Bill McKibben Brings the “Math” to Portland

November 14th, 2012 by ReVision Energy
Bill McKibben Do the Math Tour Portland Maine

Bill McKibben during “Do the Math” tour in Portland, Maine November 2012. His landmark Rolling Stone article had 10x more hits than the cover story on pop idol Justin Bieber

Huge thanks to climate activist and writer Bill McKibben, his organization 350, 350 Maine, Environment Maine, and other partners, speakers, and musicians who came together for a packed presentation in Portland’s State Theater on Tuesday, November 13, 2012.

McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour is all about building a new environmental movement – a movement which McKibben calls “the last best chance to do something about this gathering [environmental] crisis.”

But, what is the math and why should we care? From

To grasp the seriousness of the climate crisis, you just need to do a little math. Fossil fuel corporations have 5 times more oil and coal and gas in known reserves than climate scientists think is safe to burn. We have to keep 80% of their fossil fuels underground to keep the earth in livable shape.

Here are the three numbers you shouldn’t forget:

2 degrees — Almost every government in the world has agreed that any warming above a 2°C (3.6°F) rise would be unsafe. We have already raised the temperature .8°C, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the climate dice are loaded for both devastating floods and drought.

565 gigatons — Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. Computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 levels now, the temperature would still rise another 0.8 degrees above the 0.8 we’ve already warmed, which means that we’re already 3/4s of the way to the 2 degree target.

2,795 gigatons — The Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts, estimates that proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies, equals about 2,795 gigatons of CO2, or five times the amount we can release to maintain 2 degrees of warming.

To make sure this chilling set of numbers is icily clear, McKibben used a series of powerful graphics as well as site gags, such as this analogy of a drunk on their way to oblivion.

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What’s missing from this audio recording is a visual of a bunch of volunteers continuing to pile the “Last Chance Saloon” full of beer bottles while McKibben explains that if we burn all of the oil and gas in already known reserves, our chance to prevent catastrophic climate change on this planet is shot:
Do the Math C02 carbon emissions sight gag

The Time is Now

In light of this terrifying climate crisis, McKibben speaks hopefully of making change happen now by a series of actions:

  • Encourage universities, houses of worship, and local and state municipalities to divest in fossil fuel companies, similar to actions taken against the South African apartheid government in the early 90s. Unity College has lead this effort by being the first college to divest in fossil fuels, and President Stephen Mulkey took stage to explain Unity’s decision to divest (and we should note Unity is concurrently investing heavily in solar energy).
  • Turn activist attention from state and federal leaders and instead to the fossil fuel companies themselves.  Prepare for marches, civil disobedience, and other direct action to implicate the fossil fuel industry’s role in delaying meaningful action to avoid global warming.
  • Redirect investment towards renewable energy, for example “investing in clean energy, efficiency and other sustainable technologies can be even more profitable than fossil fuels” ( We can also suggest a local option for producing clean, renewable solar electricity!

A certain amount of doomsday forecasting hangs on the scientific models of global warming – McKibben himself mentioned several times that he’s not convinced his movement will succeed, or if, even if successful, if the brunt of environmental calamity will be avoided – but facing such high stakes McKibben finds a lot to be excited about from the power of grassroots organizing.  He highlighted successes delaying the Keystone Pipeline, the global reach of (over 100 countries having participated in recent days of action), and several success stories of countries like Germany and even China adopting renewable technologies (with a lot of attention paid to solar hot water and solar electricity).

Does the math scare us?  Yep.  It should scare all of us.  But we’re also encouraged by the changing level of discourse – with major oil executives admitting that climate change in real – and the growing loudness and tenacity of voices for change.  ReVision Energy will be here doing everything we can to support the transition of Northern New England to a renewable energy economy, one solar panel at a time.

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