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Friday, March 9, 2012

Death Threats Are the Price You Pay for Environmental Activism

Bill McKibben

The most important story you are likely to read this month--and perhaps for many months to come--is a profile of author and environmental activist Bill McKibben in the current issue of Time magazine.

Why is the article so important? It provides two chunks of information that neatly sum up the challenge we face with global climate change. Part of the challenge, believe or not, involves death threats.

Climate change is, to borrow a phrase from Saddam Hussein, "the mother of all issues." If we don't get that one right, all other issues are not going to matter. And that's because we won't have an earth capable of supporting much in the way of life.

The McKibben article, on the surface, is about his efforts to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, which would move oil-sands crude from Canada to refineries in the United States. But it goes much deeper than that, providing two pieces of jaw-dropping information that give us about all we really need to know about the battle over climate change.

The first comes after reporter Bryan Walsh tells us about McKibben's 2006 efforts to organize a demonstration calling for carbon cuts. Writes Walsh:


Soon after, McKibben learned from NASA climatologist James Hansen about new research indicating that the world needed to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million (p.p.m.) to avoid dangerous climate change. (We're already at 392 p.p.m. and counting.) Atmospheric carbon concentration hardly makes for catchy protest slogans, but McKibben saw the number 350 as a clarion call, comprehensible to a global audience without translation. His Internet-savvy friends helped him take the idea worldwide. In October 2009, 350.org organized more than 15,000 rallies in 180 countries. It was likely the biggest mass rally in history.

Let the information in bold sink in. We already are well above the level of carbon-dioxide concentration that will bring dangerous climate change. The problem is here--now; it's not something for generations down the road to worry about.

The second key piece of information comes when Walsh describes the response to McKibben's activism:

The success of 350.org changed McKibben's life, making him an activist first and a writer second. He now updates more than 30,000 Twitter followers and travels constantly to give lectures and attend protests. He's still figuring out life as a public figure. He answers all his e-mail, and 350.org only recently hired an assistant to book his travel. And he doesn't always relish it. He asks that TIME not photograph the exterior of the house because of death threats. "People seem to think you're going to take their freedom away," he says.

A man is receiving death threats because he has called attention to the dangers of climate change? People are that warped--and that blind to actual science? They are blind to a problem that already is here and threatens the only earth we have?

The bottom line? We have a defining challenge before us, but our society might be too dysfunctional to even come close to addressing it. Bill McKibben deserves kudos for being brave enough to try. And Bryan Walsh deserves credit for educating us about McKibben's efforts.

For background on the McKibben story, check out Walsh's piece on Time's environmental blog called Ecocentric.

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