By Amanda Hermans
About 330 people from the Northwestern, Evanston and Chicago communities gathered on Tuesday to hear Bill McKibben, journalist and founder of the climate activist group 350.org, speak at Cahn Auditorium. The event was hosted by Students for Ecological and Environmental Development (SEED). McKibben spoke about the need to take action on climate change, which he sees as the most urgent issue facing the current generation.
Though McKibben now leads a global climate change movement and has spoken at countless venues and events across the nation, he began his career as an introverted writer. In 1989 McKibben published his book, The End of Nature, making him one of the first people to write about climate change for a broad audience. The book drew some attention, and McKibben continued writing about climate change for the next few decades. But in 2008, he decided he felt that the urgency of climate change warranted a more active fight.
“At a certain point, some years ago, it began to dawn on me that another book was not going to move the needle on this question,” McKibben said.
McKibben went on to start the grassroots-based not-for-profit 350.org with seven undergraduate students from Middlebury College, where he was teaching at the time. The organization’s first event was the International Day of Climate Action, which prompted thousands of demonstrations in over 180 countries, shared globally online through pictures and videos. This campaign has been called the most widespread day of political action in world history, and highlighted the breadth of climate change’s effects worldwide.
In 2011, McKibben was arrested as a part of protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline, which President Obama vetoed on February 24th after more than three years of public debate spurred by 350.org. More recently, he has campaigned at universities and community centers around the world to promote his organization’s movement to divest from fossil fuel companies.
McKibben was one of SEED’s top choices for this year’s winter speaker, said Pallavi Pandey, speaker chair of SEED. His message resonated with the group’s mission statement, which this year focused on issues of climate.
“It’s a great way to spread environmental awareness on campus,” Pandey said. “I definitely think that is lacking at Northwestern.”
McKibben discussed the unfortunate necessity of environmental activism, saying that although people did not choose to be in this climate situation, we must deal with the current reality.
“Rationally we would just take action on this,” McKibben said. “Scientists have told us that the worst thing we’re ever going to see is happening, and they’ve told us what we can do about it. Our system should be responding, but it isn’t, so we need to figure out how to force it into action.”
As far as solutions go, McKibben called for the spread of renewable energy and a strict price on carbon. He also argued that divestment from fossil fuels, in addition to being essential for the planet’s survival, is actually in investors’ best interests. As the world starts to act out against climate change, these investments will no longer make fiscal or moral sense.
“If it is wrong to wreck the planet, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage,” he said.
McKibben offered encouragement to Northwestern’s own divestment movement, DivestNU, which has recently been growing in number and visibility after participating in 350.org’s Global Divestment Day on February 13th. Despite the group’s efforts, and divestment at other large institutions like Stanford University and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Northwestern’s Board of Trustees has yet to divest from coal.
“In relatively short order, with incredibly hard work from people, [the movement] will convince places, even places that are kind of slow to move like Northwestern, that they need to do the same thing,” he said.
Claire Carson, a senior at Northwestern, said she came away from the speech inspired and with a new perspective.
“The biggest thing that I learned is that this whole global movement against climate change is not just a rich white person thing,” she said. “I think it’s really important to recognize that this affects people in Bangladesh or the Maldives… way more acutely than it affects us. It’s important to unite to fight against climate change.”
Reflecting on unity in a particularly hopeful anecdote, McKibben talked about a 2014 protest by group of Pacific islanders, who live on island nations which are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise caused by climate change. The protesters used handmade canoes to blockade the biggest coal port in the world, located in Australia, for nine hours.
“It’s beautiful to see, their slogan was ‘We’re not drowning, we’re fighting,’” McKibben said. “The rest of us have to be willing to do some fighting too.”