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Do The Math: Mr. McKibben Goes To Washington

In the weeks after the election, Washington insiders are trying to interpret the complicated national politics of climate and environmental issues.

Would Congressional Republicans support a carbon tax as part of a deficit reduction deal? Is the Obama Administration distancing itself from pricing carbon, hoping to let conservatives lead on the issue? What kind of trade-offs would environmental groups accept in exchange for a climate deal?

The White House plan to “lead from behind” became clear last week when press secretary Jay Carney said: “We would never propose a carbon tax and have no intention of proposing one.”

So while the President once again fails to lead on the central issue of our time, what is the climate movement to do?

Enter environmental movement-builder Bill McKibben of 350.org, who rolled into town yesterday afternoon with a very simple message: Don’t listen to Washington.

Joined by other leaders of the climate activism movement, McKibben was at the Warner Theater yesterday — just blocks from the White House — discussing his new “Do The Math” campaign, which lays out the case for divesting from fossil fuel companies. It’s a no-nonsense, make-no-apologies approach to limiting carbon emissions by attempting to weaken the finances of companies responsible for climate change.

When the lights dimmed and McKibben walked on stage to a theater full of roughly 1,800 cheering supporters, the large screen above his head prominently displayed a new mantra within the climate activism movement.

“We’re going after the fossil fuel companies.”

Simple. Aggressive. And a campaign waged almost completely outside the paralysis of national politics.

Do The Math is based on a very simple premise. In order to have a serious chance (better than 3 in 4) of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius — a threshold needed to prevent catastrophic climate change — the world can only emit about 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050. We will burn through that carbon in 16 years at our current rate. Fossil fuel companies have reported their intent to burn reserves of carbon five times that amount. So preventing uncontrollable global warming means keeping roughly 80 percent of proven carbon reserves in the ground.

The International Energy Agency backed up those calculations in a report last week that concluded two thirds of carbon reserves need to stay in the ground by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Rather than wait on a weak signal from Washington that would likely result in very modest carbon reductions, activists are attempting to create a carbon price of their own by exposing the financial unhealthiness of fossil fuel companies.

Do The Math is modeled after a divestment campaign in the 1980′s that put pressure on American colleges and universities to pull money out of South Africa — a strategy credited with helping put an end to the country’s apartheid system. Environmental groups want to characterize fossil fuel companies in the same way.

“It is high time for us to play offense. These companies have lost their social license,” said McKibben to the crowd. “This is a rogue industry.”

Vilifying and boycotting fossil fuel companies is not exactly a new strategy. But this campaign is unique. It’s the first time that any environmental organization has attempted a divestment strategy of this scale. And the targets outlined by McKibben — the actual math in “Do The Math” — creates a very clear case for campaigners when putting pressure on institutions to wind down their investments.

“I don’t think that anyone has done something on this level in the environmental movement before,” said NASA climatologist James Hansen to Climate Progress. Hansen, who was one of the first scientists to publicly warn Americans about the threat of climate change in the late 80′s, has become one of the most outspoken scientific advocates of pricing carbon.

“I think it could be a really effective campaign. It puts people on the spot and is a way to hold organizations accountable for their investments in fossil fuels,” Hansen said after the event.

It also marks a significant shift for the environmental movement, which has been largely focused on trying to spur change from inside Washington under the Obama Administration. While there have been a number of incremental victories on new clean air regulations, fuel mileage standards, and renewable energy development, groups pushing for greater urgency on climate change have been frustrated by the cool reception from the White House and outright hostility from Congress.

But McKibben, who does his thinking outside the Beltway from his home base in Vermont, is clearly not deterred. He brings the kind of audacity and naivete to national politics that many insiders lack.

“My rule on thinking about Washington is that I have no idea what they’re actually doing, so I just do the things I think I should do and see how it goes. If we’d bothered to ask about the chances on Keystone XL, I’m sure everyone would have told us not to bother,” McKibben told Climate Progress yesterday evening as around 3,000 activists demonstrated against the tar sands pipeline outside the White House after his presentation.

Indeed, in the spring of 2011, almost everyone in Washington considered the Keystone XL pipeline a done deal. But after a wave of protests elevated environmental concerns about the pipeline, the northern portion of the project was delayed by President Obama. Now these groups are stepping up another round of protests in order to force Obama to kill the pipeline once and for all. Large Washington-centric environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, are also making Keystone XL one of their biggest immediate climate priorities.

“The equation is changing a bit. It’s no longer just the ragtag operation at 350.org. The biggest environmental groups of the country are now quite clearly stating that this is the line in the sand,” McKibben told Climate Progress.

Now he’s hoping to rally both local activists and large environmental groups behind the divestment strategy — eventually forcing a change in Washington in the same way that the Keystone fight did.

Toward the end of his Do The Math presentation, as attendees prepared to funnel into the streets toward the White House, McKibben made a final plea to the crowd in his characteristically soft-spoken, take-no-prisoners style.

“Remember this moment. This is when we got serious,” he said.

This article is cross-posted with our friends at Climate Progress.

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