A few years ago, I was invited to become involved in something called the George M. Ewing Canandaigua Forum in my hometown, Canandaigua, up in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. The Forum’s named after the late George Ewing, for many years the editor and publisher of our local newspaper, The Daily Messenger. He was a fellow of many interests, worldly yet always remaining committed to his community. Those interests are reflected in the work of the Forum.
It’s sort of like a mini-Chautauqua, bringing in speakers to the town several times a year to talk about everything from politics to space flight to the environment. I’ve spoken several times and have appeared with climate activist Naomi Klein and my friends and colleagues Bill Moyers and Mark Shields.
The conversation always is engaging but like so many events that rely on an audience and ticket sales, over the last year the Forum has been stymied by the pandemic and the inability of people to safely gather in a crowd. But a few weeks ago, they decided to do what so many other organizations have done and held a Zoom version of the Forum.
The guest was Bill McKibben, author, journalist and activist, one of the most articulate and committed leaders of the contemporary environmental movement. Many of you know his story and admire his work: a co-founder and now senior advisor emeritus of the group 350.org, he has led protests around the world and achieved no small success communicating to the planet just how perilous our future is—and what we can do about it. Author of 30 books, contributor to The New Yorker magazine and Schumann distinguished scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, Bill McKibben is the watchman warning us all that we’re at the brink of disaster but still have a chance to save our Mother Earth.
I was asked to lead the conversation with Bill and as ever, it was a pleasure to do. You’ll see that we covered the climate waterfront from wind and solar to divestment and the appointment of Deb Haaland as secretary of the interior. The latter half of our dialogue includes some questions from those who were watching. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Bill, I would like to point out that among your other many accomplishments is that you're the only person I know after whom biologists have named a new species of woodland gnat. I can't pronounce it, maybe you can, but I think that's a hell of an honor.
It is. I'm very grateful. It's described as an annoying forest pest, so I take that as a great credit.
The United States and the world have gone through a year of lockdown during this pandemic. Now we have hopeful signs that that's coming to an end, but there also warnings of a new wave of infection from variants of the virus and people not taking proper precautions. Last year, you looked at the way different nations have been handling this situation and described it as “a pretty perfect analog to the 30 years that we've wasted in the climate crisis." What did you mean by that?
We can talk about a lot of different things about the pandemic and the lessons that they may or may not provide around climate change. But that one, what I was referring to there was about timing.
You remember—this is painful to remember—that South Korea and the United States discovered their first cases of COVID on the same day of January 2020, and the South Koreans went immediately to work and got all the public health measures in place and began testing people left and right, and on and on and on. And it's not that they had no trouble with the virus, but comparatively, very, very little. Fewer people dead in the course of a year than died in a single day in the US.
We, of course, decided to do nothing for a while. Under the ignoble leadership of our former president, we spent February and some of March hoping that it would all go away, that it would disappear by Easter, whatever the ideas were at the time. And, of course, that didn't happen because physical reality doesn't conform to political wishing and it's more or less a perfect analog to the 30 years that we wasted on climate.
"I've been trying to convince people for a very long time that chemistry and physics simply don't negotiate. The virus is a good reminder that biology doesn't either. The microbe and the molecule set the rules."
For February and March, think of the period 1990 to 2020, when we had adequate warning from scientists about what was coming and at least some steps that were easy to take as prophylactic measures, but we didn't because in this case, vested interest was in the way. And as a result, we're now in a place where we have to move with extraordinary speed. The scientists have told us now that to have any chance of meeting the targets we set at Paris just six years ago, we have by 2030 to fundamentally transform our energy system which they have helpfully defined as cutting emissions in half. That's going to be an extraordinarily tall task. Basically, it means that we have to squeeze the work of four decades into one decade. And it's not clear whether our systems are up to it, but we’re sure as heck going to give it a try. But that's what happens when you pretend.
I've been trying to convince people for a very long time that chemistry and physics simply don't negotiate. The virus is a good reminder that biology doesn't either. The microbe and the molecule set the rules. If the COVID microbe says stand six feet apart and wear a mask, then do it. If the CO2 molecule says there's only so much of this that can go into the atmosphere before it begins to heat up, then pay attention.
In many ways, that's what's worrisome to me about fighting the climate crisis—because we've had this pandemic situation where some states observed guidelines and tried to keep people healthy and other states just lifted the guidelines very soon and politicized masks and all that. How can we hope to unify to solve the climate crisis if we can't even keep something like a genuine health crisis from being so politicized?
Well, I think the good news there is that this is a case where action from the top, the federal level, at the Washington level, and at the Wall Street level will have inescapable consequences. We obviously cannot depend on individual action to solve the climate crisis at this point. And if we did depend on it, then you're right, we'd be out of luck.
There's just not enough time anymore to take this on one Tesla at a time, one vegan dinner at a time, one whatever. But we live in a world where the federal government is able to do things like, for instance, set fuel economy standards for cars. And if they do, then it won't require individual action to do the right thing. That's what the market will dictate. And indeed, the market already is—it took a week after Joe Biden took office for GM to decide that they were going to be in the business of building electric cars before too long. And once that's all GM builds, well, that's pretty much what you're going to buy like it or not. And in this case, people will quickly like it because it turns out electric cars are not just better for the environment, they're better, period. They go faster, they have fewer moving parts, they take less maintenance, they're quieter. You could go down an almost endless list—as the possessor of one, I'm willing to attest to it.
What do we do about the problem of how the electricity is created that goes into the batteries?
Yeah. So there's no guarantee that electric cars will make things better, just a possibility. But basically, what we have to do, our strategy for going forward has to be twofold. One, we electrify everything that we can. And then two, we generate that electricity [with renewable energy], which we're now capable of doing.
