Q&A with Bill McKibben: Our job is to make sure politicians aren’t left to their own devices

On December 1, Bill McKibben, environmentalist, author, campaigner and founder of the grassroots climate campaign group 350.org, received the Right Livelihood Award at the Swedish Parliament. The award, widely called the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” honors laureates for their contributions to lasting peace, justice, and ecological balance. Road to Paris spoke with him on the phone while he was traveling on a train from Stockholm to Lund, Sweden.

Congratulations on receiving the Right Livelihood Award! How do you feel about it?

It’s not really me that gets it. It’s a reflection of the sudden emergence of a movement of real scale. I think they were impressed by the fact that suddenly there were people all over the world coming together in this movement, probably the biggest emergent movement on the planet, which I think is very good.

This award usually goes to people working in human rights and development. Desmond Tutu said recently that climate change is the human rights challenge of our time. The message that these things are not separate problems is finally getting through.

Right Livelihood Award laureates

Bill McKibben was one of five recipients this year, the others being Asma Jahangir, Alan Rusbridger, Basil Fernando and Edward Snowden (not in picture). Photo: Wolfgang Schmidt/Right Livelihood Award

The idea of a carbon budget has gained a lot of currency and is influencing the discussion on the climate negotiations. Can you tell me about how you put the pieces together for the “Do the Math” article

Scientists had done some work on this carbon budget thing even five or six years ago. There was a scientific paper looking at the initial numbers on how much carbon we could emit to keep us below 2°C. Then a bunch of different teams had modeled it and come up with the same range of numbers. But, no one paid any attention to it, of course.

Then, a group in London called Carbon Tracker ran a different bunch of numbers, which were about how much carbon the fossil fuel companies had in their reserves. That required going and getting financial statements, annual reports, SEC and bank filings, to figure out and add up how much carbon they had in their reserves. But again, people didn‘t pay too much attention to that report either.

But I just suddenly realized, though I’d been working on climate change for a long time, I’d never figured out that the story was already completely written. There was no drama about it. If these guys carried out their business plan as planned, their plan was to completely overwhelm the atmosphere with carbon.

So that’s why I wrote that piece, and that’s why we launched the divestment thing. Once we knew those numbers, then it was clear that those are rogue companies. They’re not normal companies maybe just doing something a little bit wrong, but companies whose reason for existence is incompatible with the planet’s continued existence.

Were students key players for the divestment campaign from the outset, and is that still the case?

Students have been important. Colleges were one of the first places we wanted to launch this, because we knew that, especially in the States, colleges have a lot of money, and we hoped that students would take the lead, given their obvious interest in the long-term future of the planet. Some of us have shorter-term interests: we’ll be dead before all that long. But young people have a wider term on it.

There has also been an awful lot of organizing by others too. Some of the best organizing has been by religious, faith communities around the world, very big and important things: the World Council of Churches, which represents over 500 million Christians, voting to divest. And there have been religious denominations in the US and Australia, and of course here, the Church of Sweden, whose Archbishop I met yesterday [at the Right Livelihood Award ceremony in Stockholm]. That’s quite remarkable. We’re sort of used to thinking about churches as a little conservative and slow or behind the curve. But frankly, they’ve been ahead of everybody.

There have also been a lot of communities, cities, governments divesting, and that has surprised us a lot.

Tell us about what’s happening with 350 here in Europe.

I’ve been surprised by how well the divestment campaign in Europe is going, considering how young it is. It’s different from place to place. It’s been advancing very fast in the UK and here in Sweden.

Half the battle is to get places to divest. But the other half, maybe the more important half, is just to spread this idea very quickly, about the impossibility of the fossil fuel industry continuing to do what they’re doing. We’ve been amazingly impressed by how quickly that’s spreading, maybe especially in Europe. Last week the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney said, you know what, we’re going to have to leave most of the fossil fuels underground, that’s clear. Hence, there’s a huge carbon bubble and a real risk of stranded assets. That’s pretty frank and strong talk for the central banker of a major financial player.

