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Bill McKibben: We Can't Wait for the Politicians, We Have to Create the Future that We Need Ourselves

"We will never have as much money as the oil companies, so we need a different currency to work in. We need bodies, we need creativity, we need spirit."

The following was a speech Bill McKibben gave at the Powershift 2011 conference in Washington DC.

Very, very few people can ever say that they are in the single most important place they could possibly be, doing the single most important thing they could possibly be doing -- that's you, here, now. You are the movement that we need if we are going to win in the few years that we have. You have the skills now, you are making the connections, and there is no one else. It is you. That is a great honor and that is a terrible burden. There is no one else.

The science is the easy part of this -- grim, but easy. 2010 was the warmest year on record -- and it was warm. We were on the phone one day with our 350 crew in Pakistan and one of them said, "It's hot here today." And I was surprised to hear him say it, because it's usually in Pakistan in the summer, and he said, "No, it's really hot. We just set the all-time Asia temperature record -- 129 degrees." That kind of heat melts the Arctic. That kind of heat causes droughts so deep across Russia that the Kremlin stops all green export. That kind of heat causes the flooding that still has 4 million people across Pakistan homeless tonight.

It's tough, it's grim, but the good news at least is that it's clear, the science. We have a number -- 350 parts per million. 350 -- the most important number on Earth, as the NASA team put it in January 2008. Any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed, into which life on Earth is adapted. Getting back to 350 parts per million will be very, very tough -- the toughest thing human beings have ever done -- but there is no use complaining about it. It's just physics and chemistry. That's what we have to do.

But if the scientific method has worked splendidly to outline our dilemma, that's how badly the political method has worked to solve it. Think about our own country, historically the biggest source of carbon emissions. Last summer, the Senate refused to even take a vote on the tepid, moderate, tame climate bill that was before it. Last week, the House voted 248-174 to pass a resolution saying global warming wasn't real. It was one of the most embarrassing votes that Congress has ever taken. They believe that because they can amend the tax laws, they can amend the laws of nature, too. But they can't. I am awful glad a few of you of you went up to the Visitor's Gallery to talk some sense to them last week. Even the White House -- two weeks ago, the Interior Secretary who spoke here two years ago, Ken Salazar, signed a piece of paper opening 750 million tons of coal under federal land in Wyoming to mining. That is like opening 300 new coal-fired power plants and running them for a year. That's a disgrace.

But you know what? We know why we are in trouble. We understand the physics and chemistry of political power. In this case, it's not carbon dioxide that rules the day, it's money. Many of you are in the District of Columbia for the first time, and it looks clean and it looks sparkling. No -- this city is as polluted as Beijing, but instead of coal smoke it's polluted by money. Money warps our political life, it obscures our vision, but just like with physics and chemistry there's no use whining. We know now what we need to do and the first thing we need to do is build a movement.

We will never have as much money as the oil companies, so we need a different currency to work in. We need bodies, we need creativity, we need spirit. 350.org has been like a beta test for that movement. It began with youth here at Power Shift, kids who were here at Power Shift four years ago. It's now spread across the planet -- in the last two years there have been 50,000 demonstrations in 189 nations. CNN called it the most widespread political activity in the planet's history. But it needs to get bigger still. On the first Earth Day in 1970 there were 20 million Americans in the street -- one in 10 Americans -- that's the kind of size we need.

So, on September 24th we need your help. September 24th is the next big day of action -- we're calling it Moving Planet. And in those 189 nations, people will be in motion, much of it will be on bicycles, because the bicycle is one of the few tools that rich and poor both use. Who here knows how to ride a bike? All right -- Sept 24th, I cannot wait to see the pictures. We are not going to wait for the politicians to move, we are going to create the future that we need ourselves. But that movement doesn't just need to be bigger -- it needs to be sharper, too, more aggressive. You know what? At Copenhagen, we got 117 nations to sign on to that 350 target. That was good, but they were the wrong 117 nations -- they were the poorest and most vulnerable nations. The most addicted nations, led by our own, who aren't yet willing to bite the bullet, that's where we have got to go to work. That work, to deal with that money pollution, that work starts Monday at 10 o'clock in Lafayette Square, across from the White House and next to a place called the US Chamber of Commerce.