It's important to understand that one of the most important events of the last decade was the fact that engineers brought the price of solar power and wind power down by an order of magnitude, down by 90%. It's now the cheapest way to generate power across most of the world. And that means that if we wanted to go ahead and produce large amounts of renewable energy, there's nothing stopping us. Economic gravity works in our favor here, not against us.
"The most important thing you can do as an individual is be a little bit less of an individual and join together with others in the movements that we've built to allow for rapid change."
And as we produce that electricity, well, we've got to put it to use, so electric vehicles. We've got to move in homes from having an open gas flame in the kitchen to using induction cook tops and electricity. We've got to stop having oil burners and gas burners in the basement and go to having these air source heat pumps that are far better anyway, and far more efficient. So none of these things are sacrifices, they're changes, and they need to happen because we're up against it in a way that human beings have never been up against it before when it comes to the rapid rise in the temperature of the one planet we've got.
I was struck by something else you’ve said, that with solar we already are 50 to 100 years ahead of the projections of the International Energy Agency.
That's right. The powers-that-be who are heavily dominated by the fossil fuel industry and places like the International Energy Agency have always predicted that it's going to be a very long time before we can move to solar power and wind power, and we'll be stuck with fossil fuel for the foreseeable future and so on. Engineers and markets are changing that calculation.
We can move very fast now. The problem is that if we rely on economics alone in getting the job done, it'll take us too long, 30 years, 40 years to get to where we need to go. And as I say, if we'd started promptly, when the scientists gave us the warning, that would have been okay, but since we didn't, and since we have so little time left now, we have to force the spring as it were. We have to move more quickly than it's going to be economically or politically convenient to do. And thank heaven, the Biden administration is at least trying to start down that path in a way that no other administration in this country ever has.
One of the ironies that struck me is that there's been a lot of reporting recently about the fact that, as a result of the pandemic and the curbs on transportation and travel, the quality of our air has actually gotten better. Is that true? And even if it is true, is there anything we should take away from that?
Well, it was true for a little while, when the lockdown started in the spring, because yes, if everybody stops driving, it's just automatic that the air is going to get better. But truthfully, I'm afraid that the most interesting statistical outcome of the lockdown was how little it accomplished. We changed our lives last spring in ways that no one could ever have imagined, and far more than the most zealous environmentalist would have asked. Nobody got on an airplane. People stopped commuting to work. Everybody basically just sat in their houses.
And yes, emissions went down, but they didn't go down that much. They went down 10, 12% at the height, which I think is pretty solid proof of what I was saying before: that individual actions are not really the key here, they're kind of on the margins. If we could change our individual lives that much and have that little effect, it's a pretty good sign that the problem rests in the guts of these systems. And we have to go into the guts and pull out the coal and gas and oil and stick in a lot of efficiency and conservation and sun and wind and batteries. We have to make, in other words, deep systemic changes.
… Something people often ask me is what's the most important thing I can do as an individual? The most important thing you can do as an individual is be a little bit less of an individual and join together with others in the movements that we've built to allow for rapid change. Because at this point fixing new ground rules, economic and political, are basically the only chance we have here.
The organization that you co-founded—350.org—how have you and they coped with the limitations on organizing and demonstrating during the pandemic? How do you keep up pressure on polluters and those who would keep underwriting them? How do you do that under these conditions?
There's no question that it was a kind of brake on momentum. [Think back to] September 2019… by far the largest demonstrations about climate that we've ever seen in this world, mostly coordinated by young people, kind of following the lead of Greta Thunberg and all the 10,000 other Greta Thunbergs around the world, youth climate activists. There were millions upon millions upon millions of people on the streets, more than we've seen about anything in a very long time.
And that momentum was continuing into early 2020. I think my last trip out in 2020 was a trip to jail in Washington, DC. We were arrested at the lobby of the Chase Bank branch nearest the Capitol with Jane Fonda on the other side of the glass, cheering us on. Chase Bank has lent more money to the fossil fuel industry than any other bank in the world, more than a quarter trillion dollars since the Paris Climate Accords were signed. We didn't need Donald Trump to subvert them, the big money center banks were happy to do the job themselves. And we had plans for this last Earth Day to have people in the lobbies of 2000 branches of Chase Bank, doing the same kind of thing. Obviously, that didn't happen. Obviously, it will be a little while before everybody completely regains momentum.
But in the meantime, you know, not too shabby, we won the presidential election… and climate… emerged for the first time as a huge issue in that fight. And to his credit Biden took it on squarely. You'll recall in the last debate, Biden said, we need to transition away from oil and pundits immediately [said], "Oh he's made a gaffe, this will cost him.” Well, it wasn't a gaffe. It's what he meant and he said what he meant, and it didn't cost him. He carried Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and the other oil states that were in play. And that, as a result, gives him a mandate that we haven't seen before to take federal action. He was very upfront that climate crisis represents the greatest problem that humans face.
As you know, the famous line in Washington is that the definition of a gaffe is when you say something that’s the absolute truth. So that certainly has happened here. During the pandemic, in addition to the limitations on work like yours with 350.org, we also had the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, just one of many deaths of men and women of color during encounters with the police. Protests took place all over the world and caused a reevaluation of your agenda at 350, I believe a realization of the need to meld the fights for both climate and racial justice.
Sure. I mean, that kind of melding has been well underway for a very long time. The climate movement has been the climate justice movement for the better part of a decade. And most of the leadership's been coming from frontline communities, from indigenous communities, because they're the ones taking the brunt of the damage. One of the things always to remember: the iron law of global warming is the less you did to cause it the sooner and the harder you get hit. So, it's no wonder that those are [the]communities that have been out front.
