Bill McKibben is founder of Third Act, which organizes people over the age of 60 for action on climate and justice.
His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages. He’s gone on to write 20 books, and his work appears regularly in periodicals from the New Yorker to Rolling Stone. He serves as the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he has won the Gandhi Peace Prize as well as honorary degrees from 20 colleges and universities. He was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes called the alternative Nobel, in the Swedish Parliament. Foreign Policy named him to its inaugural list of the world’s 100 most important global thinkers.
McKibben helped found 350.org, the first global grassroots climate campaign, which has organized protests on every continent, including Antarctica, for climate action. He played a leading role in launching the opposition to big oil pipeline projects like Keystone XL, and the fossil fuel divestment campaign, which has become the biggest anti-corporate campaign in history, with endowments worth more than $40 trillion stepping back from oil, gas and coal. He stepped down as board chair of 350 in 2015, and left the board and stepped down from his volunteer role as senior adviser in 2020, accepting emeritus status. He lives in the mountains above Lake Champlain with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, where he spends as much time as possible outdoors. In 2014, biologists credited his career by naming a new species of woodland gnat—Megophthalmidia mckibbeni–in his honor.
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Michael Liebreich Before we start, if you're enjoying these conversations, please make sure that you like or subscribe to Cleaning Up. It really helps other people to find us. Cleaning Up is brought to you by Capricorn Investment Group, the Liebreich Foundation and the Gilardini Foundation. Hello. I'm Michael Liebreich and this is Cleaning Up. Welcome to season seven. And for this, our extraordinary 98th episode, we've got a great guest. It's Bill McKibben, writer and activist. As a writer, Bill has written 20 books on the environment, climate change and society, including the seminal The End of Nature in 1989, the first mainstream book on climate change. As an activist, Bill founded 350.org, which was back at the time of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, to put pressure on politicians to reach an ambitious deal. Then he was at the heart of forming the divestment movement and more recently, Third Act, for older Americans and people around the world to remain engaged in the most crucial issues of the day. Please welcome Bill McKibben to Cleaning Up. So, Bill, thank you so much for joining us here on Cleaning Up.
Bill McKibben It's a pleasure to be with you.
Michael Liebreich Now you're somewhere in, I'm guessing, the Northeast. Which state are you in? Whereabouts are you today?
Bill McKibben The Green Mountain State of Vermont, the second smallest state in the Union. But mighty, despite our size.
Michael Liebreich And it looks like behind you through the window I can see some kind of a mountain. Will that be the Green Mountains that you're talking about?
Bill McKibben Exactly right. These are and at this time of year, they're at their luscious peak. It'll be another ten or 15 days and the trees will start to turn. And, you know, Vermont will get into its fall glory. But right now, we're at high summer.
Michael Liebreich Right. I spent some time hanging out in Vermont when I was at business school, I was in Boston. But Vermont is very lovely, as you say, at this time of year. What you can't see because it's on the other side of the camera is that out of that window there we've got also some green mountains. I'm in Switzerland, I'm up in the Alps and I look out onto green and then it's brown and it's supposed to be white. There is a glacier there which is shrinking very rapidly as we speak, which could not be more on message for this conversation.
Bill McKibben Exactly right. And I fear it's been a tough summer for the glaciers of the Alps, just as it's been a tough summer for the rivers of Europe and really tough summer in an extraordinary number of places. The daily reality now of what climate change in its early stages looks like, I think, is starting to sink in. And as bad as it's been in Europe or in America, the heat wave currently underway in China may turn out to be the most climatically significant heat wave we've yet recorded. And the drought underway in the Horn of Africa, where we're headed into a fifth rainy season with no rain, I'm afraid, is an example of the kind of stress that the poorest and most vulnerable places now are starting to really succumb to.
Michael Liebreich Yeah, it has certainly been an apocalyptic summer and it just feels like it's been a kind of a relay race, because we started with India and Bangladesh. We've had the Europe droughts, the water level dropping in the Rhine. We've had, as you say, the situation in China, which is now really gathering pace. And it just seems to never stop. In fact, we had a guest, Elizabeth Wathuti, who's from Kenya, over a year ago, and she was already talking about it back then. Let's do the following, because I have this very broad audience and some of them will know exactly who you are. And some of them - that's the joy of a broad audience - will be sitting there going “so who is this guy sitting up there in Vermont?” And they may know you for one or two things. They may know you for 350.org, or for perhaps one of your books. But can I ask you, in your words, to give a thumbnail, who is Bill McKibben?
