The Big Idea: Bill McKibben


Many felt disappointed by the results of the 2016 presidential election, but how must Bill McKibben have felt? McKibben, a journalist and environmental activist, introduced the term “global warming” to the general public in his first book, The End of Nature, published in 1989. He’s been fighting climate change ever since and on November 8 that fight became more challenging than ever.

The last time he was interviewed for The Rumpus, in December 2012, McKibben had reason to be upbeat. Barack Obama had just been elected to a second term and, while fighting climate change was not at the top of his priorities, he was more sympathetic to the cause than his Republican opponent had been., which McKibben founded in 2008—it gets its name from the 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide which scientists believe is the safe upper limit for our atmosphere–had grown into an influential environmental force, inspiring several universities to divest from fossil fuel companies and helping delay construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Nearly four years later, things were still looking up for McKibben and his fellow climate activists. In the last year of his presidency, Obama put a halt to the Keystone XL project and also to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened the water supply on native lands. He also signed the Paris Accord, in which nearly two hundred countries agreed on the goal of holding the rise in the earth’s temperature to under two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Hillary Clinton, whose election appeared likely, announced plans to pursue environmental policies similar to President Obama’s.

Then, the unexpected victory of Donald Trump changed everything. In the first few weeks of his presidency, Trump appointed the CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson, as Secretary of State, and Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency; approved construction of Keystone XL and operation of the Dakota Access Pipeline; and moved to dismantle regulations regarding power plants and auto emissions so that it will be virtually impossible for the US to meet its pledge in the Paris Accord.

Three months into the Trump presidency seemed a good moment to check in with McKibben, who spoke by phone from his home in Vermont where he is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College. He reflected on the aftermath of the election as he looked forward to the Climate March on Washington on April 29.


The Rumpus: On election night did you think: “It’s over; it’s hopeless” in terms of climate change?

Bill McKibben: Well… at least a little.

We’d already lost the possibility of stopping global warming entirely. That hasn’t been in the cards for a long time. The triumph of Trump and the GOP probably means that we’re not going to be able to stop it at the two-degree mark that the world had been aiming for. That’s very bad news, mostly because the planet seems to be more sensitive than we thought to even small increases in temperature.

We’ve only raised the temperature of the earth a little over one degree Celsius.

When I wrote the first book about all this back in 1989, scientists would not have thought that one degree would be enough to do the scale of damage that we’re seeing—stuff that people thought would come late in this century. We’ve lost half the summer sea ice in the Arctic. We’ve wiped out an enormous percentage of the world’s coral reefs. We see huge changes in the planet’s hydrology already, the cycles of drought and flood both amped up because warm air holds more water vapor than cold. These things are happening with a one-degree increase and going to two degrees won’t be twice as bad, the increase in damage won’t be linear, it most certainly will be exponential.

So it was precisely the wrong moment to elect Trump.

Rumpus: You’ve said that President Obama and Hillary Clinton were not the most enthusiastic advocates in the fight against climate change. Just how much of a setback does the election of Donald Trump represent?

McKibben: It’s been a big leap, but I don’t think he really cares about the issue at all. Most of what’s happening is that the long-held wishes of the Koch brothers and people like that are coming to pass. We’d be doing exactly the same thing under Mike Pence or whoever else, if a little more subtly, and not as loudly and rashly.

Look at a figure like Scott Pruitt. He’s a protégé of Senator Imhofe of Oklahoma and has stocked the EPA with a number of Imhofe’s former staffers. That’s a Koch brothers operation. These guys have spent decades figuring out how to take down environmental regulations, stop action on climate change. Under Obama they got some of what they wanted, but by no means all. Under Trump and Pence they’re getting literally everything they could ever have dreamed of.

Rumpus: But selecting Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon, as Secretary of State seems a strong statement on the part of President Trump about his personal stance on climate change.

McKibben: Look, it’s a ridiculous appointment. Certainly one of the two or three biggest foreign policy questions revolve around climate change, and to appoint someone to be our chief diplomat who obviously has a profound bias on the question is pretty staggering.

It’s not like this is a controversial issue where there are sides all over the rest of the world. Two hundred nations signed on to the Paris climate accords. Though not officially, we’ve essentially abrogated that agreement. We’ve said we’re not going to do the things that we are required to do on power plants, automobile mileage, things like that. So we’ve in deed if not word scrapped the most international pact on climate change that the world’s ever gotten to.