But the killing of George Floyd, the murder of George Floyd was one of those galvanizing moments for everybody in the country. And to me, what it really brought home again was the way that all these things intersect. You know, he probably and tragically, had the most powerful quote of 2020, when he just said, "I can't breathe."
"One of the things always to remember: the iron law of global warming is the less you did to cause it the sooner and the harder you get hit."
People can't breathe because there's a racist cop kneeling on their neck. They can't breathe because there's a coal fired power plant down the street, or a gas fired power plant. And it's always the same streets. We can't breathe because the governor has said the wildfire smoke has gotten too bad and you need to go inside your house and tape the windows shut to keep the particulates out.
We can't breathe because it's gotten too damn hot—2020 set the all-time record on this planet for the highest reliably recorded temperature – it was 130 degrees Fahrenheit in California, that's right at the limit of the human ability to continue survival. But that's going to be what a large swath of the world will experience regularly by the middle of the century, given current trends. So, it's a reminder that above all, these are issues of justice, all of them, and they're all connected. And unless we can figure out how to get a kind of fair working nation and world, our chances are very small, I think, at dealing with it.
And I'll give you a kind of broader example. As you know, last year was a record hurricane season in the North Atlantic, so grave that we reached deep into the Greek alphabet before we were done. In fact, apropos of nothing, the World Meteorological Association announced today that that's not an experiment we're going to do again. They’re going to come up with a second list of names, so if we go A to Z, we'll just start over at “A” again. And there we are. But the last two hurricanes of the year both hit Central America pretty much in the same place, about 10 miles apart in Nicaragua. They did huge damage in Nicaragua and even more in Honduras. We think the damage in Honduras may have been equivalent to about 40% of their GDP. By contrast, the worst disaster we've ever had in this country, Katrina, did damage equivalent to about 1% of our GDP.
So think about that for a minute. Nobody in Honduras did a darn thing to cause the climate crisis. Their levels of fossil fuel burning are negligible and a rounding error in the calculations, and yet now their lives are destroyed. And one would expect some significant number of them to show up on the American border asking for refuge. And it's hard to come up with an explanation as to why they don't deserve it, given the role that we've played… we've put far more carbon into the atmosphere than any other country in the world.
So that kind of new ethic of solidarity is one we're going to need to work out on this planet in very short order because the climate crisis isn't going to pause to give us time to figure it out. The International Red Cross said yesterday that in the last six months there have been 10 million people displaced by climate events, four times as many as have been displaced by conflicts and wars. This is the new conflict and war and we have to rise to this occasion.
In many ways, the American military seems more perceptive about the dangers of climate change and how they have to prepare for this, because everything from logistics to construction to supplies, it all depends on a healthy climate.
Well, yes, that's exactly right. I mean, if you run a navy, your bases are by definition close to sea level and you're in trouble if it starts rising. Go check out Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Virginia Beach to see what I mean. But the real reason the Pentagon's worried about this is they just understand that it's the greatest possible source of instability on the planet. I mean, the UN's high estimate for climate refugees this century is north of a billion people. If there are anything like that many people on the move around the planet, the chances of having a peaceful, orderly stable world are zero.
I was taken with [New York State Attorney General] Tish James saying to you that climate change is not just about climate justice, but about fairness and justice. I mean, do you have a sense of how you think New York State has been doing, how her state has been doing with all this?
It seems a fraught moment to talk about New York State government, doesn't it?
Look, New York State's been doing a pretty good job, mostly because activists have organized and forced it to do a great job. The people across upstate New York who forced the ban on fracking, did a great service for the people of New York. More, they did a great service for the people of the world, becoming one of the first big jurisdictions to take that step. It's now been copied in countries across the planet and lots of other states, and that was incredible organizing, mostly across upstate, that produced a tremendous victory.
"A big global climate movement, maybe the biggest movement about anything the world's yet seen, and it should be, because this is the biggest trouble we've ever been in."
A huge shout-out to people in that neck of the woods. I'm thinking of people like Sandra Steingraber at Ithaca College, or all the others, Bob Howarth and the academics who provided a lot of the underpinning for incredible activist efforts by just tens of thousands of people.
New York State's been bad on other parts of this. It took until this autumn for the state treasurer to begin the process of divesting the state pension fund from fossil fuels, something that New York City did some years ago and saved a lot of money in the process because fossil fuel stocks have been tanking. I'm glad that [State] Treasurer DiNapoli has now taken that step and put New York State on that route. One wishes he'd done it before they lost, I think the last estimate was the equivalent of about $20,000 per pensioner due to the investment in the fossil fuel sector, which has underperformed every other part of the economy for the last decade.
You have already alluded a bit to both the Trump and Biden presidencies. How would you assess the state of the environment nationally after these four years of Trump, what did his administration do to the EPA and to regulations for healthy food and air and water and fuel economy standards…
There's no mystery here. They did their best to screw up absolutely everything that was worth doing. I mean, they were an organized collection of vandals put together by the industries that they are theoretically supposed to regulate. It was a shameful chapter in American history, shameful on so many counts.
The problem with the Trump years is there were so many horrible things going on that any one of them just almost got lost in the noise. But in a normal administration, the level of corruption, double dealing and just sheer ineptitude at the EPA or the Department of the Interior or whatever would have been the stuff of endless scandal. Most of all on climate change. What the Trump administration cost us was time. We came out of the Paris accords with a certain amount of momentum and Trump was like a giant pothole on that road. I don't think he managed to break the axle of the vehicle, to extend our metaphor here, but he definitely slowed it down.
As I said earlier, time is the single most important variable. That was an extraordinary loss. And as I said earlier, I think you'll be able to read the Trump years in the geological record 400,000 years from now. Just the level of sheer folly is astonishing.
