Bill McKibben lectures on combating climate change

On Thursday, April 7, students, faculty, and guests from Waterville, despite the rain, converged on Colby’s Lorimer Chapel. A large, black banner hung from the chapel steps, stating Colby Divested. Attendees to the event packed both the lower floor and the balcony. This was the scene where environmental activist Bill McKibben’s keynote speech to kick-off Colby’s Community, Culture, and Conservation Conference: Sustaining Landscapes and Livelihood took place.

The packed room soon became quiet as Kerrill O’Neill, Director of the Center for Arts and Humanities, took the podium to introduce the keynote speaker, McKibben. O’Neill cited McKibben’s many accolades, an impressive list that includes two and a half decades of research and activism efforts aimed at stemming the disastrous effects of global warming. McKibben was a founding member of 350.org, the first grassroots climate activism organization, and has spearheaded worldwide campaigns to reduce carbon emissions. O’Neill summed up McKibben’s role in the global climate conflict, saying “Bill McKibben has a tremendous gift for turning apathy into activism and bystanders into advocates for environmental action.”

Shortly after, McKibben took the stage. “My entire role is just to bum people out,” the environmentalist said, half smiling. For the first ten minutes of the presentation, the room was silent as McKibben shared terrifyingly true facts about the state of the world. He informed attendees that the Arctic Ocean is 18 degrees above normal levels. He also stated that 2015 was the warmest year on record, shattering records previously set in 2014.

The implications of his speech were clear: if humans continue to produce carbon at the current rate, civilization as we know it will disappear. This was not all that he shared in his speech. Fossil fuel companies, in 2015, have spent 112 million lobbying politicians to disrupt climate activism. The silent room offered testimony to his initial assertion that his primary role in life was to “bum people out.”

However, many attended this event to receive these graphic details on the state of the environment. Leslie Wright, a woman from Waterville, bought tickets to the event, saying “this is interesting, relevant, and important. I’m happy so many people turned out because people should be thinking about this.” Her words echoed McKibben’s sentiment that although these truths are difficult to face, they must be confronted.

After shocking the audience with details about the extent of climate change, he pivoted the tone of the conversation, saying, “Here comes the good part. We know what we need to do to deal with this.” Decades ago, politicians and scientists were unsure if renewable energy presented a viable option. Today, Denmark generates 49 percent of its power from wind. This summer, Germany drove the clean energy revolution and generated 75 percent of their power from the sun. China is installing clean energy sources at breakneck pace, and Norway recently announced that by 2024, residents will be able to buy electric cars.

McKibben’s organization has made substantial progress in the fight against global warming. The organization kick-started a global divestment campaign, and today, many fossil fuel giants’ revenues are decreasing. 350.org has held rallies in every country; and protests organized by the group have brought national attention to the Keystone XL Pipeline, eventually resulting in a historical political decision to forbid the construction of the environmentally hazardous pipeline, proving that the oil giants could be beat. “We are winning some of these fights,” McKibben said after telling of this victory. Applause broke out through the audience.

Maria Klefdomiv Smith ’19 found his speech incredibly inspiring. “I have been involved marginally with sustainability, but never knew the specifics. The way he speaks is simple but eloquent. He really inspired me.”

At Colby, drastic changes in the climate do not affect the daily lives of the students. McKibben spoke to this point, saying, “Another way to say climate crisis is to say justice crisis. This is the most unfair thing that we have ever done. It is almost the perfect inverse relationship between how much of the trouble you caused and how much of the trouble you’re feeling.” For example, between midnight on New Years and dinner on January 1, an average American family uses the same amount of power that a family in a third world country uses in a year. This statistic struck a chord with Abbey Gracey ’19, who said, “we have a very real responsibility to act on this.”

What can Colby students do? McKibben mentioned little things such as recycling, eating lower on the food chain, and not unnecessarily driving cars. Mindfulness in small actions drives larger change.

However, more importantly, McKibben said that the problem is systemic, and the only solution will come through agitation. He stressed the importance of organizing with other like-minded people. Specifically, as Colby recently divested but has not made a public announcement, he charged attendees with the task of asking the College to publicly announce the divestment and make a statement about our commitment to the planet. “It is going to be the most epic battle. Young people are leading this fight all over the world. We are going to fight, and it’s going to be one hell of a fight,” McKibben proclaimed emphatically, inviting Colby students to join the worldwide movement.

The Colby Alliance for Renewable Energy (CARE) following McKibbens address, invited anyone to their weekly meetings in Lovejoy 203.