Rumpus: Are Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline done deals at this point, and do you think they are emblematic of the threat of climate change or major contributors to that threat?

McKibben: They’re important. The Dakota Access Pipeline is important on so many fronts, including the fact that it’s the most powerful symbol of environmental racism that one could conjure. Keystone is crucial because it helps open up this vast tar sands complex for further development.

Clearly Dakota Access is going to get built. I don’t really understand enough about the legal implications to know if there’s any real hope of blocking it once it’s built. It’s built on a foundation of lies. Keystone, well, it’s not built yet, and people will fight it very hard.

The thing that’s powerful about both these fights is that they’ve launched a whole new era of resistance. They were the first times that people said: “No, we’re not going to let you build something you want built” to the oil industry. In the case of Keystone we prevented them for a number of years, quite to everyone’s surprise, especially the industry’s. As a result, every single pipeline, coal mine, frack well, coal port, LNG [liquefied natural gas] port, every single fossil fuel project now, is met with stiff resistance.

Sometimes we win. Shell withdrew from plans to drill in the Arctic. Sometimes we lose. But we’ve been imposing a kind of de facto carbon tax with our bodies now for a number of years.

Rumpus: You’ve documented the direct correlation between the amount of money politicians receive from the fossil fuel industry and their denial of climate change. Is climate change denial only about money?

McKibben: More or less.

Rumpus: But is there also a larger cultural phenomenon that explains climate change denial and, say, the anti-vaccine movement? An anti-science mindset?

McKibben: Climate change denial is mostly a manufactured thing. When we first learned about global warming in the late 1980s, there really wasn’t any such thing. George H.W. Bush, then president, announced that he was “going to fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” He was going to work on it.

We know now from good investigative reporting that the biggest fossil fuel companies knew everything there was to know about climate change decades ago. At Exxon, as early as the late 1970s, the chief scientists were telling its chief executives how much the planet was going to warm and when. And they were believed. Exxon started incorporating that in its strategy for getting Arctic oil leases where they knew the ice would eventually melt. They started designing their drilling rigs for the sea level rise they knew was coming. But because they perceived a threat to their business, they started investing millions and millions of dollars to build denial and deception.

Many of the people who came to staff that enterprise were the same people who had come from the tobacco denial industry. That’s actually a closer analogy to climate change denial. The message was exactly the same: Spread doubt. And they’ve retarded action on climate change for a quarter century. That quarter century delay—even if we started doing everything right—will mean a different planet than we might otherwise have had.

It was terrible to spread doubt about cigarettes and cancer because a lot of people died in the quarter century that that went on, but at least once we got them to stop, the effects didn’t last forever. In this, they will. Looked at one way, the entire planet’s going to suffer from “secondhand smoke.”

Rumpus: Is there climate change denial in other oil-rich countries?

McKibben: Yes. The United States is the epicenter but the other places where it’s most powerful are Australia and Canada. And those examples point out, by the way, that it’s possible to be a climate denier in fact if not in word.

One of the really depressing stories of the past few months is that under the shadow of Donald Trump, people who should and do know better are doing really bad things. At Paris, the handsome, charismatic Justin Trudeau and diplomats from Canada basically persuaded the planet to put in the accord that we would try to hold the temperature increase on earth to one and a half degrees centigrade—even better than the two degrees that had previously been agreed upon.

But Canada has enormous reserves of oil in the tar sands in Alberta. Speaking to oil and gas executives recently in Houston, Justin Trudeau said: “No country would find a hundred a seventy three billion barrels of oil and just leave it in the ground.” And the executives cheered and he got a standing ovation.

The one thing one can say about Donald Trump about all this—maybe the only thing one can think of to say in defense of the guy—is that at least he’s not a hypocrite about it.

Rumpus: But so many of the executives and politicians who are enacting these policies are educated people. They have children and grandchildren. It’s not like tobacco where they can protect themselves from the damage by not smoking themselves. Does money blind people to this threat to themselves and their families?

