An Important Conversation With Climate Change Pioneer Bill McKibben

divest from oil, protest
Divest-from-oil demonstration in the financial district of New York City on February 13, 2015. Photo credit: 350 .org / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Reading Time: 13 minutesWhoWhatWhy Climate Change Coverage

The threat to humanity that climate change poses has been with us for nearly a century, says Bill McKibben, who was one of the first to sound the alarm.

One would think that this would have been enough time to conduct a vigorous debate and come up with a policy to deal with the problem. Instead, we now find ourselves on the brink of disaster and are still discussing whether it poses a problem that needs to be addressed.

How did we get here, which is really nowhere at all?

We thought it would be good to ask McKibben, whose 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first to lay out the oncoming danger. So we invited him to join us for this special WhoWhatWhy podcast.

McKibben walks us through the history of this fight — with a special emphasis on the role of money and the fossil fuel industry and why he thinks it may already be too late for humanity.

Covering Climate Now

googleplaylogo200px download rss-35468_640

Click HERE to Download Mp3


Full Text Transcript:

As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to time constraints, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like. Should you spot any errors, we’d be grateful if you would notify us.

Jeff Schechtman: Thanks for joining us on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.
Jeff Schechtman: The very idea of global warming has been with us for almost 100 years. Today instead of engaging in a vigorous debate about the appropriate public policy to deal with the crisis, we’re busy debating politics and personalities. Because what is past is always prologue, it’s worth taking a look at how we got here. How have we so clearly misunderstood or ignored the obvious, and at the same time, failed to take the necessary and appropriate action. We certainly wouldn’t do this with respect to our own health, why should we do it with respect to the planet.
Jeff Schechtman: We’re going to talk about this with one of the world’s leading voices on the subject of global warming and climate change. He’s Bill McKibben. He’s the author of more than a dozen books about the environment beginning with what was the first general audience book to take on this subject, The End of Nature, back in 1989. He’s currently the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and a leader of the anti-carbon campaign group, 350.org. He’s the author of numerous books, articles and films dealing with the environmental crisis we face.
Jeff Schechtman: It is my pleasure to welcome Bill McKibben here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Bill, thanks so much for joining us.
Bill McKibben: Well, what a pleasure for me.
Jeff Schechtman: Bill, in reading your work, one of the things that is so remarkable is the realization that people were talking about this problem as far back as the 19th century.
Bill McKibben: Yes. Right before the turn of the century, the turn of the last century, the great Swedish chemist, Arrhenius, who later won the Nobel for other work, did what were, I suppose you could almost describe as, back-of-the-envelope calculations about what the effect would be, as he put it, of evaporating our coal mines into the air. The amazing thing is that his projections for what that would do to temperature are not remarkably far off from what modern supercomputers spit out, nor indeed, from what we’re seeing around us as we carry out this experiment in real time.
Jeff Schechtman: How frustrating does it get for you, particularly listening to all these voices as you have for so many years and realizing that we should be debating the specifics of the science, the realities of public policy to deal with this? And certainly there are many areas where vigorous debate would be appropriate and we’re still back at square one in some cases.
Bill McKibben: Yeah, no, the real problem with that is, we’re running out of time. If we had decades or centuries to work this out, then, okay, whatever, we’ll just put up with it. But we don’t. We have a short window and we’re wasting it. In fact, it’s being wasted for us. This is very purposefully how the fossil fuel industry is going about preserving their profit margin, they’re making sure that we just delay and never take effective action.
Jeff Schechtman: How did we get where we are today?
Bill McKibben: Well, the reason that it’s so difficult, of course, is that fossil fuels are at the center of modern lives, and so getting off it’s going to be hard. It would be hard enough if we didn’t have to overcome this political power of the fossil fuel industry. But they are the richest enterprise humans have ever engaged in, and hence, in our democracy, they have really more power than they deserve.
