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For Earth’s Sake

Vermont author-turned-activist Bill McKibben talks about what we can all do to fight climate change

by Marc Maximov on November 16, 2012

 

With the election over and the northeastern United States still drying its socks from the latest semiannual “storm of the century,” author, activist and Vermont resident Bill McKibben has been girding for battle. The day after the election, 350.org—an organization McKibben founded to create a global, grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis—launched the consciousness-raising, coast-to-coast “Do the Math” tour, an attempt to recruit an army of college students to fight the fossil-fuel industry, a rapacious behemoth that’s prepared to burn the last drop of oil on the planet—whatever kind of planet is left to burn it on.

Today (Thursday, Nov. 15), the “Do the Math” tour comes to Boston; tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 16) it will arrive in New York City. For more information, go to math.350.org/.

I spoke with McKibben on the Monday before the election about the tour, Hurricane Sandy, derelict millionaire ocean-dumpers, and Elvis.

What is this tour about?

The real point of it all, the reason we’re doing it the night after the election no matter who wins, is our sense is that the time has come to stop spending all our effort trying to reach our political leaders and instead reach the people who are really in charge of things, the fossil-fuel industry. I wrote a piece for Rolling Stone this summer that went oddly viral, became one of the most shared pieces. And it laid out the mathematics behind the fact that, really, the fossil-fuel industry is turning into a kind of rogue industry at this point, doing enormous damage. They have in their reserves about five times the amount of carbon than even the most conservative government thinks would be safe to burn. So, as Desmond Tutu says in a video that he put together for this road show, after the fight against apartheid, this is the next great moral issue for the planet, and we need to bring some of the same kinds of tools to bear. One of the things we’ll be doing is trying to launch divestment campaigns on college campuses across America to get those institutions to get rid of their stock in fossil-fuel companies.

Tell me what you think about the election. Are both sides too beholden to these industries?

Both sides are too beholden. That doesn’t mean there aren’t differences between the candidates. Only one of them devoted his summer to mocking the idea that trying to slow sea-level rise might be a good idea: a line that wasn’t very funny when Mr. Romney used it at the Tampa convention, and sure as hell wasn’t very funny by the time Sandy had come ashore. But I think the bottom line is, no matter who wins, our job is clear: It’s to build a movement that presses them to do things. Barack Obama, without pressure, won’t do the things that we need. With pressure there’s at least some chance that he’ll pay attention, I think. Mitt Romney, much less chance. I think he’s a pretty much wholly owned subsidiary of the Koch brothers.

Since your article this summer about the math of climate change, you had another article in Rolling Stone about the Greenland ice sheet. How frequently do you speak to climate scientists? Have you heard anything since then?

I keep up with climate scientists regularly. I saw yesterday, in Charlotte, Michael Mann, one of our great climate scientists, who was at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. And Mike was there chairing a session on sea-level rise. And of course, that was given new pungency by the events of last week in New York and New Jersey. You know, that huge storm surge rode in on an ocean that was a foot higher than it would have been without climate change. So that’s of course one of the things that people are focused on right now.

Do you find it tiresome that talking about climate change in the media devolves into, whenever there’s a big storm, they have to have a controversy over whether an individual weather event can be chalked up to climate change? Do you think we’ll ever get past that?

I think we’re slowly getting past that. It is amazing, the media’s ability to replay the same story over and over again. But each time the answer gets a little more definitive. I thought the cover of Businessweek last Thursday was the clearest indication we’re in a new world. It just says in huge letters, “It’s global warming, stupid.” It’s a great graphic, it’s really powerful. And this is Businessweek, it’s not The Nation or something.

I’ve heard that some environmental groups find it necessary to speak only in positive terms to the broader public, worried that they’re going to depress people or turn them off. How would you fit climate change into this?

It’s funny, you know, I’ve never really had that trouble. I wrote what I think is probably still the best-selling book about climate change way back in 1989, and it has the cheerful title The End of Nature! We’ve just stressed reality above all. Neither alarmism nor pollyannaism. We took our name, 350.org, from a scientific data point, and a pretty wonky one at that. But it hasn’t stopped anybody from being able to deal with it. People seem to me quite capable of dealing with reality. And we’ve had great good luck in the five years since we started 350.org, which at the time was myself and seven undergraduates. We’ve organized something like 15,000 rallies in every country on Earth except North Korea. So we don’t feel as if the point is to scare people or to cheer them up. The point is just to tell the truth about what’s going on and present a reasonable plan for how we might begin to get out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves.

