Sometime in the Spring of 2006, I went to the Harvard Square Movie theater with my parents and sat down to see a movie from former Vice...
Sometime in the Spring of 2006, I went to the Harvard Square Movie theater with my parents and sat down to see a movie from former Vice President Al Gore called An Inconvenient Truth. About a year earlier, I’d taken a class in college loosely titled “Building a Social Movement to Solve the Climate Crisis,” (bless the liberal arts), and had been working ever since with a group of friends to get our campus to go carbon neutral, buy local food, and anything else we could come up with to slash emissions. We were making progress, but it often felt like we were working on a fringe issue.
With An Inconvenient Truth, global warming went mainstream. The film made over $24 million in the box-office, making it the 9th highest grossing documentary in US history. Gore won an Academy Award. And somewhat suddenly, TV anchors, heck, even politicians, were talking about climate change as something we should probably be more concerned about.
But, as many others have pointed out, while An Inconvenient Truth did an excellent job scaring the pants off everyone, it didn’t leave people with a clear idea about what they could do to actually help stop global warming. The tips that scrolled at the end of the movie—drive less, change your light-bulb, weatherize your windows—felt like very small bites at a “oh my god the world is going to end” apple.
In some ways, 350.org, the campaign I now help run, came into being to help address the “what can I do?” question with an answer that actually felt at scale to the crisis. In the spring of 2007, a group of friends and I teamed up with writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben to organize a national day of action called Step It Up. Fueled in large part by the pent-up energy of people who had seen An Inconvenient Truth, we ended up organizing over 1,200 climate demonstrations in all 50 states and convinced then-candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards to adopt the tough target of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. Americans, it turned out, were ready to do more than change their lightbulbs: they wanted to change their politicians, too.
In 2008, the Step It Up campaign morphed into 350.org, a global climate effort named after the goal of reducing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere below 350 parts per million, the safe upper limit according to leading scientists. Now, five years later, 350.org has coordinated more than 20,000 climate demonstrations in over 180 countries and helped lead a number of national campaigns here in the US, including the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. Throughout, we’ve continued to ask people to do more than change their habits. When reporters ask Bill what the top 3 things a person can do to fight global warming, he often responds, “organize, organize, organize.”
This April 21, 350.org will release our own climate change documentary called Do The Math. Here’s a preview:
The film isn’t likely to win any Academy Awards or make millions at the box office. In fact, instead of going through the trouble of getting the film into theaters, we’ll be putting the 45 minute documentary up on YouTube where anyone can watch it. But a movie isn’t a movie without a premier, so this Sunday, 350.org supporters across the country have organized over 700 screenings and house-parties as part of a national event we’re calling #EarthNight (April 21st being the Earth Day eve). Bill and a number of other movement leaders, including climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, will be hosting two live-streams after the screenings at 8:00pm ET and 8:00pm PT which you can watch at: 350.org/math.
You can think of Do The Math as a sort of grassroots sequel to An Inconvenient Truth. In the first film, Gore makes the case that climate change is a future threat that we should be increasingly worried about. In the second, Bill makes the argument that climate change is now here and the only way we’re going to do anything about it is by taking on the power of the fossil fuel industry.
Bill first laid out that argument in a piece last summer for Rolling Stone magazine and it goes like this: our leading scientists say that in order to limit global warming to below 2°C, a target that even the United States has agreed to meet, we can only emit another 565 gigatons or so of carbon dioxide. The terrifying part is that the fossil fuel industry has roughly 2795 gigatons of CO2 locked up in their coal, oil and gas reserves, five times more than we can safely burn, and everyday they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars searching for more fossil fuels. As Bill puts it, this makes the fossil fuel industry a rogue industry. They’re outlaws, not against the laws of the United States, for the most part they write those laws, but against the laws of physics and chemistry.
Do The Math follows a 21-city tour that Bill did last November to lay out that math and launch a new strategy to take on the fossil fuel industry: divestment. Modeled on the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, this new divestment effort would target the 200 fossil fuel companies that own the vast-majority of the world’s coal, oil and gas reserves. Now, six months later, a coalition of groups including the Responsible Endowments Coalition, the Sustainable Endowments Institute, As You Sow, the Sierra Student Coalition, 350.org and others have helped spread this new divestment campaign to over 300 colleges and universities around the country. Four colleges, Hampshire, Unity, Sterling and College of the Atlantic, have committed to divestment and dozens more boards of trustees are considering the move. 350.org and our allies at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and in the City of Seattle will be officially launching a city and state divestment campaign the week after Earth Day.
The film also tells the story of the growing fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. Bill and a 350.org project, Tar Sands Action, helped put Keystone XL in the national spotlight back in August 2011 with a two-week sit-in at the White House that led to the arrests of 1,253 Americans, the largest civil disobedience in over 20 years in this country. A few months later, more than 15,000 people returned to Washington, DC to surround the White House and forced President Obama to announce that he would be delaying the project for additional environmental reviews.
TransCanada, the pipeline builder, is now attempting to build the southern-leg of the project, which doesn’t require a federal permit, and is facing dogged opposition from the Tar Sands Blockade and landowners. This February, over 40,000 people took part in a “Forward on Climate” rally on the National Mall to push President Obama to reject the pipeline once and for all. On April 18, the State Department will be holding its final public comment hearing on the pipeline’s environmental review in Grand Island, Nebraska. Needless to say, the fight continues.
Keystone XL may be the most prominent fossil fuel fight in the country, but it’s not the only one that is getting people into the streets. In a new piece published in the current issue of Rolling Stone, Bill describes the growing “Fossil Fuel Resistance” that is spreading out across the country. From the fight against fracking in New York and Ohio, to the struggle against mountaintop removal in Appalachia, to campaigns against coal export facilities in the Northwest, people all across the country are waging grassroots efforts to stop the fossil fuel industry’s “extreme energy” push. Backyard fights like these helped galvanize a wave of environmental action in the late 1960s and 70s—hopefully we’re seeing the start of another national movement today.
Our hope is that this Do The Math documentary will inspire people to join in these efforts. Every city in the country needs a divestment campaign, every coal plant needs a well-organized opposition. No matter where you turn, there are opportunities to do more than just change a lightbulb. Whether it’s by teaming up with 350.org or joining a local grassroots group in your town, we just want to get you involved in this growing movement. Hopefully, the film will help accomplish that goal.
Personally, I’m looking forward to the documentary that comes after Do The Math. The film that tells the story of how we beat back the fossil fuel industry and tapped into the creativity and talent in our communities to build a new, clean energy economy. I want to see the sappy montage of solar panels going up on rooftops across the nation, abandoned lots getting revitalized by community gardens, and friends and neighbors coming together to do the most important thing in the world: saving it.
It all starts with us taking action. I hope you’ll join us this April 21 for #EarthNight and then get out of the theater and back into the streets.