Change in guard at 350.org as Bill Mckibben takes a step back

American environmentalist, journalist, author and co-founder of the climate movement organization 350.org, recently announced his decision to step down from his role of chairman at the organization. Mckibben has played a leading role in the climate change debate over the last two decades, initially through his first book – “The End of Nature”, published in 1988, and later through his frequent contributions to publications such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Harper’s and National Geographic.  A watershed moment in his campaign for climate justice came with the founding of the organization, 350.org, in March 2008. The organization drew its name from climate scientist James Hansen‘s contention that atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) above 350 parts per million was unsafe. While the call to limit carbon dioxide concentrations below an acceptable threshold has not been implemented seriously till date (considering the current atmospheric concentration of CO2 already stands at around 398 ppm growing at a rate of 2 ppm per year)[1], 350.org’s call for a global climate justice movement did find support across a wide section of the population, especially amongst the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) as well as university campuses across North America and now even Europe and Australia. The support from students across university campuses came in response to 350.org’s campaign, calling upon universities to divest their endowment fund holdings from fossil fuel industry. In no time, the movement gathered momentum with strong support from student community across universities in the US. Today, some of the biggest universities in North America, Europe and Australia, including Harvard and Stanford, face pressure from students and faculty alike, to divest their investments in fossil fuel industry.

While the divestment movement could at best be called a minor victory, its symbolic importance is not lost out on anyone, least of all the big oil companies. This movement has helped galvanise public opinion in favour of a shift to renewable and alternate forms of energy. More importantly, it has also galvanised opinion against the big oil companies, which continue to rake in huge profits from government subsidies as well as by avoiding the cost of cleaning up the negative externalities of the continued pumping of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels. In other words, the absence of enforcement of the polluter pays principle, has allowed the fossil fuel industry to rake in huge profits at the expense of public welfare.  It is in this regard, that Bill Mckibben and 350.org have played a stellar role. Over the years they have also highlighted the involvement of big oil companies in funding the climate denial movement. Besides highlighting role of fossil fuel industry in blocking attempts at regulating fossil fuel production and consumption, Mckibben also laid out an insightful picture of the business plan of fossil fuel industry in an article titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, published in Rolling Stone in July 2012[2]. In his analysis based on data provided by Carbon Tracker, Mckibben lays out a clear picture of the amount of carbon dioxide the top 200 fossil fuel companies plan to pump into the atmosphere based on their current proven reserves of oil and gas. This number adds up to an astounding 5 times (2795 Gigatons) the amount of carbon dioxide scientists estimate humans can pour into the atmosphere by 2050 (565 Gigatons) and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees warming. If this business plan is allowed to succeed, it will spell disaster for future generations and a near annihilation of life and civilization on the planet.  To quote former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, it will be “Game Over for the Climate.”[3]

It is in this fight against incessant consumption and burning of fossil fuels, 350.org has won support from environmental organizations, activists and policy makers across the world. The success of the highly publicized People’s Climate March, organized at the time of the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in September 2014, can largely be attributed to efforts of 350.org. Despite its visible successes, 350.org has not gained wide support from other environmental organizations, both in developed as well as developing countries. Many in the environmental movement, especially from the developing countries, disagree with the feasibility of 350 ppm as an acceptable limit, since it spells a death knell for the global economy. For the developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, it would be suicidal to abide by such a stringent number, as it effectively closes the door on the limited carbon budget available to them for alleviating poverty and uplifting large swathes of their population which continue to live in sub-human conditions. These differences aside, Bill Mckibben and 350.org, have played an important role in rallying together activists, environmentalists, policy makers, students, trade union leaders as well as political leaders in the battle to limit global warming below the agreed threshold of 2 degrees, which parties at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have agreed as the target to limit global warming by the end of the century. Based on current emission trends and potential (emission) reduction targets put forward by governments at the UN Climate negotiations, the chances of keeping global average temperature rise below 2 degree appear to be as good as spotting a dinosaur running through the Amazon forest.

