The Ecologist Environmentalist Interview: Bill McKibben

The irrepressible Bill McKibben, and the movement he founded - - have been behind two of the biggest climate change victories in recent years: the blocking of the Keystone XL pipeline and the withdrawal of 3.4 trillion dollars of fossil fuel investments. He talks to JOE WARE
Our job is to hold down the fossil fuel companies so that the surging tide of renewable energy can come in and cut the legs off the industry. The price of solar panels have dropped 80% in less than 10 years. Onshore wind is now the cheapest way of gene

Bill McKibben, the spiritual leader of the global fossil fuel divestment movement, is arguably the most influential environmentalist in the world right now (maybe apart from the Pope).

He spoke exclusively to The Ecologist at the Greenbelt festival near Kettering - an arts and justice gathering featuring an eclectic range of headliners including fellow environmentalist Satish Kumar (Editor Emeritus of the Resurgence Trust which now owns this site), humanitarian activist Terry Waite and comics Josie Long and James Acaster among others and here's what he had to say about the victories and the challenges environmentalists now all face.

The 55-year-old McKibben was one of the first people to bring the dangers of climate change to a mass audience with his 1989 book The End of Nature. He's gone on to write a dozen more books on the subject. This year he was advising the Bernie Sanders campaign on its climate policies. The grass roots crowd, which propelled the Vermont Senator to the brink of the Democratic nomination, shares many of the same members as the US environmental movement. 

He says the growth of this movement is key to winning the fight with the fossil fuel industry. "There's not a lot of value in persuading the remaining 20% of climate change deniers," he says. "For the ideological ones, most of them are unlikely to be persuaded anyway.

"We don't actually need them to win. Any political system shifts when you get 5-6% of people actively engaged. Less than 1% of the US population took part in the American Civil Rights movement but they changed the zeitgeist. The prize is to change the zeitgeist, and then you change the policy. If the Civil Rights movement had only worked on legislation they wouldn't have gotten anywhere, but they were successful because they exposed - and dramatised - the suffering of black people."

He pointed to the rapid successes of the LGBTI movement as another example to follow. "They have done such a good job of changing attitudes. Listening to Clinton and Obama you'd think they had been lifelong activists for LGBTI equality but they have actually shifted their positions relatively recently. 

"In the case of climate change it's a little harder - no one was making trillions of dollars off bigotry" although as he adds with a wry smile: "they just had to overturn 10,000 years of ingrained prejudice!"

The mild mannered Methodist Sunday School teacher is encouraged by the recent victories stateside and around the world. "When we focus on things like Keystone XL we can win," he said. "A dozen other pipelines in the USA have been stopped. They also wanted to put in six big coal ports to take coal to Asia. We've stopped five and we're going to stop the sixth.  I'm amazed how much we win when we fight."

Despite the successes he's not sugar coating the predicament humans find themselves in. He warns there is a very real chance the fight to save the planet will be lost. Unlike other social justice movements such as gender equality and civil rights, battles which were difficult but ultimately most thought them winnable given enough time, with climate change the deadline is set by physics.  

Our job is to hold down the fossil fuel companies so that the surging tide of renewable energy can come in and cut the legs off the industry. The price of solar panels have dropped 80% in less than 10 years. Onshore wind is now the cheapest way of gene

Quoting Martin Luther King, who said the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice, he told us: "The arc of the physical world is short and bends towards heat."

But despite the gravity of the situation Bill says all the climate movement needs to do is hold back the fossil fuel industry for a few more years - long enough for the rapidly falling costs of renewable energy to finish them off.

I'm reminded of Tolkien's Battle of the Hornburg in the Lord of the Rings when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have to defend Helm's Deep just long enough for Gandalf, the Rohirrim and the tree-like Ents to arrive, sweep down the valley and smash Saruman's Orc army.

"Our job is to hold down the fossil fuel companies so that the surging tide of renewable energy can come in a cut the legs off the industry. The price of solar panels has dropped 80% in less than 10 years. Onshore wind is now the cheapest way of generating energy in some places," he adds.

He points out that the remarkable progress of renewables matched the growth of the climate movement - the two things that gave him the most hope. "The movement we're building is mirroring the energy system we're trying to create. A leaderless movement with a million nodes like solar panels on a million roofs."

McKibben says such organisation is key. Although he's no critic of low carbon lifestyle choices he says political action is more important. "Individual actions are no longer the most important thing to do," he explained." Solar panels and energy saving light bulbs are great, but I try not to fool myself that these are the solutions on their own. We need to tackle the structural causes, we need to organise."

Asked what, apart from divestment, he thinks is the next crucial battleground, he says it is to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure projects. "If you're in a hole, you need to stop digging. In our case - literally. It's crazy to be digging for stuff when we can't burn the reserves we already have. If we build new infrastructure now they'll likely be here until 2056 and once they are built they are very hard to un-build.  But if we can stop them now then they may never be built because the economics of energy are changing so fast.

"We can't win our fight for the climate in the next five years, but we can lose it. The Paris Agreement signed last year didn't save the planet but it saved the chance of saving the planet.

"Paris was like a big club they handed us to smack them with. We can now say to them ‘you want to keep global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees, well in that case you cannot dig this stuff up."

McKibben's energy is impressive, especially considering he must sometimes feel like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. But as he says, it's not about one man, or one country, it's a global movement - have organised divestment rallies in every nation on the planet apart from North Korea.

Concluding his talk at Greenbelt he said: "There are people all over the world working out the battle plan, often in places that didn't cause this problem in the first place. I look forward to fighting the battle shoulder to shoulder with you."

This Author

Joe Ware is a journalist and New Voices writer for The Ecologist. He can be found on twitter at @wareisjoe.


Bill McKibben is a keynote speaker at the upcoming Resurgence At 50 'One Earth, One Humanity, One Future' event in Oxford later this month. All the programme and ticket details here:



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