Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben, the one-time New Yorker staff writer who has become one of the world’s most famous environmental activists in recent years, was not the only organizer of Sunday’s massive climate march in New York City.

The event, where more than 300,000 demonstrators [an estimate later updated to 400,000] called on world leaders to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy to combat climate change, had other sponsors besides 350.org, the global organization that McKibben co-founded in 2008.

(The group’s name refers to what McKibben dryly calls “a scientific data point.” Key scientists say 350 parts per million is the largest “safe” concentration of climate-warming carbon dioxide in the air – a level already exceeded thanks to fossil-fuel emissions.)

Even with several groups and many individuals planning the People’s Climate March in Manhattan, plus associated events around the world, McKibben was regarded as the chief architect of the demonstrations meant to pressure world leaders assembling for a United Nations summit on climate this week.

“Meet Bill McKibben,” NBC News headlined an online profile, “the man behind [the] massive People’s Climate March rally.”

Anyone aware of McKibben’s increasingly high-profile role in building a climate-action movement would not be surprised by that description. In 2009, for instance, Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the world’s “100 most influential thinkers.” A year later, the Boston Globe called him “probably the nation’s leading environmentalist.” Another recognition of McKibben’s growing prominence: Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson has denounced him as “a purveyor of fear.”

McKibben, born in 1960 and a self-described “introvert,” admits that his transition from magazine writer and book author into internationally known environmental campaigner may seem an unlikely evolution.

He did much to heighten awareness of the global warming in a series of New Yorker articles that became the 1989 bestselling book “The End of Nature.” It was not until 17 years (and numerous books and magazine articles) later, however, that his concern about the climate issue manifested itself in the activist event that would shortly afterward lead to the founding of 350.org: He helped lead a 2006 walk across Vermont, where he works at Burlington College, to publicize an appeal for action against climate change. That event led in early 2007 to the founding of Step it Up, the predecessor organization of 350.org.

NYC 9/21/14

More than 300,000 people participated in the People's Climate March in New York City on Sunday, Sept. 21.

The express goal of 350.org is “building a global climate movement,” and it has had major successes in that effort – a coordinated group of 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries in 2009 was described in Foreign Policy, for example, as “the largest ever global coordinated rally of any kind.”

Still, McKibben’s mind was clearly on the movement’s shortcomings when he visited Houston earlier this year to address the final event in the city’s Progressive Forum speaker series – “we are still definitely losing,” he said in advance of that talk. A month after the Houston speech, he published an article entitled “A Call to Arms” on the website of Rolling Stone magazine, announcing this week’s People’s Climate March and inviting readers to participate.

While he was in Houston, McKibben spoke with Texas Climate News editor Bill Dawson.


In a recent interview with my old colleague Eric Berger at the Houston Chronicle, you said “we are still definitely losing. We’ve got to build a movement big enough to stop” the continuing, overwhelming reliance on fossil fuel that was signaled in that Exxon report – that they expected, and I assume they expect other companies, to do the same thing. [The report issued by Exxon Mobil acknowledged the need to address climate change but predicted that climate policies would probably not curtail world fossil-fuel consumption significantly.] So why are you still losing and why isn’t the movement big enough?

Well, I think because we didn’t even really figure out until five or six years ago that we were going to need a movement. Because you would think that if the world’s scientists reached consensus that the world was facing by far the gravest threat it had ever faced and that they went and explained to everybody in power on Capitol Hill and in all the other capitals what was going on, and if the engineers pointed out that there were actually an increasing number of ways to get around this problem, you would expect that rational actors in rational systems would get to work making things change. and I think I expected that for the first two decades after I wrote “The End of Nature”. But it became clear that that’s not what was happening. The scientific system, the scientific method, had worked very well. Physicists and chemists had managed to reach agreement on a difficult problem in physics and chemistry. The scientific method worked well. The political science was where it was breaking down. All these scientists would troop up to Congress year after year after year and the result was a kind of quarter-century, bipartisan effort to accomplish nothing. And it was mostly successful. And so we began to just kind of understand that we won the argument but now we’re also going to have to win the fight. And the fight was with those institutions mostly, fossil-fuel corporations that were able to utterly dominate the political process, not through reason but through money.

Do environmentalists and other people concerned about climate change, do they share some of the responsibility for the fact that there hasn’t been a sweeping, concerted program like you argue is essential? 

Well, I suppose everybody shares – everybody who knows anything about this and hasn’t spent the last 25 years working on it all the time – bears responsibility for it. I wish I’d figured out long ago that we should be building a movement that would work, but I didn’t.