I’ve been impressed by the way that players that you wouldn’t have expected, like the Bank of England or the Rockefeller family, are starting to divest their fossil fuel holdings. Those things to me are very interesting. They show that even very elite players are starting to understand that there’s serious trouble here.

Tim Ratcliffe, European Coordinator of 350.org, who was on the train with McKibben, later added:

There are a lot of people working on climate from various angles in Europe, we’re trying to get the movement more established here. Divestment is a relatively new tactic in climate campaigning; it’s got that energy and momentum that’s appealing to a new generation of activist. It’s really important for us to continue the work we’re doing to build the kind of distributed network of people acting at a local level who can increase domestic pressure on world leaders when they head to Paris.

Bill, looking ahead to the climate talks in Paris, what’s your take on the major milestones in the next year? How can we make sure that we don’t get a repeat of Copenhagen?

Speaking for myself more than 350, I’m not fixated on what’s going to happen in Paris. We’ll do something, and something will happen. It won’t be as terrible as Copenhagen, because there’s a movement now pushing these guys, which there wasn’t before Copenhagen. It also won’t be anywhere near enough to solve the problem, so Paris will be one step along the line.

I think the important part of things is not to have people, the way they did for Copenhagen, convincing themselves that this was going to be the thing that solves all the problems, the great moment. But I do think it’s a good opportunity to keep pushing.

We’ve seen some of the first steps: the US and China, both of them under pressure from grassroots movements of different kinds, have started to make some noises about joint… somethings. It’s not enough, but it’s something. Other countries to watch: India could throw a wrench in the whole works, or they could be a really positive player. It’s a little unclear how the new government’s going to go there, although I’m kind of worried about them.

But the milestones that count don’t have anything to do with the UN process. They have to do with how much pressure around divestment there is. They have to do with how much pressure there is blocking new fossil fuel infrastructure: pipelines, coal mines. Those are the things that translate into the decisions that national leaders make about what they have to accomplish. Left to their own devices, they don’t do anything. Copenhagen made that powerfully clear. There was no movement to pressure them. There was a lot of hope they would do the right thing. And they didn’t. They not only didn’t do the right thing, they didn’t do anything. Left to their own devices, that’s what they’ll do. So our job is to make sure they’re not left to their own devices. But no leader cares about his standing in the UN, he only cares about his or her standing at home. That’s why we push in so many places as hard as we can.

What should scientists be doing to make a difference?

At this point I think it’s pretty clear, the problem is not really communication. Scientists have gotten across the basic message, which is: if you keep doing this, the world will come to an end. What did the last IPCC report say? “Severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts.” That’s very strong language.

Increasingly scientists are concluding that they have to also do their job as citizens like the rest of us, and that they bring a special power to that job as citizens. I was very pleased to see at the huge New York climate march, there was a big contingent, maybe five hundred or a thousand scientists in white lab coats out marching together down the street, making their point. Increasingly, scientists like Jim Hansen or Jason Box are ending up in jail some of the time. That’s important, as they come with special credibility.

What messages should scientists focus on to make use of that credibility?

At the level of mass marches, there’s a limit to how nuanced and subtle the messaging is going to be. The message that needs to get across is probably twofold.

One: this is the most dangerous thing that humans have ever stumbled into, with incredibly dire consequences. Scientists think we’re going to see massive reductions in our ability to feed the earth if the temperature goes up three or four degrees. So that’s one message, that this is much worse than you understand.

The second message is that it’s relatively, on the scale of things, simple to solve. Scientists’ brothers and sisters in the engineering fraternity have done their job too. We now have available a suite of solutions we didn’t have 25 years ago, and we should be deploying them with all possible speed. Solar panels have fallen in price 98% in 40 years. What that means is that there are great engineers out there, and we’re wasting their talents, just like we’re wasting all the sun that falls on the planet every day.

Written by . Published on December 3, 2014. Last edited on April 19, 2016.

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