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The Brattleboro Reformer

McKibben: Local Activism is Key to Fighting Climate Change

Nicole Orne

BRATTLEBORO -- Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben told a group of roughly 100 people Thursday night that activism needs to be acted out on a local level.

The Brattleboro activist community that gathered at the School for International Training seemed to get the message.

One of the first questions asked was what McKibben felt about nuclear power. With Vermont Yankee nearby, activism in Windham County means protests against nuclear power.0215 01

However, the focus is not something all environmental activists share, as McKibben told the audience that nuclear power, while too expensive to help with our dependence on coal and oil, was not a guaranteed danger like coal plants.

Other than that, though, while he said the desire to be active against global warming needs to be personal and local, he seemed to say much that reflected the feelings of this community.

McKibben, who was behind the successful Step It Up campaign encouraging lawmakers to pass legislation to lower carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, presented the next step in the plan, which he calls 350. This number represents a goal for how many parts per million of carbon dioxide should be in our atmosphere.

Before the industrial revolution, he said, the number was at 275. Now it is at 385, meaning global warming activists have some work to do to bring it back down to where it should be.

"We have to build a much, much more powerful movement," he said, adding that the best way to do this was through grassroots organizations across the globe, united under one campaign and sharing ideas and devotion to the cause.

The first Step It Up brought 1,000 people to Burlington. "In Vermont, that's a scary horde of people," he said, but he wanted to go bigger.

The next step created 1,400 demonstrations in all 50 states. "It had some real effect," he said, but now he wants to see it played out on an international scale. "They don't call it 'global warming' for nothing," he said.

The idea of using the number as a symbol for the campaign, he said, could add to that globally united front.

"We're going to try to take that number and tattoo it into people's heads. We chose a number because it's translatable," he said. "What we need is people in their own communities to take that number and spread it, with music, with art, and take pictures and get it back into that centralized arena."

This combination of the local and the global would draw strengths from each, he said. "The goal is to let people do something simple with the work you're doing already. Nobody really knows how to do it, but collectively, maybe we could figure out how to do it."

McKibben knew he was preaching to the choir about the issue, since the lecture was hosted by SIT's Environmental Working Group, but he did not mince words about what the stakes were.

"We are in a big, freaking hole and there's absolutely no guarantee that we're going to get out of it," he said, inspiring nods all around, some jotting notes.

As the United States, he said, we should be leading the war against global warming, but instead we are a big part of the problem.

"I think much of the last couple of centuries was about rich people trying to figure out bad things to do to people in the poor world," McKibben said, apologizing for revealing his political feelings. "But none of that compares to what we are now doing to the rest of the world."

Problems such as drought, flooding and mosquito-borne disease, while present here, have a much more devastating effect on developing countries. The irony, he said, is that most of these countries have very little electricity or other resources and that adds to the problem.

"If they're walking around waist deep in water, somewhere around mid-calf is our contribution," McKibben said.

Nicole Orne can be reached at

© 2008 The Brattleboro Reformer

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