You recently spoke at Texas A&M, gave a couple of lectures there. I was going to ask you a couple of related questions about talking in Texas. You did that recently. You’re back in town for the final Progressive Forum event after having spoken to the same organization [in 2008], and presumably you’ll be speaking to a lot of the same people this time. How did the A&M talks go, one, and two, connected to that, do you bring a different message to your Texas talks than you do the hundreds of other talks you give other places.

No, not really. I talk all over the world and I’m afraid the basic message is pretty much the same. At Texas A&M, I thought it went pretty well, because mostly I was talking to scientists – 2,000 undergraduate chemists in the big talk I gave there. So scientists talk a common language, you know. They’re able to understand the risks we face. That’s not to say the politics of Texas aren’t a problem. They are. This is the place where one would expect the power of the fossil-fuel industry to be at its absolute greatest, its power of persuasion most finely honed. And so it is a problem, but what’s changed since I was here six years ago — we have a movement now in a lot of ways. The other things are that the Arctic has melted, the ocean has acidified, and Texas has gone through a drought of absolutely stunning proportion. So I’m the least of it. Mother Nature is doing her best to educate and inform all of us. And i’m afraid that she will probably continue to ramp up her efforts if we pay no attention.

Why is President Obama’s latest delay on a Keystone decision [on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry crude oil from western Canada’s tar sands formation to refineries in the U.S.] a bad thing from your perspective?

Oh, I think in terms just of fighting the pipeline, it’s not such a bad thing. It’s a victory of sorts. Anything to keep that 800,000 barrels in the ground is a good day. So in those terms it’s good. In the terms of demonstrating that people can stand up to corporate power, it’s good. But the reason I wish he had instead rejected it outright is we’re running out of time to deal with climate change. It’s a time-limited problem. And we need some examples of bold leadership so that we can go to the rest of the world and say, look, we don’t build projects anymore that add to the carbon burden of the planet. We don’t start building new infrastructure like that. We can stop it. That would be a very useful gesture to be making.

What happens in terms of the movement, in terms of you and your allies, if he does approve the pipeline? Would you call for stepped-up civil disobedience?

Oh sure. Everybody’s already prepared for more civil disobedience. But I think what really happens is, it demonstrates that even the president of the United States is unable to deal with the power of the fossil-fuel industry. So we have to keep taking it straight at that industry. I think it gives even more impetus to things like this divestment campaign [to persuade universities and other institutions to sell their stock in fossil-fuel businesses] that I’ve spent most of my time the last couple of years on. Keystone is one of the many examples of playing defense. Given the hole that we’re in, we’ve got to play defense effectively against almost every big, bad proposal someone comes up with, but we’ve also got to play offense. And so the president has said we’re going to spend six or eight or 10 months or whatever it is delaying on Keystone. Well good, that gives us more time to fight other things and build a bigger movement, which is good.

Dr. [James] Hansen [a prominent climate scientist at Columbia University who worked for NASA from 1981-2013], a friend and ally of yours, has said that if Keystone is built, “game over for the planet.” What do you think about the wisdom of such apocalyptic messages? You just said the fight would go on.

Actually he said if we develop the tar sands, it is. There’s enough carbon in Alberta that if you got all the economically recoverable carbon out, the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would go up to about 540 parts per million. So that’s a working definition of “game over.” There’s about 10 places like that around the world, and we’re fighting in pretty much every one of them, although our efforts in Saudi Arabia — we’ve got people there but things are not going so well.

Regarding such places in general where, if full development were to occur, the game would be over in the view of prominent scientists, could you speak to what you think about the wisdom of such messages, given that some psychological research shows that apocalyptic messages — and I put those words in quotes — are simply not as effective.

Other people may have more experience at this, but our sense is that we never use apocalyptic messages. We just try to tell the truth. As far as I know we’re the only large campaign that took a scientific data point as its rallying cry. And everybody said, oh that’s impossible – nobody will understand it and it’s too depressing because we’re already past it. I don’t think either of those is true. People all over the world understand it just fine. If you have a number and you’re above it, then that’s not good, you know? And I don’t think it’s too depressing. I think it’s the equivalent of going to the doctor, and the doctor tells you your cholesterol is too high. Any wise person then says what medicine do I take? How do I change my life? Whatever. Only knuckleheads go home and search the internet till they find a website that says cholesterol doesn’t exist.

Back to that Exxon report for a moment. What’s your reaction to that and how do you see that as a reflection of the attitude in the oil and gas industry, in the coal industry, in general?

