We have seen the enemy…

… and it is most definitely not us. It is true that almost all adults are responsible for the greenhouse gases that end up in the Earth’s atmosphere. As an American I am responsible for a hell of a lot more of it than the average world citizen. Bill McKibben pointed out during his stop in Madison last week as part of 350.org’s Do the Math Tour that the good ol’ US of A has put more carbon into the atmosphere than any other nation (China recently surpassed us in total yearly emissions but we still emit more on a per capita basis).

But the average Jane or Joe American would be more than happy to use energy that came from solar panels, wind turbines or other clean energy sources instead of filthy, planet wrecking oil and gas. Millions of us have invested big money in energy conservation in our homes and are driving more fuel efficient cars than we were 5 years ago. Your run-of-the-mill CEO of a fossil fuel company, on the other hand, is doing everything in his power, up to and including lining the pockets of legislators and feeding those so-called leaders “model” legislation, to make sure we use as much of his company’s death-dealing product as possible. (Can something that drives species extinction at a rate unseen since prehistoric times, and ultimately breaks the systems that have cultivated and sustained life on this planet for the last 100,000 years really be called energy?

Most of us would be happy if our energy came from the sun and wind.

Would it not be more accurate to call fossil fuels anti-energy?) Big Oil and Big Gas have rigged the political, economic and infrastructural systems of our country to ensure that their product is the cheapest and most widespread fuel available (when you don’t count the ecological and societal costs, which now rise exponentially by the year). Even if we all drove Cadillac Escalades everywhere we went and owned as many homes as Mitt Romney, the industry would still be exponentially more responsible for climate change than the rest of us.

Now, however, the climate movement is taking the fight directly to those most responsible for the crisis. And it’s hitting them where it will hurt them the most: in the wallet. Let’s face it, though: those wallets are about as padded as it is possible to be. Fighting money with money is just not a winning strategy. The movement to slow climate change cannot raise that kind of cash. If it is going to bring this monster down, it is going to have to go after what allows the beast to stuff its wallet, and that, friends, is moral legitimacy.

The Exxons, Enbridges, BPs and Koch Industries of the world would not be raking in so much dough if it was not for the veneer of respectability and moral legitimacy they wear. There may have been a time when that legitimacy was, well, legitimate. Before we knew just how much damage could be done by them, fossil fuels and the companies that dug them out of the ground seemed like pretty good things. Fossil fuels were incredibly labor saving. Especially in the early days, the environmental damage caused by getting them out of the ground hardly seemed significant compared to their utility. To many they were godsends.

But that time is long gone. We’ve known better for decades.

The Do the Math Tour is all about three simple numbers that expose the fossil fuel industry for what it has been for most of its existence: a gargantuan many-tentacled monster that deals death for profit.

The first number is 2 and it stands for 2 degrees Celsius. The nations of the world have agreed that global climate catastrophe can only be prevented if we manage to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees. Most climate scientists believe that number is too high, since a one degree rise has already led to the loss of most of the Arctic ice cap and a dramatic increase in the frequency and intensity of severe weather events around the world. Nevertheless, it is the one number the world has agreed on when it comes to climate change.

The second number is 565. That’s how many more gigatons of carbon climate scientists say we can spill into the atmosphere before raising the Earth’s temperature two degrees.

The final number is 2,795 and it stands for the gigatons of carbon the fossil fuel industry has in its reserves.

It is not so important to remember these three numbers, which Bill McKibben brought to light in an article for Rolling Stone that went oddly viral last summer. What is absolutely vital to understand is that the fossil fuel industry has five times more carbon in its reserves than is necessary to destroy life as we know it and they plan to do everything they can to get us to burn all that carbon up — and make as much money as they can in the process.

350.org’s recently launched divestment campaign has already resulted in one college agreeing to divest all of its fossil fuel holdings. The investment boards of hundreds of other colleges, universities and churches are facing stiff challenges from students, alumni and members to do the same. This morning, as the temperature climbed yet again into record setting territory and the headlines blared out the news that the world emitted 3 percent more CO2 in 2011 than it did in 2010, I marched to the offices of the University of Wisconsin Foundation with about fifty other Wisconsinites to present a divestment petition containing thousands of signatures to President Knetter. This divestment campaign is the start of a groundswell. While that’s encouraging, even the divestment of every institution of higher learning in the country would not be enough to stop the rapacious monster the fossil fuel industry has become. Unlike the anti-apartheid divestment campaign of the 1980s and 90s, the financial impact of divestment would be significant but not crippling to the fossil fuel industry.

Marching to the UW Foundation offices to present our petition to President Knetter.

The real power of this divestment campaign is not economic, it is organizational and moral.

The campaign has already attracted thousands of students and faculty members who were not previously engaged in this fight in a big way. That is a massive shot of adrenaline for this young (though growing) movement. For it to reach a tipping point sufficient to the task of pulling the planet back from the ecological tipping points it is teetering on, it is going to need millions of bodies pushing for great change.

Second and perhaps more importantly, the moral legitimacy of fossil fuel companies is being challenged and undermined. More and more people are starting to understand that the industry is not the jolly green job creation giant peddling wholesome necessities that it makes itself out to be but is in reality a filthy and violent troll blocking the path to a clean energy economy and the tens of thousands of family supporting careers that come with it. It is not your friendly neighborhood pharmacist, it is the drug cartel. It is not God’s army, it is the terrorist network. It is not the honorable cop on the beat, it is the armed and deranged criminal loose upon the streets. The world is beginning to see Big Oil and Gas as the moral equivalents of Big Tobacco and the apartheid regime in South Africa only with far more terrible consequences to the health and well-being of poor people of every color everywhere.

Only when people see the true face of the monster and not the benevolent mask it wears will they stand up by the millions and billions to stop it from destroying their future.

Yes, we have seen the enemy and it is the fossil fuel industry.

Is the sun setting on our chance to keep climate change from becoming irreversible, or are we witnessing the dawn of a new day in the movement to slow it?



  1. “…the moral legitimacy of fossil fuel companies is being challenged and undermined.”

    This exact sentiment came to mind recently as I watched snippets of commercial TV and neglected to hit the mute fast enough. Oil companies are on a PR defensive. I’m sure we’ve all seen these: ExxonMobil is ready to raise the education standards for the country. (rah-rah!) Chevron is fighting AIDS in developing countries. (I shouted at the screen on this one.) And the BP guy has been telling us for months that the Gulf Coast is experiencing a full recovery in tourism and health. Incredulous and sad. I just hope this PR tactic becomes more and more transparent to the public.

  2. I hope so, too, Dave. Thanks