Climate change is a familiar fact of life today, but it was still a new concept thirty years ago, in 1989, when Bill McKibben’s landmark The End of Nature was published. The author and activist intended the book, his first, to be a warning about the fragility of nature and an entreaty to live lightly on the earth. Among the potential environmental disasters he described was an increase in the “greenhouse effect”: Like the transparent walls of a greenhouse, certain gases in the earth’s atmosphere trap the sun’s heat. Normally this effect is benign. In fact, without it the planet would be cold and barren. But in the 1980s scientists were beginning to realize that too great an increase in “greenhouse gases” — water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and others — would cause runaway warming.
The End of Nature was inspired in part by the work of James Hansen, a scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who in 1988 reported to Congress that global warming was underway and had been occurring unnoticed for decades. Two years later the First Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared that the enhanced greenhouse effect was largely a product of human activity, approximately half of it due to the use of carbon-based fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned. The scientific community now almost universally accepts that climate change is human-induced and getting worse, despite the efforts of the fossil-fuel industry to cast doubt and create the illusion of ongoing debate.
Born in 1960, McKibben spent his early childhood in Palo Alto, California. Later his family moved to a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, where McKibben’s father would eventually become business editor of The Boston Globe. McKibben worked for a local newspaper in high school. As an undergraduate at Harvard University he became involved in the environmental movement and was president of the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. After graduation he found work as a staff writer at The New Yorker, and he met his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, while working on a story. The couple have one child, a daughter born in 1993. (McKibben has written a book, Maybe One, advocating smaller families.)
McKibben’s climate-change advocacy intensified in 2007 when he founded Step It Up, a nationwide campaign urging the U.S. Congress to take immediate action on climate change. A year later he helped found 350.org, which coordinated demonstrations in 181 countries. The organization’s name is a reference to the maximum safe level of carbon in the atmosphere, expressed in parts per million (ppm). The current carbon level is estimated to be 415 ppm, higher than at any point in the last 800,000 years.
In 2012, 350.org started the Go Fossil Free divestment campaign, which calls for an end to private and public investment in fossil-fuel companies (gofossilfree.org). McKibben is also a vocal supporter of the Green New Deal, an ambitious economic-stimulus package that has been proposed in the U.S. Senate by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and in the House of Representatives by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. The Green New Deal would create jobs, build infrastructure, and help the U.S. end its reliance on fossil fuels, replacing them with renewable-energy alternatives such as solar and wind. President Donald Trump opposes the Green New Deal and has also begun withdrawal of the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement, an inter-national accord that calls on its 197 signatories to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees. The earth is currently 1 degree Celsius warmer.
A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, McKibben lives with his wife in the mountains above Lake Champlain. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future; Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet; and, most recently, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (billmckibben.com). He was passing through Boulder, Colorado, on a tour to promote Falter when I interviewed him for my Alternative Radio series (alternativeradio.org).
Barsamian: In your new book, Falter, you talk about how scientists at both Exxon and NASA confirmed that climate change was occurring back in the 1980s.
McKibben: That’s when we first developed the super-computing power to be able to create realistic models of the climate. We had known since the 1950s that there were greenhouse gases gathering in the atmosphere, but knowing exactly how soon they would cause trouble was difficult.
In the 1980s Exxon was the biggest, richest company in the world. Its product was carbon. And it had good scientists — great scientists — on the payroll. So the scientists set to work trying to understand this problem, and in 1983 they told the executives how much the earth was going to warm and how fast. Being rational, business-minded people, the executives believed them. Exxon, for example, began building all its drilling rigs higher to compensate for the rise in sea level that it knew was coming.
Meanwhile Jim Hansen worked for NASA from an office in New York City, at 112th and Broadway on the Upper West Side. Hansen had built the world’s most powerful model of the climate, and he had the best data coming in from around the globe. He reached the same conclusion that the Exxon scientists had reached, and he told Congress in June of 1988 that the “greenhouse effect,” as we called it then, was here, that the planet was indeed warming, and that it was going to be a very serious crisis.
