In Honor of Kalamazoo: An Open Letter To Bill McKibben
by Chloe Maxmin | Harvard University
Dear Mr. McKibben,
You are one of my personal idols. I have admired your work and read your books since I was twelve. I follow your campaigns and join your movements. You have always been a source of inspiration and tireless hope that I have looked to countless times over the years. Yet your most recent article for Rolling Stone about the seriousness of climate change made me sad–and not only because of its chronicle of ruthless corporate behavior and the acceleration of climate change.
Your article sets forth a brilliant strategic analysis. You say our movement’s strategies have not been working–that we need a fundamentally new approach. I agree. I have been making similar arguments in my columns over the past year: there is one called “Beware the Climate Gap” and another entitled “Earth Day Sucks.” The survey data and the scientific data both indicate that we have not accomplished our goals, and we urgently need new strategic thinking: exactly what you have provided.
Your analysis reveals a key lever in the climate change fight: the fossil fuel industry. Exxon and other corporations are extracting and burning fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate–and the climate system can’t take much more. The environmental movement must focus on stopping the fossil fuel industry. In a stroke of genius, you offer as a model the worldwide movement against the South African apartheid system.
One successful aspect of that model was the leverage brought to bear by individuals and pension funds to divest South African stocks or not buy them in the first place. This is very exciting new thinking. It’s a model of a social movement with so many parallels, and we know it can work. It allows us to focus on a real foe and to target measurable results. It’s something that we can achieve and that will make a meaningful difference–there are not that many opportunities in our movement to combine these two vital criteria. This is cause for optimism and excitement. Your strategic insights could lead to a history-making breakthrough.
Despite this, you sounded defeated, dispirited, and weary. The last few paragraphs of your piece left me worrying–not just about the planet but about you, too. Your voice of optimism was gone. I just can’t bear to see this happen.
You have given so much to me and the world. You have energized, mobilized, and engaged more people to fight climate change than ever before. I want to try and do the same thing for you.
Your brilliant analysis stopped short of laying out a new framework for action. All the pieces are there just waiting to be put together. You developed the conceptual framework for the environmental movement’s new strategy: targeting the fossil fuel industry and other environmentally reckless companies where it hurts, the share price.
But I was hoping to see some concrete action steps that we can take to make a difference. To many, stopping the fossil fuel industry seems like an impossibly abstract goal. How can we begin to tackle this issue? How do we create a national umbrella providing tools and relationships to working groups in every campus, state, city, and town to get the ball rolling on divestiture and related goals? People at the local level can use the new platforms to leverage their investments, their pension funds, their consumer buying power, and their voting power to make a real difference. So here are a few ideas to get the dialogue started:
1) We need approaches that can be used on the local level to ignite a movement against the fossil fuel industry. Students can organize to persuade their universities’ endowment funds to divest from Exxon. Teachers, fire fighters,police officers, and public employees at every level can demand that their pensions not be invested in Exxon. Let’s get CALPERS and other big funds on board. People can focus on Exxon’s share price, lobbying for divestiture from the stock and funds that own the stock, including a moratorium on further investments until the corporation becomes an environmentally responsible member of the global community.
2) The same divestiture strategy can be used to target companies that produce energy-intensive products. For example, we can target the share price of auto companies like Chrysler unless they radically improve energy efficiency. Then other companies would follow suit once one business changes its ways. The power of one person can be multiplied with social solidarity, and we can create real change.
3) The South African model could also help us create new sources of grassroots pressure on politicians to establish regulatory frameworks that require responsible burning of carbon. Our elected officials might act on meaningful environmental legislation when they know that is what their constituents want. We can exert direct pressure on manufacturing companies, insisting that, for example, heating oil burners are 50% more efficient. People can create and lobby for legislation mandating that all heavy trucks owned by their home municipality must run on natural gas or get at least 30 mpg.
Today, July 25, is the two-year anniversary of the Kalamazoo River Oil Spill–the largest tar sands oil spill in history. In 2010, 1 million gallons of tar sands oil spilled in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The pipeline that ruptured was owned by Canadian oil giant Enbridge. The results were devastating.
Thirty-nine miles of river were closed off due to pollution. The tar sands oil sank to the bottom of the river, and the clean-up process (which continues today) cost $800 million. Businesses closed for good. 160 homes were evacuated. 320 people had health problems because of the leak. Children were ill and vomiting. Headaches and breathing problems were widespread.
A recent report reveals that Enbridge knew that the pipeline section near the Kalamazoo River had problems. In 2005, 15,000 defects involving cracks and corrosion were identified. Enbridge did nothing to fix the issues. When the spill did occur, it took Enbridge officials 17 hours to shut down the pipeline.
Now Enbridge and other fossil fuel corporations want to pump tar sands oil through an existing pipeline that runs from Montreal to Maine–my home state. They call this plan “Trailbreaker.” The pipeline runs 300 yards from Sebago Lake, the drinking water source for 15% of Maine’s population and a recreational center. It also crosses the Crooked River–which provides 40% of the inflow to Sebago–a total of six times. The pipeline ends in Casco Bay, threatening a thriving marine economy and wildlife. The consequences of a spill would be widespread and devastating. Once the tar sands reach Casco Bay, they would be exported and burned elsewhere, threatening to amplify climate change.
If our new strategy was up and running, we could target Enbridge with these same tactics. Then they might never have the audacity to try and slip this new tar sands project by the people of New England. Let’s fight them off in each community as we are now organizing to do. But let’s target their share price, threaten CEO pay packages, attend their annual general meetings, and put them in the stocks for all to see their grossly destructive behavior.
Now more than ever, optimism is needed. I speak for my generation: we are the ones who will have to deal with worst effects of climate change. We are the ones who must find ways to adapt and mitigate further damage. I believe that we can change our society and habits– if not to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, then to use them in an efficient and responsible way. The transition to a environmentally responsible economy is within our reach. More and more of us understand that climate change poses a serious threat to our well-being, and we are ready to take action.
These are the kinds of tactics that we can use to fight the largest corporations on earth, prevent future disasters like Kalamazoo, and mitigate climate change. And we need you, Mr. Mckibben, now more than ever! As Bruce Springsteen said in his recent anthem “We Take Care Of Our Own:” Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free?
All my best,
Chloe MaxminChloe Maxmin, a Sophomore, at Harvard College, is the founder of the Climate Action Club (CAC) (http://laclimateaction.webs.com) and president of First Here, Then Everywhere (www.firstheretheneverywhere.org). She views her life’s mission as making the climate crisis the defining issue of her generation.