350 stands for the concentration (in parts per million) of carbon dioxide that our atmosphere can hold before climate change begins. Cool, except that, currently, we’re at 400—which is to say, Earth began to heat up long ago. May Boeve started 350.org as an undergraduate with six college friends and author and activist Bill McKibben. Today, she helps to create, spur, and champion worldwide movements to pressure companies and organizations to move away from fossil fuels, and to move towards greener forms of energy. There is only one right side of climate change to be on, May says, and with momentum created by her organizational super powers, more and more people—and sources of money—are moving toward the side that will give us a safer, greener planet.
Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood/growing up years: What led you—from such a young age—to become interested in advocating for a healthier planet?
My parents were very active in our community, and I grew up going to vigils with them against nuclear proliferation. Active participation with others felt like the norm to me. When I was very young we read Charlotte’s Web and I was very affected by the story of how a young girl gets involved in something bigger than herself and all these wonderful things happen. That led me to start getting more involved with my friends in environmental issues, recycling, that sort of thing. Gratefully I did not grow up near a coal plant or an oil refinery; like so many people who are part of this movement, their own lives forced them to take action; for me it was different and I recognize the tremendous privilege of choosing this particular path.
What did you study in college? If the opportunity to begin 350.org had not arisen while in college, had your plan been to go into activism for the environment in one form or another?
I studied Political Science and Spanish. I had thought I’d become involved in international development in some way form or another, perhaps working at the UN.
In many ways that’s still what happened, just in a different form. Little did I know how much time I’d spend in UN meetings as a result of 350!
When I learned about climate change in college I realized how it connected my concern about environmental degradation with development—and so many other things—that it drew me in very quickly.
Tell us a little bit (though it probably requires a much longer answer) why, as you’ve identified, you believe climate change is the most pressing issue that affects our lives and future? For novices (me!), within what kind of time frame will (and have) some of the most devastating effects occur(ed)? What are those effects?
We only have one place to live—this planet. And it’s easy to take for granted how much we all rely on it. From how we get our drinking water, our food, how we turn on the lights and travel from place to place—all of this is affected by our climate.
As the climate changes—and dramatically so—we can’t rely on those systems the way humanity has for generations. Scientists speak about climate change in terms of civilization itself being under threat.
Just take water as one example. Much of the freshwater supplied for much of the world’s population is at risk. As there is less snowpack in the mountains, this affects the entire water cycle. And sometimes climate change loads the dice for too much water—in the case of melting glaciers and sea level rise. Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn are very much under threat because we’re a low-lying island—think back to those images of lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, when all the lights were out because those parts of the city were underwater. Because of climate change this kind of thing is no longer a freak occurrence.
Here’s a more personal story. My friend Bren Smith is an oyster fishermen and he created the first sustainable fishery in the US, outside New Haven. He did it in part to try and demonstrate a way to revitalize the economy, in a way that doesn’t wreck the climate. Then Hurricane Irene came through and wiped out his oyster fields. So—here you have someone trying to fix the climate problem—being affected by the impact of the problem.
Once you see how interconnected this issue is, you can begin to see how addressing it becomes a means to addressing multiple problems at once—and how, if we don’t address it, so many other issues become worse. From extreme inequality (like the Koch Brothers, who make their fortunes on fossil fuels, being among the 10 richest men in the world), to human rights abuses (the oil industry is notorious for exploiting communities), to women’s rights (the way we exploit the earth is very similar to how women are mistreated).
And if that isn’t convincing: take the positive angle, as many do. The scale at which we need to change our energy system to get off of fossil fuels and turn to clean energy is one of the biggest industrial changes in the planet’s history. This has the opportunity to create millions of jobs and re-localize our energy economies, as we switch from centralized coal plants to decentralized solar panels.
Tell us a little bit about your day to day work: With what handful of activities do you spend the majority of your time?
I head into our office in Dumbo in the morning. I’m in meetings most of the day, which are with our staff, our partner organizations, our donors. I have some time to do writing (and check email) throughout the day. I travel a lot as well, to attend meetings or give presentations. Last week I was in Japan with our 350 team there; next week I’m off to Spain for a meeting with our team based in Europe.
I know you say you have a fairly evolving process for the approach you take to fight climate change. But in brief, what is the essence of this fight? What is the most important thing any one of us can do to make the biggest impact toward a greener future?
The essence is to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy. The most important thing is to take the time to consider how your life and your work is already connected to this issue. Does your company have a pension fund that is invested in coal? Ask them to get out of it (both the New York City and State pension funds are invested in fossil fuels!). Do you consider what a candidate does about climate change before you vote for her? Ask about it. And make sure to get on a bus to DC for the Peoples Climate Mobilization on April 29 in DC!
An issue as all encompassing as this requires all of us to take the actions we can take, and fast.
Speaking of that greener future: Do ever get to work with scientists to discuss these issues, and the kinds of programs and infrastructure that would most effectively bring about a cleaner tomorrow? In your opinion, does a greener future use a combination of every available form of alternative energy? Or, what are the best alternate forms?
There are so many scientists involved. They speak up, and often. Our name, 350.org, was taken from the research of leading climate scientists James Hansen.
What we need is to make the switch to 100% Renewable Energy. New York has multiple options to do this and you can check out the Solutions Project to learn more about how to support that effort.
How is your project going to convince people and organizations to divest from fossil fuel companies? What are some of the other biggest projects you’re working on now?
The big fight right now is very local: trying to get both the NYS and NYC pension funds out of fossil fuels. We need your help right now: divestny.org
What is, potentially, the most dangerous environmental policy of the Trump administration? What should we be most vigilant of, and how can we fight it?
There are so many.
His assault on facts themselves undermines a scientifically based issue like this. His attempts to distract and create fear and panic by attacking all our allies hurts our ability to be activists. But specifically, he has appointed a climate denier, Scott Pruitt, to the EPA, and has put the former head of Exxon in charge of the State Dept, which makes oil expansion our official foreign policy. He has expedited the construction of the KXL and DAPL pipelines which are critical for the climate and also create massive abuses of indigenous peoples rights. He plans to destroy the Clean Power Plan, which was Obama’s plan to reduce coal dependence here. He wants to get the US out of its global commitment to the Paris agreement.
Right now you can fight against everything listed above. Be vigilant. Don’t give up!
What is the biggest challenge of your job? What is the most rewarding? And what are you proudest of?
The biggest challenge is staying focused on the big picture amidst the day to day needs of running a growing global organization. The most rewarding is being part of growing movement where every day I learn about someone new who is joining in and wanting to dedicate their life to this fight. I’m proudest of how the climate movement has grown to align itself with other movements who we share common cause with, expanding all of our political power and strength.
Who would you nominate for this list?
Eddie Bautista, Head of NYC Environmental Justice Alliance
Rea Breaux, Climate Justice Organizer at Peoples Action
Erin Barnes, Loby
Nelini Stamp, Working Families Party NY
Beka Economoupolis, Not an Alternative
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.
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Photo by Nicole Fara Silver