PORTLAND, Maine — One of the country’s foremost global warming experts is spreading the message that the problem is worse than previously believed.

Bill McKibben, a journalist who is credited with bringing climate change theory to the mainstream with his 1989 book “End of Nature,” visited Portland Tuesday as part of a 21-day tour to promote a series of drastic measures he says are necessary to prevent catastrophic global warming.

McKibben’s basic message of reducing dependence on fossil fuels is no longer novel among environmentalists, but his current angle — of combating the problem through financial investments and driving carbon dioxide levels down to 1980s levels — is rallying new support around the country.

“We’ve been playing to huge, sold out crowds all across the country,” McKibben told the Bangor Daily News several hours before taking the stage for a multimedia event at The State Theatre in Portland on Tuesday night. “Which is odd, because what we’re talking about is difficult and actually somewhat depressing, which is the new math of climate change.”

McKibben wrote that new math in a widely read article published by Rolling Stone magazine in July. The story further bolstered his place among star environmentalists such as Rachel Carson, and helped jump start his current tour pushing for worldwide energy reforms.

“The fossil fuel industry has in its reserves about five times as much carbon as even the most conservative government would say is safe for this planet to burn,” he said. “At the time [when ‘End of Nature’ came out], we did not know it would happen this fast and this dramatically. So far, we’ve raised the temperature one degree, and look at the Arctic. We’ve basically increased the acidity of the world’s oceans by 30 percent. We’re making astonishingly large changes very fast, and the only way we can keep it from getting much, much worse, is by very quickly making a change to alternative energy sources.”

For Maine, McKibben’s plan would mean getting used to life without the oil tanker business in the port of Portland, as well as seeing the state’s colleges and universities — among others — accept the financial repercussions of cutting their investments in fossil fuel companies.

Headed by school President Stephen Mulkey, Unity College became the first higher learning institution in the country to sign on to what McKibben calls the “divestment movement” last week.

McKibben said Tuesday he hopes that by the time his current 21-day speaking tour is over, Unity College will have the company of more than 100 other university campuses around the country pledging to remove fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios. The divestment movement is a major thrust of McKibben’s plan.

University of Maine System spokeswoman Peggy Markson said Tuesday that none of the campuses in the system have been approached by McKibben or his representatives about cutting investments, but told the BDN the public universities have been aggressive about reducing fossil fuel consumption. Among measures proposed or already taken by the system are the installation of a new biomass boiler at Fort Kent campus, geothermal heating and cooling systems at the Education Center at the Farmington campus, and solar panels at certain buildings at the University of Southern Maine.

McKibben acknowledged that higher education institutions in Maine have “deep commitments to sustainability.” But he said more direct steps must be taken to squeeze the fossil fuel industry financially, and cutting investments is the most direct pathway to reducing coal and oil companies’ wealth and influence.

“It’s not technology that’s holding us back, it’s the iron grip of the fossil fuel industry on our political system,” McKibben said. “In environmental terms, they’re now playing the role the tobacco industry played in public health terms 10 or 15 years ago.”

But the author — whose organization 350.org rallies around the concept that the world must reduce its carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million from current levels of 395 ppm — acknowledged that it wouldn’t just be large, faceless corporations being affected by his strategy.

Workers at the port terminus of the Portland Montreal Pipe Line, for instance, could see their jobs threatened by further reductions in oil flow.

“Change like this is always difficult, and we need to make sure we don’t leave behind people who work in the fossil fuel industry,” he said, “but that can’t be the reason we stick with something we now know is disastrous for the planet.”

McKibben, whose brother is a teacher in Freeport, said jobs would naturally increase in alternative energy industries with a decrease in use of fossil fuels, and noted that “hundreds of thousands of homes” around New England are aged and in need of winterization projects.

The author said he plans to follow up his current tour with an effort to “mobilize” supporters built up around the country to push at a grassroots level for environmental issues — like blocking the development of pipelines to transport controversial tar sands oil through the United States, including Maine — and to go toe-to-toe with lobbyists representing fossil fuel interests in Washington, D.C.

“It’s not easy to take on the richest industry in the world, but since they’re taking on the planet, I think we have no choice,” he said.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.