Environmentalist speaks about urgency of climate change, civil disobedience in activism

Environmentalist Bill McKibben speaks at the University of Michigan on Oct. 17. via Flickr

Environmentalist Bill McKibben spoke to a standing room only ASEAN Auditorium about climate change activism on Tuesday evening as part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s Distinguished Speaker Series. 

McKibben spoke on a variety of topics, including civil disobedience, divestment from fossil fuel companies, politics in the U.S. and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report on global warming.

Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Julian Agyeman moderated the event. Agyeman said that his work centers around the concept of “just sustainabilities,” or intertwining social justice and sustainability, in an interview with the Daily.

One of McKibben’s early achievements was writing his first book, “The End of Nature,” which he said he was inspired to write from the sadness he experienced after reading about climate change. McKibben connected this feeling to his appreciation for the “wild” Adirondack Mountains in New York, where he lived. McKibben has since authored many more books about the environment and founded grassroots climate change nonprofit 350.org.

Early in the event, Agyeman directed the conversation to climate justice and how this framing might have altered McKibben’s views on climate change.

In response, McKibben gave an example of one of his first experiences that transformed him from a writer into an activist. While visiting Bangladesh as a reporter, he witnessed many people dying from an outbreak of dengue fever, an emergent disease linked to global climate change.

According to McKibben, Bangladesh contributes very little carbon to the atmosphere, and he recalled feeling that it was extremely unfair how climate change affected those who had contributed least to it.

McKibben also recognized that those interested in fighting for climate change are not always wealthy older white adults, as he admitted to previously thinking. During his work with 350.org around the world, McKibben mostly saw young people from a variety of racial and economic backgrounds involved in fighting against climate change.

Demographics were the focus of his views on civil disobedience as well. McKibben encouraged older adults to participate in civil disobedience in place of young people with more at stake.

“One of the unmixed blessings of growing older is, after a certain point, what the hell are they going to do to you?” he said, in reference to the potential consequences of activism.

McKibben stressed the importance of civil disobedience as a tool for activists, and praised Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the women’s suffrage movement as using pioneering techniques that created social change.

“I think you can argue that non-violent direct action … may turn out to have been the greatest invention of the 20th century,” McKibben said.

McKibben reminded the audience of other methods to fight global climate change and urged Tufts to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies.

“On the list of things that we need to do to deal with climate change, [divestment] is one of a, the most effective … and b, about the easiest possible thing that there is to do,” he said. “The fact that it isn’t happening means that people really have no great room to criticize the Trump administration or anybody else.”

When the conversation turned to the upcoming election, McKibben maintained a firm opinion that divestment is vital to breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry’s influence in politics.

In an interview with the Daily before the event, Jessica Byrnes, special projects administrator for Tisch College, recognized the significance of bringing the conversation about climate change to the Tufts campus before the election.

“This is an incredibly important debate, particularly before the November election,” Byrnes said. “We hope that this [event] informs [students] before they vote, and if they weren’t planning to vote, I hope it changes their mind. We hope it inspires a conversation that needs to continue to happen.”

Prior to the discussion with McKibben, Agyeman expressed concern about the IPCC report’s 12-year deadline for humankind to take effective action against global warming.

“How do we communicate fearful issues in ways that empowers rather than cause a sense of hopelessness? This report paints a dire picture,” Agyeman said.

During his talk, McKibben had a different view on the issue.

“I don’t worry that [the 12-year deadline] scares people,” McKibben said. “What scares me is people not being scared of climate change.”

McKibben concluded his talk by reiterating the urgency of tackling climate change and said that, while still important, efficient action must go beyond small initiatives like switching off lights and eating locally.

“The most important thing the individual can do is be less of an individual. Join together with other people in movements large enough to effect changes in policy and economics that might actually move the system enough to matter,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly used the concept of “just sustainabilities” to describe Bill McKibben’s work. “Just sustainabilities” describes Julian Agyeman’s own work. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.


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