Activist rallies community on climate change


Three-hundred-and-fifty-parts-per-million is the limit of carbon dioxide allowed in the atmosphere to sustain life. In New Jersey, the atmosphere has 395-parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

This is the platform endorsed by the acclaimed journalist and activist, Bill McKibben, last night as a part of his nation-wide tour “Do the Math: Why Climate Change Matters and What You Can Do About It.”

The event, held at the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue campus, was co-sponsored by the Rutgers Initiative on Climate and Society, the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, and other University organizations.

McKibben said solving the climate change crisis is a matter of urgency.

“Unless we understand the scale and the pace of the problem that we face then we can’t understand at what scale and at what pace we need to address it,” he said.

McKibben said last year the U.S. broke the annual temperature record by a full degree. This change has resulted in wildfires in Colorado and New Mexico, decreases in grain production in Idaho, summer temperatures in South Dakota’s winter and Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast.

“The image of the cold Atlantic pouring into the New York [City] subway system is as stark a reminder as one’s likely to get about the fragility of the civilization we had built at this point,” he said.

Climate change will cause a drastic shift in hydrology, or the movement of water, since warm air holds more water than cool air, McKibben said. Arctic ice sheets lost 25 percent of its volume in the past 40 years, he said.

“We had taken one of the largest physical features on Earth and we broke it,” he said.

But McKibben said reason and logic are not strong enough forces to fight against this global issue.

“There’s too much power on the other side,” he said. “The biggest, richest industry in the history of the planet is the fossil fuel industry and it has effectively, skillfully used that money in order to buy enough influence to make sure that nothing ever changes.”

To effectively stand against this power, McKibben said he, along with seven undergraduate students from Middlebury College, created 350.org, a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis.

He said the movement is named after the limit of carbon dioxide, 350 parts-per-million allowed in the atmosphere to sustain life.

McKibben said although he originally doubted that 350.org could organize globally, the first day of action in fall 2009 proved that people from all parts of the world want to solve the climate crisis.

He said CNN called that day the most widespread day of political activity in the planet’s history.

“On one weekend we managed to coordinate 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries,” he said in an email. “I’ll never forget watching the pictures roll in from around the world.”

McKibben showed pictures of activists representing the movement with the number 350 from all over the world. One picture displayed organizers at the Dead Sea forming the number 350 with their bodies.

“There’s too many military barriers in the way to make it easy, so the Jordanians said we’ll make the big three on our beach, the Palestinians said we’ll take care of the five on our shore. The Israelis said we’ll do the zero close to home,” he said. “It was actually quite beautiful.”

McKibben said he and other activists played a significant role in interrupting the initiative to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to transport oil from tar sands in Canada to the United States.

But McKibben said the movement needs to figure out how to play the offense and take the power down to some degree.

He said American college campuses would be the power house for this offensive movement by encouraging their universities to divest their holdings from fossil fuel companies.

“Even though none of us can entirely avoid using fossil fuel at this point, we can sure as hell avoid profiting from it,” he said. “It is wrong to wreck the climate and it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

So far, 234 college campuses in the United States have active divestment campaigns. McKibben said divestment is the systemic reform needed to slow climate change.

“You should definitely change the light bulbs, but we’re past the point where that will do the trick alone,” he said in an email. “So here’s a way for you to speak with one loud voice about the need for change.”

Melanie McDermott, associate director of the University’s Initiative on Climate and Society, said student divestment campaigns have successfully initiated social and political change, such as the anti-Apartheid movement in the early ‘90s.

“Student campuses, by urging their institutions to divest their holdings from South African … companies, put moral and political pressure on South Africa that Bishop Desmond Tutu and others have accredited with being an important part of the fall of Apartheid,” she said.

Rutgers Initiative on Climate and Society is a joint initiative of the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences that fosters collaboration about climate change research on campus and researches the social science of climate change, she said.

The initiative also aims to educate University students and give outreach to the public, said McDermott, an assistant research professor in the Department of Human Ecology.

McKibben said he advocates for student activism because global warming puts young people the highest at stake.

“I’ll be off this planet in another 20 or 25 years, you’ve got 60 or 70,” he said via email correspondence. “Which means you’re particularly well positioned to make the [most] case for action.”

Sam Berman, a student organizer for the event, said as a response to the urgency of this problem, a coalition of students and student groups formed to promote campus action for the issue.

Berman, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said he hopes this event will initiate a campus-wide student movement to combat climate change.

“What would really make this event successful is if students don’t go home and forget about it. Students leave here fired up and ready to be a part of a movement and … take action,” he said.

Berman said McKibben’s concrete goal of mitigating the power of industries lobbying against climate change would allow student movements to effectively evoke change.

“It’s not just rallying in the streets with no goal,” he said. “There are specific things we can ask of specific people to help address this problem and once we have that I think we’ll be able to find enough motivated students to do something about it.”

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