by Yolanda Villafuerte _______3rd April 2013

In July 2012 Bill McKibben published an article in the Rolling Stone magazine called Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, in which he explained the climate crisis the planet had found itself in in simple mathematical terms: in order to limit global warming to below 2° Celsius, only 565 gigatons of CO2 can be emitted, and the fossil fuel industry currently has 2,795 gigatons of CO2 in their reserves. 

Clearly the numbers don’t add up, and McKibben puts the blame squarely on the fossil-fuel industry, calling it “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization”.

The Internet loves a fight, and the article went what McKibben called “wickedly viral”, with more than 112,000 Facebook shares and nearly 6,000 comments on Rolling Stone alone.

Based on this article the climate campaign 350.org, of which McKibben is the founder, launched the ‘Do The Math’ Tour in the fall. The tour (a TED-talk meets concert tour) focused on college campuses and religious institutions and has now turned into the ‘Go Fossil Free campaign’, which is asking College and University Presidents to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years. This campaign is modelled after anti-apartheid campaigns in the 1980s. Over 200 North American campuses have joined, with five US schools and the city of Seattle agreeing to divest so far

The campaign has a lot going for it, particularly the effective simplicity of its message. The fossil-fuel industry has been marked the clear villainous baddie, there is very obvious moral message running through the campaign, and the solution it proposes – divesting from fossil fuel companies – is specific, manageable, and 350.org provides campaigning support and tools.

However while the campaign has built momentum, it is still early days yet. There are some big names that are yet to get on board, in particular the university that was most crucial during the anti-apartheid movement in the 80s, Harvard. Though 72 percent of the study body voted to demand divestment in November 2012, the university so far has only responded in what McKibben called “the most patronizing possible fashion”: “We always appreciate hearing from students about their viewpoints, but Harvard is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels”.

Sarah Primmer is a research volunteer at Tomorrow’s Company. She is currently studying Chinese and History at SOAS.

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