Mckibben’s legacy and contribution to the climate debate should be evaluated in this context. Bringing together disparate environmental groups to take on the might of entrenched political lobbies, power structures and economic interests is no mean feat. It is also in this regard, that the divestment movement launched university campuses gains importance beyond mere symbolism. It has the potential to shift the momentum away from polluting fossil fuels in favour of clean and alternate forms of energy by galvanising public opinion not only in favour of renewable energy but also against fossil fuels. The investor community has already begun to take note of the scientific assessments, changing regulatory landscape and public mood. Financial institutions, asset managers, universities, philanthropic trusts and religious institutions have begun to analyze their holdings in the fossil fuel industry. So far, more than 800 global investors including foundations such as the Rockefeller Brothers, religious groups, healthcare organisations, cities and universities have pledged to withdraw a total of $50bn from fossil fuel investments over the next five years.[4] These announcements have provided a significant boost to the fledgling divestment movement.

As Mckibben steps down from his role as chairman and takes on the role of senior advisor at the organization, one hopes he continues to play an active role in engaging with universities, governments, environmental organizations, policy makers and the UNFCCC. After all, the divestment campaign has only just begun and has a long way to go if the target of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degree by the end of the century has to succeed.  Moreover, success will come not just by ensuring that carbon assets remain stranded by keeping the fossil fuels buried underground. The recently concluded Lima COP, held under the aegis of the UNFCCC, has sent out some positive signals of the possibility of a new climate deal emerging at the Paris COP to be held in December 2015. Some of the ambitious targets mooted at the Lima COP were a de-carbonized world by 2015. If governments are actually serious about achieving this target, the divestment movement launched by 350.org will indeed get a huge boost. The movement will achieve wider support from the investor community as well if the potential losses from stranded carbon assets are offset by positive returns from investment in alternate and renewable energy. Ensuring this will be key to success of the divestment movement launched by Mckibben and 350.org.

[1] Figures as per data obtained from Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii and NASA

[2] http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719

[3] Hansen had mentioned this in the context of construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, proposed to carry oil from the Alberta tar-sands in Canada to the southern part of US.

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/22/rockefeller-heirs-divest-fossil-fuels-climate-change

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About pattysmullings

Occasional freelance writer, full time corporate slave. An idealist by choice, pragmatist by compulsion. Generally write on travel, environment, politics, movies and current affairs.
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5 Responses to Change in guard at 350.org as Bill Mckibben takes a step back

  1. Dan Poresky says:

    Suggestion for Mr. Mckibben: instead of taking on”…the might of entrenched political lobbies, power structures and economic interests…”, he is the ideal person to organize major climate organizations and philanthropists to run coordinated marketing/education campaigns to get the public to care about climate change. The campaigns would target diverse constituencies with messages that will resonate, delivered by messengers they trust. It’s all spelled out in this proposal climateactionproject dot net. Climate change is a timed test. We need to use all means available.

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    • He already is doing a lot of campaigning both on the educational front as well as the activisim front. In fact he is at the forefront of many climate justice campaigns launched in North America.

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  2. Dan Poresky says:

    Think bigger. Way out of the box bigger. I’m suggesting campaigns with the dimensions, sophistication and funding of a presidential bid or Bush’s build up to the Iraq war. The big difference being that the climate change campaigns would be based on fact. Please take a look at the proposal climateactionproject.net. With his stature and connections, Bill would be the perfect person to pull it together.

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    • Yes, certainly agree with you on this. If such a campaign were to become a reality, Bill and his team will have to shift gears at least a couple of notches higher. This will require linking up with as many grassroots organizations as possible, in addition to awareness campaigns in university campuses. Such a campaign certainly has great potential but it is certainly a challenging task. Hope some momentum is built up in this direction. Thanks for sharing the link to your project. Will have a look at it

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  3. Very nice write up on McKibben’s career and the environmental aims and achievements of 350.org. We certainly have not heard the last of Bill McKibben – and I, for one, am hoping he’s got a lot left in him to contribute to this battle against the fossil fuel bastards. We all stand on the shoulders of his incredible accomplishments.

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