A New Currency for Climate Change

Bill McKibben, one of the most prominent environmental activists and journalists today, has been at the forefront of the climate change movement since its inception. He wrote the first book on climate change, The End of Nature, in 1989. In 2007, he founded 350.org, an international organization committed to reducing global CO2 atmospheric concentration levels to 350 parts per million—the level scientists agree is environmentally safe. In 2009, under McKibben’s leadership, 350.org coordinated what many news organizations claimed to be the largest globally coordinated rally in history. McKibben and 350.org went on to throw a “Global Work Party” on October 10, 2010 involving over 7,000 events in every country around the world except North Korea. Highly acclaimed for his passion and vision, McKibben continues to be a leading force in the movement against climate change. The Columbia Political Review sat down with McKibben to discuss the future of the climate change movement. Columbia Political Review: There seems to be a very marked difference in the tone of your new book, Eaarth ,compared to your previous works. You say that global warming is no longer a threat we need to deal with but one we need to cope with. Where do you think the rest of the world stands on this at the moment?

Bill McKibben: I think most people around the world have an idea that global warming is real and dangerous. I think that comparatively few, especially in the United States, realize how quickly its bearing down upon us. I think most people still think that it’s something that’s supposed to occur in the future, not something that’s happening with a vengeance already.

CPR: In Eaarth, you cite an alarming statistic that even the most optimistic estimates based on pledges of emissions reductions would only get us to 600 ppm [parts per million—acceptable levels would be 350 ppm] CO2 by 2100. To compound that, you cited a study that predicts that it would take up to a millennium for the climate to reach its old equilibrium even if we stopped emitting tomorrow. What are your thoughts on those two statistics?

BM: Clearly, we’ve already raised the global temperature by one degree. And we’ve probably already bought ourselves another degree, or pretty close to it, with carbon that we’ve already released into the atmosphere. So the question now is not ‘can we prevent global warming?’—the question is ‘can we hold it to a level that we can at least live to cope with as a planet?’ And that’s a very open question and a very difficult one. If we do everything right beginning now, then we have a shot at it but as the past year illustrates, we’re already under heavy water, climatically.

CPR: Do you think that when people hear a statement like that, they are far too discouraged to change their actions at all?

BM: No, we wondered about that when we started 350[.org], but the opposite has been the case even though the entire premise of the campaign is based on the idea that we’ve already put too much carbon in the atmosphere and already over the place where we need to be. It seems to motivate people instead of the opposite. I think it’s akin to going to the doctor and learning that your cholestrol is much too high. Very few people would just say ‘Well I’m throwing in the towel,’ and die soon. Most people would take that as the moment to begin taking action.

CPR: The climate movement seems to have had a perennial PR issue until  Inconvenient Truth came out in 2007. According to a recent study conducted by dailyclimate.org, the climate coverage in 2010 apparently dropped back down to 2005 (pre-Inconvenient Truth levels). With the effects of climate change increasing, with 2010 being one of the warmest years on record, and climate science becoming more robust, why do you think this is the case?

BM: I really don’t know. I think that there was probably less coverage in 2010 than the year before because we didn’t have the Copenhagen climate conference, which became such a huge focus of attention. I think that there was also very little legislative activity. The year before there had been a bill that passed the House, and in 2010, the bill didn’t even come up for a vote in the Senate. So I’d say it’s overall just a really discouraging picture.

CPR: On the note of the Copenhagen Conference, the conference was deemed to be an overwhelming failure because of its inability to produce a binding agreement. Interestingly, however, the recent Cancun Conference in December 2010 ended with a standing ovation after reiterating many of the same goals as Copenhagen. Why do you think that was the case? Have our expectations worldwide just been lowered?

BM: I think that’s probably a large part of it. You know, nothing that came out of Cancun is a real big step towards addressing the scientific reality. They were sort of just pleased with themselves for keeping the process going forward and that’s about all that there can be said about it at this point I think.

CPR: What kind of role did 350 play at the conference?