Jeff Schechtman: And yet, in many ways, the fossil fuel industry is beginning to look at post-carbon ways to make a profit, to continue its economic dominance, and I don’t fault them for that on a certain level, and yet there are others that are still just completely blind to the issue itself.
Bill McKibben: Yeah, well, I wish the fossil fuel industry was doing that, but yes, there’s also this ideological denier-bent out there. They don’t worry me anywhere near as much as the many more people who understand that there’s a problem, but haven’t taken serious action. It’s easy to fall into that camp because it’s such a huge and overwhelming problem that sometimes you think, “What good could I do?” That’s why we set up 350.org, this big grassroots climate movement, and happily, we’ve  begun to have a little success in mobilizing people. Since we’re never going to have as much money as the fossil fuel industry, we’re going to have to find other currencies to work in. You know, passion, spirit, creativity.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the difference between the ideological debate about this and the economic debate, because the economic debate, on some level, is easier to understand. Greed is pretty clear, money is pretty clear, the ideological aspect of this is the more frustrating part.
Bill McKibben: I think one of the syllogisms in the head of some ideologues is, 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 wise syllogism, but it would be emotionally comforting if that’s how you view the world. The irony is, that environmentalists, I think, are the greatest hopers that, in fact, markets will do a lot to deal with this issue. If we ever put a price on carbon to reflect the damage that it did in the atmosphere, then I think there’s some hope we’d actually begin to take serious action.
Jeff Schechtman: Several years ago, you put together a kind of global warming reader in which you had many voices talking about the problems that we face and that we’re talking about today. At the time, you even allowed some deniers to contribute to that volume. What did you think you were accomplishing by doing that?
Bill McKibben: I think it’s really important for people to understand why we’re not taking action. So people like Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, they may not have a scientific leg to stand on, but basically, winning the fight at this point, holding off any real action. So I wanted people to see what he and others, the sort of arguments that they were making, and that kind of thing.
Jeff Schechtman: The bottom line is, that at this point, there are no arguments that have any credibility whatsoever.
Bill McKibben: Well, in terms of scientific credibility, none. But that doesn’t always carry the day. An example, I was … Michael Crichton, the great novelist, who wrote Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, and so on, but he also was a right wing crank on questions of climate change. He had this whole … he refused to believe it. Well, fine, except that Congress summoned him to testify three or four times on this issue to repeat all his craziness on it, instead of the tens of thousands of climate scientists who were working around the clock to try and figure out how we’re ever going to get out of this problem.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the science, because that really lies at the heart of all of this.
Bill McKibben: What’s interesting about the science is, as we said, we had an idea early on, back as far as Arrhenius, that this would be trouble. But, pretty much, people ignored it through the 20th century because we were figuring out all sorts of cool things to do with fossil fuel and because scientists assumed that the oceans would serve as a sink for sopping up extra carbon in the atmosphere. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that someone actually decided to find out if that was true or not, and they set up what’s probably the most important scientific instrument in the history of the planet up on the edge of Mauna Loa, the volcano in Hawaii, and started measuring how much carbon dioxide there was in the air. And, son of a gun, they instantly found that year after year, CO2 was climbing. In fact, that curve has just been steepening over the intervening half century. That’s the chart of our particular tragedy.
Bill McKibben: It wasn’t, again, until the late 1980s that we had supercomputing power to really figure out how close to the edge we were. And it turned out, we were pretty darn close. I wrote the first book about climate change for a general audience in 1989. Since that time, the science has grown ever stronger. And really, the only change over the last quarter century is, we understand that this is coming harder and faster than we thought.
Jeff Schechtman: Going back and trying to understand the history of this, certainly how we got here. It’s important to go back even to 1988 and the testimony of James Hansen before Congress. Tell us a little about that.
