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Interview with Bill McKibben, activist and author on the “timed testing” of climate crisis

Interview with Bill McKibben, activist and author on the “timed testing” of climate crisis

greta thunberg and children at climate rally

When it comes to the climate crisis, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben hasn’t been a fully “objective journalist” since he finished penning his first book, The End of Nature, over three decades ago, and realized he didn’t want the world to burn up. McKibben writes on climate and environment for publications like The New Yorker, The Nation, and the BulletinIn recent years, his energies and attentions have been at least equal to climate activism. 350.org was founded by McKibben in 2008 with others. It is now a huge operation that has affiliations to around 300 other climate organizations.

McKibben started a new group for Americans over 60 called Third Act earlier this year and also started a Substack newsletter, The Crucial Years. Interview with BulletinMcKibben, an associate editor Jessica McKenzie, discusses these new endeavors. He realized that the fight for climate change was more about money and power rather than science and evidence. McKibben also discusses technological shifts that make climate actions easier than they were 10 years ago. McKibben believes the public is not paying enough attention to the environmental crisis.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists It’s been over 30 years since your book, The End of NatureThe book, which was one of the earliest books on global warming that was available to general readers, was published. How has your activism changed over time?

Bill McKibben Well, that’s actually a really good question because when I started, I wasn’t really an activist. I was a writer. My first job after college was on the staff at The New Yorker, and writing the Talk of the Town and all of it.

When I wrote The End of Nature, by the time I was halfway through it, I knew that I wasn’t objective in the sense that newspaper reporters are supposed to be. I did not want the entire world to be overheated and burned up. For the next ten years, however, I viewed my job primarily as writing and speaking, bringing attention to this issue.

And my thinking was—naively, I now understand: If only people are aware of this, then our leaders will do what they need to do and go to work to solve this problem, because why wouldn’t they? Scientists have given a warning about the deepest problem the planet’s ever faced. Of course, we’ll get to work on it.

It took me too long for me to grasp that we were winning this argument. Within a few years, the science was solid and clear. We were winning the argument. We were only losing the argument because it was not about physics and data or the reasons. The fight was about power and money, which is what most fights are about.

The other side of the fight was the fossil fuel industry. They were the richest industry in this world and were spreading a dangerous lie. The lie that we didn’t know what was true about climate change, and we could wait, and so on and so forth.

They’ve wasted 30 years of our time. And we’ve tried to react by building power of our own, lacking billions of dollars. We’ve tried to, and with some effect, substituted millions of people. And so we’ve built these big, vast movements across the world that are finally counterbalancing that power and allowing us to at least begin, albeit much too late, the process of change.

Bulletin:Third Act is a new movement you have just started that will mobilize people over the age 60. Why do you think it’s important to engage individuals of a certain age? What do you want to accomplish?

McKibben: Since I started working on this in my 20s, I’ve gotten to work a lot with youth around the world, and they’re doing an unbelievable job. The youth activism around climate’s fantastic. Everyone is familiar with Greta Thunberg. They should. She’s great. I adore her and enjoy working with her.

greta thunberg and children at climate rally
Greta Thunberg attending a climate rally in 2019. (Photo by:
Anthony Quintano/Flickr

But there are 10,000 Greta Thunbergs around the planet, and they’ve got 10 million followers, and that is fantastic. But it does not really seem okay to just assign the worst problem the world’s ever gotten into to a bunch of 17-year-olds as a kind of homework. It seems unfair and unlikely to work.

So look at our society, people over the age of 60—and there’s now 70 million of us, so a population larger than France. We vote in large numbers, so we have a lot of political power. And we also have the most money. Seventy percent or more of the country’s financial assets are owned by the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation. Millennials hold five percent. So if we’re going to move economic and political institutions, we’re probably only going to succeed if we can get older people involved.

Now, there’s this idea that as people age, they become more conservative. We can’t afford to let that happen. And I think for this generation in particular, it’s not necessarily going to happen. People over 60 years old saw a profound cultural, social, and political transformation in their first act. They were around for the start of the women’s movement or the first Earth Day or whatever it was.