It’s absolutely clear that they’re uninterested in change. The easiest, the most sensible way forward, would be for them to decide they want to be energy companies instead of oil companies and to take their expertise and their huge amounts of capital and put it to new ends. To building windmills and solar panels and all the other things we need. But at the moment they’re making such outsize profit doing what they’re doing now that they can’t do it. It’s not that most of us are addicted to fossil fuels. Most of us could care less where our power came from. If you turned on the light switch and someone told you it was coming from a solar panel, you’d be happy. You’d be fine. Addicts are a tiny, tiny group of people who are addicted to the enormous rate of profit that fossil fuel has generated in recent years. And they’re going to defend it — clearly, at this point – at any cost. Exxon said, we’re going to dig up everything we’ve got and we’re going to keep looking for more, and we think it’s, quote, highly unlikely, unquote, that any government will stop us. Basically they’ve said, we’re going to wreck the planet, we don’t care what you say, we think we can, and we dare you to stop us.

In regard to one fossil fuel in particular, natural gas, I worked at the Houston Chronicle from the mid-80s for a number of years and I remember very well that some political figures in Texas including Lloyd Bentsen, the late U.S. senator, were pushing natural gas as a bridge fuel, in terms of climate change, toward a cleaner-energy future. This theme has been repeated again in the most recent IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report on mitigation – hedging somewhat, saying it could be an effective bridge if we control the methane.

But what they said was the much bigger challenge was to quickly get to renewables. And it’s clear by now, by anybody’s modeling, that drilling more natural gas prolongs the period before you get to renewables, not shortens it. We need to make the leap now. One of the problems, having written about this 25 years ago, is there are times when it’s tempting to say, oh if only you’d listened to me then. We’re no longer in the place where we get to make easy choices, go with natural gas for a few more generations. The Arctic has already melted, you know. The ocean’s already 35 percent more acidic. We’re in a crisis and that calls for real change. When the IEA [International Energy Industry] modeled a high-gas world, a world that really made a quick shift to gas, you ended up at 650 parts per million of CO2 by the end of the century. We’re no longer at a place we can do this. We have to go to renewable energy.

The [IPCC] Working Group report that just came out recently had a pro-adaptation message. I recall that in 2007 when the last big batch of IPCC assessment reports were coming out, environmentalists were highly reluctant to talk about adaptation at all — many of them were — for fear that it would take the heat off the message about mitigation.

We’ve already raised the temperature of the earth a degree. So there’s things we have to adapt to. We’re in a very different place already and we’ll be much more different in the decades ahead no matter what we do, so I think the mantra has got to be adapt to that which you can’t prevent – the ocean’s going to go up a few feet and we’d better figure out what to do about it — but prevent that to which you can’t adapt. If the ocean goes up a few meters, which we’re on a trajectory to have it do unless we very quickly get off fossil fuel, then there’s no adaptation. I mean, there’s not enough money in the world to protect coastlines against meters of sea level rise, to protect agriculture against droughts of the kind and ferocity we now see. There’s no adapting to that. So the first rule of holes is, when you’re in one, stop digging. It’s fine to make your hole more comfortable, install as many pleasantries in your hole as you can as you adapt to hole living, but it’s a bad idea to just go straight ahead and keep digging the hole deeper and deeper and deeper.

You’ve consistently talked about climate change as a moral issue and compared it to other campaigns from other historical periods for fundamental change – which you’re calling for. A couple of years ago the Boston Globe in a long profile of you quoted a minister in Cambridge, identified as an ally of yours for some years, as saying your “Christian faith is the foundation of [your] work” and went on to say you’re not eager to talk about that much. Well, I get asked to ask people to talk about things. It’s my job, of course. So I wanted to ask you if you would talk about that, especially in this context – since the United States is a more religious nation, at least in terms of self-identification in opinion survey after opinion survey, compared to other developed nations – church attendance, profession of belief, all sorts of measures — should the climate-change movement use religious or faith-based or at least faith-influenced appeals more than it has to advance its cause politically?