Exxon could have said the next day, “Our scientists can confirm what Mr. Hansen is telling you.” Had that happened, it would have been a turning point in history. No one would have said, “Oh, Exxon executives are just a bunch of alarmists. Pay them no attention.” We could have begun to take relatively modest steps that would have put us on a different trajectory. By this point we could be on the way to solving climate change.
Instead Exxon, and the fossil-fuel industry as a whole, took the opposite course. It began spending lots of money to build an architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that for the next thirty years kept us locked in a pointless debate about whether global warming was real — a question that, remember, both sides knew the answer to from the get-go. It’s just that one of them was willing to lie. That turned out to be the most consequential lie in human history. It has cost us three crucial decades.
It’s a tragic story of an opportunity lost to corporate greed, and also to a kind of ideological conviction that ran strong, and still runs strong in those circles: that markets can do no wrong and all problems will be solved by laissez-faire capitalism. This has clearly turned out not to be true. Now half the summer sea ice in the Arctic has melted, and the oceans are 30 percent more acidic than they were before. We’ve run market capitalism through a test, and it has failed.
Barsamian: The year after Hansen’s testimony, you wrote The End of Nature, the first book about climate change for a nonscientific audience. What prompted you to write it?
McKibben: A few years earlier, right out of college, I had gone to work at The New Yorker. The first long piece I wrote for the magazine was about finding out where everything in my apartment had come from. I went to the Arctic to look at the hydro dams where Con Edison was generating power and to Arizona to see the uranium mines, and on and on.
By the end, I’d come away with a much stronger sense of the physicality of the world. That sounds like a strange thing to say, but I’d been a good suburban American. The suburbs are designed to make you unaware where the rivers are, for example, or what happens to them. The suburbs disguise all that. With this new sense of the physicality of the world, of its physical arrangements, I started reading the early climate science, and I was struck by its import, by the idea that we shouldn’t take for granted the stability of the physical world. We should be very worried about such changes. This was a difficult idea for people to grapple with. It just seemed so overwhelming. It was easier to look away than to stare hard at it.
Barsamian: Perhaps the language has something to do with people looking away. When you hear over and over again words like unprecedented, record-breaking, and irreparable, it creates a kind of psychic numbness.
McKibben: Right. If you’re a writer or an activist, you have to break through that numbness. It’s gotten easier in the last ten or fifteen years because what was once an abstract threat is now a daily reality for hundreds of millions of people, and the scenes are shocking. Last fall in California, a town literally called Paradise turned into hell inside of half an hour. We saw pictures of people burned to death in their cars trying to flee down a two-lane road from the worst firestorm in American history.
Barsamian: The German resistance fighter Martin Niemöller famously wrote, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” I could update that: “First climate change came for the Pacific Islanders, and I did nothing — because I wasn’t a Pacific Islander. Then it came for the Bangladeshis, and I did nothing — because I wasn’t a Bangladeshi. . . .” Pretty soon the world’s coastlines will be enveloped by rising water.
McKibben: That’s why a little more than a decade ago I made a fairly pronounced turn from writing to activism, and I helped start 350.org. Because the biggest impacts from climate change were being felt in far-flung places, we wanted to organize globally from the start — not an easy thing to do. It’s called 350.org because that’s the number of parts per million that scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon in the atmosphere, but also because we wanted to be able to communicate around the world, and numerals work better for that than English letters. For our first action we organized 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. CNN called it the most widespread day of political activity in the planet’s history.
This new book, Falter, is dedicated to my dear colleague who died two years ago, Koreti Tiumalu, maybe the finest organizer I’ve ever met. She organized the Pacific Climate Warriors faction of 350.org, which has continued to do unbelievable work. The thing is, most of the people who are fighting the hardest are in places that didn’t cause the problem. That moves me every single day. If people in Bangladesh and Fiji can get up and join this effort, then surely we Americans, who have contributed more carbon to the atmosphere than any other nation in history, can do the same.
Barsamian: The host of Meet the Press, Chuck Todd, devoted an entire show to climate change last December. He said, “The science is settled, even if political opinion is not.” Afterward an organization called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is partly funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, took out a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal that said, “Contrary to Chuck Todd and the alarmists, there is real debate among scientists.” Really?
