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The Rumpus Interview with Bill McKibben

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Bill McKibben does not exactly look like the kind of stentorian figure you’d expect to be leading one of the most important grassroots movements in the history of civilization, but maybe that’s for the better. With a skeletal frame, professorial wire-rim glasses, and a soft, occasionally inaudible voice, McKibben looks and speaks like what he is: a teacher from Vermont and the author of classics of environmental literature, like The End of Nature and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Yet when you hear his arguments, the façade of his quiet presence melts away and he seems to tower over his audiences. This is probably not so much him as the grim, compelling facts he relates about the climate crisis.

Four years ago McKibben founded 350.org, which refers to the 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide that scientists say is safe for our atmosphere. We are currently at 392 ppm and will likely surpass 400 ppm by 2014.

Since November 7th, McKibben and 350.org have been touring the country on his Do the Math Tour, inspired by his July Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” The focus of the article and the tour are three numbers: we’ve already raised the temperature of the planet by one degree Celsius by burning coal, oil, and gas since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Every country on Earth has agreed that to let the planet warm by two degrees would usher in climatological disaster. This means we can burn 565 more gigatons of fossil fuel by mid-century and still have a chance of staying under two degrees. However, fossil fuel companies and petro-states from Exxon to Saudi Arabia currently have proven reserves of 2,795 gigatons. In other words, they are already planning to burn five times the amount of carbon that scientists view as safe for civilization.

McKibben is now touting a strategy of divestment: compelling major institutions like colleges, churches, and pension funds to divest from fossil fuel companies in order to exert economic and political pressure.

I sat down with McKibben before he went on stage in Chicago last month.

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The Rumpus: With the Keystone Pipeline protest and now divestment, you’re clearly borrowing tactics from past movements: civil disobedience in the Civil Rights Movement, and divestment from the campaign against the apartheid government of South Africa. Is there something to the saying “good artists borrow, but the best artists steal”?

Bill McKibben: Yeah, I think that’s very true. In one sense we’re in a different world than we used to be. 350 works harder than anybody else in trying to use new media and all of that. I think we have more friends on Facebook than all the other environmental groups combined. But when you have to get across moral urgency, truthfully, there’s probably no better way to do it than to show that you’re willing to spend your body. That’s what people in the Civil Rights Movement figured out. Now they had to be braver than us.

Rumpus: Sure, you’re not facing firehoses and attack dogs.

McKibben: Hopefully no one’s going to lynch you for talking about climate change.

Rumpus: Hey, although you threaten the bottom line a little more…

McKibben: Well, you may not want to read my e-mail on a daily basis. But on the other hand, the one thing that the Civil Rights Movement had going for it was a pretty iron-clad sense that it was eventually going to win. Dr. King said, “The arch of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Well, the physical universe seems to be quickly bending towards heat. That’s our problem: how do we figure out how to get an almost impossible task done in an almost impossible period of time.

Rumpus: Speaking of divestment, I think this is a truly fascinating idea. What do you think it could accomplish in your wildest, most hopeful dreams?

McKibben: I don’t think it can financially cripple Exxon, I do think it can do for the fossil fuel industry what people did with other tactics to the tobacco industry: take away their veneer of respectability. Make people understand that they are a rogue industry, that they’re outlaws against the laws of the—not the laws of the state; they write those—but outlaws against the laws of physics. And that’s the debate we have to be having. Divestment is a great way to make sure we have that debate. So two weeks ago, three quarters of the Harvard student body voted to demand divestment.

We want students to demand a full accounting of holdings in universities and then divest in fossil fuel stocks. As of yesterday, we passed a hundred campuses that in the last three weeks have launched these full-on divestment efforts. One campus has already agreed to divest: Unity College in Maine. Hampshire is right behind, and the Harvard student body just voted three-to-one to demand divestiture. That doesn’t mean they’re going to get it anytime soon, but it means the fight is on.

What we need students doing everywhere is stepping up to take control of this fight. They don’t even have to win the fight—at least not right away, but they have to make the fight. It has to be the high-profile issue on campus: why are we in bed with this rogue industry? Why are we paying for our education with investments in companies whose business plans guarantee there will not be a planet on which to carry out that education? Institution after institution boasts correctly and happily about their commitments to sustainability. You go to the web page of any college in America and it’s all [about sustainability]. And they’ve done good things. They’ve put up energy-efficient buildings and things like that. If you’re going to green the campus, why wouldn’t you green the portfolio? I think it’s going to be powerful and painful sometimes, because we’re asking good people who say they share this concern to go out and take a stand.

