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Bill McKibben Launches 'Do the Math' Climate Road Show: Can He Inspire Youth to Lead Where the Grown-ups Have Utterly Failed?

McKibben sees only two ways to escape climate misery. "Either Exxon has to bend," he says, "or the laws of physics and chemistry have to bend."

Photo Credit: Rachel Kao


BURLINGTON, Vt. – Bill McKibben is lanky, soft-spoken, scholarly and engaging. He may also be the closest thing the U.S. environmental movement has to a leader.

And he's in show business now. Still soft-spoken, but very, very angry.

On a crisp night earlier this month, a mostly-Gen Next crowd filled the University of Vermont's Allen Chapel to see the dress rehearsal of the coast-to-coast road show that McKibben hopes will ignite a campus movement.

"Do the Math" will visit 20 cities starting Nov. 7. It mixes McKibben's grim analysis with a little inspiration and hope, with a goal of inspiring America's youth to righteous anger, and to lead where the grown-ups have utterly failed.

After a career of teaching and powerful writing on the environment – the book title "The End of Nature" is pretty self-explanatory – McKibben is channeling his quiet rage at the prime culprits in what he views as a looming climate disaster.

He founded 350.org, the grassroots climate action group, and led a huge protest near the White House gates against the Keystone XL pipeline project last year. Now, McKibben is looking beyond America's governmental paralysis and focusing on directly on the fossil fuel industry. 

Carbon cliff

The concept of "Do the Math" came from a July  article penned by McKibben for  Rolling Stone Magazine that careened around the blogosphere and Twitterverse like few mathematically-themed pieces of prose have ever done. McKibben's data, gleaned from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, strongly suggests that we may have already driven ourselves over a carbon cliff.

With his street-cred as an author, a thinker, and a hell-raiser – he spent three days in jail in Washington, D.C. after the White House protest – McKibben seeks to combine the educational virtues of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth with the motivational virtues of time-honored campus activism.

During the dress rehearsal, McKibben labeled the oil, gas and coal giants "a rogue force, outlaws not against the laws of the state, which they help to write, but against the laws of physics."

Two ways to escape

McKibben sees only two ways to escape climate misery. "Either Exxon has to bend," he told a packed room of 900 sometimes-raucous admirers, "or the laws of physics and chemistry have to bend." During the show, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson gets a video skewering with his own words, describing climate change as a simple, surmountable "engineering problem."

The quiet rage of Bill McKibben rises to the surface when he speaks of the institutional henchmen in what he sees as a global climate crime. The absence of regular climate change reporting in mainstream news organizations is "one of the most dismal chapters in media history," he said in a pre-show interview. Like many environmentalists he's disappointed in the Obama Administration, and holds out far less hope for change should Mitt Romney win the White House. 

"They're scared of the fossil fuel industry," he said of both men and their parties. "There's no percentage for these guys in addressing climate."

And while doing the math is not a normal pathway for venting rage, McKibben's show raises some powerful concepts. The title of the show and a good part of the presentation focus on the numbers McKibben and many climate scientists say we need to make to avoid catastrophe. Two degrees Celsius rise in global temperature is one such number, beyond which we're either melting, boiling or baking. Proven oil and gas reserves, just waiting to be lit, will produce five times the carbon needed for the planet to break this two-degree mark.