McKibben: Of course not. This is the Koch brothers throwing a hissy fit because for the first time in thirty years a broadcast-TV network actually devoted serious time to talking about climate change. Whole years have gone by in which the network news devoted less than half an hour to climate change — in the course of a year. The networks are beginning to do a little better now, but the fossil-fuel industry, after three decades of successful propaganda efforts, won’t tolerate even the tiniest crack. So, yeah: a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal. And you can bet that the fossil-fuel industry is reminding the networks precisely how much advertising it buys a year.
The science has long been clear. The last moment when anyone could have credibly said that there was scientific debate about the problem was in 1995, just before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its second report, which reconfirmed that human beings are raising the temperature of the earth. You and I are sitting here today in Boulder, Colorado, home to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and I promise you, you could walk the corridors of the national labs here without finding a single climate scientist who would disagree with Chuck Todd.
Barsamian: Still, in reports about, say, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico or Hurricane Harvey in Texas or the firestorms in Northern California, the media fail to mention climate change — a term that, incidentally, our friend Ralph Nader scolded me for using. He prefers “climate disruption.”
McKibben: Or “climate chaos.” I got a note from him, too. I sometimes still call it the “greenhouse effect.” That’s how long I’ve been doing this.
Look, this has not been a great chapter in the history of journalism, but it’s getting much better. The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Guardian now provide pretty good daily coverage, but they have a lot to make up for. Environmental correspondent Mark Hertsgaard is launching a major effort at The Nation.
Barsamian: The number of people affected by floods worldwide is expected to triple by 2030. Last autumn the IPCC issued a new report that gives 2030 as a kind of cutoff date. What is the significance of this?
McKibben: The IPCC produced its report as a kind of follow-up to the 2015 Paris climate conference. The question it tackled was: If we want to meet the target that we set in Paris — to hold the temperature increase to somewhere between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius — what would it take? Now, remember, these are not ideal targets. We’ve already raised the temperature about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and that’s melted half the Arctic. So it’s not that we’re aiming for a good solution; we’re aiming for the best solution that’s still within the realm of possibility.
The IPCC said that if we haven’t begun to make a fundamental transformation by 2030 — basically cutting carbon emissions by half — we’ll miss our chance of meeting those targets. That’s why both the Green New Deal and the Sunrise Movement envision 2030 as a crucial deadline, which is now ten years and some months away. Anyone who knows politics knows that if you want something to happen in ten years, you have to start working on it right now. This is the last presidential election, the last Congressional cycle, where we’re going to have a chance to meet that deadline.
Barsamian: What do you think of the Green New Deal?
McKibben: I think it’s brilliant. I’m very proud of the young people who are behind it. Social activist and author Naomi Klein and I helped launch a fossil-fuel-divestment campaign, which 350.org really pushed hard on college campuses. Many activists who cut their teeth on that campus-divestment movement formed Sunrise, the political-action organization that came up with the Green New Deal. They were the ones who managed to get Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to join them in a sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Now, sit-ins normally don’t attract much attention, but this was something that doesn’t happen very often in Washington, D.C. — a congressperson sitting in at her boss’s office, as it were. That was a galvanizing moment that launched the Green New Deal and helped turn Ocasio-Cortez into the commanding and remarkable figure that she is.
It’s not that this legislation is going to pass tomorrow. It clearly isn’t. It may never pass, because it’s big and bold. What it does do is describe for the first time the kind of large-scale effort that’s required to deal with the problem we now have. The right-wingers who are saying, “Oh, the Green New Deal is socialist,” or, “Oh, it’s too big,” are precisely the same people who kept us from taking small steps thirty years ago. I have to restrain myself once in a while from saying, “If only you had listened to me then, there were lots of little things we could have done.” Thirty years ago a modest price increase on carbon would have been enough to put this country on a different trajectory. But the oil industry was having none of it, and now they’re the ones saying the Green New Deal is too big.
Exxon, and the fossil-fuel industry as a whole. . . . began spending lots of money to build an architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that for the next thirty years kept us locked in a pointless debate about whether global warming was real.
Barsamian: You say Falter is about being human. What do you mean by that?
