Q&A: Environmental Firebrand Bill McKibben: People, Not Exxon, Own the Sky

After the People's Climate March in New York, the environmentalist talks about what's next for the climate movement.
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Demonstrators gather for the People's Climate March in New York City on September 21, 2014, one of thousands of events around the world designed to bring attention to global climate change.

Last week in New York, climate change took center stage. More than a hundred heads of state gathered to discuss the issue at a United Nations summit—and demonstrators filled the streets of Manhattan in what has been dubbed "the largest climate march in history."

The next step for climate negotiators is a meeting in Lima, Peru, later this year, followed by another in Paris in December 2015. There, it is hoped, diplomats will at last conclude the international agreement that has eluded them for so long.

But what's next for the popular movement?

To find out, National Geographic talked with journalist turned environmental activist Bill McKibben. Author of countless magazine articles (including ones here, here, and here for National Geographic) and numerous books (including Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, released this past summer), McKibben is also the founder of 350.org, a grassroots climate group that helped organize last week's march.

In his summit speech, President Barack Obama said: "Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call." What would heeding that call look like?

Heeding that call would look like transforming our energy system to get it off fossil fuel.

That will take many forms: the form of a serious price on carbon, the form of a real government commitment to an all-out deployment of renewable energy, [and] the form of serious, serious financial aid from the rich north to the poor south to help them leapfrog the fossil fuel age.

I don't know whether we'll see it. So far the Obama administration has been much longer on rhetoric than result. And, really, what's happened in the Obama years is the emergence of the U.S. as an oil and gas superpower surpassing even the Russians and the Saudis in production. That doesn't square with any real commitment to transformative change.

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Bill McKibben, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune (with daughter), and others lead tens of thousands in a February 2013 march past the White House to urge President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

The march in New York mobilized a lot of people around the general issue of climate change. Has the more focused, symbolic battle against the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Alberta tar sands oil it would deliver to the U.S., been a distraction from the main fight?

We fight all over the place. We fight the Keystone pipeline. We fight new coal ports on the Pacific coast. We fight new [liquefied natural gas] ports on the East Coast.

No, I don't think any of this is distraction. I think it's all powerful fight. The Keystone one is a good example. Earlier this week, Statoil, the big Norwegian oil company, announced that it was canceling—or at least delaying indefinitely—plans for a new tar sands mine. That mine alone would have produced carbon emissions equivalent to 164 million cars.

So, I think we're doing a good job with all of this defense. I also think defense is not enough. We have to be on the offensive against this fossil fuel industry. That's why we've got this powerful divestment campaign under way. We do our best to match the money power of the fossil fuel industry with the people power we can muster around the planet.

You have portrayed fossil fuel companies as the enemy, guilty of immoral behavior. Why do you feel that rhetorical strategy is likely to succeed?

I don't think it's a rhetorical strategy. I just think it's the truth. Our job at 350 is to tell straightforwardly the truth. That's why we have this scientific data point as a name.

The fossil fuel industry spends a lot of time pretending that they're doing something about these problems. If you look at their commercials, they're filled with the pictures of the wildlife that they're helping destroy around the planet. The more penguins per commercial, the more damage they're doing, in my estimation.

Does slowing climate change mean putting those companies out of business?

It means forcing them to become energy companies, not fossil fuel companies. For 25 years, every economist has said it's absurd to allow these companies to use the atmosphere as an open sewer. The fact that they do it for free distorts the market in every possible way. We have the greatest subsidy anyone's ever given: the right to, in this case, wreck the planet for free.

These companies will continue doing that as long as they can, because they're making huge amounts of money. But they have talented scientists. The day that there's a serious price on carbon, the day that we break their political power, is the day that they become energy companies and play their part in building a renewable future.

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A young boy carries a chunk of coal into the mining camp where he lives in India. According to McKibben, fighting the worst effects of climate change will require "serious, serious financial aid" to help poorer countries leapfrog the fossil fuel age.

What efforts, if any, are being made to engage skeptics of climate change?

I don't think that the last holdout group of skeptics will be convinced, and I don't waste an enormous amount of time trying. I'm more concerned about the 70 percent of Americans who know that we have a serious problem and activating them to be involved in the fight.

What do you think of the carbon tax plan proposed by some conservatives, such as Bob Inglis?

It's actually not "proposed by some conservatives." Pretty much every economist, left, right, and center has called for some version of a price on carbon for 25 years now. It's one part of the answer.

I think the smartest structure has been suggested by Peter Barnes: a hefty tax on carbon, all of it returned via check to every citizen every couple of months. You get the price signal at the pump, but are made whole against it. The theory is: If anyone owns the sky, it's us, not Exxon.

What's the endgame for the climate movement?

Stopping global warming is no longer on the menu of options. We've raised the temperature 1 degree Celsius [1.8 degrees Fahrenheit]. Even if we do everything right at this point, we're probably going to go to 2. But we're on a trajectory to go to 4 to 5 degrees Celsius in the course of this century. If that happens we can't have civilizations like the ones we're used to.

So, it's a brutal, powerful fight to try and slow things down. Our job is to fight in every trench, as long as we can, to save each increment of temperature, because with each increment comes more damage and destruction.

I think people are deeply concerned about it. I also think they feel deeply powerless about it. They feel very small in comparison to the size of the problem. As we build movements, people get more able to see how we might actually make change.

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