Maybe our second act as a whole was more tied to consumerism and less with citizenship. Maybe that ship has sailed. We’re in our third act, we’ve got skills, resources, maybe some grandkids, a real feeling for the legacy that we’re about to leave behind, and it’s not a very good one. So. [maybe these older]People are eager to follow the example of young people and make real changes.

Bulletin: Anecdotally, I’ve seen a lot of cynicism online from Generation Z about the mess that boomers have left behind, especially the climate crisis. How will Third Act fit in with the youth climate movement

McKibben:This is a good example: In October, there was the youth climate movement Future Coalition, the sort of American outgrowth of Greta’s Fridays for the Futuregroup, started this campaign against big banks that are big funders of fossil fuel industries. Banks such as JPMorgan Chase have contributed about a third trillion dollars to fossil fuel industry funding since the Paris climate accords were signed.

So they were going to go demonstrate outside banks and things, but they called us up and said, “Will you come join us?” Because we know that bank managers are worried about 19-year-olds. For some reason they want them to take out their credit card, because they know they’ll stick with the first one they take for the rest of their life, and so on.

But we know that they’re also scared about 69-year-olds, because that’s whose money sits in the vaults. It was great fun supporting them. I was in Boston that day and part of a big demonstration of older people following younger people down the street, someone had a big sign that said, “Fossils against fossil fuels.” That was a worthwhile banner to march under.

Bulletin:I understand that you received the first organizing call for Third Act just days ago.

McKibben:It was our big, national, official launch. It went well. And one of the things that it emphasized was real—there was a lot of music and art partly because this generation, my generation has, Jessica, the best music that there was. Partly because the environmental movement has done a better job appealing to whatever hemisphere of our brain likes pie charts and bar graphs. That’s an important hemisphere of the brain, but the other one, the one that reacts to the world more viscerally, we need that engaged, too. So there’s going to be a lot of art and culture here.

Bulletin:Substack was also created at the time you launched Third Act. I was wondering—since you’ve written more than a dozen books and you were a staffer and then a contributing writer at The New Yorker and have bylines at so many other places—you’ve had a considerable pulpit from which to share your writing and your thoughts. How has the move to a more self published newsletter changed the relationship between your reader and writer?

McKibben: Well, it’s been fun. Truthfully, I’ve kept writing tons for everybody else, and I’ve written a lot for The New YorkerThey will continue doing so. But there’s a limit as to how much organizing you can do in the pages of big national magazines. That’s not really what they’re about.

But that’s one of the nice things about this Substack; it’s like long-form Twitter. You can organize. You can say, “Here’s the thing and how to rally around it,” and so on and so forth.

So I’ve enjoyed that part. It is a lot like Twitter because you just write something and you can do it fairly quickly and punch a button and it’s out and people can read it and you can get back to whatever you were doing before.

Bulletin: And you’re playing around with a serial novel. Tell me about your “epic, non-violent yarn” and what it has to do with climate action.

McKibben: I’m not really a novelist. I did write a novel called Radio Free VermontThat actually did well and received good reviews. However, it was more of a yarn than this one. This is the prequel/sequel to it.

What they’re both about is something that interests me immensely, which is nonviolence and nonviolent movement building. I think it’s way more dramatic than the violence that is the hallmark of most of our entertainments.

It’s hard to imagine watching another Marvel movie, even though they all end up with people engaging in fistfights. But at a certain level, it’s just dull as dishwater.

The dramas that emerged from Gandhi and organizing, the civil rights movement, fascinate me. Because they’re really about ways that the powerless can figure out how to take on the powerful and take them down. And it turns out that it’s extraordinarily effective.

The academics who study nonviolence say that it’s three or four times more effective than violent movements in bringing about change. These stories are not true. We don’t have a West Point for nonviolence.

Bulletin:Is it about climate specifically?

McKibben: No, there’s a little bit of that, but a part of it is set in Tibet, in India, and all over the place. Because truthfully, there’s no way to isolate issues like climate from other issues at this point. One of the things we’re working on hard at Third Act is questions around functioning democracy, because we’re not going to solve climate change if we can’t overcome the insane power of special interest in our democracies.