The next step will be five hundred people holding a candlelight vigil or six hundred people sitting in outside the president’s house. The stakes will keep ratcheting up, and the debate will keep sharpening.

Rumpus: I’m sure you want to be known as a non-partisan organization, but the political reality is that the Republican Party has left planet Earth in terms of climate reality. I just wonder is there any way to get them back into the conversation?

McKibben: That’s one of the reasons we’re doing what we’re doing. The fossil fuel industry is the problem. They’ve bought one party and pretty much terrified the other completely. It’s not like the Democrats are profiles in courage on any of this stuff. So we’ve got to weaken them. The idea that our political leaders, for the most part, are “leaders,” turns out not to be true. We have to make it so they can at least bear to follow.

Rumpus: I attended the Heartland Institute’s Climate Conference here in Chicago this summer, and even though it’s a bunch of cranks, I often hear their rhetoric repeated back to me by people I consider to be very smart.

McKibben: No, they’ve done a good job in that sense. Their problem is that it’s not a winning hand in the long run. In the last two years the polling data on the number of Americans who believe in climate change has gone through the roof.

Rumpus: But there was a clear dip back in 2010.

McKibben: There was after they started their work, but the reason it’s gone through the roof is eighty percent of Americans live in counties that have had a federally-declared disaster in the last two years. I bet there are not three climate deniers left on the Jersey shore.

Rumpus: You think the weather events, the super-droughts, the storms have changed people’s minds.

McKibben: You know, in Illinois this summer, you couldn’t grow corn, so it’s not good.

Rumpus: Occasionally, it seems to an observer that the “environmental movement” in all its weird, disparate forms can be its own worst enemy. I think of the way they kind of fell down in the cap-and-trade battle of 2009.

McKibben: Here’s the thing: we have environmentalists and organizations, but we haven’t really had a movement. That’s what we’ve been trying to build at 350.org. Get back to where we were in 1970 when twenty million Americans, one in ten, were in the streets on the first Earth Day. That’s different from having a lot of really good lobbying efforts and think tanks and that kind of stuff.

Rumpus: But when we talk about the environmental movement in the 1970s, one of the big rallying points was nuclear power, and now there are smart people saying, “We’re willing to try anything that doesn’t put more carbon in the atmosphere.”

McKibben: Yeah, nuclear power, I mean—it’s just too expensive. It really isn’t going to happen. I wrote a big piece in National Geographic about energy in China, and even the Chinese, they’re spending more than anybody [on nuclear] and they’re saying it’ll be three percent of their electricity supply. It’s not viable. The really cool thing—here is a book to go look at. It just came out as a ninety-nine cent Kindle Single. It’s by a guy named Osha Davidson, it’s called Clean Break, and it’s about what’s going on in Germany, which is un-fucking-believable. Munich’s north of Montreal, and there were days this month when they got half their energy from solar panels. It has nothing to do with technology or location—it’s all political will, and they have it.

Rumpus: There’s this axiom that’s often trotted out that you can’t blame any single weather event on climate change, but after Sandy and these super-droughts, are the people who are fond of this saying just going to equivocate us all into apocalypse?

McKibben: Scientists have pretty much dropped this now—the best of them anyway—because now we can attribute them. The Hansen study[1] this summer was very key, so the attribution is a lot further along than we thought.

Rumpus: Sorry, I’m going to go straight to a dark question at this point. Does any truthful assessment of where we’re at right now have to acknowledge that there are certainly regions of the world for which it’s already too late? I think of the American Southwest and the permanent dustbowl they’re heading toward.[2]

McKibben: I think the Maldives and Micronesia are in serious trouble. I mean, yeah—there’s some pretty grim stuff there. As I say in the show, we’ve already raised the temperature of the planet one degree. I wish what we were talking about was how to take away that degree and get back to the Holocene, but that’s not actually one of the options. All we can do now is try to prevent utter, full-on catastrophe. It’s two degrees. And it’s not clear we can do that. But we can try.

Rumpus: Has 350 considered thinking about electoral strategy? You know, I’m from Ohio, and I think of districts there that are captured entirely by coal. Have you given any thought of moving into that area?

McKibben: You know, we work a little bit once in a while on races, but our analysis, at least at the moment, is it’s more important to go after the guys pulling the strings than the guys who are having their strings pulled. This Keystone thing was really revelatory for me. I’d never really spent that much time in Washington. Every time there was a vote, you could literally predict how everybody was going to vote based on how much money they took from the fossil fuel industry. It was more important than party ID—it was more important than anything, which was shocking. There’s some level at which I’m kind of naïve, and I kinda think we need to be a little naïve once in a while. We’re also used to the idea that everybody’s corrupt, and it almost makes it too easy for them. Sometimes you have to say, “No, really, this is not okay. It’s not all right to take money from people and then vote on their interests.”