BM: We were sort of the busiest hub in the NGO space there. Our work isn’t really centered around these conferences. What we do is in between. By the time you get these conferences, it’s really too late to affect policy. What you got to do is build a group in the meantime, big enough to convince politicians that there’s some reason to take this issue seriously. So that’s what we try to do. We try to build big movements. Clearly, we haven’t built one big enough yet. Given our resources and scale, we’ve done okay though. We’ve put on—two years in a row—what CNN called the most widespread day of political action in its history.

CPR: Were there any specific initiatives that you’ve seen in the last year that reaffirmed your faith in the movement?

BM: I think that the movement is growing pretty powerfully. We basically had action on every country on earth except for North Korea. People in the poorest parts of the world were involved. There were lots of groups participating in the Work Party in the flooded parts of Pakistan. People began to rebuild there, doing it under the banner of 350 with the hope that they wouldn’t be flooded out again. There were dozens of big events in Bangladesh even though they were having flooding so severe that half a million people were out of their homes that weekend. When there are people in every corner of the planet, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, that are joining in, it gives me at least a little hope.

CPR: On the note of vulnerable people, you cited a statistic in Eaarth about how there currently are 50 million climate refugees and by 2050 that number is supposed to rise to 750 million. Let alone trying to solve climate change, this seems to be an even more imminent issue.

BM: The only way to really prevent this in the large scale is to slow down the rate of warming on the planet. That’s what we need to do. And if we don’t, there’ll be a whole number of destabilizing things. We’re already seeing effects on agricultural production. We’re seeing effects on people needing to migrate. We’re seeing effects on health especially in the worst parts of the world. All these things sort of snowball into chaotic and miserable situations. Dealing with those symptoms might be all but impossible because of their scale. We still have some time to prevent them from getting any worse than they have to get and that’s job number one right now.

CPR: Countries such as the Maldives or Marshall Islands are definitely going to be under water or going to have huge environmental issues in the coming years. What kind of things do you think that a 350-type movement can do to make sure that these countries are at least supported and definitely taken care of when they endure the effects of climate change?

BM: Well, these are the places where many of our strongest allies are. Far from demanding to be taken care of, they’re really leading the way in dealing with these issues. Take the Maldives, not only are they at the forefront of the political fight for solutions, but they’re also hard at work to become the world’s first carbon neutral nation by 2020. They’re doing everything they possibly can to set a powerful example despite their poverty. Standing in solidarity with them is one of the most important things that we can do.  Figuring out ways to take their voice and amplify it for people around the world to hear. That’s what they ask of us.

CPR: When trying to sell the idea of moving towards “green” technology or “green” practices, do you think it’s justified to coax people with an economic incentive?

BM: The arguments that I think are important are less about coaxing people with possibilities of more economic growth and more about appealing to our deep desires for security, stability, resilience, and durability—all the things that we realize our society is lacking, especially in the wake of the financial crisis. I think many people are intuitively worried that our banks aren’t the only things that are “too big to fail.”

CPR: Can you elaborate more on how the “too big to fail” concept would relate to the environmental crisis?

BM: I’d say our agricultural system is a pretty clear one in that it’s highly centralized the same way our capital markets are or were. It’s also highly dependent on a few inputs, especially cheap fossil fuel, which we’re beginning to understand is not one for this world. Our energy system itself is really the same way. It relies on a few countries around the world with oil and gas deposits.  In both cases, I think people can viscerally understand that there’s something appealing about a world with sustainable energy and agricultural infrastructure.

CPR: Is a spiritual shift towards the idea what we really need?

BM: I don’t think a spiritual shift is what we need. I think what we need are changes in our everyday lives. I think that by far the easiest vehicle to achieve those changes is a serious price on carbon—a price that reflects the damage that it does on the atmosphere. If we have that, then we wouldn’t be making spiritual shifts, we’d be making common sense economic decisions everyday. Whatever shift we’re going to get will be led by our behavior as economic actors. That’s what our daily lives are largely about.

CPR: On that note, what do you think the best type of legislation would like?