Bill McKibben: Yes, his first testimony to Congress in 1988 was really a turning point. It was the first time, for instance, that this subject appeared above the fold on the front page of The New York Times the next day. And what Hansen said was, and it was against the backdrop of a very, very hot early summer in America, what he said was, “It’s time to stop pussyfooting around. We can say with 99% confidence that human beings are heating the planet.” At the time, it was controversial, even among other scientists, the way that the scientific method works, as you know, is people go out and try to disprove hypotheses. But, the next five years, people tried and they couldn’t. And by 1995, it was strong scientific consensus.
Jeff Schechtman: Among those that are trying to distract from the reality and the danger and the immediacy of what’s going on here, we hear this semantic debate that goes on between global warming and climate change, as if they’re two entirely different things. Address that.
Bill McKibben: You know, I tend to use the two interchangeably. What’s really going on, if you think about it, is the introduction of extra energy into this narrow envelope of atmosphere. At the moment, because we put all this CO2 in the atmosphere and because its molecular structure traps heat, we’re trapping about three quarters of a watt of extra solar energy, on a meter of your servers. That doesn’t sound like too much, it’s less than one of those small white Christmas tree lights per square meter. But if you aggregate it all, it turns into a lot of extra energy and that energy does a lot of things. It melts ice, it evaporates more water into the atmosphere. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold and the atmosphere’s about 4% wetter than it was 40 years ago, and that’s why we see an outbreak increase in drought and floods the world over.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s certainly every reason to believe that there might be progress on the horizon, but what happens if, for various political reasons, things go badly? What happens if we continue on the present path?
Bill McKibben: Well, I mean, if we continue on the present path, we take the current one degree warming, that’s about how much we warmed the planet so far. The climatologists who tell us that that was going to happen, now tell us that unless we get off coal and gas very quickly, that’ll be four or five degrees before the century is out. We’ve already caused huge change with the temperature increase we’ve seen so far. But there’s no reason to think that, really as civilizations, we can quite deal with the change of the magnitude they tell us is coming. So I think we’d be very well-advised to take their warning and get off that path and move quickly to other forms of energy.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the worldwide response to climate change, and how fundamentally different it is from anything that’s going on here in the US.
Bill McKibben: The US is the laggard, partly that’s because we’re most deeply addicted to fossil fuel. Per capita, we use more of it than anyone, so perhaps it stands to reason that we would be deepest in denial. That doesn’t mean other countries aren’t emulating many of the dumb things that we’ve done. The Chinese are busy building coal fired power plants, for instance. But the Chinese are also, and quickly, ramping up their renewable energy capacity. They lead the world now in renewable energy. I did a piece for the National Geographic on China and energy and it was really striking to see. There’s 25% of China now compared to 1% of the US gets its hot water from solar panels on the roof, 250 million Chinese when they take a shower at night, that hot water is coming from solar panels on the roof. It’s a good example of other places making progress that we are not.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s recently been support for the effort on climate change from the faith-based community, not some place you’d expect it. It’s not wide-ranging, but it is happening in pockets. Talk about that.
Bill McKibben: It’s been very good to see religious communities, faith communities of all kinds, beginning to become very involved in this movement. I think that’s going to play a key role because nothing’s ever been a bigger challenge to our stewardship of the environment than what we’re doing with the rapid onset of climate change.
Jeff Schechtman: At the end of the day, why has it been so hard to make this case to the American people? The science is there, the arguments are there, the climatic evidence is all around us, what’s been so difficult?
Bill McKibben: I think it’s difficult because of two things. One is the inertia that comes from the fact that we all use a lot of fossil fuel and really kind of like it. And the other is because of that enormous financial power of the fossil fuel industry, and I think the second is the bigger.
Jeff Schechtman: And how has this been most profoundly exhibited in fighting the reality of this?