Rumpus: Count me as someone who is relieved beyond—well, everything—that Mitt Romney, Mr. 47 Percent, is not going to be President. At the same time, what do you think Barack Obama can do and what do you think is likely?

McKibben: The most important early test for him, because he can do it himself, is what he’ll do on this Keystone deal. We’ll see. We’re going back to D.C. with a big demonstration on President’s Day, and we’ll find out. But actually, I think Naomi Klein said it best the night she came and talked in New York and Boston. She said, “I’m really glad he won, but this time, no honeymoon and no hero worship.” All it is is an opportunity. With Mitt Romney there was no opportunity, because that guy was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Koch Brothers. I mean, if they told him to frack Old Faithful so it blows gas, not water, he’d ask, “How high?” So we dodged a bullet, but we’re still standing in traffic.

Rumpus: Nothing against Naomi Klein, but do you guys need bigger celebrities? Have you put in calls to Pitt and Clooney and Damon?

McKibben: You know, it wouldn’t hurt, but in the end I don’t think that’s where movements come from. They have to come from people willing to take an interest. There have been celebrities who’ve taken on climate change, and it hasn’t done an unbelievable amount. But we’ll continue working with people, and it’s good when it happens.

Rumpus: When you wrote the article for Rolling Stone, Justin Bieber was on the cover, and I was thinking to myself, If Justin Bieber just became a climate hawk…just one Tweet, from the Biebs, and we’d be in such a better place right now.

McKibben: It’s really funny, I got a call from the editor of Rolling Stone a few days later saying, “It’s weird, but your piece has ten times more ‘Likes’ on Facebook than the Justin Bieber piece.” It became the most shared piece Rolling Stone’s ever had.

Rumpus: Do you see an analogy between climate change and the credit bubble and financial crisis of 2008? There were plenty of people who knew exactly what was going on and saw the warning signs, and the conventional wisdom was dead-set on ignoring it.

McKibben: Yeah, but this one’s been going on for a long time and the bubble is a thousand times more serious. The credit bubble was a big pain in the butt, and it will take five to ten years to work it out. We keep on like this [burning fossil fuels] another couple years and we’re talking geologic time. It’s not a good sign when the scientists keep saying, “Well, nothing like this has happened since the Eemian [interglacial period]” or, “This reminds me of when we look at the record of the Permian boundary. This is what we see.”

Rumpus: And these headlines are starting to come every other day.[3]

McKibben: This is not good. We do not want to be having our own geological epoch.

Rumpus: Do you think it’s almost inevitable that we’ll be trying some type of geoengineering scheme within my lifetime?

McKibben: I do suppose it’s kind of the “break the glass” strategy, but there’s no reason to think it’s going to work. The side effects will probably be worse than the disease. And none of the things anyone’s talking about doing will do anything about the way we are destroying the ocean, which, even if nothing else was happening, would be enough to get off fossil fuels immediately.[4]

The real thing to me, though, is it just seems so depressing. I used to run a homeless shelter at my church, and I knew lots of addicts. All kinds. And addicts—you must know some—have their own peculiar logic about the world. Everything is going to work out through some deus ex machina. Anything that doesn’t involve them coming to terms with the fact that they’re completely fucked up and need to do something different. This strikes me as geoengineering. It’s like, “I’m going to keep driving my Escalade because someone’s going to shoot a huge cloud of sulfur into the sky and cover my tracks.” Well, okay, but that’s pretty depressing.[5]

Rumpus: If you’re President for a day, what’s the one policy you pursue?

McKibben: If I’m President for the day, I block the Keystone Pipeline immediately and keep 900,000 barrels of oil a day under the ground.

Rumpus: What about a carbon tax? Do you see a future for that?

McKibben: Well, being President for the day doesn’t get you there because you have to be Congress for the day, too, to do that one. Look, we have to put a price on carbon, that’s sort of the point, but it doesn’t happen until the fossil fuel industry is substantially weakened.

Rumpus: What scares you?

