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McKibben to take new role in 350.org, group he co-founded

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Posted on December 8, 2014 |
By Zach Despart



McKibben, Bill '09 Color.jpg

MIDDLEBURY — Bill McKibben, one of America’s highest profile climate activists, is stepping down as the board chair of 350.org, the environmental organization he co-founded.

He’ll remain involved with the group that he and a group of Middlebury College students started in 2007 as a “senior adviser,” a role he said entails less day-to-day managing and more large-scale project planning.

In a written statement on 350.org’s website Tuesday, McKibben reflected on how the climate movement has grown between the publication of his landmark book “The End of Nature” in 1992 and the People’s Climate March this past September in New York City, which drew more than 300,000 people.

“That sea of people — and the pictures flooding in from other marches around the world — made me feel as hopeful about our prospects as any time in that quarter-century,” McKibben wrote. “We’ve built a movement, that’s the key thing. And it’s beginning to make a dent.”

He cited both personal and professional reasons for stepping down as chair, noting that he has spent much of the last seven years on the road, away from his home in Ripton and his wife, author Sue Halpern.

 “Don’t worry — I’ll still be there when the time comes to go to jail, or to march in the streets, or to celebrate the next big win on divestment,” he said. “But I’d like to see more of my wife.”

McKibben told the Independent on Thursday that just because he’ll no longer lead 350.org does not mean he’ll stop raising the alarm about climate change.

“I’m not stepping away from the fight, just from the role of chairing the board and worrying a lot about budgets and finance,” he said. “With luck, I’ll have more time for the actual fight.”

He said he would like to spend more time in Addison County, but acknowledged that global warming is a global problem that may require him to travel frequently.

“Much of the important work has to be done in the places where the most carbon is,” said McKibben, who recently returned from India. “But hopefully ever more of it can be done over Skype!”

On an interim basis, McKibben will be replaced by KC Golden, an environmentalist from Seattle who, like McKibben, has more than 20 years’ experience in climate activism.

The announcement of the leadership change hailed all the way from Scandinavia, where McKibben on Tuesday received a Right Livelihood Award from the parliament of Sweden. The award, established in 1980 and considered by many to be as prestigious as the Nobel Prize, is given to people who are working hard to address the most urgent issues facing the world.

The organization commended McKibben for “mobilising growing popular support in the USA and around the world for strong action to counter the threat of global climate change.”

McKibben said he was honored to receive the award, and noted that he donated the prize money (the 500,000 Swedish Krona amounting to roughly $67,000) to 350.org to continue its mission of raising awareness of climate change worldwide.

While 350.org has organized demonstrations in more than a hundred countries and employs a staff of dozens, the group traces its roots to Addison County and Middlebury College. In 2007, McKibben and a handful of students who had worked on climate issues on campus formed the group.

Much of the initial infrastructure for 350.org was laid by the Sunday Night Group, an on-campus group of students who took a class on climate activism taught by economics professor Jon Isham in 2005.

Many former Middlebury students still work with the organization, and McKibben praised them for shepherding 350.org through its initial years.

 “350.org is blessed with an amazing staff, including the crew of then-young people with whom I launched the group,” he said. “They are less young now, and they’ve turned into some of the most talented organizers on the planet.”

McKibben, who will turn 54 on Monday, said he’s proud of the growth and success of the environmental movement since the publication of “The End of Nature” and looks forward to the next quarter-century of climate activism.

 “Together we’ve built a movement; now, together, we’ll deploy it to confront the greatest crisis we’ve ever faced,” he wrote. “2014 will be the hottest year in the planet’s history; that means we have to make 2015 the politically hottest season the fossil fuel industry has ever come up against, and 2016 after that.”

RECENT MILESTONES

The climate movement has won some monumental victories in 2014 alone. On the same day as the People’s Climate March, the Rockefeller family, which built its fortune in the oil business, divested its foundation from holdings in the fossil fuel industry.

One month later, the U.S. Senate’s Democratic caucus (which includes Vermont’s Patrick Leahy and Independent Bernie Sanders) blocked the passage of a bill that would have authorized the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Louisiana. McKibben and 350.org are vocal opponents of the project.

McKibben, a Massachusetts native, attended Harvard University and began his career as a journalist for the New Yorker. For more than a decade he has served as the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. He has authored several books on the environment.

After spending so much time on the road, McKibben said he’s happy to be returning to campus in January, where he’ll be teaching a winter term course titled “Stories from the Bible.”

“It should be fun,” he said.

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