Caroline Alden, BURN Contributor

Bill McKibben is a big name in the climate movement, and he’s got a game changing idea.

McKibben is the founder of 350.org, a grassroots organization aimed at stopping fossil fuel extraction (350 is the atmospheric concentration of CO2, in parts per million, above which leading scientists predict global warming may seriously threaten civilization).

 Since 2007, 350.org activists have been going big with their campaigns on behalf of the environment, from forming human chains around the White House, to promoting a global solar panel installation day (for the record, “PutSolarOnIt” predated “put a bird on it”).

Despite the aggressive work of 350 and other organizations, 230 billion more tons of CO2 have been dumped into the atmosphere over the last 6 years, putting us at  397 ppm today.

 McKibben recently teamed up with Naomi Klein to draft a new focus for 350: a campaign for divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. So far, four colleges, one public university, one major city, and potentially one mega church have committed to freezing and ultimately withdrawing investments. The narrative driving this campaign is that investing in the fossil fuel industry promotes global warming.

 McKibben’s rhetoric – including a Rolling Stone piece he wrote last year – suggests he may be attempting to reframe global warming entirely, as a “good vs evil” fight against the fossil fuel industry.

 …[T]he planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. “Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”

I got to hear the new McKibben pitch on his “Do The Math” tour in December. He painted a picture of a global society that wants electricity to come out of wall sockets, but doesn’t want to destroy the planet in the process. Standing in the way, to use McKibben’s rhetoric, are fossil fuel industry execs more interested in profit and far less concerned with the environment.

Also on tour were Ira Glass and Josh Fox (the banjo-wielding creator of Gasland), and an elaborate demonstration involving multiple cases of beer and Winona LaDuke drinking them: a witty metaphor for… wait… what was the point of that again? Largely, it seemed, to attract the college-aged demographic.

 But, back to McKibben. By his calculus, framing this global issue as an actionable fight against an antagonistic tyrant may mobilize people – especially young people, who will be most affected by climate change – to demand change from their universities, colleges, churches, and local governments.

 The question of whether the divestment campaign will succeed as a purely economic tool might be secondary to McKibben’s ability to rouse a new generation to take positions – and take action – in the climate debate.

In an interview with Gothamist last summer, McKibben frequently cited the economic success of divestment in ending South Africa’s system of Apartheid. That point is spelled out at gofossilfree.org – a base for McKibben’s investment freeze campaign.

There have been a handful of successful divestment campaigns in recent history, including Darfur, Tobacco and others, but the largest and most impactful one came to a head around the issue of South African Apartheid. By the mid-1980s, 155 campuses — including some of the most famous in the country — had divested from companies doing business in South Africa. 26 state governments, 22 counties, and 90 cities, including some of the nation’s biggest, took their money from multinationals that did business in the country. The South African divestment campaign helped break the back of the Apartheid government, and usher in an era of democracy and equality.

Economists point out that it wasn’t the direct economic instrument of divestment that ended Apartheid, but the combined social and economic pressures that mounted and prevailed, as the global community identified and rejected a moral wrong.

If the rabble gets roused, then we may find that McKibben is indeed onto something.

Caroline Alden is a graduate student at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in the Department of Geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.