Bill McKibben I wrote the first book for a general audience about what we then called the greenhouse effect back in 1989, a book called The End of Nature that ended up in 24 languages and was read all over the world. I was in my twenties then, so most of my life then has been devoted to this question. As with you. And what I started doing about 15 years ago was some of the first large scale-organizing, movement building around climate change, because I had come to believe that the power of the fossil fuel industry was preventing us from making change at the pace that we needed to, and build a kind of countervailing power. We started first an organization called 350.org. That was the first iteration of a global climate movement. We've organized 20,000 demonstrations in every country in the world except North Korea. We helped spearhead the fight against what was called the Keystone Pipeline here in the U.S. That became the first significant defeat for big oil. And we launched this massive fossil fuel divestment campaign, now at about $40 trillion in endowments and portfolios that have sold their stock in coal, oil or gas. And at the moment, because I'm old now, we're organizing or building an organization called Third Act that takes people over the age of 60 and tries to bring their political and financial power to bear on these questions.
Michael Liebreich Very good. I very much like a Boston based beer called Sam Adams and every Sam Adams bottle says “Brewer. Patriot”. And so for you, I was asked, well, what are the two words that would sum you up? For you, it seems to me then writer, activist. Is that fair?
Bill McKibben That is fair. And since I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American Revolution, where Sam Adams used to hang out a lot, I'm willing to take patriot, too, but I'm not much of a brewer. But I do drink a fair amount. So, there you go.
Michael Liebreich Very good. But when you started your career as a journalist and then as an author, did you see yourself as a sort of observer. Or did you already think of your writing as a form of activism?
Bill McKibben No, I was very much a straight-ahead journalist. My first job out of college was at The New Yorker magazine in New York City. I wrote a column called The Talk of the Town. That's the sort of famous column in the front of The New Yorker, which is probably America's preeminent magazine. And it wasn't until I was 25 or 26 and writing The End of Nature that I really began to understand that I cared about the outcome here. I wasn't objective in the sense that journalists sometimes try to be. I didn't want the world to overheat and blow away. And so, that did make it more difficult to just be a straight-ahead journalist in quite the same way that I'd expected to in my life. But I continue to do a lot of journalism, including to write a lot for The New Yorker, even as I am also an activist.
Michael Liebreich And your activism, you've chosen a very sort of a very particular style. I think we'll get on to talking about engagement and how individual responsibility and different theories of change. But before we do that, I want to go back to The End of Nature, which must have been a quite life-changing event, getting that book out there. It seems to have been a bit of a punctuation point for you. You published it in 1989, is that right?
Bill McKibben Well, it's 30, 33 years ago. Yes.
Michael Liebreich And do you ever go back to it and have a look at what you wrote, or do you remember it all so vividly that you don't need to?
Bill McKibben I do go back and look at it occasionally, in part because people keep putting out new editions of it. Penguin just reissued it as an official Penguin Classic, so I had to go back and look at it and do a little work on it. The sad part is that we knew everything we needed to know in 1989, and we could, and should, have gone to work right then and we didn't. And so now we're in a big mess. But the science holds up. What's different is that the in 1989, it hadn't yet happened. The dominant tone for me in the book was sadness, the sadness at the ways that humans were now taking every inch of the wild world and changing it all. Manipulating it by raising the temperature, changing therefore its flora and fauna and its meaning. And that sadness is still very much with me. But, you know, as climate change has become much more real and concrete, that sadness has been joined by fear at the obvious consequences, by incredible anger at the forces - primarily the fossil fuel industry and their lick-spittle politicians who allied themselves with it - who kept us from doing anything about it. And deep, deep sorrow for the millions of people already killed or forced to move, or whose lives have been stunted by an entirely preventable crisis.
Michael Liebreich It's interesting because - I've got that Penguin Classic Edition - I read it in preparation for this conversation. And I was struck by that sense of sadness and foreboding. Also, by the way, your sense that you have that nevertheless there will be a nature. It won't be the same nature, but there will still be something out there that's complex. And we will have changed it all, and that's very sad. But unlike a lot of activists, you don't say it's the end of everything.
