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On Saturday, October 24, activists in more than 170 nations participated in rallies, religious services, concerts, workshops and lectures to raise awareness of climate change. The guiding force behind the International Day of Climate Action is Bill McKibben, an environmental writer, educator and activist who has become an outspoken voice in the war against global warming.
McKibben was born in 1960 in Lexington, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American Revolution. During his summers in high school, McKibben led tours on the Lexington battlefield, telling the story of American democracy and freedom. He says that taught him never to confuse dissent with the lack of patriotism. "The people I was talking about showed their patriotism by dissenting from big power."
McKibben went to Harvard University, where he became editor of the six-day-a-week student-run newspaper. He covered city politics and presidential elections, but did not do a lot of schoolwork.
After college, McKibben worked as a columnist for the New Yorker weekly national magazine. He quit five years later and moved to a remote part of New York state, where he says he fell in love with the "wild woods."
"It was striking me very hard, the sudden intuitive understanding that it wasn't so wild anymore, that people were changing the temperature of that place and hence the seasons and the flora and the fauna."
Finding his subject in nature
That insight was the basis for The End of Nature, the first book on global warming written for a general audience. McKibben figured if he pointed out ecological problems, people would do something about them. He says at 27 the assumption was more than a little naïve.
I completely failed to understand the depth of the kind of cultural transformation that we were going to have to make if we were ever going to deal with climate change."
Nevertheless, The End of Nature established McKibben as an environmental writer. Since that first book, he has written ten more addressing climate change from many different angles. He wrote about population, popular culture and economics.
"I even went around the world looking for hopeful places to bring back to America to say that our way is not the only way of organizing things in the world."
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In April McKibben published American Earth with a foreword by former Vice President Al Gore. The 1,000-page anthology of American environmental writing shows the evolution of environmental thinking, beginning in the early 19th century with the idea of protecting America's vast wilderness. That idea led to the creation of a system of national parks and gave rise to an environmental movement that advocated for laws to protect water, air, and endangered species.
But in recent years, McKibben says, the idea has shifted away from wilderness and towards human and natural community. "How we are going to live on this earth in such a way that the earth will somehow prosper."
McKibben says environmentalism alone can no longer counter the excesses of the American consumer culture. He says the environmental movement is not powerful enough to deal with global climate change and the overload of carbon in the atmosphere largely from the burning of coal, gas and oil. He says a price must be put on energy to make the cost of fossil fuel reflect the damage it does to the earth.
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McKibben is taking the action he calls for in his books. In 2006 he led 1,000 people across his home state of Vermont to demand new laws on global warming. A year later he got six Vermont college students to work with him on a national campaign called "Step-it-Up."
Their goal was to commit the U.S. Congress to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. McKibben says it was a fringe position endorsed by scientists and that helped bring [climate change] into the center of the political debate.
"We organized 1400 demonstrations on a single day," he recalls. "Within a week after the end of those demonstrations, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had endorsed that demand as the centerpiece of their environment and ecology platform(s)."
McKibben is now at the helm of a global grassroots, internet-based campaign called 350.org. Its goal, he says, is to spread the message that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is too much.
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The number is now 385, above what McKibben says scientists call the "safe level."
"Humanity is in trouble," was the message 350.org spread on October 24 to people through rallies, art exhibitions, and musical events in 181 nations.
McKibben says the challenge, simply put, is that saving the earth will require political will. He hopes communal voices like 350.org that promote activism across the globe can help turn the tide of climate change before it is too late.