I think that overt climate denial got on the airplane with Trump to Florida and won't come back. It will be replaced by these efforts at delay that we're already seeing.
But I think that there's a lot to be happy about in the early days of the Biden administration. Not just the relief plan, which is important. I think it's important above all as a repudiation not of Trumpism, but of Reaganism, of the idea that governments just cause problems, don't solve them, that we should just leave everything to the market. For the first time in 40 years, it feels like some other spirit is sort of animating our discussions. But on environmental stuff, there's a lot of interesting things happening. Some of them will be legislative and hard to get done.
I don't know whether it's going to take every bit of Chuck Schumer's skill to get the three or $4 trillion green infrastructure plan through. That would be a huge help that would really let us build a lot of those solar panels and EV charging stations and everything else. While that's going on though, there's lots of other things happening. Some of them beautiful and powerful.
The confirmation of Deb Haaland as the new Secretary of the Interior is one of the most poetic moments in recent American history, that a descendant of the people who originally inhabited this continent is now in charge of the federal agency that oversees something like a fifth of all the acreage in America. That's very special. I've known Deb for a while and admire her immensely. It's not going to be an easy job that she has, but she's the right person for it.
"A big global climate movement, maybe the biggest movement about anything the world's yet seen, and it should be, because this is the biggest trouble we've ever been in."
I think that the most important work may be going on, in a certain way, a little bit out of public view. I think that it's going to be the Fed and the Treasury and the SEC that may accomplish an awful lot as they begin to force companies and banks to take climate risk into account. The direct power of Washington is large, but it's probably not as large as the direct power of Wall Street to affect outcomes here, in part, because at this point in time Wall Street probably has more global influence than Washington does.
So the things that the Biden administration are doing to pressure financial institutions I think will be extraordinarily important. This is work that we sort of started about 10 years ago when we launched this divestment campaign. Naomi Klein and I kind of kicked it off about a decade ago, without enormous expectation, and it's grown into the largest anti-corporate campaign in history. We're at about $15 trillion now in endowments and portfolios that are divested in part or in whole.
It's put huge pressure on these industries. Shell said in their annual report two years ago that divestment was a material risk to its business, which is good because Shell's business is a material risk to life on Planet Earth. Very glad to see that happening and I hope that our ability to extend it to banks and asset managers and insurance companies and things continues, because that's where a lot of the action is.
You just alluded to it, but it struck me that one of the things about Deb Haaland going to Interior is that the Bureau of Land Management comes under her purview now. I think a lot of folks in the east are not as aware of the importance of BLM to the U.S. and its effect on the environment. Trump did a lot of heinous things under the title of BLM. What do you think she's going to be able to do?
Biden's promise on the campaign trail was to end new oil and gas leasing on federal lands—mostly BLM lands are what's in question here. He's now put out a pause for a hundred days on new leasing while they work out this plan. It's going to be hard to do because the pressure from the fossil fuel industry is going to be enormous. They're going to have to work out some accommodations for states that will be severely affected.
Haaland's home state of New Mexico gets something like a third of its revenues from oil and gas leasing on federal land, the tax revenues from it. Clearly, they need to have some help keeping their schools and health systems afloat as we make a change that's for the benefit of all of us to slow down the rate of climate change. People like Deb Haaland are going to be in the position of trying to make those deals and work that out.
The whole question of how we have a just transition is at the center of our political life now, because on it depends much progress. If we have some way of compensating communities, once their coal mines close, or if you can't build new pipelines or things like that, then the politics of this will deescalate considerably. There won't be the kind of intransigent opposition to taking action on climate change that there is at the moment. That's a hard task figuring out precisely how to make that happen.
I think it's a thing that the Biden administration is hyper-focused on. One of the big negotiations is going on with the labor movement to make sure that there are good union jobs in sun and wind to replace the good union jobs in gas and oil. To that end, it's very good news, and New York State deserves a lot of credit for making sure that the vast offshore wind proposals that it's putting into play come with project labor agreements that will require fair bargaining practices.
A lot of people have been in an uproar about the loss of jobs supposedly from wind and solar and other alternative sources. You've made the point that there are jobs that fit quite well with the people who've worked in the oil fields and so forth. There are ways that they can be quickly retrained and have their talents made use of.
Yes, it turns out that the skill sets often overlap quite well ... For instance, I wrote a piece for The New Yorker about North Dakota, where at community colleges they’re retraining oil patch workers to be wind turbine technicians. Basically, you're taking care of big pieces of machinery in either case. The drawback, depending on your fear of heights, is that you have to go way up in the sky to do it on a wind turbine.
But the pluses are that it's not as dangerous a job, and electricity isn't subject to the boom-and-bust cycles that dominate oil and gas markets, so it's really a lifetime job. We can do this everywhere. Renewable energy produces more jobs than fossil fuel. It's labor-intensive as opposed to capital-intensive. That's good because we're going to need those jobs going forward and they need to be good jobs. We need to pay fairly for them.
It's an enormous shame to watch climate tech tycoons like Elon Musk busily trying to bust unions and prevent them from forming. That shouldn't be what they're doing. They'd be much wiser, in every sense of the word, to try and figure out how to make the good Henry Ford kind of jobs of our time.
I was president of a union for 10 years, and certainly that has been something that we've been paying attention to as well as the whole Amazon drive in Alabama.
Yes, and I think that probably Biden earned himself some bargaining chips with the labor movement that he may cash in around some of this green infrastructure stuff, simply by having the courage to come out and tell Jeff Bezos to stop trying to bust the union in Alabama.