McKibben: Yes. The GOP is a political subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry. That’s where a huge percentage of their money has come from for the last twenty years. The Koch brothers, taken together, are the richest guy in the country, if not the world. They’re by far the most generous political donors in the world—they and their network—and they’re also the biggest oil and gas barons in the country. They own the largest share of the tar sands in Canada. So that worldview now thoroughly dominates the Republican Party. They own the Republican Party and they terrify a lot of the Democratic Party. Hence, we don’t really get action.

Even under Obama, who clearly understood what was at stake, the United States became the largest oil and gas producer in the world. Under Obama we passed Russia and Saudi Arabia. We were giving anyone permits to drill and dig all over the country.

Rumpus: Was the growth of gas and oil under Obama also due to campaign contributions?

McKibben: Given a choice, politicians would just as soon not take on the richest industry on the planet. Obama thought that he had a way out. The beginning of his administration pretty much coincided with the boom in fracking and natural gas. The Obama theory was that we can get rid of coal and substitute natural gas for it and we’ll get somewhere because natural gas produces less carbon than coal. So they stayed out of the way as fracking spread across the country.

But there were two problems: One was the damage that fracking was doing to local communities. That really began to rile people up. The other was that it turned out to be a bad scientific bet. We now know that when you frack for natural gas you release a lot of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. And we released so much methane that it’s a reasonable guess that greenhouse gas emissions may have actually increased during the Obama years. Or that they didn’t go down by much. So this turned out to be running in place. What we needed to be doing was abandon fossil fuel and head straight for renewable energy.

That’s an even more plausible possibility now than it was even five or ten years ago because the price of solar panels and wind turbines has fallen very sharply. They’ve gotten much more efficient and much cheaper. The hope was that we would leave the Paris climate accord with a certain amount of momentum. Now that accord wasn’t aggressive enough to really begin to slow down global warming. It was a baby step. But it sent a strong signal about where we wanted to go as a planet.

There was a chance that momentum would build quickly enough around renewable energy that financing would shift behind it and that we might actually begin to start catching up to the physics of climate change. The great tragedy of Trumpism, or Republicanism, from a climate point of view, is that momentum, at least in the United States… well, they’re going to put a pothole in that road, if not a ditch—if not a crevasse.

Rumpus: You mentioned before the importance of journalists in exposing how early the fossil fuel industry knew about climate change. Yet at a certain point you realized that journalism wasn’t enough to further this cause and you became an activist.

McKibben: I’m still a journalist. I still write and report. When I was writing The End of Nature in 1989 I knew that at some level I wasn’t objective. I don’t suppose I’ve ever been objective. But what happened was the dawning realization that we were not engaged in an argument anymore, that we’d won the argument long ago about the reality of climate change. What we were engaged in was a fight. And like all fights it wasn’t about data and reason and having more symposia and writing more books. All fights are about power and money. And we were losing this one because the other side had all the money and hence all the power.

We needed to find out if there was some other currency that we could work in. And the only one we could think of was the currency of movements. That’s what we started trying consciously to acquire. There hadn’t really been a climate movement, per se. I think everyone spent twenty years thinking that if we just keep pointing out that the world is on the edge of the greatest crisis by far it’s ever come to, then our leaders will do something about it. And it turned out that was wrong. They weren’t going to do anything about it. The collapse of the UN process in Copenhagen in 2009 was the final validation of that. So we had to change our tactics.

Some places we’ve been successful, and some not. I can’t pretend to predict how it’s all going to come out. Other social movements have had the comfort of knowing that they would win in the end. People have had to be extraordinarily brave, in the Civil Rights Movement, in the women’s movement, in the LGBTQ movement. But they had good reason to be self-confident.

Rumpus: Since the election, there have been so many things to get outraged about. Do you worry about a diffusion of activism? Did you feel like saying to the participants of the Women’s March: “Hey, this is all important, but we need all hands on deck to fight climate change, otherwise nothing else will matter?”

McKibben: No. I loved the Women’s March. I love all these manifestations of resistance. We definitely need people cooperating on climate and the environment. There will be a big march in Washington, DC on April 29 and I hope that we’ll see a lot of people there. But it’s inescapable that there are things that are more immediate. The nature of climate change is that it moves more slowly than, say, deportations.

Rumpus: And, of course these movements aren’t mutually exclusive or even unrelated, as you pointed out with the Dakota Access Pipeline and race.

