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Environmental Writer Turns Words into Action

  • Rosanne Skirble

Bill McKibben at a rally in New York's Times Square - one of over 5,200 events in 181 countries organized by 350.org for the 'International Day of Climate Action.'

Bill McKibben at a rally in New York's Times Square - one of over 5,200 events in 181 countries organized by 350.org for the 'International Day of Climate Action.'

Activist launches worldwide campaign to fight climate change

On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we live on a warming planet.

Scientists say that warming is linked to increasingly severe droughts, floods and storms and slowly rising ocean levels. Bill McKibben was one of the first voices to warn of climate change two decades ago in his 1989 book, "The End of Nature." He is still speaking out.

Early lessons

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 the experience taught him a valuable history lesson.

"I've never confused dissent with the lack of patriotism; if anything, just the opposite. You know the people I was talking about showed their patriotism by dissenting from big power." In 2006, Bill McKibben led 1,000 people across his home state of Vermont to demand action on climate issues.

In 2006, Bill McKibben led 1,000 people across his home state of Vermont to demand action on climate issues.

Nature in peril

After graduating from Harvard with a degree in journalism, McKibben spent several years as a magazine columnist before moving to a remote part of New York state. He says that's where he fell in love with the wild woods.

"And 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."

That insight was the basis for "The End of Nature," the first book on global warming written for a general audience. McKibben says he thought that if he simply pointed out ecological problems, people would do something about them.

"I was a 27 year old and more than a little naive. 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."

Explaining climate change

Nevertheless, "The End of Nature" established McKibben as an environmental writer and he has written a dozen more books addressing climate change from many different angles. Bill McKibben gives Earth a new name in his latest book: 'Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet,' to reflect earth's new warming reality.

Bill McKibben gives Earth a new name in his latest book: 'Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet,' to reflect earth's new warming reality.

"I wrote about population. I wrote about popular culture and television and nature. I 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, on and on and on."

In his latest book, "Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet," McKibben says he purposely spells Eaarth in the title with two 'A's to underscore how much our world has changed. He says global warming is no longer a threat, but a new reality.

"We see rapid melt of ice at the poles. We see rapid melt of glaciers. We see the acidification of sea water. We see more evaporation into the atmosphere. That means increased drought in arid areas. But it really means increased downpour and deluge and flood one place after another."

Stepping up the fight

McKibben says environmentalism alone can no longer counter the excesses of the American consumer culture.

He says the 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.

To do that, he says, a price must be put on energy, "…to make fossil fuel reflect in its cost the damage it does to the earth." Bill McKibben founded 350.org with students at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he is scholar-in-residence.

Bill McKibben founded 350.org with students at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he is scholar-in-residence.

These are fighting words for Bill McKibben. 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" that inspired 2,000 demonstrations across the country. McKibben didn't stop there.

He founded 350.org, a global grassroots advocacy group. The goal is to spread the message that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is too much.

"It is a very tough number, because we are already past it. We are [at] 385. And we want to have actions and rallies and events and art and music in every nation on earth to just try and take this number and at the very least make sure that humanity knows what its bottom line is."

Grassroots to global

350.org's International Day of Climate Action in October last year included 5,200 such events in 181 countries. McKibben says, this October, 350.org has similar plans for a global work party. This march on the Madison, Wisconsin state capitol was among 2,000 events in the 2007 Step It Up Campaign.

This march on the Madison, Wisconsin state capitol was among 2,000 events in the 2007 Step It Up Campaign.

"All over the world people will be in their communities putting up solar panels, digging community gardens, not because we think we can solve this problem one project at a time, but because we think we need to send a message to our leaders [that] we're getting to work, what about you?"

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which would require the nation's industries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 83 percent over the next four decades.

The bill is stalled in the U.S. Senate. 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.

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