Bill McKibben No. And I don't think it is the end of everything. And in fact, you know, I've spent as much of my life in the natural world as I can, which is one reason I've been able to stay sane through all of this. And though there is no such thing as absolute wilderness anymore, the value of relative wilderness seems greater all the time. So, I mean, that's why I live where I live. I don't think I would have been able to keep doing the work that I've done at the pace that I've done it if I had been in the city or something. It's been really important for me to be able to be out in the world that I love. Part of the human job is to bear witness to the world around us. And it's not getting any more intact or any more beautiful in the future than it is now. So, I take seriously the idea that part of each day is to be spent just taking stock, bearing witness to the beauty that is around us all the time.
Michael Liebreich One of the other things that struck me reading it just this week is that you say that the science has held up pretty well. That actually can be split into two pieces. The actual temperatures that we're at and that are now being forecast are not as extreme as the forecasts back when you wrote that book. So, you were writing about two degrees to five degrees centigrade in the very near future. And I think you call it the near future, which - I haven't got the exact citation - but I'm assuming in a decadal time frame. We're only at 1.2 degrees. People talk about five degrees… Now, the central scenario from the IPCC is consistent with 2.4 degrees. So, that's kind of good news. The bad news is all those terrible things that are already happening which are worse than forecast at the same time.
Bill McKibben That's right. So truthfully, I think the temperature forecast has been pretty much correct. I mean, Jim Hansen's estimate of how much the temperature would go up at the first congressional hearings on this, the bands are about right. It turns out Exxon's guys who were studying this covertly in the 1980s predicted pretty precisely what the temperature would be by about 2020. So, relatively, science got that part right. What they got wrong was how much damage would happen with each increment of temperature. We didn't understand quite how finely balanced this system was. And so, you know, the temperature increase we've seen so far, on the order of 1.2 degrees Celsius, has been enough to trigger truly extraordinary change, much more than I think we could have imagined. The stuff that we thought would happen in 2060 or 2070 is happening now. And that's very scary. It turns out that scientists are very conservative by nature and tend to under-predict, not over-predict. So, that's the part that freaks me out about where we are right now. That we've melted most of the sea ice in the Summer Arctic is a very daunting thing, that we've managed to change as dramatically as we have the planet's hydrological cycle, the way that water moves around the earth is a very daunting thing because these are not easy to reverse in any way. And it just turns out that our civilization is on fairly shaky ground because of the magnitude of these changes.
Michael Liebreich It truly has been striking that some of those forecasts, the ones you cite in your book, were 2 to 5 degrees. With things like sea level rise, you quote in the book, you cite the EPA report on sea level rise, which was 144 to 217 centimeters by 2100. The current IPCC forecast is actually for 30 to 60 or 60 to 110 in a scenario which, frankly, involves burning more coal than exists. So, it is striking. I don't want to dive too much down the rabbit hole, because the key point that you're making, which I 100% agree with, is that the thing is much more finely balanced than we realized back then. It’s a nuanced point, but it's complicated because the general public and, frankly, a lot of people working in this space find it hard to distinguish between the emissions scenarios, which are generally actually improving and are not as apocalyptic as was thought, but the impacts and the sensitivities are. And if you really want to follow the science, which we're all told to do, people find it hard to distinguish between those two.
Bill McKibben The point is that you don't really need much forecasting at this point. I mean, all you have to do is just look out the window and see what's happening. I mean, in your case, you can look across at the alpine glaciers and watch them melt. Now that we're no longer in the calm water, now that we’re right above the waterfall, the forecasting part strikes me as less important. What's important is trying to understand the damage that we're seeing and more importantly, trying to understand the momentum of it. I think the place where scientists are converging now is an understanding that if we're going to respond effectively, that response has to come quickly. Yeah, that pace is now the most important of all the variables.
Michael Liebreich That's right. And I had Johann Rockström on Cleaning Up. What we'll do is we'll pick up these references and we'll put them into the show notes, because Johan is absolutely brilliant at the difference between the commitment time, which is the next few decades, when we do irrevocable things, and the impact time, which might be two, three, four or 500 years, possibly even a millennium before some of those really bad things fully manifest. And. He’s very clear about that.
