McKibben’s Math: Climate Action and College Campuses

Reader Contribution by Lindsay Mcnamara
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“All we’re asking for is for the type of planet we were born on. It’s not radical,” said Bill McKibben in the Rutgers University Student Center (New Brunswick, NJ) on Monday, February 4, 2013. “Radicalism is the scientists of fossil fuel companies who are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere more than any human has before them,” he added.

Bill McKibben, author, educator, and environmentalist, wrote The End of Nature, the “first book for a general audience on climate change” in 1989. Since that publication, McKibben has stepped into a lifetime of climate activism, founding the global nonprofit in 2008.’s mission is to build a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis. The organization has led online campaigns, grassroots organizing and mass public actions from the bottom up in over 188 countries. The number 350 is significant because it is believed by leading scientists to be the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists measure carbon dioxide in “parts per million” (ppm), so 350 ppm is “the number humanity needs to get below as soon as possible to avoid runaway climate change.” 

As calls for a cohesive global movement, the number transcends the over 4,000 languages spoken across the world, to create one unified message. calls for a different kind of PPM, a “people powered movement” to solve the climate crisis.

McKibben spoke to a full house at Rutgers University on‘s latest movement, the divestment rising. He called movements a means to “spread awareness and build on that awareness into meaningful action on the scale of the problem.”

The divestment movement was inspired by McKibben’s piece in Rolling Stone “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which received national attention in the summer of 2012. McKibben found three numbers that are necessary to keep in mind about the climate crisis:

  • 2 degrees C: Staying under a 2-degree C increase in global temperature is the target agreed by many nations by the Copenhagen Accord (2009) to avoid climate disaster.
  • 565 gigatons (1 gigaton = ONE BILLION tons): An estimate of the amount of additional CO2 emissions we can have before going over the 2-degree C threshold.
  • 2,795 gigatons: Fossil fuel industry reserves in terms of CO2 emissions.

The third number, the large reserve, is the driving force for the campaign to “go fossil free.” The Go Fossil Fuel campaign asks colleges and universities to divest their endowments from investments in fossil fuel companies, a campaign modeled off the successful 1980’s divestiture from US companies doing business in South Africa to force an end to apartheid.

At Rutgers University, McKibben explained that colleges and universities are the best place to “play offense” against the power and influence of fossil fuels. He said it is the responsibility of a university to have a business plan that leaves a planet for its students to actually use their education on. He outlined the effects of a planet that has warmed only 1 degree C: rises in food prices, melting of the Arctic sea ice, record breaking trends (2012 being the warmest year on record), and extreme weather, like droughts, floods and Super-storm Sandy. McKibben said that storms like Sandy remind us of “the fragility of the civilization that we have built” and challenged New Jersey “in the wake of Sandy to rise to this occasion.” 

More than 230 campuses have begun fossil fuel divestment campaigns in 2013, and as Bill McKibben says, begun to fight the power of fossil fuel industry “with the currency of passion, creativity, numbers and movements.”

Watch Bill McKibben’s talk at Rutgers University live online and spread the word.  

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