McKibben: The book is partly about climate change but also about what’s happened in this country over the last thirty years. And it’s about the next round of technological invention and hubris — in particular, artificial intelligence and human genetic engineering, which feel to me the same way climate change did thirty years ago: like something ominous we’re not paying enough attention to. In October 2018 a Chinese doctor produced the first two designer babies on the planet, a pair of twin girls. Since then, a number of important scientists have signed a letter saying we need a moratorium on human genetic engineering. But there are an awful lot of other scientists — and, more important, tycoons in Silicon Valley — who want to push ahead, and fast, with human genetic engineering. They know that in a consumer culture there is an infinite market for improved people.
In the book I raise some practical problems with that, some of which are so obvious they hardly even need to be discussed. For example, we live in a deeply unequal society right now. Do we really want to etch that inequality into our genome by allowing the rich to have designer babies?
Turning people into products also raises deep questions about what it means to be human. We know a fair amount about how genes control the brain’s serotonin and dopamine levels — and, hence, mood. I can envision a day, not far off, when a couple will be able to go into the clinic and, if they have sufficient funds, decide what level of dopamine they want their child to have. Imagine you are that child, and you’re thirteen and find yourself feeling happy one day. How do you know whether it’s because of something that’s actually going on or just the genetic engineering kicking in? Let’s say your parents went back to the clinic two or three years after they had you for baby number two, and they had more money by then, and the technology had progressed, and they got the next set of upgrades. Does that make you the human equivalent of Windows 2000 or the iPhone 6? This is a world we don’t need to have. We can prevent the transmission of genetic diseases with other means that don’t require tinkering on this scale.
We should pay attention to this the way we should have paid attention to climate change thirty years ago. There is a long chapter in Falter about [novelist and philosopher] Ayn Rand and the rise of hyperlibertarianism, which is the one thing that unites the Silicon Valley tycoons and the fossil-fuel billionaires. Ayn Rand is a goddess in both communities. They don’t want anyone ever telling them what to do. They don’t value society or human solidarity, only a kind of extreme freedom to do whatever they want. The result is a world that’s getting hotter.
Barsamian: The current occupant of the Oval Office calls climate change a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese. I was very curious when he made the announcement in the White House Rose Garden in June 2017 that the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Agreement, which isn’t even a treaty, just a loose understanding among nations.
McKibben: And you know why it isn’t a treaty? Because the rest of the world decided there was no way the U.S. Senate would ever muster the sixty-six votes needed to pass a climate treaty. Instead they would have to jury-rig a system of pledges and promises. Our political dysfunction was the reason the Paris Agreement was such a weak and watered-down affair.
Barsamian: What I found disturbing at that Rose Garden event was that the assembled audience of administration officials burst into applause. I thought, Is there no shame at all?
McKibben: This was their project. The only good thing that came out of it was that Trump’s speechwriter had him say, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” and three hours later the mayor of Pittsburgh said, in essence, “You don’t speak for us,” and announced a plan for his city to run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. Since then, there’s been an awful lot of progress at the state and local level. Just this week Denver joined many cities in divesting its pension funds from fossil fuels.
Barsamian: More than forty cities have done so.
McKibben: Including London, New York, and Paris, the great financial capitals of the world. When I started talking about divestment, I didn’t envision that it would put quite so much hurt on the fossil-fuel industry. We’re now at $8 trillion worth of endowments and portfolios that have divested in part or in whole. Shell said last year that divestment has become a material risk to its business. A couple of weeks ago there was a big story in Politico in which coal executives say quite bluntly that they simply can’t raise capital anymore: too many investment funds have divested from fossil fuel.
It’s been good to watch this play out around the world, and there’s a lot more to come. Just yesterday a campaign was launched to get Harvard University to divest its $40 billion endowment — the biggest endowment of any university in the world — from fossil fuel.
Barsamian: The Rockefeller Brothers Fund divested right after the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City.
McKibben: That was a key moment, when the heirs to the first oil fortune said, in effect, “No more for us. This is (a) an immoral way to make money, and (b) not even a smart investment anymore, because oil stocks are doing badly.” Over the last five years fossil-fuel stocks have underperformed every other part of the market.
