Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, September 17, 2012

Author and activist McKibben warns that time for climate action is short

Author, environmentalist and activist Bill McKibben urged U-M students for their support Friday in a campaign to help prevent catastrophic climate change due largely to the burning of fossil fuels.

“We really are up against it. The swift deterioration of the physical conditions around the planet in the last couple of years has been staggering,” said McKibben, author of the 1989 book “The End of Nature” and co-founder and chairman of, which describes itself as a global grassroots campaign to solve the climate crisis.

  Bill McKibben spoke with students at the School of Natural Resources and Environment and at an Erb Speaker Series lecture at Rackham Auditorium on Friday. (Photo by Dave Brenner, SNRE)

“The changes that we’re talking about when we talk about warming the planet are so large that we absolutely have to control them,” McKibben told about 100 students at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. “There is still a chance to win this fight, but I don’t know how good it is.”

McKibben spoke to students at SNRE a few hours before delivering an Erb Speaker Series lecture at Rackham Auditorium. That lecture was sponsored by the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, the Graham Sustainability Institute, the Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies, the School of Natural Resources and Environment, the Department of Organizational Studies and the Berger Leadership Institute.

The most striking example of rapid environmental change linked to climate warming has been the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, McKibben said. Last month, researchers reported that the amount of sea ice in the Arctic had fallen to the lowest level on record. Arctic sea ice has declined more than 40 percent since satellite tracking began in the late 1970s, a trend that most scientists blame mainly on humanity’s release of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

“Back when ‘The End of Nature’ was written, nobody thought that we would have managed to wreck the Arctic ice by 2012,” McKibben said.

The goal of is to build a political movement strong enough “to beat the fossil fuel industry and to put a serious price on carbon,” McKibben said. “These are the guys who are going to burn five times as much carbon as scientists will tell you is safe to do.”

Following this fall’s presidential election, will begin a campaign to convince U.S. colleges and universities to sell all the stocks in their endowments tied to fossil fuel companies.

The divestment campaign will pressure the fossil-fuel industry and force it to change its ways, McKibben said. He said he will be seeking the support of college students across the country, including those at U-M.

“If you put a price on carbon, through a direct tax or other methods, it would enlist markets in the fight against global warming,” McKibben wrote in a July article in Rolling Stone. “Once Exxon has to pay for the damage its carbon is doing to the atmosphere, the price of its products would rise. Consumers would get a strong signal to use less fossil fuel.”