BM: I think in an ideal world, the best type of legislation we can have in this country would be what people call “fee and dividend.” You put a serious tax or fee on producers of fossil fuel, they pass the price on to the pump and your gas bill goes way up so you get rid of the SUV. But you take the money collected from that fee and split it up and send everyone in the country a check every six months or so. Most people come out ahead from this so they’re not bankrupted by that. I think it’s probably the fairest and quickest way to make economic change on this scale.

CPR: What are your thoughts on the various regional bills such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative on the East Coast, which is a nascent cap-and-trade system amongst northeast states?

BM: I think they are interesting experiments that are unlikely to produce really large-scale change simply because, operating out of the national context, it’s really difficult to make it happen.

CPR: So you believe that some kind of national legislation is absolutely necessary to have the kind of large change that’s needed?

BM: I think we’re going to have to work both nationally and internationally if we’re going to have change on the scale that we need to get in the short time that we have. I wish it were otherwise. Given a hundred years, we’d do things very differently. We’d slowly and patiently work from the bottom-up and that would be much better. But in this case, physics and chemistry are setting the pace and they don’t seem to be giving us anywhere near that amount of time.

CPR: Based on the new political atmosphere in Washington, what do you think our trajectory is for climate change legislation in this country for the next two years?

BM: I think there’s no chance of significant legislation in the next two years.

CPR: What are some actions that you propose that are within our limits?

BM: I think we need to build a whopping big movement so that the next time we have a political opening, we can just use it.

CPR: Because this is a collegiate publication, we’re obligated to ask: How potent do you think the collegiate community is in the climate movement?

BM: Essentially, very much so! I’m looking forward to Power Shift [an upcoming rally of over 10,000 young leaders in Washington, DC, for sustainable energy sources] in April. If it’s anything like two years ago, the last time that conference ran, there were about 15,000 or so young climate activists from campuses all over the country. The most impressive gathering around global warming in this country so far. So one hopes for a repeat and more. Campuses have been a big part of the work that we do at 350. We had issued something called the “Great Power Race” in China, India and the U.S., and by the end I think we had about over a thousand campuses that had interesting sustainability projects of all kinds.

CPR: When [the Columbia Political Review] got a chance to sit down with Mark Rudd, the guy who started the 1968 Vietnam War protests at Columbia, he actually likened the climate crisis to the Vietnam crisis saying the only way the climate crisis could be solved was through a vigorous collegiate movement of some sort. How do you react to that analogy?

BM: I think there’s probably something to it. I think what’s interesting about the climate movement is that many of the young people involved are not ideological in the sense that people in the 1960s seemed to be. I don’t know many people who are trying to restructure all the world’s ways and economies and things. […] In certain ways, [it’s] quite a conservative one [movement]. It’s aimed at things from changing too much. I think that makes it at least a little different than the 1960s.

CPR: A few years ago, you had written an article about how you were ready to go to jail to prevent a specific coal plant from being fired up. You wrote pretty forcefully about civil disobedience. Do you still hold similar views?

BM: Yeah, I think that you’ll probably see more civil disobedience in the movement as the year goes on. We can’t shut down the fossil fuel system that way though. It’s too big. We can, however, make them a moral witness.

CPR: What do you think the climate movement has in store for the rest of 2011?

BM: I hope what it has in store is becoming bigger, stronger and more unified. I think that’s what it’s going to take because we’re up against the enormous financial power of the fossil fuel industry. We’re not going to be able to compete dollar-for-dollar. We need a different currency—bodies, passion and creativity are probably it. So I hope we’ll be able to muster them. We’ll certainly try to do our part at 350 as the year goes on. I think we’ll have another big global mobilization and I think this one may revolve around bicycles, one of the few tools that rich and poor around the world both use. It’s a potent symbol of the kind of solutions we need and just a source of great pleasure anyway!

CPR: Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to add?

BM: It seems that those of us in the rich world are somewhat obligated to do this kind of work because people in the poor world are wiling to do it and are doing it. If you go to 350, you can see the thousands of pictures from the poorest parts of the world. You’ll be left thinking, if these people are still willing to engage with those of us that caused this problem, then we really have no moral choice but to do all that we can. And I think that sense of international solidarity is very, very important.