Bill McKibben The other thing, though, that we've come to realize, that I think is really important and that physical scientists aren't capable of capturing, is that the political arrangements of a planet are more fragile when we realized, too. So, for instance, you have the worst drought in the history of what we used to call the Fertile Crescent, centered on Syria. It drives a million people out of their farms and into Syrian cities. This is enough to help destabilize the already despotic Assad government and set off a brutal civil war. This, in turn, is enough to put a couple of million refugees fleeing to Western Europe. This, in turn, is enough to undermine the political stability of a number of countries in Western Europe, as anti-immigrant sentiment and those things rise. Well, those kind of fragilities and stresses and fracture points aren't something that you can easily model. But they turn out to be extremely real. And those are breaking points that we reach before we reach absolute physical breaking points, probably. So I think that really going forward, an extraordinary amount of the work is going to be done not by physical scientists, but by political scientists, by economists, by people who are reckoning with the mess that we've set in motion.
Michael Liebreich Fascinating, also difficult though. On Cleaning Up I had Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, who led the UK military's response to climate change, who wrote the strategy. It's absolutely clear climate change is this threat multiplier; everybody serious in the military would agree with that. The difficulty is that, there was a hailstorm before the French Revolution that destroyed crops in a big arc around Paris that possibly contributed to the French Revolution. There are these instabilities - you can go back to biblical times, you can go forwards - that have always been with us.
Bill McKibben Sure.
Michael Liebreich But it's not really a science. I guess what I'm coming to is… you say the social scientists. But the plain fact is that, they are at best sort of narrative-Cassandras, but not really scientists in any meaningful description, are they?
Bill McKibben Well, I mean, I guess it depends. I mean, who cares what the semantics are.…what they have there is valuable information and insight to be gleaned in the way that societies work. And societies work increasingly just functionally at the moment for a variety of reasons. Some of them connected to this climate crisis that we're in, in fact, a lot of them. That has to be reckoned with. Look, we’re in the first big land war in Europe right now since the Second World War, and it's clear that fossil fuel is a major determinant of why it got started, how it's going to play out. You know how it works. I think that what's interesting is the way that all of these things coincide. And the most interesting is one that you've spent a lot of time working on over the years. That's the rapid and destabilizing plummet in the cost of renewable energy. I think only now are our political systems beginning to take on board what that means. But what that means is potentially astonishing. I mean, I wrote a piece for The New Yorker earlier this year saying that humanity is legitimately at the point where in very short order, we could end the 200,000-year career of setting stuff on fire. You know, we don't need large scale combustion anymore because the good Lord was kind enough to put a large ball of burning gas 93 million miles away in the sky. And we now have the wit to make full use of it. So, that turning point is just like the climate crisis: laden with all kinds of political, social, economic implications for who's powerful, for how politics works for. It's a fascinating and crucial moment.
Michael Liebreich It is. And I'm smiling because I wrote something on what I call the solar singularity. If you look at all the grown-ups who forecast energy mix, as you know, solar becomes 10% by 2050 or it becomes 15% or it becomes 20%... What about if it becomes, you know, 150% or 500% of current electricity output? And then, as you say, we stop burning things and it opens up. Now, the challenge - to come back to the point about the kind of social sciences and the unpredictability - is that sounds wonderful, and can be packaged into a very positive narrative of empowerment, removing the part of the geopolitical power of some really bad actors… But it can also be packaged as something threatening. I'll tell you, with Russia's aggression on Ukraine, there is a whole swath of people out there who say that this was enabled by Germany's energy policy of shutting nuclear and going for renewables, which become completely dependent on gas. Then when there's no wind and no sun, and that is what handed the power to Mr. Putin. So, on the other political side, there's a narrative that says this shift to renewables is destabilizing.
Bill McKibben It's definitely destabilizing. I mean, it's probably the most destabilizing thing we've done. But I think if we're smart, we can make it destabilizing in useful ways and we can undercut things that need to be undercut. The power of Vladimir Putin, the power of the king of Saudi Arabia, the power of the Koch brothers, are all dependent on the fact that we currently rely on a fuel that exists in a few scattered places. And so, the people who happen to sit on top of them end up with inordinate and unearned power. And we're converting to a technology that relies on resources - sun, wind, human intelligence - that are available everywhere around the world.
Michael Liebreich Well… they are also dependent on Chinese manufacturing. They are dependent on a range of different rare earth [minerals].
