Three Numbers that Tell an Urgent Story

by Doug Burke Twenty plus Oak Park and River Forest residents were among the sold-out crowd at the Athenaeum Theater, when author and founder of, Bill McKibben, made a recent stop in Chicago as part of his “Do the Math” tour.  The tour began in Seattle the night after the election, and continued through 20 cities drawing capacity crowds at each stop.

The “Do the Math” title refers to three numbers that McKibben uses to communicate the urgency of his message.  It goes like this . . .

  • 2 degrees Celsius = the widely agreed upon maximum temperature increase possible without causing devastating results. (Note: We have already raised the average temperature about 0.8 degrees Celsius and it has caused far more damage than most scientists expected and many think 2 degrees is too much.)
  • 565 gigatons = the maximum amount of carbon that scientists say we can use without exceeding the 2 degrees Celsius limit
  • 2,795 gigatons = the amount of fossil fuel that companies possess in their known reserves available for use

If we are addicted to fossil fuels, McKibben asserted, the oil and gas companies are the pushers, and we need to go right after them.  While continuing to “play defense” by trying to stop things like the Keystone XL Pipeline, he said, we need to go on offense at the same time.  Inspired by the impact of the divestment movement focused on South Africa during the era of apartheid, the primary strategy for putting pressure on the fossil fuel companies introduced during the “Do the Math” tour aims at launching a movement to get colleges, universities, and other institutions to divest from investments in fossil fuel companies.

McKibben noted some early successes of the divestment campaign: Unity College in Oregon has announced that it will divest from fossil fuel companies.  Divestment campaigns have been started on over 100 campuses.  Harvard students voted 72% in favor of divestment.  There were groups of students from many Chicago area campuses at the local gathering that expressed commitment to work on divestment strategies on their own campuses.   And the mayor of Seattle announced his support and his plans to meet with the city treasurer to discuss how the city can divest.

McKibben’s talk was puctuated with video statements of support from Van Jones, Naomi Klein, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and others.  The mood at various points throughout the evening fluctuated from serious to energized to determined.

The Reverend Lennox Yearwood, president of the Hip Hop Caucus, a group that organizes young people to be active in elections, policymaking and service projects, introduced McKibben and described this struggle as deeper than the civil rights movement.  If the civil rights movement had lost, Yearwood said, then he as an African-American might have had to ride in the back of the bus, or use a different water fountain.  But the fight over climate change is a question of our existence.

Related articles:

New York Times Article on divestment campaign, 12/4/2012:

McKibben’s article in Rolling Stones magazine 7/19/2012: