Bill McKibben is arguably the most successful environmental activist in America.
In 2011, as Washington’s green groups licked their wounds over their failure to push Congress to pass a climate-change bill, McKibben organized thousands of protesters to rally outside the White House against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile conduit for oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries.
Hundreds were arrested—including McKibben himself—during the multi-day rallies, in which protesters stood four and five deep as they wound a black plastic “pipeline” around the White House. But it worked—McKibben successfully marshaled President Obama’s political base of young people and environmentalists to send a message to the White House that approving the pipeline would freeze their support for him in 2012. And the Obama administration, which had been on track to approve the pipeline, put the project on ice until after the election—at a cost of frequent pillorying by Republicans.
Soon after, The Boston Globe profiled McKibben in a story headlined “The Man Who Crushed the Keystone Pipeline.” And his influence has grown since then: In July, he wrote a story for Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which went viral and became one of the most widely read and shared stories on the magazine’s website.
Now he’s planning his next campaign.
“We’re going to tackle the fossil-fuel industry directly. We’re starting the night after the election,” McKibben told National Journal in an interview by phone from his home in Vermont. “We’re not going to obsess about our leaders, we’re going to obsess about who pulls their strings.”
Like so many of his colleagues in Washington’s environmental groups, McKibben has grown increasingly frustrated with lawmakers’ inaction on climate change, which he attributes in large part to their dependence on campaign contributions and outside advertising by oil, natural gas, coal companies, and the super PACs they help fund.
His new campaign will be modeled after successful anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, in which activists pressured American universities and other institutions to end their investments in the South African economy.
McKibben now plans to pressure U.S. institutions, starting with universities, to end their financial investments in oil, gas, and coal companies. He’ll launch a 20-college tour, joined by Nobel laureate and South African human-rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to pressure university boards, via student protests, to end university endowment's holdings in fossil fuels.
“Two hundred colleges divested their holdings in companies that did business with South Africa. And when Nelson Mandela got out of prison, the first place he came was not the White House—it was California to thank University of California students who had helped get their system to divest $3 billion in holdings in South Africa,” McKibben said.
“As Desmond Tutu says, this is the next great moral issue that we face, and the same kind of tactic is what’s necessary to face it. Companies don’t have an interest in the moral issue, but they do have an interest in the bottom line.”
Making an impact will be difficult. Fossil fuels remain one of the most profitable industries in the world, and oil companies in particular generally provide consistently high returns on investments, making them attractive choices for university endowments and pension funds. But McKibben thinks there’s an opportunity to make the moral case to college boards—backed by student protests—and that from there, the message will spread. He concedes that it will be tough to make an impact.
“If we had a perfect and easy way to do it, we’d do it,” he said. “Two-thirds of the most important people in American business are on college boards. We want them grappling with it; we want students debating it. And I think fossil fuel will be softened and weakened politically if we can make this case.”
The case they’ll make, specifically, is that investing in fossil fuels such as coal and oil directly supports the rise in carbon pollution that has caused the warming of the planet, and with it, a future of rising sea levels, more intense storms, increased drought, flooding, and spread of disease.
“It isn’t OK to invest in educating students with investments that will the ruin the world they’ll go on to,” he said.
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