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Bringing Young and Old to the Climate Fight

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Bill McKibben (Photo credit: Toby Talbot, AP)

It always seems to me that different groups can bring different things to the climate fight — not completely different, but subtly so, in ways that reflect the diversity of our society.

So, for instance, young people have been crucial leaders of this battle from the beginning, which makes a lot of sense. I’ll be dead before global warming gets to its absolute worst (though it’s already pretty bad — my home state of Vermont nearly washed away in Hurricane Irene). But if you’re 20 right now, with 60 or 70 years left on this earth, those chart lines of rising temperatures and rising sea levels will run over your life. It’s no wonder, then, that we’ve managed in a matter of weeks to get the fossil fuel divestment campaign up and running on more than 300 college campuses: there’s the same kind of deep moral and practical understanding that we last saw when young people faced the Vietnam-era draft — the stakes are that high.

But there are things that can be hard for young people — if you’re 22 right now, in our economy, an arrest record may not be the best thing for your resume. Past a certain age, however, what the hell are they going to do to you? So when we announced plans for mass civil disobedience to protest the Keystone pipeline in 2011, we asked older people in particular to step up. We didn’t ask the 1,253 arrestees (the most in any protest for 30 years) how old they were — that would be rude. But we did ask ‘who was president when you were born?’ And we were delighted when it turned out the biggest cohorts came from the Truman and FDR administrations. Elders were beginning to act like elders, and taking real pride in it.

The most profound leadership in the climate fight, of course, has come from the people most affected, here and around the world. “Frontline communities” feeling the brunt of climate change are doing the brunt of the work. And as global warming pushes those frontlines into ever more places, the fight will grow ever larger.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change. He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign

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  • Roseann Reilly

    At 400 we have allowed ourselves to be forced to the precipice of the abyss. Quite a different set of challenges for our children and grandchildren to battle. Lives focused on the pursuit of greed is devoid of real meaning….money has value because WE, THE MAJORITY AGREED TO GIVE IT VALUE. If we choose to barter, undercutting destructive corporate ecocides, biocides, genocides, and colonialism, we remove the power of money while destroying / removing the reigns of power from the ‘masters of the universe’ all of whom are bent on utter global control. The DIVESTMENT movement is a lightning bolt of brilliance, stunning in it’s effectiveness and swift implementation. Deepest thanks to Professor Bill McKibben, Dr. James Hansen, and to you, Mr. Moyers who toil ceaselessly to improve the quality of life in the US and internationally. You three are all true Centurian Heroes! (I just coined that thought/ title: we should initiate an annual award festival for Centurian Heroes).

  • Barbara Ford

    I was one of those 1253 in DC, and I’ll do it again if need be. The best part of that action (besides singing in the police vans on the way to processing) was the diversity of age, of geography, of political history.

  • russ george

    CO2 is a truly dire problem though its worst effects are on marine ecosystems where it is eradicating plankton blooms. In the air CO2 and a few other greenhouse gases have been conveniently grouped together carefully excluding the biggest greenhouse gas “water vapour.” It was thought that water vapour was driven by evaporation alone so no human influence save warming temperatures could influence it.

    A stunning paper in the Journal Nature now shows how CO2 regulates water vapour in the atmosphere. High and rising CO2 enhances terrestrial plants, those plants are responsible for 4-5 times the amount of CO2 in the air as does evaporation!!! here’s a link

    Now it is clear that the role of anthropogenic CO2 on this planet is truly terrible. It is responsible for reducing ocean plant life at a rate of an Amazon Rainforest worth of plant life and biodiversity being eradicated from the oceans in each 5 year span. It simultaneously is changing the amount of the big ghg in the atmosphere, water vapour – the 95% big dog of ghg’s.

    There are solutions to manage billions of tonnes of CO2 for mere millions of dollars… replenish and restore ocean phytoplankton pastures… read more at

  • Jesse J Denson

    I have the answer that will completely collapse and divest all coal and oil usage globally. Now if only I had an investor? Put your money where your mouth is, I’m not playing games. Top three expenditures on planet Earth are Oil, Energy, and water and Now I have invented a way to make all three cheap and with zero fuel costs. Think I’m kidding? Check me out? I’m getting the same kind of stone walling that you people are so get with me?