Have you heard of the scenario presented by Gwynne Dyer in the book Climate Wars, that some scientists are saying that the Permian-Triassic extinction event happened because of high carbon levels that resulted from volcanism in Siberia? And that some scientists are saying that if we continue on our present carbon trajectory, we may trigger an extinction event of that magnitude?

I think that the standard scientific assessment, at least for the last seven or eight years, is someplace between 40 and 70 percent of species would go extinct in a rapid warming scenario like the one we’re entering. As I recall, that was the IPCC account of a three-and-a-half-degree rise in temperature.

Is that sort of temperature rise unavoidable at this point?

Nope, it’s not unavoidable. It’s only avoidable, though, with very hard work. A certain amount of climate change is clearly already baked in, and some of the effects are brutal. You know, this summer we saw the catastrophic melt of the Arctic. We’ve broken one of the world’s biggest physical features. But if we do what we need to do now to get off coal and gas and oil, then we can limit the damage. There’s still the possibility of keeping the rise of the planet’s temperature below two degrees, which is the line that governments have drawn as the red line. But that would take an all-out, focused, wartime-footing kind of effort, and most of all it would take ending the political power of the fossil-fuel industry that’s forever delayed change.

Is this goal attainable?

I don’t know if it’s attainable. I think if you were betting, you’d have to say the odds are not great, but the stakes are so high that anything we can do to change those odds is sort of mandatory. And we’ve had great good luck in the last couple of years against those odds. We managed to stop at least for a year the Keystone Pipeline down out of the tar sands of Canada, when everybody who was theoretically politically realistic said it was definitely a done deal. It did take 1,253 of us going to jail, but we slowed them down. So I’m not ready to give up by any means. This is the most ambitious project we’ve ever undertaken; we’ll go to 21 cities in 21 nights, and then by springtime it’ll be going fully international. We’ll be in Istanbul in the spring, with five or six young people from every country on Earth—probably not North Korea—launching the same drive all over the planet.

Now that you’re coming to Durham, can you comment for North Carolina readers on the state Legislature’s passing of a bill that would make it illegal to acknowledge the increasing rise in sea level?

Yes, I’m afraid the state Legislature failed in its efforts to prevent sea-level-rise. There’s a series of studies that came out this morning indicating that not only is the sea still rising, but North Carolina and the rest of the East Coast are probably rising faster than anyplace on the planet. As water melts up north, it’s slowing somewhat the Gulf Stream, and the water’s kind of backing up and rising along the Eastern seaboard. So their noble effort to, King Canute-like, hold back the rising waters by legislation, I’m afraid, is unlikely to succeed.

To me, it kind of reflects the fact that a lot of people are only going to care about climate change when it affects them directly and presently.

Eighty percent of Americans, or more, now 85 I think, live in counties that have had a federally declared disaster in the last two years. So I think we’re reaching that point.

How much science is it going to take to convince people?

The last climate deniers, you’re never going to convince. Their mind-set’s rooted in ideology, not science. But the polling data shows that about 74 percent of Americans now understand that the climate’s warming. Which is a remarkably high percentage for anything. I mean, you know, this is a country where 40 percent of people think Elvis is still alive. So getting 74 percent to agree on something is very good.

It seems like we’ve gotten to where we are through relentless technological progress, and so many people are relying on that to continue to be our salvation.

We’ve got lots of good progress coming, it’s just much different than what we’re used to. So, solar panels are great. They’re highly technical, and they allow you to have a very spread-out, diffuse, democratic power grid. I’ve got them all over my roof, and they work great even in Vermont. Imagine how well they’d work in North Carolina. But there’s lots of other technology, too, that we sometimes forget about when we think about technology. When I was last in Copenhagen for that ridiculous failed climate meeting, the one really good thing was watching the fact that 40 percent of people in that very advanced city have adopted the bicycle as their way of getting to and from work. The bicycle is as technological as the airplane. And probably a lot better for you.

There are some critics who say that solar cells are great, but in order to achieve the same amount of power output from solar cells as from fossil fuels, we would need to make billions of them.

