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Originally published November 7, 2012 at 8:24 PM | Page modified November 8, 2012 at 9:42 AM

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Climate change warrior McKibben takes activism on the road

Bill McKibben plans to travel the country in a sustainable-fuel bus, asking public institutions to divest portfolios of dirty energy holdings — and encourage more civil disobedience against those companies.

Seattle Times environment reporter

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He started as a writer trying to change the world, but became the country's most visible climate warrior.

Now Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, the global climate-action movement seeking to reduce use of the oil, gas and coal that fuel global warming, is taking a rambunctious turn.

McKibben kicked off a national campaign Wednesday night at Benaroya Hall that seeks to demonize the oil and coal industries, and those who profit from them.

"We'll be spreading information about what a rogue industry the fossil-fuel industry has become," McKibben said in an interview.

He plans to travel the country in a sustainable-fuel bus, asking public institutions to divest portfolios of dirty-energy holdings — and encourage more civil disobedience against those companies. His goal: to create an environment for more political action on climate.

It comes at a provocative moment.

Before Hurricane Sandy focused attention on the role climate change can play in extreme weather events; before the most expensive presidential race in history ended with few words spoken by either candidate about carbon emissions; before President Obama won re-election and earned applause with an acceptance speech noting dangers posed by "the destructive power of a warming planet," McKibben had scheduled to start this campaign the day after the election.

His plan: Seize the moment, no matter who was in charge.

Not surprisingly, the former New Yorker writer has become a divisive figure. Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, called McKibben's new plans "unfortunate."

"He's not the first to demonize the petroleum industry," he said. But that "generally leads to more misunderstanding and less awareness about the reality of the energy future we face."

Hull said his industry is preparing for a future with "significantly reduced carbon emissions" but said his members are the primary investors in research to find cleaner energy strategies.

McKibben is known as the first author to write prominently about global warming for a general audience. His 1989 book "The End of Nature" detailed events most climate scientists now expect to become commonplace: rising seas, longer droughts, melting glaciers, shrinking sea ice.

"I think the election makes it possible that we can get something done in the next four years," McKibben said. "But only if we organize like crazy."

He brought the campaign here in part because the Northwest has become a new battleground over carbon dioxide. Proposals to transform the region into the nation's largest hub for exporting coal drew hundreds to a meeting just last month.

On Wednesday, a handful of state legislators urged Gov. Chris Gregoire to establish "an emergency SWAT team" to evaluate all potential environmental, economic and transportation issues connected to coal-export terminals.

"We need to have this conversation," said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.

McKibben argued it was the collapse two years ago of climate-change legislation that really revealed the influence of the fossil-fuel lobby.

"It turns out Obama couldn't do it on his own," McKibben said. "The forces of the status quo were too strong. It demonstrates the tremendous power of these guys. It was going on behind the scenes. That's part of the reason we're doing this, to try to open up some space."

McKibben said the answer isn't burning fossil fuels more cleanly — it's burning less of them and bulking up renewable energy.

"In the last year, we've had the warmest year in American history, an epic drought, Arctic sea ice melted away and we saw extreme weather in New York last week," he said. "I think the case (for action) has only gotten stronger."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.

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