A warming world

Author Bill McKibben touts divestment as key in fighting climate change

Bill McKibben addressed about 200 people June 4 about the current state of global warming and the best way to battle it.

Bill McKibben addressed about 200 people June 4 about the current state of global warming and the best way to battle it.

photo by Brittany Waterstradt

It’s hard to be an environmentalist these days; everything seems so bleak. And yet, early Friday night (June 4), the Chico Masonic Family Center parking lot was filled with hybrid vehicles as well as a few bicycles locked to disabled parking signs—the center lacks bike racks—their owners filing dutifully in, looking for a spark of optimism in a rapidly degrading world.

The full-house crowd of roughly 200 was there for an update on climate change and the movement to minimize it, as presented by Bill McKibben, an environmental writer turned activist.

McKibben’s seminal 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first on climate change addressed to the general public. But he’s been in the spotlight lately for his work in founding 350.org, a nonprofit dedicated to bolstering the worldwide climate change movement that was partially responsible for last year’s 400,000-strong People’s Climate March in New York City, the largest U.S. march on any issue in recent history. The organization is also credited with stalling the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was once a sealed deal. The movement’s current focus is fossil fuel divestment.

“The reason I came to Chico is to thank Chico State for divesting,” McKibben told the gathering, directing applause to audience member Kevin Killion, the Chico State student who led the student-backed effort for the University Foundation to divest from companies involved in oil, gas and coal.

“We already won the argument,” McKibben said, noting that scientists are uniform in agreement on the severity and urgency of the problem of investing in fossil fuels. However, he added, “We’re just losing the fight because the fight wasn’t about science and data—the fight … [is] about power. The power of the fossil fuel industry comes from money.”

The divestment movement removes that power, McKibben said, and it’s growing fast. He pointed out partial or full fossil fuel divestments in just the last month, including institutions such as the University of Hawaii, Oxford and Georgetown as well as Axa, France’s largest insurance company, the country of Norway and the Church of England. But the movement needs to move faster, he said, or else it’s “game over for the planet.”

McKibben went over recent data on the climate and the results so far endured due to the 1 degree temperature increase: the extreme drought in California and the “essential, statistically impossible” volumes of rain in Texas and Oklahoma.

“If 1 degree melts the Arctic, we’re kind of idiots to find out what 2 degrees” will do, he said. “But we’re probably going to find that out.”

Four or 5 degrees’ increase would make for an inhospitable planet, but McKibben warned the Earth is headed there if the fossil fuel companies are allowed to burn according to plan. “Then there’s no point in putting up our solar panels or pedaling our bicycles or whatever it is,” he said. “[The fossil fuel companies] will pour enough carbon into the atmosphere to fatally heat the planet.”

Several attendees objected to McKibben’s focus on large-scale, quick action against the powerful fossil fuel companies, arguing he came across as dismissing the impact of individual personal action. (Actually, McKibben praised local, individual actions as necessary steps; he also recommended specific actions like banning fracking and asking California Public Employees’ Retirement System to divest.)

During the Q&A session, Chico resident Patrick Newman offered a heated and lengthy admonishment that plant-based diets were not mentioned. McKibben respectfully responded, the crowd booed, and Newman departed, visibly upset.

For McKibben, individual action, albeit important, is a slow process as generations grow more environmentally cautious over the years to reach the needed results.

“I actually can’t promise you that we’re going to win, which is a bad thing,” he said. The civil rights movement leaders, he said, had to be “significantly braver,” facing water cannons and bullets, but at least they had the sense that eventually their side would win.

“But the best science indicates that we may be able to keep it from getting entirely out of control, which is reason enough to do what we can, and maybe do a little more than we think we can.”

That would include large-scale action against the fossil fuel companies.

“The most important thing that an individual can do is not be an individual; is to join together … to form enough power in order to stand up to the people who dominate the decision making on this planet,” he said.

After the talk, the mood was upbeat and hopeful, despite current realities. Robyn DeFalco, executive director of Butte Environmental Council, which co-sponsored the event, chatted about killing her lawn. On their way out, many attendees grabbed BEC’s offering of a lawn sign that reads: “Brown Is the New Green,” just as overhead sprinklers irrigated already-soaked walnut orchards next door to the center.