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McKibben and Goliath

2012 November 17
by dan bertolet

Author and founder Bill McKibben wants to rumble with Big Oil. The reason is this:  The business model of the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations translates to a death wish for the planet.

That’s because science tells us that the known fossil fuel reserves currently underground amount to several times as much as we can burn if we hope to keep the planet’s temperature from rising more than two degrees centigrade, the widely agreed upon redline to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Yet the corporate mission of the fossil fuel industry is to maximize profits by unearthing as much of that carbon as possible and making it available for consumption. In other words, the most powerful corporations on earth are in direct conflict with the earth itself.

How much fossil fuel is okay to burn? McKibben cites assessments that estimate a limit of 20 percent of known reserves. Corroborating, give or take, the International Energy Agency recently released the following unprecedented statement:

“No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2°C goal.”

Let that sink in. To avoid planetary climate disaster, the global community of human beings is going to have to leave untouched a vast reservoir of the energy resource that has made the modern, high standard of living possible.

It’s as if some higher being has designed the ultimate test of humanity’s wisdom.


Big Oil is so wealthy and powerful, their products so enmeshed in our everyday life, that the idea of grassroots activists “taking them on” immediately arouses my inner cynic. But the climate change crisis is so serious, and the response of our government so ineffectual, I’ve become convinced that spotlighting the sociopathic reality of the fossil fuel industry is a tactic that is long overdue.

So then the question becomes, how?  Step number one, according to McKibben: divestment. As was the case with divestment from South Africa to protest apartheid, the primary targets are colleges and universities, and the movement already has its first commitment from Unity College in Maine.

Given that the massive earning capacity of fossil fuel corporations will remain even if their stock price drops, divestment is more about cultural impact than economic impact. Divestment isn’t going to put Big Oil out of business. But if and when more and more of our prestigious and influential organizations start to divest, the message will become impossible to ignore.

And the thing is, we don’t need to put the fossil fuel corporations out of business. Not if their corporate boards can face reality, take responsibility for their awesome power and wealth, and start investing their billions in profits in renewable energy sources instead of in finding ways to extract more carbon out of the ground. Is that really too much to ask, given what’s at stake?


The above photos above were taken by the author at Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” roadshow, which had its national debut last week in a sold out Benaroya Hall.