It’s an interesting contrast because I was at a meeting in '08 at the Democratic National Convention with union presidents, at which point the representatives of Obama's people were saying to us, "Well, you'll be able to get EFCA, which was the Employee Free Choice Act, but that's all you can expect from us in terms of labor." We didn't even get that.
I think on a number of things, Biden looks more like LBJ or Harry Truman than he does like Barack Obama, which is interesting.
The people in the Finger Lakes are facing a number of new problems that have been created in part by climate change and/or the reckless way we treat our environment. We've got blue-green algae blooms in all of the Finger Lakes now, heavy rainfalls that have been creating flash floods and landslides that threaten homes.
Some of the largest garbage landfills in the state are up there, and much of that garbage is coming from down here around New York City, and even invasive insect species are steadily moving up north as the weather gets warmer. We always used to consider this to be one of the most pristine parts of the country. People would always joke, don't tell anybody about the Finger Lakes area, it’s so beautiful here. Now we're faced with these problems.
There are no refuges from climate change. All the things that you describe are happening everywhere in one way or another. It is a great shame to see them happening in the Finger Lakes. The clarity of that water and the beauty of those sheets of water have moved people as long as people have seen them. It is tragic to think about their degradation. I'm glad that there's been some progress.
"We're looking to be the first generations on Earth that leave the world a much worse place than we found it, which is a pretty devastating legacy to leave behind."
I got to come out there and you would think from listening to me that I get arrested all the time. I don't, but I did get to come join in the fight to stop the gas cavern at the end of Seneca Lake. I'm very glad that went the right way and for the remarkable activists who made that happen.
You cannot introduce as much new heat into a system and not have it produce extraordinary level of effects. I mean, that's just basic physics on our planet. You can see it absolutely everywhere. It's a great, great shame.
It does remind us of the importance of setting aside as much big areas for nature as we can. Again, New York State is lucky here, thanks to the foresight of people in the 1890s, we have the huge forest preserves in the Adirondacks, and then the Catskills that provide a kind of buffer for wild animals, for plants, for wild processes. That's never been more important than it is now.
The area’s also not far from Canada… and you're very close in Vermont, also. You said that the biggest problem in Canada is that so far, they can't seem to come to terms with the fact that it needs to leave carbon in the ground.
Yeah. Poor Canada is cursed by this giant tar sands complex out in Alberta, and it has distorted Canadian politics in huge ways. That's why the fight over the Keystone Pipeline became such an international imbroglio... It's a great shame when Canada or Australia or Texas, or wherever else, can't bring themselves to do what clearly is the right thing at this point.
The statistics are just kind of astounding. I heard you talking with Amy Goodman last year on Democracy Now! and you said some remarkable things: that half of the sea ice in the summer Arctic is gone. That there've been changes in ocean chemistry and the obvious things like the destruction of rainforests and Australia's Great Barrier Reef. You said that half the wild animals alive 40 years ago are dead. Why are you still hopeful?
I'm not always hopeful. I mean, the title of the original book I wrote about all this 40 years ago, the cheerful title was The End of Nature, so I'm not a Pollyanna about it in any way. There's plenty of times when I'm despairing, but over the last 10 years, we've worked very hard, so many of us, to build a movement now to take these guys on. A big global climate movement, maybe the biggest movement about anything the world's yet seen, and it should be, because this is the biggest trouble we've ever been in.
I don't know whether we're going to win. We may have waited too long to get started. The physical trends are ominous, as you say, but at the very least, there's going to be one hell of a fight. We need everybody engaged in that fight, as many people as possible joining in a serious way…
Not everyone needs to go to jail, but everyone needs to do more than they're doing because so far it's not enough. The planet is miles outside its comfort zone and so we need to be outside ours, and in a big way.
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Could you speak a little more about the divestment campaign? How successful has this been and how were you all able to make it happen?
It's been very successful, way more than we thought. Fifteen trillion dollars is nothing to sneeze at. I think it's arguably the biggest anti-corporate campaign ever. I think the reason that it's been so successful, and shout-outs here, among others, to the people at Cornell and Ithaca College, both of which have divested, is that it allowed the fight to go everywhere. Not everybody has a coal mine in their backyard, not everybody has a pipeline running through their neighborhood, but everybody has proximity to some pot of money – a university endowment, a church fund, a pension fund, and helping people understand that those were helping destroy the planet made it everybody's fight…
These battles went on for years, are going on for years in tens of thousands of places. And always covered by the media. And so, each time, it brought home the reality of what we were doing.
… All the things that we fight are important. All the campaigns are important on their individual level. Divesting this college from fossil fuel, blocking that pipeline, stopping this frack well. They're all really important on that level, but they're also important because taken together, they add up to the real prize for activists, which is changing the zeitgeist. Changing the sense of what's normal, and natural and obvious.
And that, I think, we've very much started to do. The polling data indicates beyond a doubt that in the US there were major shifts over the last 10 years. And those shifts cut across party lines, and everything else. Especially strong among young people. This is the number one issue, by far, among young people. And young people are doing a huge amount of the organizing. That's why I'm increasingly turning my efforts to trying to figure out if we can do some systematic organizing among older Americans.
We're looking to be the first generations on Earth that leave the world a much worse place than we found it, which is a pretty devastating legacy to leave behind. And I think there are a lot of people who want to be able to tell their grandkids that at the very least, they gave it their best shot.
You mentioned pipelines. At this point, is there any way, given the opposition, that the Keystone Pipeline gets built?
No, the Keystone Pipeline's not going to get built. The big questions right now are whether the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota gets finished. It's another tar sands pipeline. And whether the Dakota Access Pipeline, where there was the big battle at Standing Rock, gets shut down or not.
