Environmentalist Bill McKibben on Keeping a Strong Focus on Climate Change
Bill McKibben, founder of the international climate change group 350.org, is one of the world's leading campaigners on the climate change crisis. In 2010, the Boston Globe called him "probably the nation's leading environmentalist." The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) interviewed McKibben to ask about the status of the global climate change movement and the current priorities of 350.org. McKibben will be in Madison, WI to address "Fighting Bob Fest" September 15.
CMD: You have been one of the leading voices in resistance to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. While the border-crossing permit for the Keystone XL pipeline has been postponed by the Obama administration, construction has commenced on the southern portion of the pipeline. What do activists need to know about the status of the pipeline?
McKibben: The victory that we won last year was a temporary victory. I guess all environmental victories are temporary, but this one was even more temporary than most. Mitt Romney has made it absolutely clear that if he wins the election his first duty, on his first day in office, will be to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Barack Obama hasn't said one way or another what he will do, but the signs aren't particularly great. The U.S. State Department has given no indication that it will conduct a comprehensive hearing on the climate issues surrounding the pipeline. That's not a great sign. The thing that we can do most effectively at this point is to try and keep a strong focus on climate change as an issue. We need to make President Obama understand that if he wins again, this is his legacy issue. In many ways it will be the most decision he makes in regards to climate change. We will see what happens. The one thing we can say for sure is that Mitt Romney can't wait to sign this thing.
CMD: Why is Keystone XL such a important climate change issue?
McKibben: The pipeline runs through sensitive territory and requires people to give up farms and ranches. The good people in Texas right now are fighting hard to block construction of the southern leg that would run through their homes and farms. In the larger sense, it matters enormously because the tar sands in Canada are the second largest pool of carbon on earth. As Jim Hansen at NASA has said, if we manage to burn all the economically recoverable tar sand up there, then its essentially 'game over' for the climate. It's a very big deal. The oil fields in Saudi Arabia are the largest pool of carbon. Burning the oil fields of Saudi Arabia has raised the temperature of the planet about a degree more than any other single thing on earth. That gives us a good reason to not go and do it all over again.
CMD: You have been part of the movement to resist hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." Why is fracking an issue you are prioritizing?
McKibben: Fracking is really important because it's this discovery of a new wave of carbon-based energy forms at a time when we already have far more than scientists say we can safely burn. Knowing that, it makes no sense to go out and rip apart the countryside looking for more. Natural gas is a great danger because of the methane leaks in the course of producing it. That methane is 23 times more greenhouse gas intensive, molecule per molecule, than even the carbon dioxide that we worry about so much. Burning this cheap natural gas seems to displace lots of renewable energy, even more than it replaces coal. The net effect seems to be, if anything, it makes climate change worse off than it was before.
I will be in Philadelphia on the 20th for "Shale Gas Outrage." Pennsylvania is being hit harder than any other place, maybe in the whole world, by fracking. They have had enough. They people there are really ready to get to work.
CMD: You've recently written about how the extreme weather we've been experiencing -- record heat waves, wildfires, flooding and droughts -- are now the "new normal" because of the warming planet. Do you think recent weather events have increased awareness about climate change?
McKibben: I do. The polling data shows that the number of Americans that are concerned about climate change has gone up dramatically just in the last year. Its now 72 percent of people. In a sense, how could it be otherwise? All you had to do was poke your nose out the door this summer to have the sense that the world is changing very fast. I'm not surprised at all that people are becoming more engaged. More engagement always increases the odds of actual action taking place.
We are getting ready to launch a very big divestment campaign to get institutions like colleges to get rid of their stock in fossil fuel companies. These companies are dangerous; they are rogue forces. They have contributed way more carbon than the atmosphere can absorb, so we have to stop them. That's going to be a hard job, but I think we are capable of it.
CMD: Why do you think there has been this increase in civil disobedience and how important is direct action in the progression of the environmental movement?
McKibben: I think its very important. We organized last summer around the Keystone XL pipeline what became the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years in this country with 1,253 people who were arrested. I'm very glad to see that this type of action has spread. There were people who were doing it before that -- the mountaintop removal people, heroes like Tim DeChristopher. This idea has spread and it's a very good thing.
CMD: How would you rate the president's performance on the environment? How does this administration compare to the Bush administration?
McKibben: He's better on the environment than the Bush administration. But then, you know, I've drunk more beers than my 14 year old niece too. It wasn't a very high bar to live up to. The Obama administration has been very mixed on environmental and energy issues and its been kind of a shame to watch the power that the fossil fuel industry has exerted over this administration. I guess the relevant question for the moment is how they'll be vis-à-vis the Romney administration, and it was sad to see Mitt Romney mocking the very idea that someone might try to work on the health of the planet in his convention speech. Even if we re-elect Obama, I think the sort of obvious message is that we can't just sit around and wait for him to do the right thing. We have to take the action to him and to the corporations in the years to come because they are not going to do the right thing by themselves. I'd say that's abundantly clear at this point.
I think the administration will only change if we build movements to make it change. Politicians, you have to pressure them to get done what needs doing. Let's hope we can build that pressure.
CMD: 350.org is a global organization. Can you talk about some promising movements abroad to fight climate change?
McKibben: There's a lot of good movements going on around the world. We are fighting this huge coal plant in Kosovo; fracking in South Africa. All across Europe people are working on these issues. It's exciting to see. The willingness of people all over the world to carry on this fight is my motivation. Especially the willingness of people in places that have done nothing to cause the problem. As long as they are willing to fight, I feel like I have no choice but to fight with them.