Bill McKibben on tar sands, Obama, geoengineering and population growth
The US environmentalist explains why he is now in a ‘fight’ with the oil industry over climate change
Bill McKibben, one of the US’s leading environmental writers and campaigners, visited the UK briefly earlier this week to teach a course entitled Building Social Movements and Organising for Change at the Schumacher College in Devon. He was scheduled to also give a lecture this weekend at the Schumacher Centenary Festival in Bristol, but will now deliver it via video-conference as he had to return early to Washington DC for Friday’s final hearing into the proposed 1,711-mileKeystone XL pipeline that, if built, would transport oil extracted from Canada’s tar sand fields across the Mid-West and down to ports in the Gulf of Mexico. McKibben was arrested in August during a protest aimed at trying to convince President Obama not to authorise the pipeline.
We began the interview by discussing his battle to stop the pipeline…
BM: This pipeline fight has turned into the most interesting environmental battle of modern years. The odds are still probably against us, but they are better than they were a little while ago because people are really starting to pay attention and realise what a terrible idea it is.
LH: What’s going to happen on Friday?
BM: It’s just the last hearing and they will say they are not going to make any decisions for another 6-8 weeks. Friday will be another rally, but the big date we are heading towards is 6 November, which is exactly one year before the next election. On that day, we are going to try and circle the White House with people which I’m not sure is something that has ever been done before. We’ll all be carrying signs from the president’s last election campaign. No attacks on him, just his own words. “It’s time to end the tyranny of oil”; “In my administration, the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet will begin to heal”. The tag line will be something like: “If you didn’t mean it, you shouldn’t have said it. Stop the pipeline”.
LH: What is your ultimate message to Obama, but, perhaps more importantly, those that might vote for him next year?
BM: The ultimate message is just “stop this pipeline”. It is a serious deal. It’s not just some token thing. It is the second largest pool of carbon on the planet and it’s utter folly to expand the oil operation there. When your best federal climate scientist Jim Hansen says heavy tapping of the tar sands means game over for the climate, you, as the president, are paid to pay attention to stuff like that.
LH: Would this be a bigger failure on Obama’s record than, say, Copenhagen?
BM: The biggest failure in environmental terms was the failure to get, or even try to get, serious climate legislation and the second is the failure to move the diplomatic ball at all. But in both those cases the president can with some accuracy blame Congress for at least part of this failure. Our Congress is inane at the moment and hard to work with. I have some sympathy for the guy when trying to persuade people like Jim Inhofe to do the right thing. But, in the case of this pipeline, the reason why people are so focused on it is because the president has to make the call all by himself. Congress has got nothing to do with it. He has to sign something called the Presidential Certificate of National Interest and if he doesn’t sign the thing the pipeline doesn’t get built.
LH: Are you going as far as to say people shouldn’t vote for Obama next year if he passes the pipeline?
BM: No. I don’t even think that’s the issue really. Most hardcore environmentalists probably aren’t going to go and vote for Rick Perry. The problem is that they won’t be out there building the surge behind the president that got him elected in the first place. Presidents get elected, at some level, by movements of people deciding that there’s something good here. And that’s what people did in 2008 with Obama. It almost feels as if this pipeline thing is one of the last chances he has to rekindle even a small part of that.
LH: I was re-reading an interview the Guardian did with you in 2007 and it’s striking the difference between now and then. You were right in the middle of Step it Up, Obama’s election was a year away, it was pre-credit crunch, it was pre-Copenhagen, pre-Climategate, etc. You were talking about being very optimistic; that this was your moment and predicting that serious global action would happen by 2009…
BM: I think what we classically failed to understand then was just how much financial power the fossil-fuel industry had and how they were going to bring it to bear. And they have mostly beaten us in these last few years.
LH: But do you think it is just fossil-fuel lobbying etc, or is it an ideological/psychological opposition to action on climate change and one feeds the other?
LH: I can see how in US politics that’s a big deal, but polling in other countries also shows a slight decline in interest or concern about climate change. Is that a credit crunch thing? Or are environmentalists being seen to cry wolf?