And those are both huge, hard fights that I hope very much come out the right way. But the Keystone Pipeline's not going to get built. And furthermore, no one's going to propose any big, new cross-continental pipelines anywhere. That era is over.
You said the thing to always remember about pipelines is that a) if it spills, it's a disaster, and b), if it doesn't spill, it's a disaster, too.
Exactly. If it doesn't, then you burn the stuff and it spills into the atmosphere. So, one way or another it spills.
You wrote a piece last month in The New Yorker called “The Enormous Risk of Atmospheric Hacking.” What is that?
People are saying, "You know what, we'll never get climate change under control, so we better try and geo-engineer the atmosphere to keep the temperature down. Having filled the atmosphere with CO2, now let's fill it with sulfur compounds, and that'll block some of the incoming sunlight."
Look, the day may come when we have to do something like that, and this might be the ultimate break-the-glass solution. But if it is, it's an enormous admission of defeat, and a great sadness.
You called it “an ominous moment in the planet’s history.”
In the meantime, it's a kind of moral hazard.. If people think that we have some escape valve, it makes it all the harder to do the work we have to do to cut emissions now.
What about carbon sequestration? Is it a reasonable strategy for getting carbon under control? And what about nuclear energy as an alternative?
So carbon sequestration, it happens, happily, every day. That's what trees do, that's what plankton does. And we can expand those natural sinks maybe somewhat. Although at the moment they're shrinking, because as we raise the temperature of the planet, they become less efficient. Forests start to emit carbon instead of sequester it.
But we can figure out how to do some of that. There's a lot of talk and research going on right now about regenerative agriculture. I don't think it represents a silver bullet, and the science is not overwhelmingly clear on exactly what works best. And in any event, it's pretty hard to get a billion or two farmers around the world to change their practices quickly. But it's important.
"The scariest words in the English language turn out to be, 'You're out of ventilators,' or, 'The hillside behind your house just caught on fire.'"
Sequestration through mechanical means is the other thing that people mean when they talk about this. We should probably be investing money in researching it, because at the moment, it's ruinously expensive to even try. No one does it on anything other than the tiniest of scales, just because it's an enormous plumbing project to try and figure out how to make it happen.
But if we make it through to 2030 doing the things that the scientists have told us we have to do, cut emissions in half, then we're going to get the period to 2050 where we cut the emissions completely. And that's going to take technology we don't yet have, because there's certain things you can't do just with sun and wind. We don't understand about aviation fuel. We don't understand about cement particularly well. We don't understand about sequestration and air capture of carbon and things very well. So we should be spending money researching these things now.
As to nuclear power? Well, look, everybody knows its drawbacks, and people have worried about them for a long time, and those are understandable. I don't find them disqualifying. I think one way to think about it is, if something goes wrong on a nuclear plant, it causes big trouble. If you build and operate a gas-fired power plant precisely according to spec, it destroys the world. So, that's worth remembering.
That said, my guess is that nuclear power is going to play a relatively small role in the future, new nuclear power, because the price of solar panels, and wind, and batteries has gone down, down, down for the last decade. But the price of nuclear power just keeps going up, up, up. Maybe we'll have some new generation of small, cheap, safe nuclear reactors that changes the game. And if those emerge, that'll be interesting to see.
Is any kind of biofuel a rational alternative as a renewable for electricity?
Again, it's one of these definitional problems. There's lots of things that traffic under the name biofuel. But when we talk about biomass and electricity, the answer is basically no. People used to think that cutting down trees and burning them to generate electricity was essentially carbon neutral. Because when you cut down a tree, a new one will eventually grow in its place and soak up the carbon that you emitted. So it's not like burning fossil fuel.
We don't think that really anymore. And the reason is that word "eventually" in the previous sentence. The problem is that you emit this big pulse of carbon right now while you burn the tree, and that really, given the pace of climate destruction, it doesn't do us much good that you soak it up again 40 or 50 years from now. By that point, the back of the climate system will be broken.
In fact, I think I wrote a piece for The New Yorker the other day just saying, the most basic rule of thumb is we should be trying not to burn anything. Not wood, not coal, not gas, not oil. We should rely on the fact that the good Lord stuck a large ball of fire 93 million miles away, and that we know how to use that.
We know how to capture its rays on solar panels and convert them into energy. We know how to take the wind that's produced by the differential heating of the sun on different parts of the planet and convert it into power. That's the flame we've got to count on, because anything that we're lighting on fire here is adding to the problem.
How about the numbers of people on the planet? Are we beyond sustainability already, or is there a way through efforts on climate change that we can sustain nearly eight billion?
So here's a place where I think actually we can be a little hopeful. There are a few old enough to remember the days of Paul Ehrlich and The Population Bomb, and the idea that we are simply going to be overwhelmed by people and so on. And that was probably a good warning to sound, because people went to work on it in the '60s and '70s. And some of that work was done here in the US, but mostly it was done in developing countries around the world where population pressure was the highest.
And they really figured out what the answer was. To the degree that you could educate and empower women, fertility fell like a rock. So we went from having an average of something like six children per woman 40 years ago, to just above two now. That's an astonishing change… I can't think of a curve that we've bent more profoundly than that. And it's because women, given the choice, for the most part didn't want six kids.
… Now, the nature of demographic momentum is that the total human population will continue to increase for another couple of decades before it flattens out at mid-century. And that's just this sort of bulge working its way through the system. But that's not the driving problem with climate change. Most of that growth in population is coming in places that use very little energy. Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance. We forget how big the gulf is.
I was in Tanzania recently doing some work for The New Yorker. The average American family uses more energy between the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve and dinner on January 2nd than the average Tanzanian family uses all year. So, people can cause themselves problems by rapid population growth. You run out of forests, or natural resources, or hospital beds, or whatever it is. But that's not what's driving climate change at this point. It's continually increasing consumption in places with relatively stable populations. Think China or the US.