The cost of a solar panel has dropped 90 percent in the last decade. The cheapest, easiest way to produce electricity around the world now is with sun and wind. The batteries to store that power are getting cheaper with each passing month. There’s no long-term future for the fossil-fuel industry. The executives just want to keep their business model going for another couple of decades, even at the cost of breaking the planet, which it will. Fifty years from now we’re definitely going to run this world on sun and wind. The question is: Can we make the transition fast enough to avoid a broken world? On our current trajectory we’ll need a lot of solar panels and wind turbines just to power the pumps to remove the seawater from all the coastal cities of the planet.
Barsamian: Here’s a question I hear a lot: “Don’t these oil guys” — and they’re mostly guys — “have children and grandchildren? How could they put their own families at risk?”
McKibben: One answer is that they’re drunk on Ayn Rand. In the minds of libertarian luminaries, markets solve all problems. If markets aren’t solving climate change, they think, then climate change is not a problem.
A question I get all the time is: “Why didn’t Exxon just decide to dominate the solar-energy business? They had the cash flow to build out. It would have been the right solution.” The answer is that, although you can make a lot of money from solar energy — people are going to get rich putting up solar panels and wind turbines — once you’ve put the panel up, the sun delivers the energy for free. From Exxon’s point of view, that’s a stupid business model. It would be as if you had a furnace in your basement that somehow just created oil out of thin air. Exxon wants you to write a check to it every month forever. It doesn’t want energy to be free. That’s why fossil-fuel companies have used every resource at their disposal to try to beat back renewable energy. But it’s getting so cheap that they’re just playing for time, making the transition take as long as possible.
Barsamian: Some have suggested that the accumulation of wealth and unchecked growth is in capitalism’s DNA. It’s incapable of turning this ship around.
McKibben: Certainly unregulated capitalism is what has run this ship aground. The good news — and in my business one looks hard for small pieces of good news — is that it’s cheaper to take up the task of quickly converting to sun and wind. And as we do that, one of the side benefits is that we will have a chance to rebalance the scales of power and wealth, which have been so unequally distributed.
A fair amount of the imbalance of power and wealth comes from the fact that certain people sit atop deposits of coal, oil, and gas — our greatest economic treasures. The Koch brothers are billionaires not because they have some deep insight into economics but because they’re oil and gas barons and have enough money to purchase a political party. We pay fealty to the Saudi royal family not because they have some quality we admire. They beheaded teenagers this week for the crime of asking for democracy. We pay fealty to them because they sit on top of a big oil well. The future will, hopefully, be somewhat less imbalanced in that way, because we’ll be producing our energy much closer to home. No one will be writing a check to the Koch brothers every month.
Barsamian: Berta Cáceres, an eco-activist who was murdered in Honduras, said, “While we have capitalism, this planet will not be saved.”
McKibben: If we continue doing what we’re doing now, I think that’s completely true. This raises the question of how we define capitalism. Bernie Sanders points to Denmark as his ideal. It’s capitalist in the sense that there are markets, people exchange money for goods and services, there are corporations, and so on. But it’s not capitalism like we’re used to, because the government doesn’t just hand over control to eight rich people.
The cartoonish levels of inequality we have are almost as unnerving as the absurd levels of environmental disruption. Eight people control more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion on the planet. The ocean is 30 percent more acidic than it was forty years ago. Those are equally dangerous facts, and they’re connected.
Barsamian: Let’s say I work on an oil rig or in a coal mine, and my livelihood depends on that job. I’ve got aging parents who are going to need assisted living soon. My kid’s college is expensive. I’ve got a mortgage to pay. How do you win me over?
McKibben: This is precisely the conversation that backers of the Green New Deal want to have. In fact, last week a Kentucky congressman challenged Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to come down to his district and talk to some coal miners, and she immediately asked when and where. The guy backed down because he knew that what she had to say would be compelling. She would say the Green New Deal is about a job guarantee and a good wage for anyone who wants to work on this transition to clean energy. It’s about a college education for everyone who wants one, just the way that they do in most industrialized countries. It’s about government-provided medical care so you don’t die of black-lung disease.
