Author Bill McKibben rallies community to join global fight for environmental protection

“What do we do about global warming?” asked environmentalist/author Bill McKibben of an audience of scientists and community-members at the Birch Aquarium on May 9.

“In Washington and around the planet, we’ve basically had a multi-decade effort to do nothing,” he said. “And it’s been bipartisan, and it’s been highly successful. The result of our environmental disregard will be too difficult even for us to really contemplate.”

McKibben pinpointed the main reason for human inaction: the fossil fuel industry.

“All of us help by burning fossil fuel, but it’s the fossil fuel industry that takes the money and buys the politicians and prevents the change from ever happening,” he argued. “That is radical and we have to figure out how to bring that radicalism to a halt.”

McKibben presented his climate call-to-action in this month’s installment of the Perspective on Ocean Science lecture hosted by the Birch Aquarium. May’s lecture was dedicated to honoring the life and work of distinguished Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher Charles David Keeling, one of the first scientists to devote his career to the science of global warming.

Like Keeling, McKibben has focused his life’s work on climate change. In 2008 McKibben founded

, a grassroots environmental movement dedicated to solving the climate crisis. The organization was named after the highest-tolerable concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, 350 parts-per-million, as determined by a 2008 study by James Hansen et al. Besides highlighting a succinct environmental goal towards which we all can aim, the number “350” has the added benefit of transcending language barriers.

On Oct. 24, 2009, organized its debut event — its first “global day of action.”

“Before the weekend was over there were 5,100 demonstrations in 181 countries,” said McKibben. “CNN called it the most widespread day of global action in the planet’s history.”

McKibben presented dozens of photographs and stories from that first day. He told of environmental protests in South Africa, the Dead Sea, China, the Maldives, India, Abu Dhabi, and as McKibben described, “every place you could imagine, including the toughest places on Earth.”

Through the course of relating these stories, McKibben expressed his initial surprise over the makeup of those involved. “This thing that I’d heard all my life — that environmentalism is something for rich white people who have taken care of their other problems — that just turns out to be complete and utter nonsense,” he said.

“Most of the people who were protesting around the world were poor and black and brown and Asian and young, because that’s what most of the people around the world are,” he continued. “And oddly enough, they care just as much about the future as anybody else.”

Humans are effectively conducting a global climate experiment, one that might not end well. “Really what it’s turned into is an experiment about the human spirit,” McKibben concluded. “It’s about whether the big brain is a good adaptation, about whether it’s attached to a big enough heart to undo the damage that we’ve done. And we do not know the answer to that.”

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