On the afternoon of May 4, in a Stowe, Vermont, coffee shop, William Ernest McKibben sat hunched over his MacBook Air, blogging like a madman. May 5 was Climate Impacts Day, the fourth annual effort by 350.org, McKibben’s environmental-action organization, to unite people around the planet in a global protest against climate change. The theme this year was Connect the Dots: groups were supposed to take photos of themselves in scenes documenting the extreme weather they were experiencing and upload them to 350.org’s Flickr account. From there, the 350.org leadership team—51-year-old McKibben and the seven Middlebury College graduates who started working with him in 2006, when they were still seniors—would post the photos on the site’s blog. The first picture to arrive was of the sun rising on a group of men donning scuba gear. “And We’re Off!” McKibben blogged, his long fingers flying over the keyboard. “It’s sunrise in Majuro, the Marshall Islands—first place on earth. These guys took a shot on the beach before heading underwater to their threatened reef—watch for pictures as the day goes on.”
McKibben was pulsing with excitement. “The first time we did this,” he said, “it was, aside from when my daughter was born, the most remarkable couple of days of my life. Watching the pictures come in from all over the planet—it just blew my mind.” Now he posted a stunning photo of sand art from Orissa, India. It featured a city, three grieving faces, and the words CLIMATE CHANGE = EXTREME HEAT. CONNECT THE DOTS ... 350.
Without pause he banged out “An Open Letter to the Heartland Institute.” That morning, the Chicago-based libertarian group, sponsor of the main conference for climate deniers, had launched a digital billboard in Chicago with a photo of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and the words I still believe in Global Warming. Do you? A press release explained that the goal was “to ‘delegitimize’ belief in global warming by identifying some of the crazy people who believe in it,” and announced that future billboards would feature such “global warming alarmists” as Charles Manson and Fidel Castro.
“I think this time they may have jumped the shark,” McKibben exulted as he typed the letter to Heartland president Joe Bast. “I’d like to thank you,” he wrote. “The billboards are ugly, but they convey with graphic intensity the desperation of those who have fought on the side of the fossil fuel companies for a quarter century.” Then he linked to the post with a tweet reading, “On the off chance that you care about the environment and are not a serial killer.”
“Now, thanks to our very good Web team,” McKibben told me, “it’s gone out to 400,000 people.”
“Hell of a mailing list,” I said.
“We didn’t buy a single name. It’s a real list of people who have taken action.” He paused to sip on a can of San Pellegrino orange soda, his price of admission for the Wi-Fi. “I don’t drink coffee,” he said. “I think I’m one of maybe two writers in the world who doesn’t. I’m afraid I have too much nervous energy as it is.”
THAT NERVOUS ENERGY HAD already powered McKibben through two speaking gigs that day, and soon he’d be doing a third in Stowe, at the world premiere of A New Eaarth, a classical-music composition inspired by his 2010 bestseller Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He’d follow that up with a full plate of Connect the Dots gigs, then three commencement addresses in four days, a speech at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in San Diego, and an appearance at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College, to receive its inaugural $100,000 Prize for Global Environmental Activism. That’s the new normal for McKibben, whose unlikely career arc has taken him from award-winning author of 14 books—including the landmark 1989 bestseller The End of Nature, the first mainstream book about global warming—to his new role as the firebrand of climate change, the guy who stepped over the prostrate form of Al Gore to become Big Oil’s biggest threat.