Bill McKibben: We 'Don't Trust' Obama on Climate Change

Environmental leader says Obama can stand up for the planet's health or fossil fuel industry, but his legacy will suffer horribly if he chooses wrong

In an interview with veteran journalist Bill Moyers set to air Friday evening, author and co-founder Bill McKibben, a key voice in the climate justice movement, says that President Obama's looming decision to approve or reject the Keystone XL tar sands will be the ultimate indicator of whether his loyalties reside with the health of the planet and future generations or with the desires and financial interests of the fossil fuel industry.

According to McKibben, the climate movement does not trust Obama to do the right thing on the pipeline, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence and outpouring of opposition to the tar sands project. "He's done some good things, but his record is mixed at best," McKibben tells Moyers. "And he will be remembered at the moment, as the president who produced more carbon than anybody thought possible, unless he begins to act now with real power."

Articulating the very precise moment that we're in and why the stakes surrounding Keystone XL and our overall relationship to fossil fuels are so dramatically heightened at the moment, McKibben says:

Most people understand that we're in a serious fix. Eighty percent of American counties have had some kind of climate disaster in the last two or three years.

Two years ago, the New York City subway system filled with salt system, you know? Sandy was the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras. How many warnings do we want?

The world is changing. Things are possible now that weren't before because we're changing the climate.
I mean, it feels like God's doing his level best to tell us the fix that we're in, one crazy episode of weather after another. These are the alarms from a system that's beginning to swing out of control. We're supposed to be Homo sapiens. Intelligence is supposed to be our mark. We've been given the warning by our scientists who have done a terrific job at reaching consensus on a different problem in physics and chemistry. They've told us that we're in deep trouble. They've told us what we need to do, get off fossil fuel. The question now is whether we're actually going to respond to that.

And it's like a sort of, well, it's like a kind of final exam for the question, was the big brain a good adaptation or not, you know? We're going find out in short order. And each of these things that comes up like the Keystone pipeline is a kind of pop quiz along the way. And so far we're failing more of them than we're passing.

The remarks come one week since the State Department released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on the pipeline project which green groups said contained all the information the President and Secretary of State John Kerry need to reject the project once and for all.

Though many mainstream news outlets followed the oil industry spin that tried to play the FEIS findings as a move closer to presidential approval, climate experts and opponents of the pipeline were quick to counter that narrative by saying the report clearly shows the climate impact of tar sands would make it impossible for Obama to say "yes" if he intends to keep his pledge to seriously address the crisis of global warming.

As McKibben explains, the story being peddled by the oil industry, the pipeline companies and their political backers is "unraveling" quickly in the face of the evidence. "The idea that [completing Keystone XL] would make no difference is crazy. It's a pipeline that would carry 800,000 barrels of oil. In the last two weeks, the head of TransCanada itself has said, if we can't build this pipeline, then the expansion of the tar sands is called into question."

On the Monday following the FEIS' release, thousands of climate activists in hundreds of locations across the U.S. and Canada held vigils as they called on Obama to fulfill his promises, follow the science, and say "No" to the pipeline. Led by green organizations, indigenous groups, young people and students, and concerned landowners along the pipeline route, the broad and diverse movement has vowed to fight against Keystone XL even if it gains Obama's approval. So far, nearly 80,000 people have now pledged to commit acts of civil obedience if the greenlight comes from the White House.

"What counts in moments like these are not the words in Washington's reports, but rather the voices of people in the streets--that's what changes the equation for the President," said online organizer Duncan Meisel in a letter to his group's members this week.

In that vein, students and youth leaders of the climate movement have announced a White House civil disobedience action on March 3rd to drive their point home. As The Nation's Peter Rothberg reports:

The sit-in is expected to be the largest act of civil disobedience by young people in the recent history of the environmental movement and it will be led by just the demographic that helped propel Obama to the presidency. The protest, known as "XL Dissent," is meant to send a clear signal to President Obama that the base that helped elect him sees Keystone XL as a decision that will define his entire legacy.

"Obama was the first president I voted for, and I want real climate action and a rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline," said Nick Stracco, a senior at Tulane University. "The people that voted him into office have made it absolutely clear what we want, and that's to reject Keystone XL."

And that's the message from McKibben as well. Championing the movement of which he feels part of--though not necessarily a leader of--McKibben said:

The movement we're trying to build looks more like we want the energy system to look like. Millions of solar panels on millions of roofs, all interconnected and tied together in the same way. That's what this political, this kind of fossil fuel resistance spread out around the world, almost as sprawling as the fossil fuel industry itself.

And for many, many sides and in many, many ways, through money, through political pressure, through sometimes civil disobedience. We've got to come at these guys. And people are figuring that out. Not because I'm telling them what to do, because it becomes clearer all the time as people get engaged.
Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.