Bill McKibben None of it's easy. None of it's easy or simple. But the large-scale arc of where we're going is the fascinating thing. And the point is that we need to make that journey quickly. Despite all the difficulties, despite the instabilities that it causes, none of them come anywhere near close to the instability caused by allowing the temperature of the planet to go up another degree, you know? That's the thing always to be borne in mind. I mean, whatever the downsides, whatever the difficulties of the changes that we need to make, they are tiny in comparison with the danger, the existential danger that comes with yet more increase in temperature.
Michael Liebreich So, I'd like to get back to this question of, how does one effect change? What is an individual? And I think we've already had a little bit of… there was a phrase that you used there, which I found absolutely fantastic, which is destabilizing in a useful way. Certainly, one of the models is to hack. I guess I have in a way in my career as an energy analyst, I've tried to sort of destabilize some of the orthodoxy around how you do utilities - have baseload utilities, then have peak gas, peak hours and energy is always done like this. So, I think I've also been destabilizing, hopefully, in a useful way. But there are other models, there's a whole brigade out there that think we should be just emphasizing fear. There's a whole brigade out there that thinks we should just talk about technological solutions. There's all sorts of models. How do you navigate that? I mean, do you just do destabilizing in a useful way? Or do you play with a full orchestra?
Bill McKibben So I've been doing this longer than just about anybody, almost by definition, having written the first book about it. Yes, and truthfully, I think that you end up doing all these different things at different points and in different combinations. But, it's entirely appropriate for people to be fearful of what's coming, what's already happened. That makes sense. It's entirely appropriate for people to be hopeful about the world that we might be able to create if we want to work fast. It's entirely appropriate for everyone to be nervous about whether or not we can get it done and if human systems are capable of moving at the pace that physics now requires. One of the things that I think is important is to remind ourselves that, though climate change is filled with traditional political conflicts, industry and environmentalists, Chinese and Americans, Republicans and Democrats, it's different from our normal political debates in that, at bottom, the fight is between human beings and physics. That's a different kind of battle. Most political choices that we have to make, in the end, we reach some kind of compromise somewhere towards the middle and then come back eventually. Physics doesn't play that particular game. It's going to do what it's going to do. It's set particular physical limits here. Our job is to live up to them. And so that, I think, stays in the back of my mind at all times as we're dealing with this.
Michael Liebreich And climate has become absolutely the frontline in culture, wars, climate, clean energy. These issues seem to have become absolutely among the most polarizing out there.
Bill McKibben Well, yes, for particular reasons. Let's be clear what I mean. That wasn't true at the beginning in 1988, when Jim Hansen testified before Congress and really set off the public debate about climate change for the first time, there wasn't a kind of polarized sense around it. The Republican president of the United States, George H.W. Bush, said we need to fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect. He was ready to go to work, but the next year, we now know from great investigative reporting, the fossil fuel industry began to coalesce around this architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation. And they promoted it with a lot of money, they hired a lot of the people who used to work for the tobacco industry, and they spent 30 years telling a lie. And it worked so well that eventually the Republican president of the United States, Donald Trump, was insisting that climate change was a hoax manufactured by the Chinese. A sentiment so absurd that if you were sitting next to someone on the train who was muttering like that, you'd get up and change seats. But that's what happens if you have unlimited funds with which to pursue a lie. That lie cost us 30 years. That lie paralyzed, at least, the American political system in profound ways. The fear that we might disrupt the business model of the fossil fuel industry became one of the things that drove the bizarre polarization of American politics. So, it's not as if this culture war just appeared out of nowhere. It was expertly fought by people with huge amounts of resources. Happily, people have begun to fight back. And that's why we built a movement, so we could stand up to that. And at this point, I think we're reaching the point where that culture war aspect is diminishing. Most people now, because they've seen so many fires and so many floods… At a certain point, who are you going to believe, Fox News or your own eyes? The polling data shows that there's now a very widespread consensus that we need to take action, even in the United States, which has been the hotbed center of denial, because it was the center of the fossil fuel industry.
Michael Liebreich It seems to be something of a pendulum, though, in the Anglo-Saxon world. In the UK's trajectory, at that same time, 1988 through to 1992, Margaret Thatcher's leadership, as a chemist was saying “we've got to deal with this.” That's very famously documented. And we seem for much of the intervening time to have some sort of consensus and some sort of bipartisanship. We have a Climate Change Act, which was passed on a bipartisan basis. Very few people voted against it. We have Net-Zero 2050 enshrined in law. But I guarantee you that what we're going to see this winter is an absolutely concerted and well-funded effort to roll all of that back, because we're about to see utility bills jump from £1500 per year average to £4000, £5000, £6000. And renewables are going to be blamed, and the answer is going to be fracking and nuclear, both of which I have supported, but neither of which are an immediate response.
