Bill McKibben is an environmental activist and the founder of 350.org, an organization that’s building a global movement to solve the climate crisis.
Bill McKibben is the author of numerous books—including The End of Nature. Published in 1999, it is considered to be the first book on climate change written for a general audience. His latest book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Bill McKibben spoke with Jessica Knoblauch, associate editor of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.
Jessica Knoblauch: Bill McKibben, welcome to Down to Earth. Between Hurricane Sandy and last summer’s record drought, climate scientists’ warnings of a warmer planet with more extreme weather are coming true. Still, the climate change connection is barely mentioned in the media or by our politicians. Why do you think that is?
Bill McKibben: Well, I think our politicians are completely scared by the fossil fuel industry. One party is bought, and the other party is scared. It’s the richest industry on earth and they’ve been able to keep people from speaking out and from legislating, and that’s why we’ve had essentially no action for 20 years, and it’s time that it ends.
Jessica: And given the current legislative logjam and the inability of Congress to pass a climate bill, environmentalists have been scratching their heads trying to figure out why this issue tanked amongst the politicians and our public. One problem, as you pointed out in a recent Rolling Stone article, is that environmentalists have been hesitant to make the fossil fuel industry a villain. Why is that and what is your organization, 350.org, doing to hold industry accountable?
Bill: The night after the election, we are launching a 20-cities-in-20-nights road show across America with all kinds of friends. We’re calling it the Do The Math tour, and you can find out if it’s coming near you at math.350.org. The point of doing it is to really to direct this movement now at the fossil fuel industry.
We’ve spent 20 years trying to persuade our politicians to do something and it’s become clear that our Congress is kind of the, you know, customer service department for the fossil fuel industry; the ones that you get put on hold with for a very long time. And after two decades of listening to the cheesy music, it’s time to hang up and go talk to the guys that actually run the place. We’re going to try and launch a divestment movement on college campuses to get them out of stock in the fossil fuel industry, same thing in churches and pension funds. We’re going to try and spur some straight on civil disobedience at shareholder meetings and things like that. We are going to try and revoke the social license of the fossil fuel industry.
Jessica: Interesting. And as I understand it, Do The Math focuses on a couple of very crucial numbers involving climate change. Can you talk about a little bit about why you decided on those numbers?
Bill: This came out of a piece that I wrote for Rolling Stone this summer, a piece that went strangely viral and one of the most shared pieces in their long history. The piece laid out the most important numbers about climate change really since the early science. They’re easy, and the first one is two degrees. The worlds’ governments have agreed that that’s as much as we should let the climate warm. It’s actually too much. The one degree we’ve warmed already melts the Arctic, and we really don’t want to find out what two degrees is. But it’s the only line the governments have drawn and that we can begin to hold them accountable to.
Second number is 565 gigatons of carbon. That’s how much scientists can say we can burn, and still have a chance of staying below two degrees. At current rates of emission, it would take us about 15 years to get there, so that’s bad.
Much worse is the third number: 2,800 gigatons, or about five times that 565 limit. That 2,800 gigatons is how much the fossil fuel industry and the countries that operate like fossil fuel companies, think Kuwait or Venezuela, that’s how much they already have in their reserves, counted up, ready to burn. It’s still below the ground, but it’s going to come up unless we stop them because it’s what their share price is based on, it’s what they borrow money against. That’s their business. So there is no longer much room for speculation or wishful thinking or doubt about the future unless we intervene in a decisive way. The future is written in those numbers and the future is very hot and very bleak.
Jessica: You’ve said that before that, you know, in terms of climate change we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly. So what gives you hope that we can still turn things around?
Bill: We are finally building a movement which we’ve not had, really, around this issue. In the last four years, 350.org has built a big worldwide movement. We operate in every country but North Korea. And I don’t know if we will be able to get big enough, quick enough to match the financial power of the fossil fuel industry or not. I just don’t know. We showed last year that when we managed to slow down for a while the construction of the XL Keystone Pipeline that we can figure out how to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. The challenge is, “Can we do it fast enough?” And I am loathe to predict, but we’re sure going to try.
Jessica: One of your most recent books, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, talks about the need to start adapting to this new, warmer planet. But I’ve noticed that recently fossil fuel industry leaders have also been talking about adapting to climate change, noting that climate change is simply an “engineering problem.” How do your views on adaptation differ from what the energy industry is now touting?
Bill: The CEO of Exxon said, “It’s an engineering problem with an engineering solution.” And someone asked him what he meant and he said “Oh, well if we need to move our crop production areas, then we will.” This is fantasy talk. Crop production areas are also known as farms. We already have them everyplace that there is soil. Just because these guys melted the Arctic for us doesn’t mean we can go plant corn in the tundra. There is no soil to put it in. So the way we differ from the fossil fuel industry is in being reality based.
