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Meet Bill McKibben, the Man Behind Massive 'People's Climate March' Rally

Bill McKibben, Fiona McRaith, Leah Qusba, Maayan Cohen

From center to right; Bill McKibben, Fiona McRaith, Leah Qusba and Maayan Cohen join a march from the National Mall to the White House in Washington during a rally on calling on President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, as well as act to limit carbon pollution from power plants and “move beyond” coal and natural gas, on Feb. 17, 2013. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP, file

Bill McKibben wrote the first big book about global warming, a work he hoped would startle the world like a fire alarm. But the planet just kept on hurtling toward an overheated doom, he noticed. So twenty-five years later, he’s come up with a shriller, more literal strategy for reform: actual alarms.

At 1 p.m. on Sunday, after a scene-setting moment of silence, more than 100,000 activists are expected to use phones, whistles, horns, speakers and anything else with a decibel-level to make as much noise about climate change as possible.

They’ll be helped by at least 20 marching bands and church bells across New York City, where McKibben helped organize “The People’s Climate March.” It’s expected to be the largest fossil fuel rally in history. Also the loudest.

“It’s going to be beautiful,” McKibben said in an interview two days before. “It’s like sounding a burglar alarm on the people who are stealing the future.”

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The march was planned to coincide with a United Nations Climate Summit, a special session scheduled for Tuesday. More than 100 word leaders, including President Obama, have signaled their intention to attend the gathering ahead of binding negotiations in Paris next year. It was called by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is something of a committed climate change activist himself.

How committed? On Tuesday, he announced plans to make some noise with McKibben and company.

“It’ll be a moment to let off some of the frustration there rightly is after all these years of inaction,” McKibben said. “I wish that I could tell you that President Obama is going to be there,” he continued, “but I don’t think he likes us much.”

If so, then the feeling is mutual. McKibben thinks the president is part of the problem. Year after year, the tall, dagger-shaped activist stabs at President Obama for promising to slow the rise of the oceans, then celebrating America’s gains on Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer.

“I think everyone in their gut knows what’s going on,” McKibben said. “The far bigger problem is that people feel powerless in the face of something this large.”

McKibben’s real target isn’t political—it’s physical. He wants to stop the fossil fuel producers themselves, the captains of what he calls “the richest industry there ever was.” Rex Tillerson, the president of ExxonMobil, has called McKibben a “purveyor of fear.”

But given the consensus science of climate change, McKibben thinks it's Tillerson's side, not his, that is being unreasonable about the future.

"If you're Rex Tillerson, and you've got some of the best scientists in the world, and you're watching the Arctic melt," McKibben added, "and you still want to spend all day exploring for hydrocarbons, then you're a radical on a scale that makes Abbie Hoffman look like a kindergarten teacher."

When “The End of Nature” became a surprise bestseller, in 1989, McKibben thought he’d done it. He was in his late 20s, the son of a journalist, a Harvard grad—and still sure that reason would crush all.

“What I didn’t figure out for, oh, 15 years or so, is that reason alone is insufficient,” said McKibben. “In fact, it’s not even the most important thing. These kind of decisions—decisions about what kind of world we’re going to live in—get made because of power, and power alone.”

That realization pulled McKibben out of his home in the Vermont woods, away from his dog Pransky, and his wife, writer Sue Halpern. It got him away from book writing, almost entirely, and put him on the road for months at a time. His goal was never fundraising — because he figured the fossil fuel industry would always have more money.

His business was movement-building. He began in the late 1990s, launching “Step it Up,” an organization aimed at national days of action. Then, in 2007, he founded 350.org, a self-proclaimed “global movement to solve the climate crisis.” It’s named for the parts-per-million carbon threshold that scientists say is safe. (We’re now at 400 ppm, according to NASA.)

23rd Annual Environmental Media Awards Presented By Toyota And Lexus - Show
Bill McKibben accepts the EMA Lifetime Achievement Award onstage during the Annual Environmental Media Awards at Warner Bros. Studios on Oct. 19, 2013 in Burbank, Calif. Jason Merritt / Getty Images file

McKibben is self-aware enough to see the irony in traveling the world, burning fossil fuels, only to tell people to stop burning fossil fuels. But he’s comfortable with the compromise, because he is in love with the results.

In the last five years, 350.org has rallied in every country but North Korea. Under its banner, activists have helped delay the approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and they've pressured universities to sell off the fossil fuel stocks in their endowments.

But Sunday’s march is by far the most ambitious effort, co-organized with more than a dozen social justice groups. As he described the march, McKibben prepared to welcome a group of Sunday’s front-liners, most of them from smaller, more developing countries where climate change is already being felt.

He wore a gray button-down over a black T-shirt and grey jeans. With a widow's peak of close-cropped gray hair, he looked vaguely futuristic, like a Park Ranger from the next century. He clearly does not relish his role as the pull-string quote-machine of the movement. "Frankly," he said, "I'd prefer to be anonymous" — but he clearly thrills at the thought of the masses headed to New York.

“Relief pitching is a wonderful thing,” he said, as his colleagues began to fill the room. “Welcome, welcome to New York, everyone."

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McKibben laid the ground for this march a couple years ago, in the middle of the hottest summer in American history, in an essay that got tens of thousands of social media shares. In the piece, published by Rolling Stone, he laid out “global warming’s terrifying new math."

The math came down to three figures: 2 degrees Celsius, 565 gigatons, and 2,795 gigatons. The first figure is the rise in global temperature that scientists consider to be safe. The second is the amount of carbon humans can pour into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. The third, most frighteningly, is the amount of carbon already in reserves around the world—the amount we are, in effect, planning to burn.

The key point, noted McKibben, is that we've already got five times enough carbon to kill off civilization. But he might have made it a little too well.

“I’m not sure it’s not too late,” confided Omer Madra, a Turkish activist in the room with McKibben, who plans to be alongside him on Sunday. “The science is crystal clear," he continued. "We’re a goner.”