Interview: Last stand
The pioneering environmental activist Bill McKibben talks to Stephen Tomkins
In 1989, when the media for the first time started to buzz with talk of global warming, the first book that educated non-scientists as to what the alarm was about was The End of Nature by Bill McKibben. That groundbreaking book has been translated into 24 languages, and Mr McKibben has since written 14 more books on the environmental crisis. He says himself, though, that a more important contribution than all of his books was founding 350.org, the first worldwide, grassroots climate change movement. On 24 October 2009, the organisation led 5,245 demonstrations in 181 countries, and altogether has, he says, led 20,000 rallies, in every country except North Korea. It is now leading the fossil fuel divestment movement as well as continuing the fight against the oil industry’s attempts to start new operations. Can the fight be won? And if so, how? Mr McKibben, who, in addition to his other credentials, is a Methodist Sunday school teacher, talked to Reform at Greenbelt festival in August.
How bad is it?
July 2016 was not only the warmest month we have good numbers for – we have temperature records going back to 1880 – it was the 14th month in a row that we broke the global temperature record. It was almost certainly the hottest month in the history of global civilisation, so we’re living through extremely abnormal times. It’s bad.
It came much quicker than we thought it would. In 1989, we thought the stuff we’re seeing now – half the arctic sea ice gone – was coming in the latter half of this century, not the first decade or two. It’s got to the point where it’s an open question whether we can catch up with the physics even if we did everything right. We can’t stop global warming but we might, with really extraordinary effort, be able to stop it getting so out of control that it takes down civilisation. But that’s an open question.
There’s a psychological problem as well, isn’t there: the crisis, and the obstacles to beating it, are so huge, that it can be debilitating, and the more you tell people how bad it is, the worse that problem gets.
Exactly right. I’ve never thought that the problem was that people didn’t care about climate change; people are almost too scared of it. It seems so big, and we seem so small by comparison, that it seems pointless to act. That’s why our organising from the beginning has been devoted to demonstrating that there are a lot of us out there, showing people that there was a movement that had some chance of making change.
People, when they change their lightbulbs – which they should do – have the feeling that it’s unlikely that this will actually effect climate change, and their intuition is correct. I have solar panels all over my roof and try to live a low carbon life – except for organising; those are all important things, but that’s not how we’re going to solve global warming. It’s a structural systemic problem: it will be solved if we get enough people involved in the political fight to change the ground rules.
Do you feel, looking back over 30 years of writing, that you’ve been heard?
Yes, I’ve been lucky, my books were widely read, but – and it took me too long to figure this out – because I’m a writer, I spent 15 years thinking that we were in an argument. And the way you win an argument is you get more data, more analyses, write more books, and eventually the world leaders say: ‘OK, you’re right, we’ll do something.’ It finally became clear to me that we weren’t in an argument at all – we’d won the argument by the mid-1990s when the world’s scientists agreed with rare unanimity what was going on. This wasn’t an argument, it was a fight. Fights are about money and power. There was an adversary. Fossil fuel is the richest industry in the world and they are willing to use that money to keep the status quo, even at what’s now the obvious cost of breaking the one planet that we’ve got. A far more useful thing I did than write a book was to help start a movement…
This is an extract from the December 2016/January 2017 edition of Reform.