Solving the Earth’s Climate Problems

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An Interview with Bill McKibben

Record droughts, a melting Arctic and changing worldwide weather patterns – are these the early signs of an environment on the verge of collapse? To look at these issues and more we had a chance to speak with the well known environmentalist Bill McKibben.

Bill is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. He is the author of a dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, which is regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change. Bill is a frequent contributor to various magazines including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Orion Magazine & Huffington Post.

In the interview, Bill discusses:

• Why the West should fund the development of renewable energy in India and China.
• How we can help solve the Earth’s climate problems.
• Why Obama needs to step up his game.
• Big oil’s success at keeping climate change out of the headlines.
• Why he fears Keystone XL will shortly be pushed through.
• Why we have to massively deploy clean energy technology Now!
• His views on the Canadian oil sands.
• The economic impact of a massive transition to renewables.

Q: You have said that climate change is the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. Why do you think so little action is being taken to prevent it?

Bill McKibben: I think that so far the political and economic power of the fossil fuel industry has trumped all else.

Q: In your opinion what strategy holds the best chance of solving our climate change problems?

Bill McKibben: Well, i think we need to go straight at the fossil fuel industry. this fall 350.org launches a divestment campaign on college campuses–we’re calling it ‘do the math,’ based on an article i wrote for rolling stone this summer that went wickedly viral. i’m not certain it will work, but i know that these are the guys (not the politicians) calling the shots, so we need to reach them.

Q: What is your message to the oil company’s? They obviously make incredible profits from their business – how are you looking to persuade them to cut back on production? Also the oil companies are controlled by shareholders – most of these pension funds, etc… Surely you also need to approach the shareholders?

Bill McKibben: I don’t think the fossil fuel industry will listen, not until we build up a lot of pressure. I do think we can persuade some shareholders that they don’t want to be involved in this enterprise.

Q: Would you be able to share any of the arguments you will use?

Bill McKibben: Profiting from companies that are overloading the atmosphere with carbon and changing the atmosphere is wrong.

Q: In a perfect world alternative energy technologies would be able to compete with fossil fuels – but this is far from being the case. Massive investment and many years of R&D need to go into alternatives before they are even close to being competitive. What are we supposed to do in the meantime as energy is essential for economic growth?

Bill McKibben: Actually, this is less and less true. Wind and sun are more and more competitive–and if fossil fuel had to pay for the damage it did to the environment, they’d be far cheaper.

Q: But we can’t just turn off the taps and although alternatives are becoming more competitive – they just aren’t there yet. Take a look at Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power (one they are regretting now) – this decision has led to a massive increase in coal generated electricity and will continue to do so. How would the world make up for the shortfall in energy production if fossil fuel usage were to drop?

Bill McKibben: “Can’t” is one of those interesting terms. You could just as easily say–and with far more merit–“you can’t just melt the Arctic ice cap.” It won’t be easy, of course, but clearly we know how to deploy clean energy technology. On something like a wartime footing we could do it fast. Fast enough? The science is pretty dark.

Q: The southern part of the Keystone XL pipeline has been developed, all that is missing is permission from the White House to complete the final part. This has led many to believe that the Keystone XL will be built, what is your opinion? Do you fear that there is too much money to be made and too many “interests” for it to be permanently blocked?

Bill McKibben: I share that fear. Mitt Romney has promised to build it, and Obama hasn’t promised not to, so the odds are far from stellar.

Q: The fact that the Arctic is being opened up for oil exploration and production surely demonstrates the grip that the fossil fuel industry has on the government. Do you fear for the environment as long as government remains under the thrall of big oil?

Bill McKibben: I do. The Arctic is the most ironic example, since it’s only opening up for oil drilling because we’ve melted it.

Q: You have stated that the Canadian Tar Sands represent ‘Game Over’ for any ambitions to battle climate change. A lot of money stands to be made from their development, and Canada’s economy will receive huge benefits. Do you truly believe that the Canadian government could be persuaded to forfeit this massive resource?

Bill McKibben: The Canadian people will decide. It’s a great test for a country that traditionally has helped solve world problems, not cause them.

Q: Developing countries such as China and India are the worst polluters, yet in order for them to reduce their emissions significantly they would need to hold back on their own economic development. Is this a fair request to make of them?

Bill McKibben: We would need to help them make the transition to renewable energy, and fast. It’s not just the moral thing to do, it’s the practical one.

Q: Where will the funding come from to make this transition?

Bill McKibben: From some tiny portion of the wealth the west accumulated in a hundred years of filling the atmosphere with carbon

Q: How will the West pay for this?

Bill McKibben: I’m guessing the most efficient way would be to transfer an awful lot of technology, but also direct aid to deal with climate emergencies already underway. Hillary has already said $100 bn a year would be appropriate

Q: The US is now producing more oil and natural gas than ever before, and whilst solar and wind projects are growing, fossil fuels still dominate. Obama is much stronger on climate issues than Bush was, yet is he strong enough?

Bill McKibben: No one is strong enough–given the magnitude of the task, everyone has to step up their game.

Q: You say no-one is strong enough – what policies would you like to see put in place – what could the politicians do?

Bill McKibben: A price on carbon sufficient to keep 80% of current reserves underground, rebated directly to citizens.

Q: What impact do you see this having on economic growth?

Bill McKibben: I imagine it would spur employment pretty dramatically. Renewable energy is far more labor-intensive than fossil fuel production. So for those of us who worry more about working people than about windfall profits for oil companies, it may net out. A better question is: what does it do to our economy if we manage to overheat the earth? This summer’s drought provides a small taste.

Q: 350.org is the first global movement against climate change. Do you think that on its own it could grow large enough to have the impact needed, or are you expecting that it will just provide an example to others and cause other similar such global movements to be created, which together could then have the necessary power to make a difference?

Bill McKibben: Unity is strength!

Q: If you were to pick an alternative source that offers real potential in the future what would it be?

Bill McKibben: Sun and wind.

Q: Why is climate scepticism continuing to gain momentum in the face of terrible droughts and changing weather patterns?

Bill McKibben: I don’t think it is. The percentage of Americans who understand the planet is warming has grown steadily. The skeptics have lots of money, but they have a hard time fighting what is becoming to obvious to anyone who steps out the door: the planet is warming quickly and disastrously.

Q: Bill thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

—By arrangement with the oilprice.com

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