Bill McKibben I think the difference is it's going to be much harder to do that and get away with it, because people know more about it. The UK just had its big biannual electricity tender, and the price for wind came back at one quarter of the price of electricity from natural gas.
Michael Liebreich But the general public is not seeing that. What they're saying is that it's cheap, but we're paying ridiculous amounts.
Bill McKibben So there will be people continuing to try and demagogue this right through. I'm just saying, thank heaven people have done the work to try and, at least, even the battlefield here a little bit.
Michael Liebreich Now in the US and, in large part because of various movements, the Sunrise Movement and your own 350 and so on, you've now got the Inflation Reduction Act. And that raises an interesting question vis-a-vis those political dualities that you mentioned, US-China in particular. One of the things I find most interesting about it is how it puts the US back into the technology leadership game. Everybody's focused on, “oh, it subsidizes this, it gives that tax break.” But what I think is fascinating is that it says the US is going to be in this game and we're in it to try and win this competition between China and the US, perhaps save the day in the way that 40 years or 30 years of trying to get some international agreement, frankly, hasn't.
Bill McKibben Well, getting an international agreement was important. The Paris Accords were important. They consolidated a kind of worldwide opinion that we needed to go to work on this, and there was probably no substitute for it. But I think it's going to be extremely useful to have the US in this game. The Inflation Reduction Act is far from perfect, and filled with stupid gifts to the fossil fuel industry, because they retain a lot of political power. But they didn't have enough political power to completely avoid change anymore, which they've been able to for the 34 years since Jim Hansen testified. And I think that the most important dynamic here, the most hopeful dynamic, is the continued learning curve for renewable energy; the fact that every time we double solar installations, the cost comes down another 30%. There may be enough wind in the sails with the money that's coming from this new bill to really reorient. And if that happens, one of the important outcomes will be that it will redistribute political power. At a certain point, people who set up batteries and wind turbines and the people who work in EV factories and things will be a more important political bloc than people who mine coal and run oil companies. They're already a more important economic force. Wall Street's already more interested in them than they are in fossil fuels, because that's clearly what's going to make money in the future. Politics is a lagging indicator here, but not forever. So, this shift is clearly underway now. I think the only powerful question here is, can this shift happen fast enough? And if it can’t...? 50 years from now, we're going to run the planet on sun and wind because it's as close as we're going to get to free. But if it takes 50 years to get there, then the planet we run on sun and wind will be a broken planet. So, the remaining question is, can we make this change happen fast enough? You've laid out all the reasons why it's difficult, and they're all unimpeachable. I'm not here to argue that we're necessarily going to make it. The = title of the book I wrote 33 years ago was The End of Nature. I'm not glibly optimistic. But, I do think that that's the challenge, to see if we can make it happen and make it happen fast.
Michael Liebreich So many resonances there when you talk about we'll get there by 2070. I've spent a big chunk of 20 years saying we will have a low carbon economy, we will have it. The only question is will it be 2100, 2070 or 2050? That's the only thing. That's the only question. David Attenborough has actually talked about how we're actually at some kind of evolutionary pinch point. If we can get through to 2100, we'll probably be okay.
Bill McKibben I think that's true.
Michael Liebreich That's a fascinating insight. You mentioned Wall Street - I was trying to find out how many times, perhaps you can enlighten us, you've actually been arrested and how many nights you’ve spent in in a jail cell? Definitely one of them was to do with protesting Chase Manhattan’s investment in fossils. Perhaps you want to give us that snippet and then talk about why you got arrested and how and what was that about?
