The War on Climate Change
interview by Heather Shayne Blakeslee
Bill McKibben, environmental advocate, author and proud Vermonter, is still feeling the Bern—but he’s adamant about going to the polls this month to cast a vote nonetheless. In the lead up to one of the most contentious presidential contests in history, McKibben spoke with Grid about participating in the process for creating the Democratic National Committee platform, the obstructionism of the fossil-fuel lobby and why we need an all-out war on climate change.
In your recent article, “A World at War” in New Republic, you argue that the fight against climate change is an actual war—with territory lost, massive casualties, refugees and destabilized governments—and that we need to treat it as such.
BM: Yeah, war is not a metaphor here. Half the sea ice in the summer Arctic is gone. We’re evacuating coastal villages and entire Pacific islands. We’ve lost some ungodly portion of the world’s coral in the last year alone. The question is not, “Are we in a war?” We are. The question is, “Are we going to fight?”
And so it’s good news that a Stanford team led by Mark Jacobson has shown in detail that it’s possible for America to replace our fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy infrastructure. That would entail mobilizing and retooling our industrial sector in the same way we did during World War II. We’d need to be building factories on a massive scale, which would mean we’d need to be employing lots of people.
We could replace Rosie the Riveter with Tracy the Turbine Maker. But what are the political prospects of that?
BM: Well, that’s why we build movements—to try and create political will. If it was technologically impossible, there’d be no use in even trying. But since it’s possible—well, we’ll do our best. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of people in the streets already.
What role does civil disobedience play in the war on climate change?
BM: It’s good, too, but it’s not the only tool in our toolbelt. Any tool gets dull if you use it too much, and in this case, both literally and metaphorically.
One major component of the war on climate change is energy efficiency.
BM: It’s the easiest low-hanging fruit because we waste so much. It’s like if you were able to go on a diet and lose the first 10 pounds by getting a haircut.
Aren’t we actually at war with the fossil fuel lobby?
BM: We’ve learned in the last year that Exxon, for instance, knew all there was to know about climate change 30 years ago, and then systematically misled the entire country. We’ve wasted tons of time. That’s why fights like divestment from fossil fuel stocks are so important—we’ve got to weaken this obstructionist industry.
Bernie Sanders appointed you to serve on the DNC platform committee. What went through your head when you got that call?
BM: That it would be a lot of meetings and a lot of work for not a lot of benefit. Platforms usually get ignored. But, thanks to Bernie—who did not endorse Clinton till this one was done—it’s a very progressive document with a lot of language we can try and hold her to, assuming she wins. If Trump wins, well....
What would a Trump presidency look like?
BM: Hell, in many ways, including the temperature.
You described the hour you were given to propose substantive changes, including a fracking ban and a carbon tax, as “one of the lowest points in my years of fighting climate change.” Why?
BM: Because we lost everything on 7–6 votes, and it was so clear that, had Bernie won the primaries, we’d be making so much more progress. But a couple of weeks later, in the final platform negotiations, we got much, much further—because Bernie kept up the pressure. What a hero he was this year!
Do you think that Clinton’s recent statement that America should build half a billion solar panels in the next four years is hopeful?
BM: That may happen anyway, just from our current momentum. The price of solar panels is way down—80 percent in the last eight years. So we could do a lot more—we could really push to make this transition happen now.
Does Clinton really have the commitment to climate change that we need?
BM: No. We read in the newly released Wikileaks documents that she makes fun of climate activists—‘Get a life,’ she says of us. But she was forced to accept, in the platform, a call for a climate summit in the first 100 days of her administration. That means we’ll need to organize a truly mass mobilization outside that summit.
You still have your “Feel the Bern” button on. How would a Sanders presidency have differed from a Clinton presidency when it comes to fighting climate change?
BM: Focus. In the first debate, when asked about what our greatest threat was, he answered, “Climate change.” He would have been laser-focused on this issue, and on equality, from day one.
What do you say to the people who don’t care for either presidential candidate and plan to stay home this year in “protest.” Is staying home really a protest?
BM: Trump is a uniquely bad guy. Letting him near the White House would be like handing your car keys to a toddler—a crazy toddler. But electing Hillary won’t solve anything—it will just give us someone we have some hope of being able to push to do the right thing.
Millennials have gotten a bad rap for being part of a myopic selfie-culture. Do you agree? How would you characterize their commitment to the cause?
BM: It’s them and it’s older people leading the charge—being willing to do the work and to be arrested. Young people are most of my colleagues—they’re a wonderful, creative, powerful generation.
Republican donors are moving their money down ballot to Senate races across the country—including here in Pennsylvania—where Katie McGinty is neck-and-neck against incumbent Pat Toomey despite millions of dollars of outside money flooding the state. How important are the Senate races this year?
BM: Taking back the Senate is really important, in part because it would mean that Bernie Sanders would have his pick of committees. If you control the Senate, you can call committee hearings—we’d have leaders who could grill Exxon, say, about their climate denial.
You’ve been part of the protests by the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, who are opposed to the Dakota pipeline. How would you describe the situation there?
BM: I’ve been supporting as best I can, but they’re doing all the leading—and indeed that was often the case with Keystone and other such fights. This is a very important moment. Native wisdom, the oldest wisdom on the continent, is lining up with the newest climate science.
You’re a longtime environmental advocate. Your advocacy runs the gamut from writing books to being arrested at protests. How do you keep yourself balanced, or hopeful or energized?
BM: I’m not always hopeful. I’m not sure how this is going to turn out. But I take great energy from people in other parts of the world who are fighting the good fight. Most of them did not cause the problem—and if they can nonetheless join hands to fight, what choice do the rest of us have?
Bill McKibben an environmentalist and author of several books, including “The End of Nature.” He is the winner of the Gandhi Peace Award and is the founder of 350.org.