Bill McKibben: On the Front Lines of the Climate Fight

Author and climate activist Bill McKibben says that if we want to put the brakes on global warming, it’s time to put our bodies on the line.

(Photo: Nancie Battaglia)

Today McKibben dropped by KQED for a discussion on Forum with entrepreneur and fellow environmentalist Paul Hawken about the fight for a coherent national climate policy.  McKibben is the founder of the environmental group and was among the hundreds of people arrested near the White House last week during a protest over a controversial oil pipeline that has been proposed to run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Afterward, I sat down with McKibben and asked him about the role of civil disobedience in the fight against climate change.

Q: So, hundreds of people arrested outside the White House recently. Has it come to this? In your view is this what needs to happen to motivate action?

A: Well, it’s not the only thing we need to do. I think it’s pretty clear that being willing to put your body on the line sometimes is important.  Here’s the problem: we’re up against the richest industry in the history of the world. The fossil fuel industry is the most profitable thing that there ever was, and that means they can bring literally endless amounts of money to any fight. Exxon made more money last year than any company in the history of money. That means that if we try to just match them there, we’re going to lose.   We have to find other currencies in which to work, and for the few weeks in Washington at the end of the summer, it was our bodies. That was the thing we were willing to spend, and it probably shouldn’t have to be that way.

Q: A pipeline is very concrete. Do you find it’s more of a challenge to get people motivated around climate change in general than it is about the specific Keystone XL pipeline?

Yep. It’s very true that when there’s a pipeline or something you can make an easy yes or no decision about, then people are able to visualize it and fight over it. It gets harder when we talk about legislation, say, or the price of carbon. We’ve had a tendency to let these pieces of legislation become so complicated and difficult to understand, that they’re easy for the demagogues on the other side to pick apart and rally opposition against. It’s one of the reasons why going forward, I think legislation needs to be as straightforward as possible. We’ve got to start talking about taxing things we don’t want, like pollution, instead of taxing things we do want, like income.

Q: Here in California, we’re moving ahead with cap and trade.  What are your thoughts on that?  Is it worth it?

I don’t know all the details about California, but I do know there have been some good objections raised from the environmental justice community. It’s pretty important to make sure that communities that have already been badly hurt don’t get badly hurt some more, but the general principle is correct. We need to make carbon pay the price for the damage that it does in the atmosphere. If that price is high enough and steadily applied enough, then we will use less of it. We need to do that in ways that don’t damage particular communities, and we need to do it in ways that don’t bankrupt people, because we don’t have all that much money right now. That’s why nationally, it’s good to see that there are people stepping up to introduce these cap-and-dividend bills that collect money from the oil companies and refund it to human beings.

On one side are people and their futures and the intact climate, and on the other side is a small, small group of fossil fuel interests who are making insane amounts of money and are willing to keep doing it for another 10 years even if it means the ruination of the entire planet.
Make no mistake. In the end, this thing is a political battle. On one side are people and their futures and the intact climate, and on the other side is a small, small group of fossil fuel interests who are making insane amounts of money and are willing to keep doing it for another 10 years even if it means the ruination of the entire planet. Those are the two sides.


Q: Do you have hopes for this climate action movement, that it will succeed?

I have given up trying to decide on given day whether I am optimistic or pessimistic. I get up in the morning and do all the things I can to change the odds of this wager some. I don’t know how it’s going to come out. There are scientists who think we’ve waited too long to get started, that the momentum of global warming is irreversible, and there are political scientists who think the odds are simply too high, that there’s too much power on the other side.

But, I know that there are good-hearted people all over the world. I know it because at we’ve rallied people in literally every country on earth except North Korea. I know that we’re building a movement that can change those odds. I don’t know how it’s going to come out, but I know that for a morally-awake person, when the worst thing that ever happened in the world is happening, your job every day has got to be to change those odds, and to do it without any assurance that its going to be all right.

  • VPK

    Thank you Gretchen for the interview. I really feel he is correct on not factoring the odds of success. If we were to do that, well, frankly I would not even get out of bed in the morning.
    However, there may be a cosmic intelligence that awakens all and gets us all on the same page before its too late…you never know!

  • julie jones

    Oil and coal from the Earth and chem trails polluting the SKY… and all sponsored and suppported by the US Gov in terms of subsidies, tax breaks, research grants to universities, no-bid contracts for flying tankers to spray the aerosols, for example… and the embattled EPA and courts that support unlimited contributions to keep all of this system in place. And, the media supporting the money machine that is running things. Maybe with the Web, we will have an Environmental Spring!!! Be Warned: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is nearly upon us for the years we did not change…dead birds, bats, bees, whales, the Gulf… and soonn the Artic!