Sunday, May 19, marked the Golden Anniversary of the annual Eckerd College graduation commencement in Saint Petersburg. More than 500 graduates, their families and well-wishers, the faculty and the board of trustees all gathered under a circus-styled big top for the ceremony. This year’s commencement address was delivered by Bill McKibben, a world-renowned environmental activist and educator.
McKibben has written several books on global warming and alternative energy, and is the founder of the grassroots climate movement 350.org. The 350 number refers to the amount of CO2 in parts per million which is the safe upper limit on a human tolerance scale.
Scientists, including McKibben, assert that an accelerated greenhouse effect will be the outcome if 350 ppm is exceeded, and that translates directly into bizarre and erratic climate change. 350.org is behind what's considered to be the largest globally coordinated protest, with 5,200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries.
The Eckerd campus landscape incorporates aspects of several different Florida ecosystems. From pine trees and brush to palms and mangroves, the most extraordinary element of all might be the college's proximity to the beach. Eckerd College has it's own beach which is nestled on the southern tip of Pinellas County and shielded by a phalanx of barrier islands. The abutting campus on the beach helps explain the academic focus on marine sciences and environmental studies.
In 2011-2012 McKibben provided the keynote for a series of lectures sponsored by Eckerd College that inspired hundreds of students to travel to Washington D.C. to participate in peaceful demonstrations. The environmental issue at hand was the Keystone XL pipeline. According to the school newspaper The Current;
“[McKibben's] lectures included addressing the class of 2012 in their Quest for Meaning course, as well as a CPS event in which he discussed his book American Earth and the possible impacts of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.”
McKibben agreed to give the commencement address because of his admiration of Eckerd College's student activism. The commencement address focused on the realities McKibben sees facing graduating seniors in terms of activism and raising awareness. He also said that he has hope in this generation coming together to help abate and turn around the environmental quagmires which are now plaguing the world.
Before the commencement ceremony began, I sat down with Bill McKibben to discuss some of the climate issues facing Florida. McKibben spoke candidly about his dismay over the manner in which the Tampa Bay area has exploited the environmental landscape.
“It's sad to fly in and look down on Tampa Bay/St. Pete and see hardly a solar panel on a roof as far as you can see," he said. "You guys are wasting the greatest resource (solar energy) that you've got; day after day, hour after hour.”
Commenting on urban sprawl in the Tampa Bay/Saint Petersburg region, McKibben had this to say:
“...if you were trying to build an environment to use a lot of energy it would look like Florida. Everything's spread out. Each home on it's own large lot. (You) have to drive between them. It has made public transportation difficult.”
Although he has been mockingly touted by BusinessWeek and others as a “professional bummer-outer,” his message to Florida is steeped in empirical data and cloaked in rational fear. It's a reminder that real behavioral change starts with adopting a different perspective.
“Florida faces, as everybody knows, some of the most immediate and powerful effects a change in climate. We have increases in drought, because warm air holds more water vapor than cold. You get more evaporation. And with drought come the incredible fires that Florida has seen in recent years. Once that water's up there it's going to come down. So the possibility for huge downpours and flooding is more present than it was in the past. In the slightly longer term, I think that everybody in Florida is right to be worried about, not only the rise in sea level, which is absolutely existential threat to a state as low to the water as this one. But also the increasing acidification of ocean waters … the marine ecosystems which surround this most beautiful of states, won't fair well if we keep increasing carbon in the atmosphere and hence changing the chemistry of sea water.”
350.org has created a page on its website called 400.350.org. This new webpage discusses ways in which the global temperature can be cooled off. This is proof positive that Bill McKibben isn't all gloom and doom but has a chilled out side as well.