BM: No, I don’t think it’s that. Yes, when you’re in the middle of a serious recession/depression, everything else goes down a notch in interest, but the new UK government has at least rhetorically and, in some degree, in actuality stayed on the hunt. The Australians are about to adopt serious climate legislation. At root, more than anything else, it’s a US problem. And without the US, you can’t get the Chinese on board. The diplomatic failure was one of things that kept the whole thing from advancing at all because everyone began to see that there was no end game. Without the US in motion, how were we going to get anything else to happen? That was the failure of Copenhagen. But it’s not a “cry wolf” issue at all. Just the opposite. The irony of the last four years is that it has become absolutely clear what global warming is like in its early stages. We’ve had catastrophes far greater than we would have imagined 20 years ago when I wrote my first book about all this. Look at 2010: 19 nations set all-time temperatures records, we see wetting on a scale never seen before, we see drought on a scale we’ve never seen before. The world’s biggest insurance company says there’s no other explanation for what’s going on other than rising greenhouse gases.
LH: But shouldn’t these enliven people more than talk of distant targets on the far horizon such as 2050?
BM: That’s why we went with the name 350.org, because it’s a very good way of reminding people that we’re already passed where we need to be. The good news is that our organising efforts of much stronger than they’ve ever been. We built a movement over the past four years that wasn’t there before. Now we operate in every country in the world, except for North Korea, and increasingly effectively and loudly. The movement turns out to be what we didn’t understand then, the prerequisite for getting anything done. Because the financial power of the fossil-fuel industry is so great it can, and has, delayed any real action of the climate issues almost everywhere. Until we find a different currency to work in, we’re always going to lose. We’re never going to have enough money to compete with these guys head on. That’s why we’re experimenting with lots of different currencies. There’s a lot of spirit, creativity and energy is these global days of action. And now we’re spending our bodies with people getting arrested in what was the largest civil disobedience action in the US on anything for 35 years.
LH: What is the next gear shift for the campaign? Where do you go next?
BM: I assume it goes to more of that. If the question is will it escalate to violence, I sure hope not. Our most powerful weapons are the ones we are starting to use now and I’m glad to see that happening.
LH: Without resorting to violence, what other ways could you step it up?
BM: Even this year is beginning to reveal that there are all kinds of tactics in the non-violent arsenal from Egypt to Occupy Wall Street. The thing that is becoming clearer and clearer is that this is a fight. The idea that held for years that we could all talk rationally to politicians about this and that they would do the right thing is now over. What we failed to count on was while we talked to them rationally in one ear with science and economics the oil industry was doubling in the other ear the threats to keep anyone from doing anything.
The money for the Tea Party came from the Koch Brothers. There will always be those who say, “Don’t tell me what to do’, that’s a uniquely American idea. But they are a small part of the population. What’s given them power and legs is the endless availability of resources from the fossil-fuel industry. In a fair fight, we would have won this battle long ago because the science is clear and most people have a sincere desire to build a different kind of world that will work best for their kids. But the battle is not being fought on science, but on money. There is an enormous interest within the fossil-fuel industry to prevent change for even a few more years while they wrack up records profits. It’s the biggest obstacle we face. The other obstacle is the different levels of development around the world. We are trying to come to grips with the reality that the rich world needs to provide the poor world with a tiny amount of money they have accumulated in 200 years of being allowed to burn carbon to lift their people [out of poverty] without burning more carbon. That’s what makes the diplomatic thing so hard. The hardest part is the science is always shrouded by the power of the fossil-fuel industry.
LH: What is it going to take, ultimately? Will it be another part of the world, say China, taking the lead and showing the western world what to do? Will it take a Gandhi-like internationally respected leadership figure? Or an Arab Spring-type uprising of outcry and revolution, driven through social networking?
BM: A bit of everything, probably. But the last of those is the most likely at this point, I think. It’s going to take a movement. In a sense, that is already happening, but it just isn’t big enough yet to fight full on against the oil companies, although we are getting closer. This tar-sands battle is a good example. Read the New York Times today about the emails from the state department. And the terrific editorial in the New York Times saying stop this pipeline. There are signs this movement is beginning to talk hold. There is some chance that all of this is moot and that we’ve waited too long to get started. You know the science. But we have to operate on the assumption that there may still be enough time.
LH: Will another Katrina-type event, but in somewhere like a DC or Manhattan, be the difference?
