This article appeared at The Nation on November 13, 2012.
LOS ANGELES—Less than a week after the presidential election, a fired-up crowd of climate activists cheered Bill McKibben and the “Do the Math” roadshow at their UCLA stop. “Do the Math” is on a three-week caravan traveling by biodiesel-powered bus, with a stop in Washington, DC, to challenge the president to take quick action on the environment.
The 21-city tour promises to be a model for progressives committed to aggressively pushing Obama and Congress even before Obama’s second term formally begins in January.
One hundred chanting, marching students attended the UCLA event from the Claremont Colleges, 50 miles away, to announce their campaign to seek a campus divestment from the "rogue" fossil fuel industry. Already this week Seattle’s mayor instructed his finance team to investigate how to divest city funds, and Maine's Unity College announced its plan to divest.
350.org, the sponsoring organization for “Do the Math,” is calling on colleges, religious institutions and public pension funds to make no new investments in fossil fuels, "wind down" current investments in five years. Divestment would lead fossil fuel providers to begin to curtail lobbying activities in Washington, DC, and prepare to transition to a future as "energy companies." The strategy is partly modeled on the global campaign of divestment from South Africa, although the analogy is incomplete. South Africans were carrying out a liberation war that could not be defeated, with powerful African-American and clergy constituencies in America. Legislators like Maxine Waters and Willie Brown carried divestment bills for seven years before being signed in California, tipping the balance against apartheid. Despite its efforts, 350 is not inclusive of black or Latino constituencies although is message is one of environmental justice. The UCLA event was overwhelmingly white on a campus where a majority of undergraduates are non-white.
How to explain 350’s scale? Just as a pointless war can spark a massive peace movement, the corporate-governmental attack on the sources of life itself causes an instinctive human response on behalf of the earth. The scale and energy of this movement goes far beyond the considerable organizational power of the well-funded and well-staffed national environmental groups. It rests on the collective legacy of many previous upsurges going back as far the millions who gathered at the first Earth Day, the vast anti-nuclear power movement and the Nuclear Freeze effort. It has something to do with the 51-year old McKibben's flexible, improvisational, gentle and grounded style of leadership. A longtime resident of Vermont, a graduate of Harvard and a lyrical nature writer, his personal authenticity contains echoes of Henry David Thoreau. He seems to know that he is a prophetic instrument of an emerging force much greater than himself.
The 350.org plan to attack the fossil fuel companies fully complements the peace movement's demand to end the Long War on Terrorism, which is also an energy resource war. 350.org, however, is a single-issue movement lacking a platform on wars and military spending. Rapid progress towards renewables, however, will solidify public support for avoiding energy wars in the Persian Gulf.
The renewable resource which 350.org taps into is one of human protest energy rarely seen in recent years. In late 2010, for example, 350.org coordinated nearly 8,000 actions, most of them colorful and symbolic, across 188 countries.
The 350.org approach borrows in part from the "anti-globalization" and rainforest action movements’ focus over two decades on attacking corporate power directly, although this time at its core power rather than the reputation of its brand. Naomi Klein is a key supporter, and is featured in one of several videos employed in the caravan's multi-media presentation.
"If they are trying to take away our planet," McKibben argues, "we simply have to try to take away their profits." As he has in many writings, McKibben relies on environmental science to make an apocalyptic case. In order to keep rising climate heat below 2 degrees Celsius, he says, only 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions can be allowed; but the fossil fuel industry already has 2,795 gigatons of CO2 in its reserves. Therefore, he concludes the very "business model" of giants like Chevron, Exxon Mobil and BP must be changed before they overheat the planet by implementing their conventional model.
If the "do the math" argument is too speculative for some, the 350 argument is bolstered powerfully by the rash of catastrophic weather events ranging from droughts to super-storms now slamming the continent with increasing force and regularity. Super Storm Sandy put Michael Bloomberg into Obama’s column, and New York governor Andrew Cuomo has vociferously attacked the climate-deniers. With California and New York becoming major supporters of energy efficiency and green infrastructure, any Obama energy or climate initiatives will begin with stronger support than four years ago. Even Obama's former regulatory chief, Cass Sunstein, is writing about the economic benefits of environmental regulations compared to the status quo. Sunstein says the cost of the East Coast hurricane will be $50 billion and will reduce US economic growth by one-half percent.
On the XL Pipeline project, Obama soon may face another round of civil disobedience like that which caused him to delay the approvals process last year. Van Jones, formerly Obama's "green jobs" representative who now endorses 350, says the pipeline was a "done deal" until the protesters circled the White House. Obama now faces competing pressures from two core constituencies on the pipeline, from building trades and environmentalists. A liekly re-routing the pipeline around the Nebraska Sand Hills and most of the Ogallala Aquifer could mitigate objections from Nebraskans, but the dangers of disastrous spills, escalating costs and polluting emissions will remain. Attempts by Transcanada to open an alternative route through British Colombia face enormous First Nation and environmental opposition. Hanging over the controversy is the chilling judgment of NASA's leading climate scientist, James Hansen, that it's "game over" for the climate if the pipeline is completed.
Obama's options seem to be: first, continuing to defer a final decision while monitoring the costs, risks and levels of opposition; second, meet with the 350.org protestors to hear their concerns directly; or make a dramatic counter-offer involving conservation, renewables and global leadership over the next four years, to be announced in his second Inaugural Address in January.
While the environmental caravan demanding renewable resources rolls towards Washington, Obama and top US officials are scheduled to visit Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Australia to shore up the American military presence in the navigation routes carrying oil and resources from Asia to the Persian Gulf. The so-called US geo-strategic "pivot" towards Asia inevitably begins a new Cold War with China over fossil fuels. Game over? Perhaps it's sudden death overtime. As Al Gore described the terrible dilemma in Earth in The Balance (1992): "at this stage, the maximum that is politically feasible still falls short of the minimum that is truly effective."