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Bill McKibben Brings Climate Change Message to Weston

Noted author and environmentalist tells audience “we have to confront energy industry directly” to effect climate change.

While last week’s off-the-charts warm temperatures had people across the region and country giddy at the opportunity to open their windows, break out their sandals and take in the sun’s rays, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben’s reaction to the surplus of late-winter heat was somewhat more reserved.

“I know everyone enjoyed the heck out of the fine weather last week, and I did too,” McKibben said. “But I felt weird about enjoying it, (knowing) how astonishing it was by what margins we were breaking (temperature) records.”

McKibben, a native of Lexington, spoke to a full auditorium at on March 25 as part of the Victor Harnish Memorial Lecture Series, telling audience members that records set last week “were not just off the charts. (They were) off the wall that the charts were tacked to.”

Part political discourse, part global warming warning, and part inspiration, McKibben’s talk, called “The Climate Fight – A few jailhouse notes on what we still can do,” had a different message from the “think globally, act locally” motto espoused by environmental activists in recent years.

In fact, McKibben said, while community and household efforts like using efficient lightbulbs and recycling are important, true change in the face of what he called “staggering” changes to the environment and climate in the past 40 years would have to come about through politics — “building power to vanquish the unbelievable power (of the energy industry).”

And the technology necessary to begin effecting change is not the hurdle most people imagine it to be, he said. But while “scientists were talking calmly in one ear (to politicians), the fossil fuel industry was bellowing loudly in the other” — a clash that has resulted in “a 20-year bipartisan effort to accomplish absolutely nothing,” McKibben said.

“We have to confront the industry directly,” he said. “They are blocking change. And given that we’ll never have the money to outspend them, we have to use our other currency — passion, spirit, creativity.”

Such efforts at directly confronting the energy industry have included his founding the organization and website 350.org, which takes its name from studies showing people must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 392 parts per million (ppm) to below 350 ppm, and which has attracted passionate followers from nearly every nation in the world, McKibben said.

During the presentation, McKibben displayed slides of people from countries ranging from Wales to Abu Dhabi in the 350 International Day of Climate Action on Oct. 24, 2009, which CNN called "the most widespread day of political action in our planet's history," according to the 350.org website.

“It moved me to see the message spread from every corner of the world,” McKibben said.

He also recounted his involvement in protesting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, drawing applause from the audience as he described the protests last summer and fall at the White House that resulted in more than 1,000 nonviolent arrests, and ultimately led to President Barack Obama’s postponing the decision to grant a pipeline permit until at least 2013.

For the time being, he said, big oil may have lost that fight — “but we have to put a price on carbon that reflects the damage it has done to the atmosphere” to effect long-term change.

For their part, audience members appreciated McKibben’s particular message, with Don Stewart, chair of the Weston Climate Group, touting McKibben’s “experience on the front lines” as giving credence to his position that true change will only come when the politics surrounding oil companies change.

“He’s taking on a real challenge because of economics,” Stewart said.

Lecture attendee and Weston selectman Michael Harrity agreed that McKibben’s agenda of “fighting interests that are invested in keeping the status quo” is an ambitious one and also noted the reminder McKibben presented to act locally — such as continuing efforts to reduce the carbon footprint in municipalities like Weston — but also to “influence nationally.”

Ultimately, said McKibben, “I don’t know whether we can win this fight. But I know from spending the last years around the world that there are lots of people in lots of places who will continue to fight.”

Isabella Jancourtz March 27, 2012 at 11:55 AM
Thank you, Liz, for a wonderful story on this great environmental activist. I did not make it to the event at the High School, but Bill McKibben's powerful and inspiring message come through in your coverage of it. Keep up the good work!
Elizabeth S. Leaver March 27, 2012 at 03:34 PM
Thanks, Isabella. At the beginning of his talk Bill identified himself as “not much of a public speaker,” but I disagreed. He was inspiring, yet unsentimentally so--he didn’t pull any punches in terms of where he believes things are headed. I recommend trying to see him next time he is in the area.
Kristina Greene March 28, 2012 at 01:55 PM
Well put Elizabeth! I was there. I think you captured the essence VERY well.
KW March 28, 2012 at 03:48 PM
I am part of the Congregational Church of Weston's Environmental Action group and helped organizing this event and we thank you very much for the great coverage. His ability to present scientific facts in a way that inspires people to do something about climate change is unparalleled. You did such a good job capturing that.
Elizabeth S. Leaver March 29, 2012 at 02:46 PM
I appreciate your kind feedback, ladies. He seems to have inspired many.

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