BM: Mother Nature is going to continue to provide a long series of teachable moments and we’re waking up a little more with each one of them. Where I live in Vermont, we have just had the biggest rainfall events ever recorded. There’s not many people left in Vermont denying climate change. The governor said the other day that they most important thing anyone can do is join 350.org and go to work to stop climate change because Vermont was turning into Costa Rica and our terrain and topography couldn’t handle that.
LH: But what about the Texas drought and Rick Perry…
BM: You know what, I don’t think Rick Perry is going to go all that far and one of the reasons is that people are beginning to understand that he is wrong about this issue.
LH: Would Perry running, rather perversely, be a good thing for climate-change awareness?
BM: I think he’s already started to expose the folly of his position. There was some recent polling that showed the number of people worried about global warming increased slightly and one of the explanations was that having Bachmann and Perry in the TV debates was just causing normal, rational Americans to think that if these people think that global warming is nuts then there must actually be something to it.
LH: Where do you stand on some of the solutions being talked up by so-called “pragmatic” environmentalists? Nose-peg technologies, such as nuclear, geoengineering, GM foods, etc?
BM: Geoengineering to me looks like a serious dead end. We just have idea if they’ll work and the early modelling shows they’d be disastrous. I used to run a homeless shelter so I knew a lot of junkies. This is just the kind of answer that junkies provide.
BM: Set aside everything else and just run the numbers. The economics just doesn’t even begin to work. No one is going to set aside everything else post-Fukushima so it’s just columnist talk, it’s not serious talk.
LH: CCS [carbon, capture and storage]?
BM: I just spent a day with the guy in China running their CCS programme and after a day of him explaining it all to me I asked him what percentage of China’s coal plant emissions will be captured and buried by 2030. He said 2%. I realised then that I probably didn’t need to have spent a day talking to him. Even if you could do these other things there’s no getting away from the fact that we have to reduce emissions dramatically.
There’s no easy fix. There’s stuff we have to do now to adapt to the things we have already caused. We need to build bridges and culverts that can withstand far greater rainfall than they were designed to handle. The real challenge is preventing the changes for which we simply can’t adapt. To do that we have to get off fossil fuels fast and the only real way to do that is to put a serious price on carbon. It’s always been the only real show in town.
The problem is that it interferes with the most profitable industry the world has ever seen. Exxon made more money last year than in the history of money. And it doesn’t take much in politics to stop things from happening. Their only goal is to delay action. It took 20 years to work round the delaying efforts of the tobacco industry. And the tobacco industry is a mere pimple on the butt of the oil industry. It is the most profitable enterprise that humans have every engaged in.
This is going to be a fight. The ‘We’ll solve this in a rational way’ option kind of ended for good when the US Senate refused to take a vote on even modest, tepid climate legislation. That convinced everyone that it is going to be a fight. It’s also apparent that we’re not going to get any help from peak oil because while conventional oil might well have peaked, without a price on carbon, we’ve now found plenty of unconventional oil – shale gas, tar sands etc. This is where we’re headed without any political leadership. While we used to have a discussion about how long it would take to transition over to renewable forms of energy, now it seems there’s enough fossil fuels out there to postpone peak oil a lot longer than that. And the ones who want to postpone it are the ones getting rich off oil. And that’s why tar sands have emerged as real battles. Clearly, we’re under-gunned, but we’re fighting even harder now.
The day we got out of jail after being arrested, all the major environmental groups in the US sent out a letter saying that there’s not an inch of daylight between them and the protesters. The guy in the cell next to me was Gus Speth. He’s in his late 60s and has done every establishment environmental job there is to do. But he decided at some point in the last couple of years that none of that is working. When we were in jail, he managed to smuggle out a statement to the press that said, “I’ve held a lot of important positions, but none of them seem as necessary as the one I’m in right now.” He sums up some of the feeling.
LH: Are we entering an age of great environmental activism?
BM: I hope so!
LH: Do you think the western democratic process can deal with a problem like climate change?
BM: Protests are a key part of the western democratic process.
LH: Some say that these forms of protest are not democratic; it’s just the actions of a vocal minority?
BM: I disagree. In the history of the US, we see just the opposite. The democratic forces were the ones working in the civil rights movement. This summer, we had 1,200 people from all 50 states. They weren’t radicals in any sense. Not in the sense that oil companies are radicals, whereby they are altering the composition of the atmosphere, just about the most radical action you can imagine. I think it’s purely democratic to try and influence the system that way. The point of protest like that is to influence other people, in the same way that Exxon will take out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, or buy a slot for a TV commercial. We don’t have the money to do that, but we can spend our bodies instead.
