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

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, 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 theCarbon 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.

Little faith

With little faith in the media or politicians, McKibben will visit a mix of big cities – New York, Philadelphia, L.A. – with college towns like Madison, Wisc.; Berkeley, Calif.; and Boulder, Colo. – in hopes of kindling a student movement based on the anti-apartheid protests of the late 1980's. 

Many of the same campuses and college endowments who were pressured back then to sever their financial ties to South Africa will be asked to do the same with the fossil fuel industry. McKibben also suggested that the next time 10,000 activists gather on a climate issue, it won't be at the White House, but at ExxonMobil's corporate headquarters in Dallas.

The tour will make only two of its stops below the Mason-Dixon Line, in Durham and Atlanta. It won't get within 600 miles of Mr. Tillerson's ExxonMobil HQ. For many oil-patch campuses, it's not so much that the schools are invested in fossil fuel companies, but the other way around. Oklahoma State University's T. Boone Pickens Stadium is not on the itinerary, nor is Wichita State's Charles Koch Arena. In other words, not all campuses will receive this message well.

Ragged edges

In its dress rehearsal, the show had some ragged edges. But then again, McKibben isn't trying to draft an army to watch a Broadway production, he's trying to draft an army to keep Broadway from going under water. 

And if you're modeling your incipient movement after the South African apartheid struggle, future shows might benefit from some audience diversity. Apart from video appearances by Archbishop Tutu and Greenpeace's Kumi Naidoo, and a brief speech from an ethnic Indian Vermont state legislator, the crowd appeared to this observer to be, like Vermont itself, nearly all white.

Whatever its color, however, the crowd was ready to be led. McKibben, acknowledging that he was "twice the age" of his audience and his staff, looked up to the task. 

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