Now, the Koch brothers are high peaks of corruption. They are high peaks, but the US Chamber of Commerce is the Everest of dirty money. It boasts on its web page that it is the biggest lobby in Washington. In fact, it spends more money lobbying than the next five lobbies combined. It spent more money on politics last year than the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee combined, and 94% of that went to climate deniers. We cannot stop their money, but we can strip them of their credibility. They claim to represent all of American business, but they don't. 55% of their money came from 16 companies. They don't have to say who those companies are, but it's easy to tell when you watch what they do. They spend their time lobbying to make sure the planet heats up as fast as it possibly can. They sent a legal brief to the EPA last year saying that they should take no action on climate change because if the planet warmed, humans could alter their behavior and physiology to deal with the problem. I don't really know what that means, alter your physiology -- grow gills? I don't know. But I tell you this -- I am too old to change my physiology and you all are too good looking.

But I will adapt my behavior. Everyday now I roll out of bed and go to work fighting them. Hell, I will go to bed at night and try to dream up new ways to fight. We are going to adapt our behavior, all right. We are going to adapt our behavior now to fight on every front. I am sorry if that sounds aggressive, but there we are. 22 years ago, I wrote the first book on climate change and I have gotten to watch it all, and I know that simply persuasion will not do -- we need to fight. Now we need to fight nonviolently and with civil disobedience. You will hear from my friend Tim DeChristopher in a moment and more to come, but if you're going to go that route one thing you need to make sure is that you manage to get across in your witness that you are not the radicals in this fight -- the radicals are the people who are fundamentally altering the composition of the atmosphere. That is the most radical thing people have ever done.

We need to fight with art and with music too, not just the side of our brain that likes bar graphs and pie charts, but with all our heart and all our soul. Tomorrow you need to go down or tonight behind Hall B downstairs and help them build the artwork for Monday morning. We need to fight with unity. We need to have a coherent voice. That's why last week we joined with our friends with at 1Sky to build this bigger, stronger 350.org. We need to speak with one loud voice because we are fighting for, well, we're fighting for your future.

So far, we've raised the temperature of the planet one degree, and that's done all that I've described -- it's melted the Arctic, it's changed the oceans. The climatologists tell us that unless we act in great speed and courage that one degree will be five degrees before this century is out and if we do that then the world that we leave behind will be a ruined world. We fight not just for ourselves, we fight for the beauty of this place, for cool trout steams and deep spruce woods, for chilly fog rising off the Pacific and deep snow quieting the mountains. We fight for all the rest of creation that shares this planet with us -- a creation so right that we don't even know half the species on Earth that we are wiping out. And of course we fight alongside our brothers and sisters around the world.

You have seen the pictures as I've talked, these are our comrades. Most of these people you see come from places that have not caused this problem, and yet they are willing to be in deep solidarity with use. That's truly admirable and it puts a real moral burden on us. Never let anyone tell you that environmentalism is something that rich white people do. Most of the people that we work with around the world are poor and black and brown and Asian and young, because that's what most of the world is made up of and they care about the future as much as any one else.

We have to fight, finally, without any guarantee that we are going to win. We have waited late to get started and our adversaries are strong and we do not know how this is going to come out. If you were a betting person you might bet we were going to lose because so far that is what's happened, but that's not a bet you are allowed to make. The only thing that a morally awake person can do when the worst thing that ever happened is happening is try to change those odds.

I have spent most of my last few years in rooms around the world with brave people -- many of whom will be refugees before the century is out, some of them may be dead from climate change before the century is out -- no guarantee that we will win, but from them a complete guarantee that we will fight with everything we have. It is always an honor for me to be in those rooms. It is the greatest of honors for me to be with you tonight. No guarantee that we will win, but we will fight side by side as long as we've got. Thank you all so much.

Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, an international climate campaign.
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