December 3, 2014
On Sunday, September 21st, 400,000 marchers streamed through New York City’s streets, demanding climate change action from world leaders scheduled to meet at the United Nations two days later. The People’s Climate March in NYC was joined by 2,808 supporting events in 166 countries. Who was behind the biggest climate change mobilization in history? Meet Bill McKibben.
Decades before McKibben became the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org— the organizational backbone of the People’s Climate March— he was just another college student himself. The son of a Massachusetts journalist, the younger McKibben began writing for and editing the Harvard Crimson college paper, and determined to dedicate his life to environmentalism. After college he spent a stint in New York City as a staff writer for the New Yorker, before going freelance and moving to upstate New York. In 1989 he published “End of Nature,” arguably the first big book on climate change, expecting that a rational and well-reasoned argument against fossil fuels would win out.
“What I didn’t figure out for, oh, 15 years or so, is that reason alone is insufficient,” McKibben says to NBC News. “In fact, it’s not even the most important thing. These kind of decisions—decisions about what kind of world we’re going to live in—get made because of power, and power alone.”
25 years later, he’s published 16 books, nearly all on climate change and environmentalism. But the most significant turn came when McKibben realized that words alone wouldn’t turn the tide. In 2006, he held a five-day walk across VT for climate change with Middlebury students, which turned into the 2007 “Step it Up” campaign. The goal was to build a popular environmental movement, organizing rallies in hundreds of American cities and towns to demand carbon emission cuts from congress. 350.org was born out of the success of Step it Up, co-founded by McKibben and the same group of Middlebury graduates that set out on the 2006 walk. The name describes the upper level of atmospheric CO2 in parts per million that climate scientists agree is the limit to preventing global catastrophe.
Since then, 350.org has amassed an impressive track record, rolling out thousands of actions and mobilizations across the world. A few highlights include organizing 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries ahead of the 2009 international climate meetings, widespread protests against the Keystone XL oil pipeline expansion, and the 2013 Global Power Shift conference to develop movement skills across the planet.
All of which lead up to September 2014, and People’s Climate March attendance that surpassed even McKibben’s expectations. In the end, the massive turnout echoed the scale of the problem. “I think everyone in their gut knows what’s going on,” McKibben says to NBC. “The far bigger problem is that people feel powerless in the face of something this large.”
Already, McKibben happily argues that popular actions like the People’s Climate March are elevating the voice of popular concern. The US recently signed an agreement with China to limit carbon emissions— a milestone that McKibben, writing in the Huffington Post, says is “historic,” but essentially an “IOU to be cashed by future presidents and Congresses.” And above all, not a reason to slow down one bit on the movement toward making an even bigger statement for the world leaders gathering next summer in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference.
McKibben himself has emerged as the reluctant voice of the climate movement. Between speaking and meeting with leaders around the world, he’s still writing books. And he is quick to point to the commitment of the thousands of organizers that make 350.org possible— seeing the social results that have developed since his 2006 walk across Vermont counts as one of his greatest satisfactions.
Eight years later, just after accepting the Right Livelihood Award, aka “alternative Nobel prize,” on behalf of 350.org, McKibben announced he’s stepping back from the helm of the organization he helped start eight years ago, a role that’s demanded near constant travel away from his wife, and his writing. Happy to be back in Vermont full-time, his first act as a “volunteer” was donating the Right Livelihood prize money to 350.org.
“If we want this to be a start, and not a finish,” McKibben wrote in the Huffington Post, “we've got to build even bigger and more powerful movements that push the successors of these gentlemen to meet what science demands.”
You can bet that McKibben will still be involved in the biggest actions yet to come in 2015. In his letter to 350.org members about the end of his leadership tenure, McKibben told leagues of volunteers around the world, "Don’t worry, I’ll still be there when the time comes to go to jail, or to march in the streets, or to celebrate the next big win on divestment."