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Bill McKibben of to Lead Climate Change Rally in Seattle

Steve Liptay Photo

This Saturday, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben will lead a rally against fossil fuel exports and the Keystone XL pipeline in Seattle. 

Known as one of the first voices to warn of the dangers of global warming, McKibben is on tour with his new book, Oil and Honey. He is also the founder of an international organization called, which he created to fight climate change. 

McKibben says 350 is "the most important number in the world, but nobody knew it until 2008, when Jim Hansen and his team at NASA published a paper saying we now know enough about carbon to know how much in the atmosphere is too much." 

"Any value greater than 350 parts per million is ‘not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted,’ which is strong language for scientists to use and it’s stronger still if you know that in Seattle and every place else on the planet, we’re already above it," McKibben said.

"We passed the 400 parts per million mark this spring and we’re going up about 2 parts per million per year. That’s why the Arctic is melting. It’s why the Sierra Nevada is on fire. It’s why Colorado just saw the greatest rainfall it’s ever seen.

"We’ve already got too much carbon in the atmosphere. And that’s before we build the Keystone pipeline or run the coal trains to Bellingham, or do all the other things that we’re talking about doing.”

Yes, we've already surpassed the limit, McKibben says, which is why we must start aggressively fighting against climate change. And people are starting to realize that, he says.

“This movement is suddenly growing very dramatically, and it’s because we can see the damage going on around us," he said. 

One of the ways McKibben has grown the movement is through his "Do the Math" campaign. He argues energy companies would release five times more carbon into the atmosphere than we can stand if people don't somehow stop them. 

“The energy companies themselves have in their annual reports and their SEC filings announced plans to burn five times as much carbon as the most conservative scientist or government says would be OK. That’s why we’ve launched this big divestment campaign across the country.

"And really, the very first person to stand up and say, 'Yes, let’s do it on a civic level' was your mayor, Mike McGinn. Seattle’s been a leader in this. Fifteen or 16 other cities now around the country—San Francisco, Providence, Rhode Island, Portland—have all followed suit.”

McKibben says he has modeled his campaign on the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980s. 

“There’s very few examples of people being able to stand up to big corporate power, in this case, the fossil fuel industry. It’s not that we think we can bankrupt Exxon. We can’t. But we think we can politically bankrupt them, morally bankrupt them, take away their power to determine events in Washington," he said. 

The way things are set up, we don't have much choice but to use fossil fuel every day, McKibben says. But the point is to change that by weakening the fossil fuel industry's grip on our legislative and political system.

"And so we have to weaken them, so we can do the rational, obvious things that scientists and economists have been calling for for years now—mostly putting a price on carbon that reflects the damage it does in the atmosphere and keeps the fossil fuel industry from being the only people on the planet who get to throw out their waste for free," he said.

McKibben's new book, Oil and Honey, is a memoir about his most recent years as an activist. He details how he went up against the Obama administration to try and stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry oil extracted from tar sands in Canada.

Asked why he decided to tell that story, McKibben calls the fight "the iconic environmental battle of our time." And, he says, people's efforts have slowed things down.

"When we started this fight, it looked like the pipeline was a done deal. Then there was the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years in this country about anything. And the Obama administration delayed for a while. And now, sometime in the next year, they’ll make a decision.

"If the president does the right thing, it’ll be the first time that a world leader says we’re not going to build something because of its effect on the climate. That would be huge. That would help restart the international negotiations that effectively ended at Copenhagen with the fiasco there," he said. 

In august 2011, McKibben staged protests that culminated in the arrest of more than 1,200 people. He is credited with bringing together a fragmented environmental movement. In that case, the arrests helped draw attention to the issue; however, he doesn't believe getting arrested is an effective tool every time. 

“Most of the work of building movements is less dramatic than that," he said. "It’s the kind of work we’ll be doing tomorrow, when we in 175 locations around the country have these rallies to draw a line against Keystone. I’m going to be in Seattle for the one there and I think it stands to be pretty beautiful. They’re asking people to bring red fabric with them, so there’s going to be some kind of red line to be drawn against this climate disruption."

McKibben said he chose to spend the day in Seattle in part to take a stand against Northwest coal terminals.

"Your region is absolutely essential to bottling up the flow of carbon out of the American interior, into Asia. If you build those coal ports in places like Bellingham or Longview, then you’re the pass-through for immense amounts of climate change, of carbon that will heat the planet. If we stop it there, then it’s a bottleneck that will serve very well the cause of physics in the years ahead," he said. 

Bill McKibben read from his new book, Oil and Honey, the Education of an Unlikely Activist, on Monday at Town Hall. He will lead a rally at Seattle's Myrtle Edwards Park on Saturday, at 11 a.m. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to