McKibben: The speed with which everything is going on. It terrifies me. If we had fifty years, we would figure out a way through it. We do not have fifty years, so we have to work faster than human systems and societies are comfortable working, and the stresses and strains of making that happen are going to be very large. It’s doable. Germany has demonstrated that it’s doable. They’re going to be at 65% renewable energy within ten years or so, which is almost unbelievable. We haven’t demonstrated it’s doable yet in our political system, because our political system and the Chinese political system don’t work very well at the moment. The fact that they don’t work very well is a problem when you’re dealing with Social Security or Medicare, but it’s a catastrophe when you’re dealing with this question.

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This was a truly awful way to end an interview, so I was relieved that a group of Northwestern grad students came in, and one of them asked the following question. I share it with you not because it flatters my generation, but because McKibben’s answer is the truth—that the November election proved that somehow, some way we are wrenching the conversation in the right direction:

Northwestern Student: When you were on NPR earlier today, you were saying how all this talk about climate change can get depressing at times, so how do you keep younger people engaged and motivated to act and stay away from this apocalyptic view of the future?

McKibben: So I haven’t found young people to be the problem. All the leadership at 350—I mean, I’m the only person at 350, I think, over the age of thirty. Everybody we work with around the world is young people. That’s who drives it. Our problem is old people. [The ones] just so set in their ways and so addicted to whatever exact set of conditions they’re used to that they can’t imagine any kind of change. If you look at the polling data, for people under the age of thirty, this is the number one issue when they go to vote. That’s why we may get a little further in this next administration. There were a lot of young people who voted in the last election. It surprised the hell out of everyone in D.C. They voted in far larger numbers than people anticipated, and if there’s one way to prove that anybody’s paying attention to their concerns, it’s to actually do something about climate change.

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[1] He’s referring to “Perceptions of Climate Change” by James Hansen, Makiko Sato, and Redo Reudy. Hansen, a NASA scientist, was one of the first to sound the alarm about global warming and his predictions from the 1970s on CO2, temperature, and physical effects—disregarded at the time as preposterous—have now all come to pass. If you really want to stay awake staring at the ceiling all night, I suggest reading his book, Storms of My Grandchildren. It will turn “methane hydrates” into the two scariest words you’ve heard in your life.

[2] Joe Romm, author of the prominent climate blog ClimateProgress and a former official from the Clinton years, has raised the prospect of “dustbowlification” for the Southwest: a state of more or less permanent dustbowl created by frequent record-shattering droughts like the kinds we’ve seen over the last few years. It definitely convinced me to not buy that ranch house in Phoenix.

[3] Okay, this is somewhat hyperbolic, but here’s a sample of the most important headlines of the last year you’ve probably not heard of: “Sea Levels Rising 60% Faster Than U.N. Projections”; “Arctic Permafrost is Melting Faster Than Predicted”; “Arctic Melt Releasing Ancient Methane.” Just have a gander at the three of those, and ask yourself if we really needed the mainstream media tackling Patreaus’s zipper for the past three weeks.

[4] A quick primer on what we’re talking about for non-climate science nerds: geoengineering is basically the notion that we can solve climate change through a worldwide sci-fi-ish tech fix, that we can “hack the planet,” and it has basically gone from utter crank science to “we should really be studying the shit out of this” overnight. Schemes include pumping sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere to block sunlight, pouring iron into the ocean to produce phytoplankton that will suck up CO2, and creating “space sunshades” by sending millions of mirrors into space to reflect away sunlight. The problem, as McKibben points out, is that none of these schemes do anything about ocean acidification: as we add more CO2 to the atmosphere the oceans are absorbing part of that, becoming more acidic, and there’s a very real possibility that this will drive the calcifying critters at the bottom of the food chain to extinction and spark widespread die-offs in ocean life.

[5] Though we did not have time to get into it, I think there are certain geoengineering projects that show promise, and these are the ones that begin to remediate CO2 out of the atmosphere. Methods like burying biochar (the same type of soil found in the Amazon that acts as a CO2 sink) or carbon air capture, such as David Keith’s Carbon Engineering in Calgary, which is attempting to find cost-effective methods to pull CO2 from the atmosphere and store it safely underground. If anybody would like to place a bet that by 2030 we will have major government programs underway to fund these two tactics, you know where to find me. And also, I’m not sure why Bill McKibben assumed I know a bunch of addicts. I wasn’t wearing my nicest shirt, but still.


Stephen Markley is the acclaimed author of The Great Dysmorphia: An Epistemological View of Ingesting Hallucinogenic Mushrooms at a 2012 Republican Presidential Debate and Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book. He is also a columnist for the Chicago RedEye and blogs at "Off the Markley." Follow him on Twitter: @stephenmarkley and at www.stephenmarkley.com. More from this author →