Bill McKibben I've been arrested more times than I would have anticipated, given that I'm basically a law-abiding human being. But civil disobedience actually has been important in this movement building. And one of the more recent ones, right before the pandemic, was in the lobby of the Chase branch nearest the nation's capital in Washington. And the reason that we got arrested was to help kick off this campaign that was a little derailed by the pandemic, but has been powerful and is growing even as we speak. It's aimed at making people understand that the big financial players, the big banks, the big asset managers, the big insurance companies, are continuing to provide a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry that we need them to cut off. They don't need to cut off all their financial relationships with the oil industry, because we still are going to need oil for a few more years. But we need them to stop allowing its expansion, to stop allowing the construction of stuff designed to last for 40 or 50 years into the future, which we can't have. So, Chase is the perfect example of this. It's the biggest fossil fuel lender in the world. When we began this campaign - and it was one of our targets and one of our initial accomplishments - the executive chair of its board of directors was a man named Lee Raymond, who in his earlier incarnation had been CEO of Exxon, at the period when Exxon was writing the climate denial handbook. So, if you wanted to pick one character responsible for as much fossil-fueled mayhem as anyone on the planet, he would have been a good choice. And we were able to get him dumped from that position. And we've been able to get these banks over the last two years to enunciate their plans to go to net-zero. Now, the question is, can we get them to do it quickly and honestly and transparently? And we don't know the answer to that yet, but it's definitely one of the things that we're working hard on. My guess is given the new Climate Bill in Congress, that we're probably not going to get a lot more out of Washington anytime soon. Their habit seems to be “work up your nerve to do something and then back off for quite a few years.” So, the next obvious target that's big enough to matter is the lever marked “Money”. We've pulled the one marked “Politics” pretty close to the ground. And now we need to pull the one marked “Money”. And so, that's what we're trying to do, among other things, at Third Act, this group of older people that we're mobilizing.
Michael Liebreich Actually one of the final episodes of Season Six, which was just before the summer, was Mindy Lubber, who's the president of Ceres, talking about sustainable finance and the role of finance. How much how much weight do you put behind finance? I look at it, and there's plenty of money to invest in clean solutions. What I see missing is the legislative bravery in energy, in transportation, in agriculture, in infrastructure, to drive the demand for that money. You know, a bank's clients can't invest in something that simply is never going to make money because the regulation allows somebody to undercut it using gas or a fossil fuel.
Bill McKibben That's definitely a big a big part of the story. But the other part of the story is… Truthfully, I think that the future is now clear enough that we're going to see big shifts of capital behind renewable energy. I think what we have to do at the same time is dry up the capital behind fossil energy, because we have to end that story sooner than the oil industry wants to. They know what the eventual outcome of this story is. Their goal is to keep their business model alive for another couple of decades, and if they do, they'll break the planet. So, our job has to be to catalyze the reaction to make it happen faster. I wrote a piece for The New Yorker a couple of years ago called Money is the Oxygen on which the Fires of Global Warming Burn. And if we can cut off some of that supply, it'll help. None of these things get the job done by themselves. This is all part of how you reorient an economy and a planet and a polity around this massive, massive transition. So, each thing is a part of this puzzle. And none of it is the clear answer, the total answer.
Michael Liebreich And I have written in the past about a worry that we would end up with one economy which is clean - lots of wind, lots of solar, everybody being tremendously European - then another economy. If we don't shut off the investments and the funds and the growth of the other economy, the dodgy economy, the polluting, emitting economy, then we kind of get nowhere because you just have…
Bill McKibben I think that's correct. I think the thing that's helping us now is that the falls in the price of renewable energy have been so large, so steady, so sustained that investors with any sense are worried about stranding assets if they continue to build fossil fuel infrastructure. That’ll help, but there's a lot of momentum and a lot of political power behind this industry.
Michael Liebreich And I want to mention also the analysis that I've done of cost of capital and the divestment movement. Your divestment movement pushed up the cost of capital for coal businesses in the West to 20%, 30% and made them uneconomic and finished them. That was that. So, credit to that. But there's one thing that you keep referring to, the oil industry, the oil industry…
Bill McKibben Oil and gas would be a better way of saying that. Yes.
Michael Liebreich Well, oil and gas. But also, I want to challenge you because you have been arrested lots of times, you've had an enormous string of successes. But, I notice that you don't go to China and protest against Sinopec or to Malaysia and protest against Petronas or Saudi Arabia and protest against Aramco. And frankly, these are much bigger players, certainly in oil, they are now much bigger players. Coal India dwarfs Peabody or anybody in the in the U.S. What's your theory of dealing with those? Isn’t the risk that we just end up with Europe, maybe the U.S., Japan, South Korea, a bunch of countries doing the right thing. But frankly, it's irrelevant relative to the scale of what's happening elsewhere.