Bill, you mentioned the necessity to make changes in lifestyle, and changes in the aesthetic of our daily lives and so forth. Do you think that perhaps this pandemic has been sort of a dry run for that? Do you think that some people will come away from it not just ready to jump back to the beaches and jump back on an airplane?
I sure hope so. I think that one interesting effect of the pandemic was that you look at the things that people are using more of, and they're interesting. You can't buy a bicycle right now, [there’s] such demand. A pair of cross-country skis, a backpack, a tent, things like that. And I actually take that as a very good sign. And I hope that people who reconnected a little bit with the outdoor world will have found great pleasure in it and continue even once you can go to a bar again or whatever.
I think in a larger sense, the hope is that the pandemic may have produced in us, or could produce in us a different sense about—this goes back to things we were saying earlier about our fellow human beings. We were saying before that we've lived under the shadow of Reagan for many, many years. And it's been the great dominant political characteristic of our lifetime. And the idea that markets were going to solve every problem, and so on and so forth. And you remember, Michael, that his great laugh line in every speech was, “The nine scariest words in the English language are, ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’" Ha-ha-ha.
But those aren't. The scariest words in the English language turn out to be, "You're out of ventilators," or, "The hillside behind your house just caught on fire." And you can't solve those one person at a time. You can only solve them if you have working, effective governments, which is just how we describe human solidarity in action.
And so, I hope that there is some real, lingering effect of that. And then we seem to see a little bit of it in our political life right now as a nation. And let's hope very much that it continues. Because I think at bottom, it was that kind of Reaganism, libertarianism, laissez-faire-ism that stuck us on the path to perdition that we're currently on, and we need to get off it.
Interestingly, prior to Reagan, the power of protest was such against the Nixon administration and what was happening, with rivers catching on fire and things like that, that he actually created the EPA, and signed the Clean Air and Water Acts, and the Endangered Species Act.
Yes, as we know from listening to the Nixon Tapes, he could care less about the environment. He thought environmentalists were dirty hippies. You'll recall famously that he went for a stroll on the beach in Santa Barbara in his Oxford wingtips.
But he had no choice. We think 20 million people came out on the first Earth Day in 1970, which would have been about 10% of the population then in the United States. Well, there's no political figure in the world who can stand up to 10% of the population out on the street about some issue.
It's [political scientist] Erica Chenoweth who has famously said that all it takes is about 3.5% of the population to cause change.
That's right. I'm very glad that her research is getting around. She's a great hero for doing that work. The reason is just that apathy cuts both ways. I mean, I helped organize what until recently was the largest climate march ever, 400,000 people in the streets of New York in 2014. We had to worry about everything. Were there enough bathrooms? On and on and on. The only thing we didn't worry about was that 400,000 people would appear the next day and demand more climate change or more fossil fuels.
It takes an immense amount of work to overcome apathy and get people going. But that apathy is your friend, too, because it means that it's unlikely that you're going to see big mobilizations for bad things, knock on wood.
What do you think will be the most significant economic change caused by climate change?
The most significant economic change that we're going to have to make is this transition to renewable energy, which will be the biggest economic change that's ever happened in human history. I mean, we're taking the heart of the global economy and replacing it with something else. We're going to try to do it in very short order. We've never really done anything like that in that kind of time span. The biggest economic consequences of climate change are just going to be the unbelievable levels of destruction that we're already seeing.
I mean, I've told you about whole countries that are seeing single events take out 40% of their GDP. Hurricane Maria, when it hit Puerto Rico, did damage equivalent to 100% of the island's GDP. We’ve been fooled by the fact that human civilization has grown up in a period of dramatic climatic stability. For 10,000 years, we've been able to have the natural world just be a kind of backdrop to our life and not pay much attention to it.
Those days are over. This is the foreground now. The climate is the main player in this drama.
Regarding the likely influx of refugees, both in the United States and other countries; we're seeing this, of course, at the southern border already in the last few months after the Honduras storm. More locally, should water-rich regions like the Finger Lakes, which could be seen as both stable and also equipped with lots of ability to do well during this age of the earth, how should we get ready politically, economically, socially for that kind of change?
It’s a very good time to start planning for how you can bring people in, especially refugees. I was very happy to see the Republican governor of Vermont, Phil Scott, ask the federal government to triple the number of refugees that they send to Vermont next year, arguing both that it's our duty and that it'd be good for our economy. I think that that's correct on all counts. Among other things, Americans need to be aware of just how old and gray we're getting as a nation.
It'll be good to have some dynamic. I mean, one of the upsides of all of this is there'll be lots of dynamic inflow of people with lots of energy and good work ethic. You don't make your way from Honduras to the Finger Lakes unless you're a fairly remarkable human being to begin with.
Is there any chance that leveraging homeowners insurance, based on the increased rates of natural disasters, could actually become a motivator for engaging the general population in activism regarding this issue?
Yes. It's already happening in places that are increasingly impossible. I mean, if you live on the Gulf Coast or the coast of Florida, you basically can't get homeowners insurance even redlined by now because the risk is too high. So states are having to be insurers of last resort and increasingly that's concentrating the attention of states around these issues. They're very politically fraught.
Recently, Chuck Schumer blocked efforts to make the federal insurance program reflect new climate reality because he didn't want to deal with the hassle of angry people whose premiums were rising because their beachfront properties were in the line of the next hurricane. We're going to have to seize that nettle at some point. It is an important way to get people's attention.
What’s your opinion about Bill Gates’ new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster? Is it helpful to have Gates active in the issue?