These are precisely the things that affect coal miners in Kentucky. It’s not like anyone loves the actual act of mining coal. My mother’s family is from West Virginia. I know that world a bit. Coal jobs have been the only good jobs down there for a long time. And, remember, every piece of legislation about climate or energy that the Democrats have put forward for decades has included money for retraining and relocating displaced workers. The Republicans have refused to pass any of them.
At this point the coal industry is so fully automated that there aren’t many coal miners left anyway. The Washington Post ran a story a while back pointing out that there are now more people who work in Arby’s roast-beef-sandwich shops in this country than who mine coal. Spain just essentially did away with its coal industry. It gave many miners early retirement and others job retraining, because that was cheaper than the consequences of keeping the coal mines open. So it’s not that we can’t do this. The reason we’re not doing it is because the people who own coal mines have undue political influence.
Barsamian: You’ve said that indigenous people are often on the “front lines” of environmental destruction. What can we learn from them?
McKibben: Indigenous people have been at the absolute heart of climate organizing. In the nineteenth century Europeans pushed them off their land and onto land that we thought had no value. It turns out now that many of them are living either atop big deposits of coal, gas, and oil or astride the transportation corridors needed to get those fuels to market. So they’ve been able to play a significant role.
I have helped organize the resistance to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Western Canada to refineries in the U.S. I got involved because a couple of people who became dear friends, Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Clayton Thomas-Müller — indigenous organizers from Alberta — started showing me what was going on up in Canada, where they are extracting oil from tar sands [oil deposits close to the surface, where crude is mixed with sand and clay — Ed.]. There is a scar on the face of the earth there. It couldn’t be more horrible. And, of course, the climate consequences are horrible, too. If you were to dig up all the economically viable tar sands in Canada and burn them, it would raise the carbon concentration in the atmosphere from its current 410 parts per million — already too high — to about 540 parts per million.
So the indigenous people started that fight and are still fighting Keystone XL and other projects, as we saw in 2016 and 2017 with the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Everywhere around the world it’s the same. Indigenous people are fighting hard to keep Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau from building this ridiculous Trans Mountain Pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia. They’re the ones at the forefront of the fight in Queensland, Australia, to stop the Adani corporation from building one of the biggest coal mines in the world. They are the ones in the South Pacific who are rallying public opinion. On and on and on and on.
There’s something powerful about the way the oldest wisdom traditions on the planet and the new wisdom traditions of climate science are meshing. The view from the sweat lodge and the view from the satellite are in pretty strong accord. And they’re both saying that endless growth isn’t possible, isn’t smart, isn’t good, isn’t wise.
Despair is a perfectly legitimate emotion to have. Sometimes I feel it. In my experience, the only way to overcome it is through action. One feels a lot less wretched when one is doing something.
Barsamian: What are other wisdom traditions doing about climate change?
McKibben: Faith-based environmental organizers from the major world religions have become really important. Not that long ago there was no religious environmental movement, but now there very much is. One of the greatest documents of this millennium is Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, Laudato si’, which calls for an “ecological conversion” among people of faith and offers a remarkable critique of modernity, as radical as anything anyone in this country has written. It’s entirely worth one’s time to spend a day with it. At 350.org we work constantly with people from every religious tradition who are stepping up. And, boy, are they good organizers.
Barsamian: How does one overcome the pervasive sense of despair around climate change?
McKibben: Despair is a perfectly legitimate emotion to have. Sometimes I feel it. In my experience, the only way to overcome it is through action. One feels a lot less wretched when one is doing something. We don’t know how this story is going to end, but we know it has a chance of ending at least halfway decently if we act now.
We’re obviously not going to stop global warming. It is too late for that. But it’s not too late to keep it from reaching a 3.5-degree or 4-degree Celsius rise in temperature. That’s around 7 degrees Fahrenheit. If that happens, then we cannot have a civilization anything like the one we currently have. But we don’t have to go there. If we do everything right, at this point we could hit that 1.5-to-2-degreeCelsius target. That will be a difficult world. Climate change is already making life very, very hard for a lot of people, especially the people who did the least to cause it. But if we go much higher than that, then life will go from difficult to impossible.
