Advocate for the planet

Bill McKibben travels the Earth to save it

Bill McKibben, called the “planet’s best green journalist” by Time magazine, drew more than 750 people to OSU’s inaugural Discovery Lecture in the CH2M Hill Alumni Center in November. The renowned author’s “exquisite style includes technical insight with the spice of unique historical perspectives,” said Rick Spinrad, OSU’s vice president for research, in his introduction.

McKibben described the grassroots climate campaign, which he started in 2009 with seven students at Vermont’s Middlebury College, where he is a distinguished scholar. The campaign has coordinated more than 15,000 rallies in nearly 190 countries. He also told of circling the White House with thousands of fellow activists and spending three nights in a Washington, D.C., jail to protest the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Bill McKibben

(Photo: Larry Pribyl)

Between this and other events on campus — including a workshop sponsored by OSU’s Spring Creek Project and a local-foods breakfast prepared by Gathering Together Farm — McKibben sat down with Terra magazine’s Nick Houtman and Lee Sherman to talk about the urgency of climate action worldwide. Below is an excerpt from that conversation.


TERRA: From your perspective, how does Occupy Wall Street intersect with climate-change action as a people’s movement pushing back against corporate interests?

McKibben: I went down to Occupy Wall Street very early and got to speak through the grand human microphone. And the thing I said was: “I’m very glad you’re here. Wall Street’s been occupying our atmosphere for the last 30 years. It’s about time we returned the favor.” You know, we can’t get anything done on climate change because enormous corporate power blocks action, time after time after time.

TERRA: Do you see a coalition forming between occupiers and environmental activists?

McKibben: You know, it’s like when we circled the White House to protest the Keystone pipeline a couple of weeks ago, and then Occupy Portland circled the federal building in Portland. It’s not like there’s some central Occupy headquarters that you call up and say, “What do we do next?” It’s an expression of a mood. And that mood is tired of being pushed around by major corporate power. It’s not working, and the climate is the perfect example of that. We’re literally entering into a time when the planet itself is not going to work for people anymore. It’s not even that we can’t break our addiction to fossil fuel, because as people, we’re capable of it. The problem is that fossil fuel companies can’t break their addiction to the quantities of money that fuel generates.

TERRA: What is the role of research universities in advancing the agenda for environmental clarity and stability?

Bill McKibben

(Photo: Larry Pribyl)

McKibben: It’s been really important that hard science has been applied to climate change in a huge, serious, sustained way. Probably more human intelligence has been directed at trying to understand this than just about any other scientific question. Thanks to research at universities above all, and for the work of federal government agencies like NASA, we’ve managed to understand this problem. In a short period of time it’s crunched difficult problems in atmospheric chemistry and physics. It’s given us a workable consensus on what’s going on. That’s an enormous triumph. The scientific method has worked remarkably well.

The part that hasn’t worked is the political method. Where we’ve failed as educators, as citizens, is in taking what we know and turning it into public policy. All the economists and policy people and everybody else have been saying the right thing to politicians, explaining the many ways that they could be working on this. It just hasn’t happened very much, especially at a federal level, because the power of the fossil fuel industry is so great.

So, that’s really our work — our responsibility as citizens — to take care of that. Outside of the classroom, we’ve got to build a movement big enough to make these guys do it. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

TERRA: Scientists often are hesitant to be advocates. They worry that they’ll lose their credibility as objective researchers if they advocate for a position. What do you think about that?

McKibben: I think that’s understandable. And I think it’s also a little too easy. I think it’s sometimes a cover for the fact that scientists, in personal terms, aren’t very comfortable engaging the world outside the lab. I completely understand it. I’m a writer by trade. My goal would be stay in my room and type; that’s how I like to engage the world. But there are situations desperate enough that one would change one’s M.O. a little bit. And I’m very glad to see more scientists stepping up and doing that.

If it wasn’t for the bravery of Jim Hanson at NASA — his willingness to state plainly what’s going on, to go to jail to back it up — I don’t know where we’d be. And I noticed when we were doing this mass civil disobedience in Washington, there were more scientists joining in, some of them untenured research scientists. That takes a lot of bravery.

But on the other hand, you know, if you’re spending half your life out in Greenland calculating how much ice is being lost, who better than you to have the credibility to stand up and say it? I mean, if you don’t say it, then what’s the point of doing the research in the first place?

Bill McKibben

(Photo: Larry Pribyl)

TERRA: OSU’s Spring Creek Project is dedicated to bringing scientists together with poets, writers and musicians to talk about issues like climate change across disciplines in order to reach different segments of the population. The idea is that not everyone responds to science.

McKibben: You know, is this huge campaign that takes its name from scientific data, so we’re not at all afraid of science. In general, I find no problem with people anywhere in the world understanding the basics of the science. I think we sometimes overstate how difficult or complex it is.

On the other hand, environmentalists have done much better appealing to the left side of the brain — the half that likes bar graphs and stuff — and not so well appealing to the side that deals well with art and music and things like that. That’s why we’ve made a big effort to incorporate tons of that stuff into Much of our work is based around images — these beautiful images of thousands of rallies and demonstrations around the world. We did this giant art project last November with 20 pieces of art so big you have to look at them from satellites to really understand them. It involved thousands of people. Just yesterday we released a song in five or six African languages for this project called Radio Wave — bringing in one radio station at a time, north to south across Africa, to arrive in Durban, South Africa, right when the big UN Climate Conference is kicking off there.