Well, we can make a lot of them. The price has fallen 75 percent in the last three years—in fact there’s a glut of them on the market at the moment, it’s a good time to go get one—so making them is not the problem. The problem is deploying them fast. And that requires ending the fossil-fuel industry’s monopoly on political power. They’re the only industry on earth that doesn’t have to pay to throw out their waste. They get to pour carbon into the atmosphere for free. And as long as that special break is there, sun and wind will always be working against economic gravity, as it were.

With your project now, using a similar strategy against the fossil-fuel industry that was used against companies that did business in South Africa, with divestment . . .

That’s right, that’s one of the things we’ll be doing. Above all else, it’s an excellent way to raise this issue that hasn’t been raised. Think about our campuses. That’s where we learned about climate change. You know, Duke is full of people over at Duke Forest and wherever else, who’ve been busy studying the effects for a long time. They’re how we know what’s going on. It no longer makes sense, now that they’ve told us all that stuff, to keep funding our educations with investments in companies that guarantee there won’t be a planet to carry out those educations on.

To go back to the possible future scenarios that you’ve talked about with scientists, in your article about Greenland you quoted James Hansen as saying that “all hell might break loose for eastern North America and Europe” if there’s more significant melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Was he talking about the deep Atlantic conveyor?

I think Hansen was talking more about the increasing sense that there’s a link between Arctic ice and the flush of freshwater as it melts, and weather—storms and extremes along the East Coast of North America and in Europe. I’m a little behind on the science, but I think people are slightly less worried about the Gulf Stream actually shutting down at this point.

You’ve said that global heating of 11 degrees Fahrenheit would create a planet “straight out of science fiction.” I know they can’t prove definitively what the planet would look like in that case, but what are some of the scenarios?

Well, we know that agriculture would be next to impossible. And we think at this point the data seem to indicate that every degree increase in global average temperature should cut grain yields about 10 percent. The ocean is already 30 percent more acid, and that’s causing havoc already with marine creatures. One oceanographer last month at the close of the big conference on ocean acidification in California said that by century’s end, at this pace, the oceans of the world will be “hot, sour and breathless.” Which seemed to me a pretty powerful statement. Most frozen things will have melted or be in the process of melting. And we’ll see a huge increase in severe weather, to the point where my guess would be that civilization will just be a series of emergency responses to things.

It’s been described that in a few hundred years people might be huddled near the poles, hoping that nothing further bad happens to them.

I really do think it’s probably best not to indulge our worst fears. The job now—I mean, it’s going to be bad enough no matter what we do. The job now is to do the work to make sure that it doesn’t get any worse than it has to get. It’s going to be a difficult century in any event. Our job is to keep it from becoming an impossible one.

Can you talk about your personal transformation from someone who wrote about this issue to someone who became politically active?

Well, I mean, it sort of came gradually. I thought my job for a long time was just to write about these things. And I was like 27 when I wrote The End of Nature. I think my theory of change was, “I will write a book, people will read it, and then they will change.” Actually, lots of people did read it! It came out in like 24 languages, and was a best-seller in a number of them. But it turns out that’s really not how change happens, you know? So at a certain point I just figured out it would be necessary to go to work, trying to build a movement. Not something I knew how to do. But with my colleagues at 350.org, who are now in their mid-to-late 20s, we’ve done what we can. And we will keep building it.

What do you think is the most important thing somebody can do who feels strongly about this and wants to join in your efforts?

Organize. It’s important to change your light bulb, but it’s less important than coming together with other people to try and change the system. So if one’s on a college campus at Duke, at UNC, at Davidson, at wherever, the job is clear for the moment. It’s to try and build a divestment movement so that companies are called to account. They’re on your campus.

Is that going to be the main focus of your talks?

That’ll certainly be a big part of it. We’ll talk about a lot of other things that people who aren’t students can do, too, right at the moment. We’re going to be really building as much of a resistance as we can to the fossil fuel industry.

It seems to me there might be certain happy congruences with some other cultural trends, like eating locally, which has the side effect that you get to eat better food, and better tasting food. Do you feel like there might be other trends that climate change action can take a hold of?

I think that if we make up our minds, we’ll find a transition to a world past fossil fuel. Not easy or simple or cheap, but highly rewarding. I think the world on the other side is more localized, more human-scale, more compatible with who we really are than the very high-consumer world we’ve lived in for the last 50 years. I think that’s the aberration, not what we’re going to build in its place.

Marc Maximov is a writer, filmmaker and theatrical sound designer living in Durham, N.C. By day he works for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He conducted this interview for Indy Week in Raleigh, N.C.