I reviewed it for The New York Times Book Review. I'm glad he's interested in climate change. The point of the review was that his geekiness is so far overly selective. The only kind of power he's interested in are things like nuclear power and geothermal power.
Those are important, but if you're going to deal seriously with this, you have to be as interested in political power and economic power, because they're all part of the outcome here. You can see why when you reflect, for instance, that Microsoft gave big donations to David Perdue running in the Georgia Senate runoff. Had David Purdue managed to win and the Senate stayed in Republican hands, then there'd be no way to do any of the things that we're talking about. We wouldn't even be bothering to have the conversation.
How significant is the re-entry of the United States into the Paris accords and also the naming of John Kerry as being the global environmental diplomat for the U.S.?
I think it's super important. I think that nominating the former secretary of state to the job of climate envoy signals the gravitas with which Biden views the task. I think everybody around the world gets that message. We'll find out how well he's doing in Glasgow in November. That's the next global climate negotiations. Last year's were postponed because of the pandemic.
Really, this is the most important meeting since Paris, a real attempt to see how countries around the world are willing to up their ambition in climate change. That will be Kerry's test, I think.
How about a carbon fee? Do you think that the Biden administration is going to aggressively or not so aggressively increase the cost of carbon or figure out a dividend somehow?
It doesn't seem to be at the top of their list. I think really the reason is that this is one of these cases where I have to be careful about saying, "Oh, if only you'd listened to me 30 years ago." Thirty years ago, a modest tax on carbon would have accomplished an enormous amount. It would have steered the oil tanker that is our economy two or three degrees off to starboard. Thirty years later that would have been enough to sail us into a whole different ocean.
But we didn't do that 30 years ago, thanks to the deception and denial of the oil companies, their massive disinformation campaigns. We went absolutely straight ahead. Indeed, we accelerated and we've burned far more carbon since 1990 than in all of human history before. As a result, the changes we need to make now are so large that if you were going to rely on a carbon tax loan, it would need to be so high that it wouldn't be politically doable, I don't think.
That's probably why the Biden administration is putting more attention on other kinds of efforts around regulation and around infrastructure build-out and things. The oil companies have now decided that they want a price on carbon, because I think they understand that it's their best hope for a gradual managed transition. But I don't know how much other support there's going to be there. I guess we'll see.
About EV vehicles, we think of them as being an excellent development, but what about the mining of precious metals, heavy metals that go into battery production? Is it just a wash?
Well, there's no free lunch. I mean, there's going to be environmental damage from everything that we do and you already see some of it with rare earth metals with lithium mining. Hopefully we can contain that and figure out how to do those things in less dramatic ways. Already the Chinese are cleaning up their solar panel production facilities and that kind of thing. I think it's always instructive just to bear in mind the difference in scale and degree of the environmental damages that we face.
When we talk about rapid global warming, we're talking about an existential risk to the entire planet, at least to all of human civilization and to most of the rest of the other species on the earth, so there's going to be a lot that gets triaged in dealing with that emergency.
Are there one or possibly two or a thousand efforts that are currently underway or showing promise for the near future that give you hope after your battle of over 30 years?
Oh, hell yeah. There's tons of good stuff that's going on. I mean, we've got people busily figuring out how to deploy interesting new technologies, all of which are easy to use. Everybody can easily imagine an induction cooktop and an air source heat pump and an electric car. Once you've done that, if you had solar panels on your roof, you'd be largely disconnected from the carbon economy. We can figure out how to do that at scale.
It's not the question of doing it one person at a time. It's changing laws and economic policies to make it happen fast. We're watching people stand up to oil companies through massive divestment campaigns. We're seeing things like the extraordinary activism that stopped fracking in New York State. All these things are signs that we're going to at least make a fight of it. I'll just say that there are people in every corner.
I mean, 350.org has organized rallies in every country on earth, except North Korea. There are people all over the world having conversations just like this at exactly this moment and trying to figure out where we go next.
You grew up in California and then Lexington, Massachusetts, and spent some time in Toronto going to school when you were young. Your dad was a journalist, you became a journalist. At what point did you decide to combine your reporting with the environmental cause?
Michael, I had thought we were in an argument about climate change and that my job was to write more books and give more speeches and have more conferences and eventually the weight of evidence would convince the powers that be to do the right thing. It eventually occurred to me that that was wrong. We'd won the argument but we were just losing the fight because the fight wasn't about data and reason.
The fight was about money and power—what fights are always about. In order to have a chance there, you've got to acquire some power of your own. That's why we decided to begin building movements. 350.org was the first iteration of a global climate campaign, and now, thank God, there's Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement and Fridays for the Future and climate strikes, and on and on and on. There's a huge, big, wonderful, diverse movement that's built up.
That's just what we hoped. Now we have at least some counterbalance to the Exxons and Chevrons of the world. As a result, we should conceive we're beginning to make some progress.
Are you still a practicing Methodist?
I'm still practicing—I haven't gotten very good at it.
How has that affected your views?
Well, it’s always been a part of my view of the world, and the Gospels are fairly simple: One's called to love one's neighbor. At the moment, we're drowning our neighbors and sickening our neighbors and making it impossible for them to grow their crops and things, so that's not good.
One last question: If you got a chance to be blasted off and be a resident on the Mars colony, would you take it?
Not me. I have a great affection for this planet. The least comfortable square centimeter of planet earth is a hundred times more hospitable than the most hospitable chunk of any other planet that we know about. The Earth is a very beautiful place and our job is to keep it so. It won't bother me if all the billionaires who are busily building rockets, if they go off to Mars. There are days when I think that might be the best possible outcome.
My one impulse might be to go up on the space station just for a little while to get that amazing view of Earth from there.