Bill McKibben: The 350 Parts Per Million Solution?

Last Friday evening my wife and I heard Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org*, speak at Amherst College. Bill is probably the leading environmental activist in the country. The 650 people who jammed the original lecture hall, and the 300 more who flooded the video-fed, auxiliary venue, were a testament to his drawing power and the growing unease so many feel about climate change.

Bill did a great job of demonstrating the gravity of the situation by making these points, which he also laid out in a recent article in Rolling Stone Magazine:

  • The only thing the world’s nations could agree upon at the failed climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009 was that it would become extremely difficult to sustain civilized life if global temperature rose more than 2 degrees Celsius.
  • We’ve already raised global temperature by 1 degree.
  • In order to avoid topping the 2-degree limit we cannot emit more than 565 more gigatons of CO2 into our atmosphere before 2050.
  • Fossil fuel companies already have known reserves of coal, oil and gas that, if burned, would produce 5 times more pollution than the 565 gigaton ceiling.

I’d add to this nightmare scenario that oil and gas companies are doing everything in their power to find new reserves and to bring that fuel to market as quickly as possible.

McKibben proposed a world-wide divestment from the fossil fuel companies, coupled with a carbon waste tax, to slow down these corporate behemoths and to level the playing field between them and companies focused on developing alternative sources of energy. He presented this plan as one that was necessary, but one that did not even have a 50-50 chance of succeeding. Despite this sobering assessment, as far as I could tell, almost everyone in the audience felt we had no choice but to try.

I think that McKibben’s effort to goad masses of people into action is laudatory. Acting to achieve clear-cut goals sure beats wringing our hands in anguish over the steadily deteriorating situation. It is encouraging that ten of thousands of people are jumping on his band wagon. But my political perspective that leaves me even more pessimistic than McKibben is about the ability of this campaign to achieve its ends.

350.org may well be the last, best liberal hope to stave off civilization’s unraveling in the face of impending planetary catastrophes, without abandoning our basic life style. It strikes me as unlikely, however, that we can solve such an interwoven global dilemma by applying a market-based solution to a single set of industries, even if those industries are the worst offenders.

For instance, the McKibben plan ignores all other forms of pollution, all resource depletion caused by over-population, the carbon footprint of agri-business and the globalization of the food supply. Moreover, fossil fuel companies are inextricably entwined with our military-industrial complex and the worldwide empire it sustains. “The Pentagon is the largest single consumer of petroleum on the world,” (The Green Zone, p. 50, Barry Sanders, AK Press, 2009) and “has come to serve as a global oil protection service” (Michael Klare, Garrisoning the Global Gas Station, TomDispatch).

Can we put the brakes on the fossil fuel industry without pulling the plug on the military-industrial complex? Can we avoid plunging over an environmental cliff within the framework of existing capitalism?

As far as I can tell, Bill McKibben believes it is possible, though maybe not probable, that we can. I feel the more people working to prevent environmental mayhem the better. I’m no fan of capitalism. It is based upon exploitation and endless expansion. The latter is impossible on a finite planet. Still, I hope what Bill McKibben plans will succeed because we’re running out of acceptable alternatives.

[* According to the 350.org website, "350 parts per million is what many scientists, climate experts, and progressive national governments are now saying is the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere. Accelerating arctic warming and other early climate impacts have led scientists to conclude that we are already above the safe zone at our current 390ppm, and that unless we are able to rapidly return to below 350 ppm this century, we risk reaching tipping points and irreversible impacts such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and major methane releases from increased permafrost melt."  Visit here for more information.]

Robert Meeropol is an activist, author, and attorney, and the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. In 1990 Robert started the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a public foundation that helps children in the U.S. whose parents are targeted, progressive activists, and also youth who themselves have been targeted because of their own activism. Read other articles by Robert.