Bill McKibben Sure. That's why we set up 350.org as a global operation from the beginning. And in fact, we've done big protests in China, in India and elsewhere. As you know, it's hard to do that. They're authoritarian governments - even India now becoming authoritarian - governments that don't brook much opposition. However, it's pretty easy to overstate this case, too. Lukoil and Gazprom and stuff can't operate at the level they want to without Exxon providing expertise and capital. That’s been the model that's happened around the world. So, going after the Western oil companies has been an effective and important part of this. Do I wish we lived in a world where it was possible to be acting democratically in as many places as possible? Yeah. And it's one of the things that we fight for. It’s one of the reasons why I think the Conference of the Parties, the UN talks in Egypt will be interesting this year. It'll be one of the first times that they're held in a semi-authoritarian country with a lot of political prisoners. And I think that it'll heighten that emphasis on the democracy deficit. I was very conscious in Glasgow looking around at how much had changed since Paris, that you now had a far more authoritarian China, India, Brazil had become a semi-fascist, authoritarian government. The United States had emerged from Trump, but just barely. You know, the space for Democratic action is definitely reduced. And it is one of the reasons why it's important that we hit hard those places where we can hit.
Michael Liebreich I'm very conscious of time, but I've got one final question that I'd like to raise, about the just transition. There’s a lot of talk about a just transition and it's generally framed around vulnerable societies being involved in decision making, around inclusion in decisions and also in the economic outputs, so that it's not just the benefits going to Wall Street traders, but it's also going out into communities that have suffered, in some cases tremendously, under the old fossil arrangements, fossil regime. But there is another aspect of a just transition, and that is access to cheap energy for poor and vulnerable people. And that generally hasn't been a big part of the debate over the last few decades. I mean, it really hasn't. So, what we've got is conversations about a carbon price and a carbon tax, which is all very well, except the theory of a carbon price is that we’ll drive up the cost of bad thing until good thing becomes cheaper. More people suffer. And we see this last year, we're seeing that now. How do you respond to that?
Bill McKibben The carbon price thing seems to me to be, especially after the passage of the Climate Bill in the US, less of a feature of the political response at this point. I think in the largest sense we're actually at a moment when with access to energy, affordable energy, we can head in an entirely new direction. I did a piece, a series of pieces for The New Yorker a couple of years ago, traveling to Africa, watching places that were never going to get energy off the grid, suddenly able to get it because the price of solar panels had fallen so far. And it was quite remarkable. There's a billion people on the planet without access to electricity now - more people without access to electricity than when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. But the UN estimates that almost all of that gap is going to be closed by renewable energy over the next 50 years, almost none of it by fossil energy, just because it's cheaper. And it really did bring home to me, in the most powerful way, what a privilege and joy it is to be alive at a moment when the cheapest, easiest way to generate power is to point a sheet of glass at the sun. And that is a quantum shift.
Michael Liebreich Right. And I was on the High-Level Advisory Group for Sustainable Energy for All before it was even called that. I'm an investor in solar in Africa, I’ve put solar into a neonatal clinic in Africa, and it is incredibly uplifting to see that. By the way, it's about 700 million who don't have access to electricity, and that number has never been smaller since the beginning of electricity. So, I'm enormously heartened. I'm with you on that. But we also, over the last eight years, since 2014, we - you - halved the amounts of investment in fossil fuels. I had Alain Ebobissé [on Cleaning Up], an infrastructure investor, CEO of Africa 50, which is an infrastructure fund, and asked him what he wanted out of Glasgow. His answer was, “don't prevent us, don't block finance for natural gas because you're all keeping the lights on with natural gas in Europe, in the US, and you want to stop us doing that.” How do you answer? Isn't it a sort of neocolonialism to say, “don't worry, you'll get solar in 50 years?”
Bill McKibben I don't think so. My colleagues across Africa, all the people at 350 Africa who are all in these countries working hard, are doing their very best to stop pipelines and things for precisely the same reasons we're doing it here. They know that Africa is the place most vulnerable, most susceptible to rises in temperature, and they know that there is a clean energy future out there. It may not involve quite the same elites who you've been talking to, who want to make a lot of money off natural gas in Africa. But go talk to young people across the continent. They're on board with the clean energy revolution. And they're some of my favourite colleagues out there. The colonial plans are the ones like this East Africa crude oil pipeline. These are just last gasps of a dying worldview. And the sooner we get past them, the better off we're going to be.
Michael Liebreich Bill, it's been an enormous honour having you on Cleaning Up. