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"Rogue Industry"

Sustainability hero Bill McKibben says we need to take aggressive measures to reign in the fossil fuel industry now: or face dire consequences.

By Green Builder Staff

GB: Bill, could you talk about how you evolved from journalist to eco-activist? What changed?
BM: One of my frustrations is that we’ve known for a very long time where the solutions to our problems lie. I wrote the first book on this about 25 years ago now, in 1989. At the time, we had a clear picture of the science. We knew that conservation, efficiency and renewables were where we needed to go. We didn’t go there. I spent a long time thinking that my job was to write about these things, and I did keep writing mckibben-1about them. But at a certain point, probably later than it should have, it dawned on me that yet another book was not going to move the needle here—that we had a problem, which was that reason wasn’t predominating. Nothing was happening as fast as it needed to in order to deal with the physics of our situation.

GB: Is it any different now?
BM: Two things have changed in the last couple of years. One is the fact that things have gone from being mostly abstract and theoretical to being very much in our faces—the climate crisis is clearly upon us. In the summer of 2012, 80 percent of the sea ice in the Arctic melted. It was the warmest year we ever had in America, we had a hideous drought across the Midwest and crop failure in other places, and we had Hurricane Sandy in the fall, which looked exactly like a Hollywood movie. The good news is, polling data shows that a huge percentage of Americans understand that global warming is real and problematic, and I think they understand it mostly because 80 percent of counties in the U.S. have been through a federally declared disaster in the last two years.

GB: That’s an incredible statistic.
BM: The second thing that has happened is the rise of a movement to do something about this. When it became clear that reason wasn’t going to prevail, one had to ask why. I think the answer is pretty clear: the unparalleled wealth of the fossil fuel industry has made it into a kind of political colossus that rules in Washington and many other capitals. We needed to take on the fossil fuel industry. Now, there is no hope of out-spending them; they have more money than God! So the hope was we could find other currencies to work in, currencies of activism, passion, spirit and creativity, and that’s why we formed 350.org and got to work on it.

GB: Can you talk a little about the global day of action that happened  in 2009?
BM: We were amazed at the response. We got the first sense that this was going to work two days early when the phone rang in our little office. It was our leader in Ethiopia who, like many of our leaders, was a 17-year-old girl. She said, “You know the government took away our permit for our protest on Saturday, so we’re doing it today before they can stop us. But we have 10,000 young people out in the street.” The pictures that came in over the next 72 hours confirmed the kind of worldwide movement of people who cared. There were 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. CNN called it the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.

GB: Who showed up?
tar sands protest BM: Most of the people we were working with turned out to be poor, black, brown, Asian and young, because that’s what most of the world is composed of. We had big involvement from many religious communities. There were about 300 demonstrations in China, which is important. China, as you know, is going to play a major role in either solving or make insolvable this crisis. There were our friends in the Maldives, a typical low-lying island nation where the culture dates back about 5,000 years. It was just a beautiful, powerful day. We’ve done about 20,000 of these rallies, events and demonstrations around the world over the last five years.

GB: Can you explain the tipping point for parts per million, and when that will occur?
BM: There was a period of benign climactic stability that, not coincidentally, coincided with the rise of human civilization. That atmosphere was 275 parts per million, give or take. Then comes the industrial revolution where we start burning coal, gas and oil in ever-increasing quantities. The question for a long time was, “What’s the point at which it’s going to get troublesome?” We now think—and this is the basis of James Hansen’s research, hence the name of our organization—that 350 parts per million is the most we can safely have in the atmosphere. We passed that 27 or 28 years ago. This year we went past 400 parts per million, and we’re going up about two parts per year, so we’re into dangerous territory now. We’re already seeing the effects: the melting of the Arctic and the acidification of the oceans and many other factors, including erratic weather. So far we’ve raised the temperature about one degree. Two degrees are the most we can raise the temperature and still have any hope of getting away as a civilization.

GB: So how do you get people to really understand this, and more importantly, do something about it?
BM: There comes a point where education alone is insufficient. In recent years we’ve tried hard to take this movement from purely educational to more confrontational, taking on the fossil fuel industry. Some of the time we find ourselves playing defense. You’re probably aware of the fight against the Keystone Pipeline.

GB: Of course.
BM: It’s coming on almost three years old. When we started, nobody had ever heard of the thing, and its approval was rated as a complete certainty. But then James Hansen and his team at NASA published a study showing just how much carbon was up there in those tar sands in Canada. The study said if we burn it all off, then the atmospheric concentration of CO2 will go from its current concentration of 400 parts per million—already too high—to about 540 parts per million. Those deposits are the carbon equivalents of the Amazon rain forest. We went to work on this pipeline and it turned into the biggest civil disobedience action about anything in 30 years in this country. 

GB: You talk about the process of being arrested and incarcerated in your latest book, Oil and Honey. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
BM: Sure. Civil disobedience is one tool in the activist toolbox. You don’t want to overuse it, because then it gets dull like any tool. But there are moments when it’s very useful, to draw attention to things and to underline, emphasize the moral urgency of things, and that’s how we used it in the beginning of this Keystone fight. Since no one had heard of this thing, it was the only way we could think of to bring this to the national agenda. All kinds of people were led away in handcuffs over the course of two weeks, and that spread around much of the rest of the world. They circled the White House, shoulder-to-shoulder, five-deep along that mile-and-a-half perimeter.

GB: And it caught Obama’s attention, too.
BM: In the fall of 2011, the President said, “Okay, let’s take another look at this thing.” If the President does the right thing, then it will be the first time any world leader has ever said, “Here’s something big we’re not going to build because of how it would affect the climate.”

GB: If Keystone is stopped, that doesn’t mean that tar sands won’t be extracted, right?
BM: It’s true that tar sands will continue to pump oil, but the hope is that they will not be able to expand in the way that they’re hoping to expand. They want to triple, quadruple production up there. They’ve only got about 3 percent of the oil out so far, so it’s still early days for them. The analysis from all the people in the financial industry is, if they don’t get Keystone, that’ll set them back at least a decade in terms of their expansion plan. They will get them there by train or tanker but it will cost $15-$20 more per barrel by rail, and this is pretty expensive work already.

GB: As I understand, it takes a lot of energy just to extract the stuff.
BM: The tar sands thing is the biggest Rube Goldberg boondoggle in history. There was a paper last week showing it takes more energy to get this stuff out of the ground than it actually contains. They have to burn so much natural gas underground to keep the oil up so that it will flow that there’s actually a net negative energy balance. It’s craziness.

GB: Are there other specific issues that 350.org has galvanized around?
BM: There’s the fight against coal ports in the Pacific Northwest, there’s mountaintop-removal coal-mining in Appalachia, there’s new L&G plants along the East Coast export facilities, fracking, and so on. But we don’t want to just play defense, we also want to play offense against this industry. In the last couple years we’ve launched this big divestment campaign.

GB: How did that come to pass?
BM: I wrote a piece for Rolling Stone that became one of their mostly widely shared pieces in their history. A team of financial analysts in the U.K. had done the work of adding up all the coal, gas and oil reserves of the fossil fuel industry in the countries that make up that industry. It turns out that when you add it all up it comes out to 2,000 gigatons—3,000 billion tons of carbon. Scientists have told us that if we have any hope of staying below a two-degree temperature increase globally, we can only burn another 500 gigatons of carbon. That is, they are planning to burn six times the amount of carbon the world can possibly cope with. Once you know those numbers, and you know that these are rogue companies, companies that, if they carry out their business plan, they tank the planet. And that’s why this divestment campaign is now up and running.

GB: And how’s it going?
BM: Since we launched it a year ago, there are fights underway on about 300 American college campuses, and now we’ve taken it to Australia and New Zealand and most of Europe. One of the points we’ve been making, it’s not just that it’s immoral to make these investments because you’re essentially betting that the world will do nothing but take on more climate problems, it’s also unwise because if the world ever does do anything, there will be huge stranded assets—a “carbon bubble,” like the housing bubble. We can’t burn more carbon—in the end, someone is going to be left holding the bag.

GB: Sure.
BM: It’s exciting to watch. By itself, though, it’s not enough to bankrupt the fossil fuel industry, but it’s enough to help bankrupt it politically, to weaken its power. We need to put a serious price on carbon, one that reflects the damage it does to the world around us. And if that happened, then we would see a surge like we’ve never seen before, a movement towards efficiency and conservation. Things that are going at a reasonable clip now would go at the kind of clip we need them to go at if we’re to have any hope of dealing with climate change.

GB: I’ve been witnessing a good deal of full-court press in the electronic media with ads touting the good works of Exxon-Mobil and folks in the natural gas arena, and I’m sure you’ve seen them, too. What’s your take on the upswing in this information?
BM: My take is that we’re causing them some trouble, so their only possible response is to spend more money. When we started causing them trouble with the Keystone Pipeline, it’s not like they took a second look at the craziness of the operation. They haven’t bothered to argue very much, they just started buying lobbyists and TV ads. Word is getting out. Every smart college student at this point knows that this is a rogue industry.

GB: Can you talk briefly about the concept of “believing” global warming? To me, it’s often characterized as more of a belief system than it is a science.
BM: Yes, most of the people I think who oppose or deny climate change—about 20 percent of our population—do so not because they’ve done research that shows something different, but because of ideology. The argument in people’s minds generally goes something like, “The free market solves all problems. The free market is not solving global warming, therefore global warming is not a problem.” That’s not a very logical syllogism, but one can see how it would be emotionally comforting. Our problem is that, until there’s a price on carbon, markets will do nothing.

GB: What would be your first step in shifting the mindset of people who don’t accept global warming?
BM: The best and most powerful educator is Mother Nature, and she is continuing to educate with a vengeance, week after week, year after year. Beyond that, with young people, I think the important thing is showing them some of the evidence. Probably the best educational tool I’ve seen this year is that documentary, Chasing Ice, which is a compelling story about how everything frozen on Earth is quickly melting. You watch that and begin to get an unsettling sense in your gut about what’s going on.

GB: When you’re talking with business leaders, what kind of messaging gets through to them when discussing climate change that might actually alter their business practices for the greater good?
BM: I find that the thing that gets through with business leaders is to remind them there is a part of our capitalist society that we’ve asked to analyze risk for us, and that’s called the insurance industry. They’ve been sounding the red alert for years now because they can see in their path everything that’s happening, as the weather of the world starts to change dramatically. They’re our risk analysts and we should pay attention to them. One hopes that business leaders will start to do that. So far, groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have just let themselves be used as pawns of the fossil fuel industry.

GB: What needs to happen in order to get lean economies to really commit to real climate action?
BM: I think the only thing that can be done is to build big movements. The great period of environmental legislation came in the early 1970s: the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act. It came under Richard Nixon. We now know from the Nixon tapes that he hated environmentalists, thought they were dirty hippies, and so on. Why, then, did he and Congress pass all that legislation? Because in 1970, 20 million people came out for the first Earth Day. One in ten in the American population, probably the greatest mobilization about anything in this country. And that was enough to scare these guys into passing anything that had “environmental” in the title.

GB: What are the most effective actions for the individual to take against climate change?
BM: As individuals, the problem with climate change has always been that it’s the biggest thing we’ve ever faced, and as individuals we feel very small. It’s hard to imagine that our actions mean very much. In some sense that’s true—we’re not actually going to stop climate change, at this point, one person at a time, one light bulb at a time. This is a structural problem that will have a structural, political solution. That’s why the most important thing that individuals can do is organize, join together with others in operations like 350.org and do what needs to be done. If we do that, then we’ve got a chance. ■

Watch Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, an international climate change campaign. 350.org is named for 350 parts per million, the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Bill is also an active writer on the climate crisis, and other environmental issues. His 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first book to warn the general public about the threat of global warming. Bill is a frequent contributor to such periodicals as The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Orion, Mother Jones, The New York Review of Books, Rolling Stone and Outside. He is currently a scholar in residence at Middlebury College.

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