No. People of faith should be engaged in the climate fight. It’s the wrong way to conduct movements to imagine that you just sit around and come up with a focus-group script that will work with the most number of people and then go out and say it. There’s no need for people who aren’t, say, Christian to be invoking the gospel command to love one’s neighbor. It’s perfectly fine for scientists to be invoking Newton and not Jesus. But preachers and lay people who take the Bible seriously should be invoking those parts of it that remind us to be good stewards and to make life possible for our neighbors instead of drowning them, starving them, giving them diseases, and all the other things that we’re doing. I think it’s not rhetorical — a matter of getting the rhetoric right — it’s a matter of getting people involved for whom those [beliefs] are there. And increasingly they are, even to some degree in evangelical communities. The oldest Protestant denomination in the country, the United Church of Christ, was the first to demand divestment from its member congregations last year. It’s good to see that kind of thing starting to happen.

How is the divestment campaign going? There was a setback at Harvard.

Oxford University said last year that it was the fastest growing such corporate[-related] campaign in history. It’s going way faster than we thought it would. We did not for a minute think that Harvard or anybody else, very few others, would just say oh, okay, and divest. It took eight years to begin divesting from South Africa, eight to 10 years. But last week a hundred Harvard faculty demanded that Harvard divest. Last week Desmond Tutu, as close to an authoritative moral leader as the planet has, told everybody that just like South Africa, this was the next case where we needed divestiture to happen. We think it’s going remarkably well, above all because it has succeeded in changing that understanding of the debate. When I wrote that piece for Rolling Stone two or three years ago that kind of launched that same sort of warning, I was surprised by this research showing the fossil-fuel industry already had in its reserves five times as much carbon as scientists said we could safely burn. I was sort of surprised to read that, in financial reports that included that, because it meant that if the script played out as currently written, that there isn’t any doubt about how it was all going to end. That it was basically over. That if they carried out their business plan, the planet basically tanks. Period. End of story. And now that sort of view isn’t just me and Rolling Stone. Basically the World Bank and the IEA and the IPCC and pretty much everybody else is pretty much using the same language to describe this. And the financial community is engaged in ways that surprise me. HSNC [a British multinational banking and financial services company] did an analysis last year saying that if the world tried to hold to its committed target of 2 degrees [Celsius, or 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit, as a global warming limit for avoiding “dangerous” climate change], you’d have to cut the valuations of the fossil-fuel stocks in half. What that means is they have now agreed that there is a carbon vault, that there are huge assets that have to left underground if we’re going to deal with climate change. That’s why the fossil-fuel companies will fight so hard, because it’s their money that has to be left underground.

Doesn’t all of that also make your appeal a hard sell – not just in Texas but also in other places where the economy is so bound up in the fossil-fuel industry? There are people here who might otherwise find your message very compelling but who have jobs that would be lost.

It’s going to be a very hard sell no matter what, because it’s going to be the biggest economic transformation the world has undergone. And so there are obviously people whose ox will be gored in the process. There’s more people who will do far better. There’s far more jobs being made in the transition than there are [to be lost] — fossil fuel is about as capital-intensive and labor-unintensive as it’s possible to get for the most part. But yeah, it’s a hard sell. But there’s no way around that. There’s no way to just finesse this anymore.

You have praised the impact of traditional land stewards in the Keystone fight in Canada. You’ve made common cause with one such group. I know there’s an event in Washington this week. What do you think about the acts of civil disobedience or resistance or however they’re characterized among such people across Canada that have involved closing highways, blocking bridges and so on?

I think everybody in the First Nations [indigenous peoples] in Canada and in the U.S. are doing their best to bring us to our senses. We’ve spent 500 years utterly ignoring the wisdom of the people who lived on this continent by far the longest. And I’m very glad to see they’re figuring out powerful ways to get that message across.

Not that long ago – in geological terms certainly, but in life terms – you were known as a journalist and an author. Now you’re also or maybe mainly known as a world-recognized political leader on the planet’s major environmental fight or issue. Are you surprised to find yourself in that position?

Yes. It’s not at at all what I like telling everyone I was cut out to do. I’m an introvert and it sort of just happened to me. The good news is I think we’re evolving quickly a movement that doesn’t require leaders in a traditional sense. We’re not going to have a Dr. King in this fight. The closest we got was Al Gore. We’re building a sort of decentralized fossil-fuel resistance that’s loosely connected. Our job at 350.org is not to build an organization but to create an ongoing series of campaigns that sort of turn into a movement and allow everybody to kind of play. And that’s what we like doing. That’s what I wanted to do tonight [at the Houston Progressive Forum speech] when I found out i was coming here. I phoned people in Port Arthur and wherever and said you people need to come and speak for a while tonight too. That’s the only reason for me coming here – I can draw a few people and use it to put attention elsewhere.

Image credits: Bill McKibben – Nancie Battaglia / 350.org; People’s Climate March – John Minchillo / Climate Action Network International