Jessica: Right. That’s a very good point! Given that the planet is already changing, what are your thoughts about geo-engineering? It seems to come up every couple of months as a possible way out of this whole problem.
Bill: Well, we are already geo-engineering things. That’s what climate change is, really. We are filling the atmosphere with CO2 and there are people who think if we go and add a bunch of sulfur to the mix that we could turn the sky white and block some of the incoming sunlight and that might compensate. That seems like the kind of solution that alcoholics come up with.
Some want to keep doing what they want to keep doing, without changing. And there is no particularly good scientific reasoning to think they will work, and the side effects may be, only certainly will be large and horrible. The computer modeling seems to indicate that it will remove the monsoons of the Asian subcontinent, which would be bad news for the couple of billion people living there. It would also do nothing to even begin to address the overriding problem of ocean acidification that comes with carbon. So for me, by far the smarter solution would be to get off fossil fuel and onto renewable energy.
Jessica: In the past you’ve said we’re not going to solve global warming one solar panel at a time. This is such a big issue. If personal actions won’t stop climate change, what can we do as individuals to solve it?
Bill: We can come together with other individuals. It’s a very good idea to put in the right light bulbs, and I have solar panels all over my roof. That’s what’s running the phone I’m talking on you with! But I don’t try to fool myself that it’s going to solve global warming. That requires structural reform. It requires limiting the power of the fossil fuel industry. It requires making them, like every other industry on Earth, to pay to put out their waste instead of getting to dump their carbon into the atmosphere for free. And that requires that we take them on and their political power.
Jessica: Well speaking of political power, in 2009 for the first time the U.S. Chamber of Commerce surpassed Republican and Democratic national committees on political spending. The following year more than 90 percent of the Chamber’s cash went to GOP candidates, many of whom that deny the existence of global warming. Given that the green movement is vastly outspent by the fossil fuel industry, what can green groups do to win the climate change debate?
Bill: Well, we’re going to have to find other currencies [that are] not money to work in. Passion, spirit, creativity, and sometimes we will need to spend our bodies and go to jail. That’s not much fun, but it’s not the end of the world. The end of the world is the end of the world. And that’s what we’re fighting against.
Jessica: Definitely. And after the Citizens United decision and, again, the record amount of money spent on elections this year, do you believe that we need campaign finance reform before we will see any real change on climate policy?
Bill: That’s a very important idea, but we can’t wait on it alone. We have to do all these these things as quickly as we can and at the same time. So we’ll work hard with people like United Republic who are working on campaign finance reform, but we’re not waiting until they finish their work before we take on the fossil fuel industry.
Jessica: You’ve travelled around the country and across the world and you’re about to embark on this travel experience again. What’s the one theme around climate change that speaks to everyone? And are there similar questions that come up everywhere you go?
Bill: Eighty-five percent of Americans’ counties in the last two years have been in a federally declared disaster area, so people all over the place are being able to connect those dots in a serious way. And that’s good news. The polling data shows that 74% of Americans understand that the climate is changing. So we’re beginning to get somewhere and now we just need to stand up to this incredible power.
Jessica: And are there questions that you find come up often, like the same question over and over again when you travel?
Bill: This is so big, how can anything that I do really matter? And the answer is, “It can the minute you come together with everybody else.”
Jessica: I see. So the last time you spoke to Earthjustice, this was about a year ago, the Obama Administration had just postponed approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. And back then, you said that approving the pipeline would mean game over for the climate. What hope do we have if Obama approves the pipeline?
Bill: Well it’s burning the tar sands that will mean it's game over for climate. And all that carbon up there, it’s the second biggest pool of carbon on Earth. We will keep fighting every attempt to burn it. And we’re having good luck. Our colleagues in Canada have all but blocked the proposed gateway pipeline to the Pacific, so we’re crimping the plans of the tar sands people, which is really nice.
Jessica: And speaking of Obama, do you think he will begin to seriously address climate change?
Bill: We’ll find out. The Keystone pipeline will be the litmus test, and we’ll see if he is willing to stand up to anybody, or not.
Jessica: Given your lecture series and the fact that you’re about to come out with a new book, it begs the question, do you ever sleep?
Bill: I haven’t slept as much as I would like to this last little while, I must say. I was home last night in my own bed and it was the first time in about 30 nights, and it will be about 40 nights before I see it again. But you know, the trouble with climate change is that unlike other social questions, it actually has a big time limit, so I am afraid we need to act a little more urgently than we otherwise would in this case.
Jessica: Definitely. Well Mr. McKibben, it’s really been great talking with you. Thank you so much for your time.
Bill: All right. God bless you. Take care.
Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and author of more than a dozen books, including his most recent book, titled Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. And to hear more interviews with experts on the latest environmental issues, check out earthjustice.org/downtoearth.