McKibben calls for fast action on global warming

Christina Chaey

When environmentalist and author Bill McKibben wrote “The End of Nature” in 1989 about the effects of global warming, he thought people would read about its consequences and take immediate action.

Twenty years later, McKibben’s still asking himself why nothing is happening in Washington.

“The United States has been shamefully uninvolved in negotiations about climate. It’s been sad beyond words,” said the self-proclaimed “political downer” before about 300 people at Ryan Family Auditorium on Thursday at a lecture hosted by Students for Ecological and Environmental Development.

After political blogger Arianna Huffington, SEED’s 2007 fall speaker, failed to draw a large crowd, the group got limited funding for this year’s lecture, said co-chairwoman Emily Wright. The group’s funding, which comes from the Student Activities Finance Board, is based on attendance, the Weinberg sophomore said. The group decided to invite a speaker whose name is well-recognized in the environmental activist community as well as a well-known writer, Wright said.

In a one-hour lecture, McKibben addressed the urgent need for immediate, large-scale political action, especially by students.

“The time that we have available to us to deal with any of these questions is short, much shorter than we used to think,” he said. “We’re no longer talking about stopping global warming, we’re talking about stopping it from becoming completely catastrophic.”

McKibben emphasized the symbolic value of changing personal habits, like using efficient light bulbs, but said one person’s overall effect isn’t significant

“Becoming carbon perfect yourself is an essentially pointless gesture,” he said.

However, some audience members thought McKibben’s emphasis on large-scale action over personal cutbacks was not the best approach.

“He’s wrong,” said Bob Drucker, 83, of Wilmette. “If all of us started driving less, we’d see an immediate decrease in carbon emission. There’s so much we can do individually.”

Still, some students see personal actions to conserve energy as important symbols that reflect their goals to affect the larger political sphere.

Environmental Campus Outreach co-president Sam Schiller said he doesn’t think increased political activism is “a whole lot to ask” of NU students, in addition to asking them to be conscious of their daily energy expenditures.

“Isolated in the suburbs, we have a certain mindset,” the SESP senior said. “We need to change our expectations after we graduate and changing certain little habits is both symbolic and really significant, especially over the long term.”

Last April, McKibben organized Step It Up, a single day devoted to climate change awareness and the largest nationwide environmental campaign to date. Step It Up consisted of more than 1,400 events to foster environmental awareness, particularly concerning carbon control. Step It Up’s organizers have now created, a Web site dedicated to educating the public about the effects of carbon emission. The figure 350 refers to the amount of carbon in parts per million to which the Earth can “safely adapt,” McKibben said. With the current carbon level at 384 parts per million, human actions have caused the Earth to exceed the safe limit, giving the world an “enormously small” amount of time to take action, he added.

McKibben had audience members pull out their cell phones and participate in a text message petition to send the next U.S. president to the UN Climate Talks in Poland in December 2009.

McKibben ended his lecture with a short clip that attempts to brand in the the “crucial” number of 350. The clip uses animation instead of words to extend its global reach. So far tens of thousands of people around the world have seen the clip, McKibben said.

“We need people organizing rallies large and small to take this number and drive it home,” he said.

For more information on McKibben’s global campaign, visit

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