Bill McKibben’s divesture campaign


Suits, ties, and Bill McKibben’s quest to define the oil companies as ‘radical’

By Allen Best

Bill McKibben came through Denver again this week, signing copies of his new book, “Oil and Honey” and urging resistance to the paradigm of fossil fuels.

In introducing McKibben, University of Denver law professor Fred Cheever described him as the premiere environmentalist of today, an apt title. Since the 1980s, McKibben has been clanging the bell with increasing vigor about the dangers of climate change. A Harvard graduate, he was a staff writer for the New Yorker when still in his 20s, a plum position at any age. But it didn’t seem to suit him.

McKibben has a restless soul, drawn to the stage and exhortation instead of lingering on the analytical sidelines. That does not, however, mean he can’t write. He had a report in Rolling Stone last year that was brilliant and disturbing. Called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” the 6,140-word story carefully, clearly, and concisely laid out just how vast the fossil fuels are that remain in the ground—and their ownership by  oil and other companies. This ownership in the current energy  paradigm explains the resistance to change, where there has been so little response to the climate change crisis.

Bill McKibben in Telluride, 2010
Bill McKibben in Telluride, 2010

Then, McKibben laid out the probable climatic consequences. Those fossil fuels, if they are burned in the same way others have been burned, will produce five times the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than can be absorbed if rise of global temperatures is to be kept within a two degree increase. In other words, as McKibben put it, if the fossil fuels sector carries out its business plan, the planet tanks.

The cover photo on that Aug. 2, 2012, issue of Rolling Stone was of teen sensation Justin Bieber, but Rolling Stone editors confided that there was more response to his article than to the Bieber story, said McKibben in his Denver appearance.

That story led to a national “Do the Math” tour last fall by, the organization that he created to argue for lowered targets for greenhouse gas emissions. On that tour, McKibben made the case for a new strategy: divesture by universities and other organization of their holdings in oil and other companies engaged in extraction of fossil fuels. That strategy of divesture ultimately worked in cleaving South Africa from its policy of apartheid.

Can McKibben’s strategy of pushing divesture make a difference?  Six colleges and universities, most recently San Francisco State, have divested. But some have said no, among them Middlebury College in Vermont, with whom McKibben has long been affiliated as a faculty member.

“Vassar and Middlebury were the first to announce they weren’t yet ready to divest, arguing it might, you know, cost them some money,” McKibben said in a posting on The Daily Beast.

He’s not surprised. It took four or five years for the divestment argument to work with colleges and universities in the case of South Africa. And, he added parenthetically, Harvard never did.

With this strategy, McKibben seeks only to get a more central location at the negotiating table. “We can’t bankrupt them, but by divestment we can help morally bankrupt them, reducing their power to set the agenda in DC and elsewhere,” he said in the Daily Beast post.

The bigger picture here is of the need for a carbon tax, to more forcefully steer changes to a low-carbon way of living. The fundamental premise of a carbon tax is that currently there’s no cost for polluting the sky. But the science of greenhouse theory is clear enough: there are major, long-term costs looming, such as the rising oceans that will displace people and make them more vulnerable to hurricanes. Hotter temperatures that require greater amounts of water for crops will force a new agriculture infrastructure. Ski seasons will also become shorter, the lifts less useful.

“The day we get a price on carbon, all the things that we are working for will get easier,” McKibben said at his appearance in Denver.

Mile-long coal trains are often stacked up five and six deep to export coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Photo/Allen Best
Mile-long coal trains are often stacked up five and six deep to export coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Photo/Allen Best

In Denver, as I’m sure most of his stops, McKibben was preaching to the choir. There were many students, and he advised them against taking jobs that allow big companies to greenwash themselves. But whatever your day job, he said, your most important job is to be a citizen. That might include getting arrested for non-violent protests, something that he suggested people older in life might do more easily than those who are still young and trying to hold onto jobs. “At a certain point in life, what the hell are you going to do?” he asked.

McKibben himself was arrested last year in a protest in front of the White House. He was wearing a suit and a tie. There was a point to his clothing and one he hopes followers will emulate. This protest is from normal people. The radicals, he says, are the oil and other fossil fuel companies.

“Radical are what the oil companies do. Radical is getting up in the morning to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere. That’s a radical idea.”

The free market is not the answer, he said. “At the moment, Exxon own the sky. They get to pour carbon into the sky for free. We are the ones who should own they sky, and Exxon should be paying us.”

Ending his comments at the University of Denver, McKibben said he hoped that when he next visited, DU will have claimed nine NCAA national titles in men’s ice hockey (it currently has eight). Even more important for the reputation of a college, he suggested, was whether it had divested.

Allen Best