McKibben: They’re not unrelated and, happily, resistance is linked in a lot of ways. At we work with our colleagues who are working on immigration and healthcare, and they with us. We recognize that the progressive movement has a kind of internal logic.

But the truth is that we could win every other fight that we face and if we lose the climate fight, the other victories will be pyrrhic. I don’t think even people who are worried about climate change quite understand the scale and speed with which we’re now shifting the planet.

There’s only a few really big physical features on earth. All of them are now degrading at a preposterous rate. To lose half the sea ice in the Arctic in the course of a generation is just… that can’t happen. The waters of the ocean are thirty percent more acidic than they were forty years ago. That’s messing around with the deepest biological systems that we’ve got. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on the planet. The fact that it was decimated in the last year by a wave of warm water sweeping across the Pacific and Indians Oceans should scare the hell out of everybody. These are changes on a scale of things that happened in the past like when giant asteroids smashed into the planet. Except this time we’re the asteroid.

Rumpus: Do you think that in your lifetime there will come a day when you’ll know that the fight is lost, that there is no turning back?

McKibben: I think that’s entirely plausible. We’ll know that it’s coming because the scramble for survival will get very strange. Proposals for geoengineering to try to slow down the heating of the planet will seem more and more attractive, at which point we’ll know that the earth as we’ve known it is no longer.

We can change the earth—that’s not the issue. The issue is that we’re taking it at impossible speed to impossible new places. We’ve never seen, in the course of human history, heat like we’re seeing now. Last summer, in big cities like Basra, the temperature reached one hundred and twenty-nine degrees, the highest recorded reliably measured temperatures on our planet. That’s hotter than human beings can deal with. Every model we’ve got shows that these temperatures will become more common and spread to more and more places.

Rumpus: You’ve written about climate change as a spiritual issue. Pope Francis and some Evangelical Christians have spoken out about it. Do you think there’s any way to mobilize religious movements in this effort? 

McKibben: Yes. Religious environmentalism is really important. The fossil fuel divestment movement, for example, has been a way for educational institutions, governmental institutions like pension funds, and religious institutions to show that they’re serious about breaking up the fossil fuel industry. And to some degree that’s really starting to happen.

The Pope’s encyclical of two years ago was a potentially deeply important moment. It’s either going to be a remarkable witness tragically ignored or historians will look back on it as a galvanizing moment. We don’t know yet because we’re still seeing if we can build that resistance.

Rumpus: Do individual efforts still matter? Recycling? Environmentally friendly light bulbs?

McKibben: Our house is covered with solar panels. I drive an electric car. We try to eat super-locally, and so on. But I don’t try to fool myself that that’s actually solving climate change.

We’re mathematically past the point where the accumulation of individual actions can add up quickly enough to make a difference. The individual action that actually matters is not being an individual. It’s joining together with other people in groups large enough to change the political dynamic around climate change.

Rumpus: What is the change you would like to see come out of the Climate March on April 29?

McKibben: I don’t think one protest changes things, except very rarely. What we have to do there and many other places is demonstrate that there is a deep, widespread political demand for change. We have to figure out ways to scare and entice our leaders more effectively than the fossil fuel industry has managed to scare and entice them. They’ve got the big checkbooks. We’ve got to have the big crowd.

Rumpus: Are you still hopeful?

McKibben: Oh, I’m the wrong person to ask. My most famous book is called The End of Nature!

Rumpus: But you wrote that in your twenties, and here you are, still at it.

McKibben: I try not to be either optimistic or pessimistic. I try not to think about outcomes on that scale. My job, it seems to me, is to wake up every morning and figure out how to cause as much trouble for the fossil fuel industry as I can.


“The Big Idea” features interviews with writers, artists, scientists, activists, and others who take a long and broad view of an issue, problem, or concept, and pursue it over many years. Visit the archives here.


Author photograph © Nancy Battaglia.

Suzanne Koven MD, MFA is a primary care physician and writer-in-residence at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Her writing has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Boston Globe, VQR, and elsewhere. Her interview column “The Big Idea” appeared at The Rumpus. Her memoir-in-essays, Letter to a Young Female Physician, will be published by W. W. Norton & Co. on May 4, 2021. More from this author →