TERRA: Here in Oregon people who are addressing environmental change in their communities tend to ask very practical questions — you know, sea level rise in a beachfront community that is causing waves to crash through their front windows. Most people don’t see climate change as the source, or global warming as the issue to address. They want to protect their property from erosion, period.

McKibben: Yeah, of course. It’s always easiest to think about things just locally, and that’s good. But what we’ve come to understand in recent years is the scale of change and the pace of change that we’re now kicking off. We’re not going to be able to adapt past a certain point. So people better start thinking further upstream and figuring out that we’ve got to stop putting carbon into the atmosphere. If we don’t, then we’re out of luck.

Bill McKibben

(Photo: Larry Pribyl)

TERRA: We’re closing in soon on 400 parts per million (CO2 in the atmosphere). So where do you find hope in thinking we could turn this around and even begin to move back toward 350?

McKibben: There are plenty of times when one doesn’t have an enormous amount of hope. But I am cognizant of the fact that there is a big and growing movement out there. We had a big win when we stopped this Keystone Pipeline. For one, the oil industry didn’t get its way. And second, the power of people willing to get arrested was sufficient to at least slow them down. Obviously, we can’t fight this fight little-Dutch-boy style, plugging one leak after another. But, we’re learning some lessons about how to build movements and how to take these guys on.

TERRA: How do you see China and India dealing with those issues?

McKibben: In China, the die is largely cast in certain ways. They’ve built an immense amount of coal-fired power plants. India is less so. They’re much further down the curve and there’s more chance for serious intervention. In both cases, we should be moving quickly to aid them with serious technological help to allow people, especially in India, to leapfrog past fossil fuel.

They’re also doing many things right — far righter than we are. I just did a big piece for National Geographic on China and energy. And, look, the Chinese have installed about 60 million of these solar thermal arrays for hot water. For a quarter of a billion Chinese, when they take a shower at night their hot water is coming off the roof. That’s about 25 percent of China. In the U.S., it’s less than 1 percent. The technology is simple. The payback is fast. You tell me why it’s not getting used.

TERRA: Do you see regional differences in perceptions of climate change? For instance, the Pacific Northwest has a pretty benign, temperate climate. We don’t have serious droughts or hurricanes. So the signs aren’t right in our face yet. It’s a problem because people don’t necessarily see it happening around them. But it can also be an opportunity because we have time to adapt if we get busy right now.

McKibben: Well, here’s the thing: There’s no place that’s going to do very well with this kind of change. I mean, we kind of thought we were sitting pretty in Vermont. It’s kind of benign and out of the way. But half the state damned near washed away from the hugest rainfall we’ve ever experienced, by far. It was just wracking — and expensive. So, it can happen here, too. There’ll always be places like Oregon that will temporarily benefit, like during this horrible drought in Russia. They had to stop all grain exports to the rest of the world, and the price of wheat goes through the roof. And, suddenly, if you’re a wheat farmer in Eastern Oregon, you’re sitting pretty for a while. But look at the computer models and you’ll realize you’re a coin flip away from that drought being right where you are.

TERRA: Here in the Northwest, there’s a lot of work going on with federal and state agencies. For our cover story, we’ll reflect on the application of the first Oregon Climate Assessment Report released about a year ago by our Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.

McKibben: The Northwest is really important for many ways. One, it’s ahead of much of the rest of the country in trying to do something about the environment. Two, this stretch of the Pacific is an important place to serve as a cork in the bottle to keep large amounts of energy from coming out of the middle of the continent and heading toward China. I was up in Washington State not long ago, where they’re trying to stop these proposed coal ports along the coast, which would take all the coal out of Wyoming and Montana and ship it to China. There may be a similar plan for Oregon at some point, too. And I was just up in Vancouver, B.C., where they’re trying to stop more of these pipelines out of the tar sands. You know, you guys are kind of the wall between a lot of bad, dirty energy and China. And so it’ll be an important place for people to be organizing hard.

TERRA: On the subject of population, how important is the correlation between population growth and carbon concentrations?

McKibben: At this point, it’s not the biggest driver of climate change. We’re going to see another 2 billion people in the next 50 years. It’s not going to be easy to deal with; the planet’s already strained at 7 billion. But in climate terms, most of the population increase will happen in places that are so poor, the incremental amount of energy they use is small. We forget how wide the gulf is. I mean, the average American uses more energy between the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve and dinner on January 2 than the average Tanzanian uses in the course of a year. So you can have a lot of Tanzanians before their energy consumption mounts up very much. One of the great tragedies of climate change is that it happens hardest in places that caused it the least.

So, yeah, population growth is important for many reasons, and climate change is one of them. But the biggest driver of climate change right now is places whose population is relatively stable but whose consumption is starting to rise toward the American level, China being the obvious example.

And it must be said that we’ve done a better job than people thought about dealing with population growth. You know, the average woman 30 years ago had six children. That number is 2.4 now and falling fast. And it’s because we figured out what to do — to educate women and to empower them. Fertility rates predictably go down dramatically. And, that’s what we’ve got to keep doing — make contraception available and accessible, and educate people enough that they have some control over their own destiny.


See a video of McKibben’s November 17, 2011, Discovery Lecture at Oregon State University.

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