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McKibben Spearheads Plan to Hit Dirty Energy Where It Hurts

Fabien Tepper
Yes! Magazine / News Analysis
Published: Saturday 10 November 2012
As of this year—when Arctic sea ice shrank to half the average minimum area it had covered between 1979 and 2000—the Earth’s temperature has risen about one degree Celsius since the industrial era began.
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In a bold change of direction for the movement to stop climate change, environmentalist writer Bill McKibben and his global advocacy network unveiled a new strategy this week in Seattle: chip away at the power of the fossil-fuel industry through a large-scale stock-divestment campaign modeled on the one which helped bring down South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s.

All 1900 seats were sold out in Seattle’s Benaroya hall on November 7, for the first stop on McKibben’s planned 22-city tour. The audience delivered multiple standing ovations as McKibben explained the strategy: to curb worldwide CO2 emissions and global warming by pushing universities and other institutions to purge their stock portfolios of oil, coal, and natural-gas interests. 350’s slogan for this tour is "Do the math."

That math is simple but stomach-dropping. Global leaders who drafted the 1999 Copenhagen Accord—including leaders of the United States and China who are resistant to climate action—agreed that a rise of two degrees Celsius (about 3.5 degrees Farenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures is the absolute upper limit humanity can approach and still avoid catastrophic climate change. In order to stay within that limit, we can emit no more than 565 additional gigatons of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. But fossil fuel corporations already possess oil, gas, and coal that would release 2,795 gigatons of carbon if burned. That’s five times the safe amount.

"Eighty percent" of those reserves, said McKibben, "has to stay underground."

As of this year—when Arctic sea ice shrank to half the average minimum area it had covered between 1979 and 2000—the Earth's temperature has risen about one degree Celsius since the industrial era began.

Despite these difficult numbers, the mood on Wednesday was anything but forlorn. For the first time, McKibben is pushing climate-change action that identifies fossil fuel companies as the primary agents of the problem and hits them where it hurts: access to investors. Twenty-one years ago, South Africa’s apartheid regime was toppled, in part because over 155 colleges and 90 U.S. cities committed to economic sanctions against the country. Looking to that model, McKibben believes that students and alumni will be able to pressure their universities into dumping their shares in fossil fuel companies, and investing their endowment money in other sectors.

On November 8, Unity College in Maine became the first to join in pledging to erase dirty energy from its portfolio.

McKibben is addressing Americans, because, he says, the global asymmetry of climate change leaves Americans in the hot seat. Poor people worldwide are suffering from climate changes wrought by energy companies on the strength of American investments and laws. He cited the deadly cholera outbreak that has been sweeping across Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which itself killed dozens of Haitians who, said McKibben, “have done nothing to cause this."

McKibben was frank about the impact of climate activism so far: “It’s not enough. It’s nowhere near.”

Yet this new campaign may bring the struggle against climate change to a new level. If every college student or alumnus to hear McKibben this season helps push their university to divest, millions of dollars in investments could quickly disappear from the coffers of ExxonMobil, PetroChina, and Russia’s Gazprom.

Josh Fox, the documentarian behind Gaslands, addressed the audience by video, to describe what would make that happen.

“If we’re going to commit to this, and actually change the course of history, which is what we’re tasked with doing, we can’t just put our finger in the cracks of the dam like the little Dutch boy, and fight back one fracking well, one pipeline, one coal mine at a time. What we have to do is. . . take all of those fingers and make a fist.”

For help with beginning a local fossil fuel divestment campaign, visit's new website’’

Fabien Tepper wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Fabien is an editorial intern at YES! and blogs at

ABOUT Fabien Tepper

Fabien Tepper wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Fabien is an editorial intern at YES! and blogs

Factkneader's perceptive

Factkneader's perceptive comment in fact understates what's wrong with the proposed divestment strategy.

Indeed that strategy is NOT the one indicated by the central fact highlighted by McKibben's 'do-the-math': that Big Carb (Big Oil, Big Cola, Big Natgas) have huge reserves.

McKibben's math shows that what WILL count - for the sake of a liveable planet as well as in dealing with Big Carb - is our and others' behaviors that deprive Big Carb of customers and sales. Toward that aim, in order to make our transition economically attractive, we do need some INVESTMENT so as to reduce costs of safe renewable energy (primarily conservation and solar; sometimes also wind).

On the other hand McKibbens' math shows that the proposed DIVESTMENT from Big Carb will NOT do much if anything. So long as we are customers, Big Carb can keep making huge profits for a long time (enough to burn up the planet) from the fuels they've already found and can recover. Those profits will suffice to keep up Big Carb's stocks, no matter who divests.

Far more apropos than getting big institutions like universities to DIVEST from Big Carb is to get them to STOP BEING BIG CUSTOMERS of Big Carb. Even more important is to get even bigger institutions - for instance our governments and their contractors - to STOP being big customers of Big Carb.

Science-based solutions to

Science-based solutions to Climate Change cannot be effectively implemented because we currently have government of the people by the lobbyists for the rich and powerful corporations (for example Exxon Mobil). Those who have the gold make the rule. And those people refuse to allow any science-based solutions that jeopardize their sources of income. If you want to change this unfair situation we first need to reinstate government of the people by the people and for the people. The vast majority of US citizens very much desire science-based solutions to Climate Change. We can implement science-based solutions when we get as many signatures as possible on the following petition (Click on, or if necessary, please copy and paste into your browser.):


The BEST RECENT BOOK of a whistle blower ever written about oil company evils with US protection is a must for NATION OF CHANGE to ask all subscribers to read immediately:
John Perkins's "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man", is the inside story of his life , and now his life is in danger for telling how he was conscripted oil company proxy forces unknowingly, done through insidious, innocent looking traps and strangers befriending him,, done over time- and including a seduction by a female spy who later disappeared leaving him no one to prove his innocence- and this was all done by Kafkaesque cleverness. hey locked him into a singular, unnamed master secret agency (

He knew what he was doing and

He knew what he was doing and that it was causing damage. The unnamed group is the IMF and the WORLD BANK. No country which has had the "benefit" of their intervention has recovered. A few people in the recipient countries have become very wealthy from the proposed "solutions" that built dams and infrastructure, but in every case the poorer landowners were evicted, the wealth funneled to the yes men in the country concerned and in EVERY case that the World Bank or IMF has lent money, that country has had to surrender mineral/resource control to (primarily American) international corporations, and has had to make payments which have ALWAYS forced cuts to education and health in the countries affected.

The world's foremost authority states that if he couldn't study psychopaths in prison, he'd do it on Wall Street. What does that say about the leadership of our country? We are following psychopaths who direct the govt sycophants/bureaucratic appointees, and how can we NOT end up with an insane society?

I fail to understand this

I fail to understand this strategy. In order to divest, the shares must be sold to another investor; they don't simply cease to exist. And if the shares weren't bought directly from the fossil fuel company, but were bought on the market, then the company received no benefit from the sale of the shares. Only by destroying the market for new shares could a boycott harm the interests of these companies.

Your analysis is correct. In

Your analysis is correct. In addition, because the carbon companies are awash with cash, they can simply buy back their own stock to prop up prices. Eliminating tax breaks (subsidies) and taxing carbon burning, shifting some of the revenue to consumers to encourage conservation and renewables, and investing the remainder in hydrogen infrastructure would be a better alternative.

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