My Heroes, by Environmentalist Bill McKibben

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Rolling Stone called Bill McKibben “climate change’s worst nightmare,” and while climate change so far remains indifferent, there’s little question that the Vermont author is America’s most vocal, perhaps powerful, citizen activist. His 1989 book The End of Nature was the first to bring climate change to a popular audience, and 350.org, the organization he formed in 2009, had been the most prominent group by far leading the fight against anthropogenic global warming.

Last summer, McKibben’s story, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” brought widespread attention to three critical numbers affecting humanity’s time on the planet: 2° Celsius, which is the greatest increase in warming we can realistically sustain; 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide, the amount of carbon we can put in the atmosphere and still hope to stay under 2°; and 2,795 gigatons, the amount we’re already planning to burn. Terrifying indeed.

McKibben argued that the solution does not lie with political pressure (although that counts) but with attacking energy companies as “the enemy.”

“This industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it,” he wrote. “…Pure self-interest probably won’t spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might – and that’s the real meaning of this new math. It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.”

For all that he’s said, written, and done in the name of fighting climate change, McKibben is one of our heroes. Here, he writes about his.

Wendell Berry, author.
He’s not only the finest writer at work in the English language, he has lived the life he writes about with such power. A Kentucky farmer, he’s stayed on his small and somewhat marginal hill farm his whole adult life, growing food and churning out poems, stories, and essays that in turn have undergirded the rising movement for local food, local economies, working lives.

Jim Hansen, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
The NASA scientist has a big brain — he was the first guy to really warn the world that climate change was coming, using his groundbreaking climate modeling studies way back in the 1980s. But he’s also got a big heart–for years, almost alone among scientists,he’s been willing to speak out, to go to jail, to risk the wrath of the presidents that employ him.

The Occupy Movement people.
The Occupy folks and all like them who are reaching the end of their tolerance for the inequality and the crazy short-term thinking of our elite class. Standing up is going to be our job now. Which leads to…

The great young people now leading the movement to divest campuses from their investments in fossil fuel companies. At 350.org we’ve helped organized gofossilfree.org–but the real work is going on at more than 200 campuses now, where young people are politely but persistently explaining to presidents and trustees that students will have to inhabit this planet another 60 or 70 years, so they could please stop enabling the fossil fuel companies in their criminal recklessness?

Petter Northug, Norwegian Nordic skier, Olympic gold medalist. Okay, I’m allowed a sports hero, right? I can’t tell you how much I like watching Northug kick at the end of cross-country ski races. This is the hardest sport on earth, and he’s the best at it — his only competition comes from his teammate the great Marit Bjoergen. Though Americans like Kikkan Randall are right there too. Look, my great vice in the world is nordic skiing; it’s the one place where I can watch great athletes and really understand both their technique and how hard they’re working. I watch in awe.

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