Guest Blogger- Brooke James Reflects on Bill McKibben’s Lecture

Brooke James is about to finish her second year of the MES program. An active member of MESSA, the master of environmental studies student association, Brooke has been very active in the environmental community in Charleston.  Below, Brooke has provided her thoughts about Bill McKibben, who spoke during the College of Charleston’s inaugural Sustainability Week.

The biggest buzz around campus during the College of Charleston’s Sustainability Week was the much anticipated arrival of Bill McKibben.  Touted by Time Magazine as “the planets best green journalist” MiKibben’s lecture was sure to be the high point of the week.  I have been living under a rock, or so consumed with my own studies, that I had never heard of the man or his accomplishments.  However, on April 5th I found myself seated among my peers the Sottile Theatre eagerly awaiting his lecture.

McKibben began with some background information about climate change highlighting the basic science behind a shifting and changing climate that is much of a reality these days.  He presented several compelling statistics about weather patterns and climate shifts in regions of the world that are less publicized.  Referring to climate change as a hydrology shift by stating that warm air holds more water than cold, and the world has seen a 4% increase of wetness in the last 40 years.  He further stated that this hydrology shift has shifted the global economy because food exports have been altered.

Since the dawn of the industrial era humans have burned fossil fuels for energy.  This has dramatically increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  NASA states that the maximum concentration in the atmosphere should be less than 350 parts per million.  Today, levels hover around 393 ppm.  This startling statistic prompted McKibben to start a grassroots movement at Middlebury College, where he is a professor.  He adopted the name 350.org, and with just 7 students he began his campaign for the environment.  These students were tasked with reaching out to the 7 continents on the planet because awareness of climate change and environmentalism is not just for privileged Americans.

McKibben feels that America has a record of inaction citing the ever growing rift between science and public perception.  This is a sad realization considering that the United States makes up only 4.5 % of the world’s population, but we contribute to 33% of the total CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.  Climate change has become heavily politicized and a political shift is needed to combat this global epidemic.  I believe his effort to broadcast his cause to a broader audience was intended to raise global awareness, and to provide a wakeup call to the American people.  McKibben’s students worked hard to make connections in other countries across the globe, and in the fall 2011, their hard work paid off.  On September 20, 2011, 117 nations across the globe agreed to broadcast a 350 message.  This simple, yet large scale participation provided evidence that all walks of life are concerned with environmental problems associated with elevated CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

We were presented a slideshow of photos taken all over the world on that day; and while the slideshow was provocative portraying faces of many nations, ages, colors, and shapes, I thought – this is great but, what happens now?  McKibben acknowledged that a problem of this proportion will not be solved overnight and not without sacrifice.  He suggested that changes must be made at both the small and large scale to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.  A great start in our communities has been the local food movement and the rise of community supported agriculture.  He stated that for the first time in many years, the number of farms in the U.S. has gone up.  As for large scale, McKibben feels that state and national policy can be influenced by good old-fashioned protesting.  However, he warned that that there is a strict code to protesting where impressions count and appearance speaks volumes.  McKibben closed on a high note suggesting that if we were interested in protesting, we should get organized and get to it – but, dressed in no less than our Sunday best!

Overall, I felt like McKibben was preaching to the choir by speaking with a group attending a lecture for Sustainability Week.  Most, if not all of the audience would agree that the burning of fossil fuels is to blame for elevated CO2 levels in our atmosphere.  I cannot say that I learned anything new or that I will find myself at a protest in the near future; I did enjoy the lecture and it was nice to see what the buzz was about.

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