LH: Do you anticipate the equivalent of a Million Man March descending on DC within the next five years?
BM: We’ll see. More helps, certainly. We’re going to need lots and lots of people, but we’re starting to get there. We’re doing what we can and we’re making it up as we go along as people in this field tend to do. I’m not an activist by trade, I’m a writer.
LH: Are we trying to deal with the symptom, not the cause? Is it our neo-liberal, growth-obsessed economy that is, ultimately, the problem?
BM: That’s one of these chicken-and-egg questions. For my money, the thing that bred this growth-based economy around us was the easy availability of cheap fossil fuels. Without that we couldn’t have built the economy that we have. I don’t know how you would do a frontal assault on the economy. But I think the best way to get change in the growth model is to restrict what has been its lifeblood. If oil and coal paid for the damage they do to the atmosphere, my guess is that within just a few years we’d have things like really serious local agriculture because we would be able to do the highly industrialised agriculture that we do now.
LH: But then we move on to the fact that this month the global human population reaches seven billion for the first time. Our future is one of mega-cities, not people living the good life, growing all their own food, etc?
BM: I don’t agree with that at all. All the data shows that you get more agricultural yield per acre on small farms than big ones. I don’t have anyPol Pot-style aspirations to move people around, but over time I think it will become clear that many more of us will need to be feeding ourselves. In the US, two-thirds of agricultural production is in counties adjacent to metropolitan areas; it’s just now it disappears into the global commodities market. But that’s stating to change. I hope it does because it’s ruinous that we’re spreading our form of commercialised agriculture around the world. That’s why we have many of the mega-cities that we do because we’re continuously driving people off land.
LH: Obviously, you wrote a book about it, but where do you stand today on the issue of population control?
BM: I’ve always been opposed to population control. In climate terms, population is not the biggest problem going forward. Most of the population growth we will see over the next four decades will use very little energy so that it doesn’t matter that much. The average American family uses as much energy between the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve and dinner on 2 January than a Tanzanian family uses across a whole year. In global warming terms, Tanzanians become almost a rounding error in terms of emissions growth. Most of the emissions growth is coming from relatively stable populations with rapidly growing consumption. We’ve done a fairly remarkable job as a species in lowering fertility rates. We’ve figured out how to do that: educate and empower women. But we don’t really know yet what the answer for consumption is beyond putting the real price on carbon.
LH: The environmental movement has long talked about abstinence, cutting back, reducing, etc, when it comes to consumption, which is a very difficult sell. Do you think this is a mistake because people hate being told what to do, and, ultimately, this is about global action rather than the actions of individuals?
BM: Maybe, but I also think many people have been inspired by that message, too. Individual actions are still important to do. But you can’t make the math work by a process of addition. It’s not going to happen fast enough like that – my neighbour does it, then his neighbour does it, etc. It’s not an either/or, but you also have to figure out how to do multiplication and multiplication means politics, namely, changing the rules under which we burn carbon. I always say spend 70% of your spare time doing things close to home and the other 30% doing work at the global and national level.
LH: If they do get the go-ahead and start building the pipeline, will the protests continue?
BM: The greatest moment of leverage is probably right now, but, yes, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if people who live along that route get out there protesting and I might well be tempted to join them. This pipeline is a particularly brutal and dumb idea. The US needs to treat tar sands in much the same way that Brazil has risen in recent years, following an international call, to try and protect its rainforests. The one thing I think we have accomplished recently is to get the Canadians themselves to think what on earth are they doing ruining their international reputation. Canada was known for not starting wars and now their legacy for the 21st century will be that they put the final nail in the climate change coffin.
LH: Compared to the optimism you expressed in 2007, where do you stand now? Are you pessimistic about the future?
BM: I’m older and wiser now. I understand now that it is really a fight, which I didn’t get before. The fossil-fuel industry is not going to wave the white flag voluntarily. This is the first truly global issue we’ve ever had to figure out at a species. If we can’t figure it out, we’re not going to get through. There’s very little question that unchecked climate change will very quickly reduce civilisation into an on-going rescue effort. I try not to think about the ultimate destination of all of this because at the moment we’ve got a window – albeit closing fast – to do something about it.