The youngest members of the climate movement understand this. Look, you and I are going to be dead before the absolute worst of this kicks in. But if you’re twelve right now, or fourteen, or eighteen, it’s going to happen in the prime of your life, and you’re going to have to respond to constant disasters. The youth understand the unfairness of this, and it’s good to see them calling older people out on it.
Barsamian: John Nichols, the novelist who wrote The Milagro Beanfield War, said, “Despair is a despicable and bourgeois affectation; we must not allow it.”
McKibben: I sometimes despair on days when I think we’re just not moving fast enough. But then I think to myself, Even if that’s true, at least I can cause some trouble for the oil companies, and that’s sometimes reward enough for the day.
Barsamian: Another favorite quote of mine is Antonio Gramsci’s “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” You look at the situation objectively and see that it’s dire, but you have the optimism to overcome it.
McKibben: Climate change tests that optimism, because it’s not like other political challenges, where time is on our side, and eventually we’re going to win. Martin Luther King Jr. would often say, quoting the Massachusetts abolitionist Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s a comforting thought. The arc of the physical universe, though, appears to be short and bends toward heat. If we don’t solve the problem soon, we won’t ever solve it. There’s not a plan for refreezing the Arctic once it melts. I think it was [socialist Presbyterian minister] Norman Thomas who said, “I am not the champion of lost causes, but the champion of causes not yet won,” which is a wonderful and quite American way to think about things. But in the case of climate change, it’s not true. That’s why, in a rational world, we would be devoting every resource to making a difference in the short amount of time we have left. Past a certain point, we won’t be able to.
We’re obviously approaching that point. We’ve raised the temperature of the earth, and that rise in temperature is melting the permafrost up north, which is releasing potent greenhouse gases — methane and nitrogen oxides — into the atmosphere. We can all drive electric cars, put up solar panels, walk where we’re going, eat lower on the food chain — all things that we should do — but we have no way of keeping the methane and nitrogen oxide from being released if we keep raising the temperature.
Barsamian: It seems to me that change is not going to come from the top. It’s going to come from below, from people’s movements and blockades and sit-ins and mass demonstrations.
McKibben: Absolutely. So here’s what people need to be thinking about this year. Leaders of school strikes for climate have said that it’s time for adults to back up the students. We need millions of people walking off the job, if only for a day, to make the point that business as usual is not an option. We have to disrupt business as usual, because it’s literally what’s doing us in. When we get up every day and keep doing more or less the same thing we did the day before, even as this enormous crisis unfolds, that’s the problem.
We have to create enough pressure that the economic system begins to respond. It’s not going to be easy, and when the system finally does respond, it will do so in the most minimal of ways. Oil companies will propose a modest carbon tax, and they will ask in return to be removed from any liability for what they’ve done in the past and for an end to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency. It will be hard not to jump at that deal, because there’s never been anything like it offered before. But if we do, we’ll take the pressure off, and time will pass without enough progress. It’s going to be very difficult. For the moment our job is to keep ratcheting up the pressure.
Barsamian: You say you’re “less grim” now than you were in your younger days.
McKibben: Less grim in certain ways. Truthfully I would not have predicted in 1989 that we would do nothing. I would not have predicted when I was twenty-seven that the fossil-fuel industry would lie to us for thirty years. I was, as it turns out, naive. But I’m more optimistic now that I’ve watched and helped with the development of movements, and I’ve come to understand nonviolent movement-building as a kind of technology that, like solar panels, came out of the twentieth century and offers enormous promise in the twenty-first. Gandhi and King and the suffragettes and others figured out a new way of moving the world, a way for the small-but-many to stand up to the mighty-but-few. That’s precisely the situation we are in.
Barsamian: The big question you pose in the book is: Can we act fast enough?
McKibben: I don’t know. We’re going to find out, and not in a hundred years. We’ll know in ten or fifteen years if we acted fast enough. Probably we’ll have a good sense even earlier than that. I do know at this point that we’re going to put up a fight. Ten years ago I didn’t know that. I was worried we would walk off this cliff without even knowing we were doing it, which seemed undignified, at the very least.
I think humans as a species are in the process of finding out whether our big brains are a good adaptation or not. Clearly they can get us in a lot of trouble. Whether they can also get us out of trouble depends on the size of our hearts.