On Earth Eve, April 21, 2013, organized hundreds of showings of DO THE MATH, a movie based on Bill McKibbon’s DO THE MATH tour, which in turn was based on his popular DO THE MATH article in Rolling Stone last summer.  Now the movie is playing on computers, mobile devices, and screens around the world.  Watch the movie, if you haven’t already.

Given the success of the movie and its role in building the rapidly growing Climate Movement, it makes sense to take a careful look at its assessment of the climate crisis and the strategies it proposes.

The Math

The heart of the movie shows Bill McKibbon giving his lecture that lays out the math, which is simple and inexorable:

2 degrees — Almost every government in the world has agreed that any warming above a 2°C (3.6°F) average global temperature rise would be extraordinarily unsafe. We have already raised the temperature .8°C, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected.

565 gigatons — Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have some reasonable hope of staying below a 2°C temperature rise.

2,795 gigatons — The Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts, estimates that proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries that act like fossil-fuel companies, equals about 2,795 gigatons of CO2, or five times the maximum amount we can release to maintain 2 degrees of warming.

The Demands

This math leads to a very simple set of fossil fuel climate demands.  Fossil fuel companies must:

  • Immediately stop exploring for new hydrocarbons.
  • Stop lobbying to preserve their special tax breaks and subsidies.
  • Pledge to keep 80% of their current reserves underground forever.

This means that fossil fuel companies will have stranded assets, but, so be it.  The truth is that, at this point in history, fossil fuel companies are operating in a way that is profoundly anti-capitalist.  They are making huge profits for their shareholders by destroying the economic, social, and environmental capital of the whole world economy on an unprecedented scale.   The self interest, the self preservation, of every other industry requires that they back the climate demands the fossil fuel industry must meet.

The Clean Energy Economy

DO THE MATH also addresses the transformation that is taking place and that needs to accelerate from a fossil fuel economy to a clean energy economy.   According to U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, “Our whole economy is going to depend on how we respond to this challenge.”  Solar, wind, and energy efficiency are essentially cost competitive with fossil fuels now, so why not base our economy on forms of energy that do not destroy the environmental basis for continued human civilization.

The DO THE MATH Climate Strategy

The DO THE MATH movie goes on from this analysis to present the two main strategies is pursuing right now for accomplishing the  climate demands.

The movie opens and closes with footage showing Bill McK ibbon and 48 others being arrested for civil disobedience at the gates of the White House February 13th opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, which will bring millions of barrels of particularly dirty tar sands oil from Canada to ports in Texas.  It also includes footage of the Forward on Climate demonstration, which brought 50,000 + to the Capital Mall  February 17th – the largest climate demonstration in U.S. history – largely to oppose the Keystone XL .

In addition to the Stop Keystone XL campaign, the movie also highlights the Fossil Free divestment campaign.  The Fossil Free campaign, which is seeking to get colleges and universities, cities, and pension funds to divest fossil fuel stocks from their investment portfolios.

DO THE MATH ends with Bill McKibbon at the biggest climate rally in U.S. history proclaiming, “All I’ve ever wanted to see was a movement of people to stop climate change and now I’ve seen it.”

Just before that, Van Jones says, “We have to be as sophisticated as the system we are trying to change.”  So, out of utmost respect for the growing Climate Movement and the role is playing, let’s do some evaluation of its strategies.

Fossil Fuel Divestment

The Fossil Free fossil fuel divestment is working out as an excellent strategy, with wide and growing support.  There are divestment campaigns going at more than 300 colleges and universities and more than a dozen cities.

There is a moral imperative.  It is wrong to profit from investments in an industry that is destroying the planet.  And, there are two clear simple demands:

  1. Stop purchasing new fossil fuel stocks.
  2. Sell the fossil fuel stocks in a portfolio within five years.

There is clearly something for everyone to do.  Everyone can divest their own portfolios if they have them and work to get their pension fund and/or their city and/or their college or university to divest.  The tactics are simple:

  • Educating about the climate impact of the fossil fuel industry.
  • Introducing a divestment resolution before the appropriate decision-making body.
  • Building broad support for the resolution as well as support by those making up the decision-making body.
  • Turning people out for the vote.
  • Celebrating victory.