Bulletin:Power is a topic you should be referring to at the beginning this year. You wrote an article for Bulletin that really foresaw Joe Biden’s uphill struggle to get any kind of climate legislationThe law was made, including the Politicians like Joe Manchin are able to stonewall. How do you feel about his climate performance a year ago?

McKibben:I believe that the fossil fuel industry has managed, to a large extent, to stop a lot of Joe Manchin’s work. Joe Manchin has taken the most money from the fossil fuel sector than anyone else in Washington. Which let me tell you is no easy thing to do because there’s a lot of them vying for that crown. But it was a good investment. Because he’s stripped the clean energy pricing plan out of the Build Back Better bill. And now he’s, for the moment anyway, just holding the whole thing up.

Bulletin:But you saw it coming, and that, I think, is a lot of foresight.

McKibben: I’m afraid that after watching for 30 years, I have a great deal of respect for the invidious power of this industry. It’s interesting because they’re clearly losing 20 years, 30, 40 years from now. The world is clearly going to run on sun and wind because it’s, among other things, cheap.

bill mckibben at protest against fossil fuels
Photo by John Englart/Flickr

These guys may be able to keep their business model in place past the point that they disrupt the climate system of Earth. That’s what we’re fighting about now. Can we end Exxon’s political power before it causes havoc on the climate system and the environment? And it’s a race and we don’t know the answer.

There are places where we’re making huge progress. These divestment campaigns have been really important, partly because they’re outside the ability of these politicians to control, because they’re not aimed at governments, they’re aimed at universities and pension funds. And we’re now at $40 trillion in endowments and portfolios that have divested from fossil fuel. It’s the biggest movement of its kind in history.

But, while we’re doing that, they’re continuing to prop up the Manchins of the world. So, we don’t know how this race is going to come out, and it’s worth remembering that it is very much a timed test. Which is unlike everything else we’ve dealt with in a sense, even including the nuclear threat where the job has been—and job well done—to try and keep bad things from happening and hope that eventually we’ll come to our senses and get rid of all these things.

In this instance, all the bad things around us are happening. And if we can’t stop them quickly, then the die will be cast. Once the Arctic’s melted, no one’s got a great plan for how you’re going to go refreeze it.

Bulletin: The most recent headlines about Biden and his disappointments for environmentalists have been about the record number—as compared to Trump’s first three years—of leases he’s allowed on public lands for oil and gas companies. What’s going on there? What’s the context?

McKibben: I don’t really know. The Biden administration tried to stop some of that very early on and a federal court ruled that they couldn’t. And so now they’re granting these things. There are people who say they don’t have to, and they could be figuring out other ways to resist. There are people saying they don’t want to do that because it’ll further antagonize the Manchins of the world and make it that much harder to pass through.

I don’t really know the outcome, but I know that it’s a great sadness. As part of this, I was arrested outside the White House on October 1. Fossil Fuels and People campaign. We were also talking about line three, the tar sands pipe through Minnesota that was approved this past year. It is a perfect dupe of Keystone XL’s pipeline. Same size, carrying the exact same stuff.

Ten years ago, the Obama-Biden administration recognized that we couldn’t build Keystone XL because of its climate impact. God only knows what political calculation made it okay for us to build this one.

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Bulletin:The atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations hover around 415 parts per Million. This is well above the 350 parts/million ceiling. How can you look at such numbers and not despair?

McKibben:Jessica, it was a time when I was very depressed. The title of the first book I wrote about it 33 years ago was tearful. The End of Nature. So I’m no Pollyanna about it. We’re not going to get out of this without a great deal of pain and damage.

Climate change is not something that’s going to happen in the future. It’s something that’s happening now. It begs the question: Can we stop it before it reaches the point where civilizations are cut off at the knees. And we don’t know the answer to that. It’s an open question. It’ll depend a lot on what happens in the next few years.