  • Jesse J Denson

    I have the answer that will completely collapse and divest all coal and oil usage globally. Now if only I had an investor? Put your money where your mouth is, I’m not playing games. Top three expenditures on planet Earth are Oil, Energy, and water and Now I have invented a way to make all three cheap and with zero fuel costs. Think I’m kidding? Check me out? I’m getting the same kind of stone walling that you people are so get with me? Find me on the web because the person running this article is censoring me or maybe just the link that I provided, anyway look me up I have your answer?

  • Bob van der Valk

    Are you going to have to now have rename your organization I am 71 years young and plan to be around for a while longer. I don’t have an arrest record and plan to keep it that way in order to leave a legacy behind for my children, grand children and hopefully great grand children for not willfully breaking any laws. We should be shining examples of lawful behavior no matter the cause to the new generations coming after us.

  • Art Brennan

    There are times when civil disobedience is morally required and “shining examples of lawful behavior” are repugnant.

  • Ed Griffith

    “We should be shining examples of lawful behavior no matter the cause to the new generations coming after us.” Really? How did that work for slavery and Nazism?

  • Bob van der Valk

    Ed – I came to this country as refugee from the persecution of the Nazis. I was born in The Hague, Holland and we were liberated by the Canadians on May 5, 1945. My father had been taken away from us by the Nazis during a razzia to work in a forced labor camp in Germany. You are entitled to your opinion and hope you will give me the same privilege. Getting arrested by chaining yourself to the fence of the White House for a cause takes no courage and in my opinion is plain stupidity.

  • Rudya

    Bob, your grand children and great grand children will not remember that you were never arrested. They will remember that you did NOTHING to stop the greatest threat to their existence. That will be your legacy.

  • CC

    I’m with you in spirit. Realistically- how would this work with a two-partner, one-income family with children, if one partner chooses to risk being arrested? Are you assuming that there are people around to care for the children while one parent is at work and the other is in jail?

  • Bridget Robertson

    I am disabled. But very soon will join ths fight!

  • Sparky Marcy

    Human over population is the only issue. Climate change may be the gravest symptom. See you in Telluride next week to discuss. How much oil are you burning to get here?

  • Sparky Marcy

    um, OK, barter,..great. Now where does the money come from for schools, health care, the EPA etc.?
    Population is the ONLY issue. I don’t accept someone else telling me I can’t drive to the trailhead for my hike and, as much as it’s not my thing, I don’t care to tell someone else not to drive their ATV around the desert. With a sustainable population density everyone can find their own god in their own time and place.

  • RevPhil Manke

    We may need population control measures as well as fair taxation. By fair, I mean that one who gains high income because of leveraging a greater sector of the income of others (mrg’s, corp. owners, investors, etc) must be required to pay a larger percentage of it in taxes. In the ’50’s, the tax code did not favor high incomes with low rates. This has changed because the wealthy control too much of policies. PACs and corporate lobbiests must be banished from government halls and chambers. Corporation moneys must not be allowed to fund elections. Presidents and other elected officials must be held to campaign promises, or impeached.

  • A. Giest

    I would take issue with everyone of the Earth’s 7 billion people driving ATVs everywhere they traveled. The public health concerns alone make me sick thinking about. If all 7 billion people were inured to US lifestyle, we would need 4 planets…at our current population. We need integrated and culturally relative policy solutions that incentive reduced consumption, efficiency, and local economies. Besides, increased socio-economic development correlates with stagnating population. Why should we have the right to control someone else’s prerogative to reproduce when we can’t alter our own prodigal lifestyles.

  • Anonymous

    That’s nice Ed. I’m 71 also. But there is a long American tradition beginning with kicking the a– of the British that there are principles and moral imperatives that transcend dutifully obeying laws. If that is your highest achievement and reach of your conscience I feel sad for your grandchildren. I assume you would not break a law to save one of them?

  • Luke Bates

    Martin Niemöller!

  • michelle rogers

    I firmly believe that we need artists, architects, designers, film makers, musicians, creatives and scientists to redesign our culture.They designed our current culture so they can redesign it. The problem with just relying on scientists and activists to organize change is that they can only reach a small section of the population, We also cannot wait for our government that depends on oil money to fund their political campaigns to change anything. We need to change our culture and we need creative people to lead the way.

  • Anonymous

    Bill, I appreciate what you are doing. I wish we could also get Marshall Ganz to build a “climate constituency” from the many fine environmental organizations that I have supported in recent years. I’m sure that most people want to leave a livable planet for their grandchildren. Instead of using fossil fuels to heat their homes, I think most of these people would be glad to use affordable clean energy, if only it were offered by their local providers. Is that the next battlefront?