There is the opportunity for a cascade of victories and media coverage of those victories as university after university, city after city divests.

Fossil fuel divestment uses the economic strength of the fossil fuel industry against itself by highlighting the reality of the carbon investment bubble.  Fossil fuel stocks are valued in large part based on the reserves that each oil company has in the ground.  As the world acts to keep those reserves in the ground, the stock price is in danger of collapse.  Therefore, fossil fuel divestment engages everyone’s economic self-interest – portfolio financial return – and connects that economic self-interest to doing the right thing – not profiting from an inherently and massively destructive industry.

Fossil fuel divestment does what every good strategy should by unifying and building the Climate Movement’s base of support, while splitting the opposition.  Investment in fossil fuels is not in the financial self-interest and certainly not in the economic or environmental self-interest of other corporations and union pension funds, so the Climate Movement can attract widespread business and labor allies.

And there is also a successful precedent because the divestment strategy worked extremely well in the struggle against South African apartheid.

Stop Keystone XL

The Stop Keystone XL strategy is somewhat more problematic.  An April Pew Research Center poll, taken well after the sit-in in front of the White House and the big Forward on Climate demonstration on the Capital Mall, found that 66% of people in the U.S. support Keystone XL, with only 23% opposing it.

The decision on Keystone XL is made by the President after a recommendation from the Secretary of State, so there is only one big decision, without the opportunity for a lot of smaller victories.

Keystone XL is being framed as a jobs and energy independence decision so opposition to Keystone XL splits the Climate Movement off from many of its business and labor allies.  And the use of the tactic of civil disobedience in front of the White House even split the Climate Movement to a certain extent.

Don’t get me wrong.  Keystone XL is clearly bad for the planet.  Tar sands oil is particularly CO2 intensive.  In fact very few jobs will be created.  And most, if not all of the oil will be shipped elsewhere and not contribute at all to U.S. energy independence.  I believe that building Keystone XL is in fact morally and economically wrong and should be opposed.

However, Bill McKibbon’s suggestion that there is a moral imperative to sit-in in front of the White House to oppose the Keystone XL is a little troubling.  Non-violent direct action is a tactic that should be used when it contributes to the Climate Movement’s success and not used when it doesn’t.  There is a moral responsibility to oppose deeply unjust laws, but the law against chaining oneself to the fence around the White House is not an unjust law.  It’s actually probably a good law.  So the only issue is whether that tactic builds the Movement and makes success more likely, which, right now, is questionable.

If things continue along the path they are on now, the Climate Movement might lose this battle.  It’s important to figure out what the strategic response will be if that happens and prepare people.  The Movement has taken years to recover from the defeat of the Cap and Trade Climate legislation early in President Obama’s first term when Washington lobbying took the place of grass roots action.  If we lose on Keystone XL, we can’t afford to have it put us into another couple of years of disarray.  It’s important to remember that Keystone XL is one important battle but it is not the war.

The Good News

But the good news is that the Climate Movement is really back, large, growing, and engaging locally again all across the country.

We have weathered the fossil fuel industry’s tobacco-style climate change denial disinformation campaign to the point that an April 9, 2013 Gallup poll found:

  • 62% of people in the U.S. recognize that most scientists believe global warming is occurring.
  • 57% saw human activities as being responsible.
  • 56% thought that specific actions to slow down the effects of climate change are possible.

We just need to keep developing and implementing the most effective strategies possible, because the time is short.  In doing so, it will be important to strike the right balance between strategies for opposing the fossil fuel industry – keeping fossil fuels in the ground – and strategies for promoting what we are building – a clean-energy, sustainable, resilient economy.