 percent of the entire Jewish population of Israel at the time. Imagine how we would feel if 10 percent of Americans—more than 30 million—came out to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
After the rally we walked by one Israeli man who stood atop a flat-bed truck taunting the crowd, jeering, “Begin, Begin, (Menahim Begin), King of Israel!” I felt so much at ease that I didn’t hesitate to turn to the crowd and say, “Just ignore him!”
It was there that I first experienced the power that Gandhi called truth force—a liberating exuberance that I would recognize again this year as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square demanded that their voices be heard. As Adrienne Maree Brown wrote in YES! Magazine of her own reaction, “My heart is bursting from my chest today, tears on my cheeks, my skin covered in waves and waves of goosebumps as my body integrates the beautiful revolution in Egypt.” I felt just the same way.
But 21 years after my first truth force awakening in Tel Aviv, I watched Baghdad’s Firdos Square during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the contrast could not have been greater.
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Firdos Square is a large traffic circle with multiple lanes of cars racing around a center that used to host a huge statue of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. military pulled down that statue and the scene was shown over and over on American television. Even though there were only a few hundred people there, the media played up the event of the toppled statue as if all of Iraq embraced the U.S. as liberators.
I knew better. I’d seen the great suffering of the Iraqi people firsthand during the preceding years of sanctions.
On my nine trips to Iraq, bringing medicines to ailing hospitals, I would stay at one of two hotels only a block away from Firdos Square. It was well known to me.
During these trips, I used to bring delegation members to these hospitals to show what conditions were like. We regularly saw water-borne diseases, a lack of medicine, and limited electricity. In one hospital the doctor showing us around got on the elevator with a flashlight. There was a shortage of light bulbs because of sanctions and the elevator was completely dark.
I knew this was due to the U.S. bombing of virtually all of Iraq’s electric plants during the 1991 Gulf War—followed by 12 devastating years of economic sanctions.
The tragedy of these sanctions is embodied, for me, in the memory of a very sweet young girl—she must have been around 8 years old—sitting on a hospital bed with her mother beside her. Because Iraq was prevented from selling oil, there was no money to pay nurses. This young girl had childhood leukemia, a form of cancer which has a very high cure rate in the U.S. with proper medication. In Iraq the cure rate was about zero. There were few cancer medicines available. I asked the doctor what this very poor family would have done before sanctions. He told me the medicines would have been free for them. “Free as water,” he said.
A peace activist defies sanctions to save lives.
If you want to understand what regime change by force versus regime change by an uprising of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent people looks like, this is it. In essence, it’s violence versus nonviolence. We don’t yet know what the final outcome in Egypt will be, but we can see the results in Iraq after twenty years of U.S.-led efforts: immense suffering and many hundreds of thousands of deaths from sanctions and invasion.
Gandhi once said that there is a coin with “nonviolence” written on one side and “truth” on the other. I think we have become accustomed to a different coin, with “violence” on one side and “untruth” on the other. Our addiction to violence has so accustomed us to public statements justifying our wars that we often don’t even notice that we no longer believe them.
Violence shows a lack of imagination. It’s time to get serious about imaginative nonviolence.
Bert Sacks wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Bert is scheduled to appear in Federal Court on September 19, 2011, for refusing to pay a fine incurred when he broke U.S. sanctions in Iraq to bring medicine to children. Find out more at iraqikids.org
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