We’ve locked in one degree of warming, and we’ve probably locked in, just from momentum, something altogether too close to two degrees of global warming. That’s going to be really hard to deal with. But we’re on a path right now, unless we deviate from it sharply, that takes us to three degrees Celsius, six degrees of Fahrenheit. If that happens in the course of this century, I think the thinking of most scientists is it’s going to be very hard to have civilizations like we’re used to. This rate of chaotic chaos is unlike anything Earth has ever faced, at least not since the last big asteroid hit us.

And, this time the asteroid is us, and that means we don’t have to do it. If we act quickly and strongly, we can still mitigate the impact. So that’s why we keep trying. It’s why it seems so urgent. It’s why I keep ending up in jail and whatever. At some level, it’s all crazy, why we have to do any of this in order to get the powers that be to pay attention to clear scientific warning. But we do. So I’m glad there’s lots of people who are willing to do it.

Bulletin:This urgency is part and parcel of your Substack’s title, The Crucial Years. What number of years would that take?

McKibben:For me, the most relevant years are through 2030. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said quite clearly, “Cut emissions in half by 2030 or the chances of meeting the targets you set in Paris, are basically by the board.” 2030 is now eight years and a tiny bit of change away.

That’s not much time. That’s a blink of an eye. And that means we’ve got to be doing everything we can. And then we’ll reevaluate. We may reach 2030 and just be like, “You know what? This is not working and we’re going to have to break the glass. What are you going to do? Geoengineering or some other crackpot scheme.”

But for the moment, the fact that the price of solar and wind energy has fallen so fast gives us the one real opening we’ve had since the beginning of this climate fight. There’s no longer a technological or financial obstacle to doing what needs to be done. There’s just a vested interest in inertia obstacle. These are strong, but they can be overcome, I believe.

Bulletin:I think The last interview you did for the BulletinThis was back in 2012, when there had been a global gathering of leaders in which they were pushing the envelope to 2020. It was amazing to see how little has changed over a decade.

McKibben: Yep. We’re obviously at some kind of hinge moment now, because what’s changed from 2012 is this availability of a reasonably priced alternative. But what hasn’t changed is the firm insistence of the fossil fuel industry that they’re not having it, that they’re going to do everything they can to keep their business model intact a little longer.

And the idea that we’re going to lose a huge part of the planet’s DNA and degrade the planet, all so Exxon can postpone for another 15 years the financial reckoning for their shareholders. That’s pretty much the definition of insane.

Bulletin:What would your game plan be if you were given the task of leading?

McKibben:Stop building anything that connects to a flame. So no more expansion of anything to do with fossil fuels or biomass, and instead, the radical, dramatic support from governments around the world for the rapid deployment of technology that’s now on the shelf and ready to go.

We know that we’re capable of doing this. We transformed our industrial system to build only tanks and planes during the two years preceding our entry in World War II. So there’s no reason we can’t do it to build solar panels and wind turbines. There’s no physical constraint that keeps us from doing it.

There’s stuff that’s hard. We need to find lithium supplies and ways to avoid destroying people by mining for cobalt. These are manageable human problems. What we can’t do is just let any more of the physical systems of the planet break down because those aren’t recoverable. That’s a one-way ratchet, and that’s what scares me.

Bulletin: What’s a big climate or environment issue you think is under-appreciated by the public?

McKibben: The fact that we’ve changed the chemistry of the Earth’s oceans. Look, this planet’s 70 percent seawater. If we’d been naming it honestly, we would’ve called it Ocean. And the fact that we’ve dramatically shifted the pH of seawater in the course of 30 years is a bad sign. That’s global warming’s evil twin, and we haven’t paid as much attention to it as we need to.

Bulletin:Last question: Climate activists like yourself often stress that addressing climate crisis requires structural changes, but primarily people want information about how they can help. What’s one thing people could do today, or tomorrow?

McKibben:Jessica, the most important thing an individual can accomplish is to be less individual. You need to join forces with others to make a real difference. I’m glad I got solar panels all over the roof and all of that, but I don’t try to fool myself that we’re going to make this math work one Tesla at a time.

That’s why we start things like thirdact.org or 350.org, ways for people to aggregate their concern and provide enough leverage to shift systems.



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