Bill McKibben: Well, take for example, this fight that we’ve had about this Keystone Pipeline from the tar sands of Canada down to the Gulf Coast. Well, when we were out in the open, we were able to really win this fight and that worked pretty well. But as soon as we got into Congress, as soon as it started to play around with it, you could see the power of money assert itself. The House of Representatives voted to speed up approval of this pipeline and those 234 had taken 42 million dollars from the fossil fuel industry. Their own, they’re sort of a harem for the fossil fuel industry and they do what they’re told. That kind of power, if that’s what they’ll do to protect one small pipeline, think what they’ll do to protect their basic special privilege. The fact that alone among industries, they’re allowed to pour their waste out for free. It’s quite remarkable to see that power up close and personal.
Jeff Schechtman: Should we be looking at ways, from a public policy perspective, although it’s counterintuitive in many ways, but looking for ways in which trying to find alternative energy sources and dealing with these issues in some way enhances the fossil fuel industry. If they’re profit-driven, will we have more success?
Bill McKibben: Well, look, I think that they’re never going to have the level of success that they’re having. They’re making more money than any companies in the history of money. They can still make plenty of money, but they won’t be able to make, from the sun and the wind, the windfall. The trouble with the sun, from their point of view, is that you can’t stick a meter on it, you know?
Jeff Schechtman: But certainly, whether it’s solar panels of whether it’s-
Bill McKibben: They can definitely make some money, they’re just fighting hard because they want to make all the money.
Jeff Schechtman: Certainly some days it seems like progress is being made, other days, given the current administration, it seems like no progress at all is happening, in fact, we’re going backwards. Where is your level of optimism or pessimism in all of this, Bill?
Bill McKibben: Well, scientifically, the news is tough and politically we’re making a lot less progress than one would hope. I guess the good news is, we’re finally starting to build this movement a little bit. That’s good, to see people around the world stepping up is nice. I don’t know whether we’re going to do this in time or not. If we had 100 years, yeah, we’d be okay. We don’t, the physics and chemistry of this offer us a narrow window in which to make change. So I’d be lying to you if I said I was blindly optimistic. I think that the most important next step is really to get people understanding the degree to which this is not a future threat, but a present crisis.
Bill McKibben: All over the world, people in communities that have already been stung by climate change will be demanding that the world hear their witness and, more important, connect it up to all the other witness coming from all the other places, whether it’s flood-ravaged Pakistan, or Thailand, or Vermont where I live, or drought-ravaged Texas, or Russia, or the Horn of Africa, the places that have seen wildfires, the places whose coral reefs are vanishing as the oceans acidify, the glaciers that are melting, on and on and on. We’re going to try and combine them. And if people go to 350.org, they can see how they can take part in that effort.
Jeff Schechtman: Hindsight is really easy, but might there have been a way, at some point, to have this scientific conversation without politicizing it the way it has been, to the way that economics has become so much a part of it and so many areas of politics have been wrapped into it?
Bill McKibben: I’m afraid there’s no way around it. This is at the heart of our … fossil fuel is the most important fact of modern life in many ways. And I don’t think there’s any way to just, I don’t think we’re going to make little tiny tweaks and get out of a problem of this scale. I think we’re having to ask fundamental questions. So I think it’s good that we’re starting to do that.
Jeff Schechtman: Bill McKibben. Bill, I think you so much for spending time with us today.
Bill McKibben: Well, thank you so much, as always, and for good questions.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Jeff Schechtman: If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast, and all the work we do, by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from 350.org / Vimeo (CC BY 3.0) and Robert A. Rohde / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Where else do you see journalism of this quality and value?

Please help us do more. Make a tax-deductible contribution now.

Our Comment Policy

Keep it civilized, keep it relevant, keep it clear, keep it short. Please do not post links or promotional material. We reserve the right to edit and to delete comments where necessary.

print

One response to “An Important Conversation With Climate Change Pioneer Bill McKibben”

  1. james says:

    You can bet Trump or Biden as the establishment choices will do nothing to even slightly avert the building climate crisis. The candidate most hated by the existing greed hogs is Sanders. He is the only one I would vote for given the chance. But he will be blocked as in 2016.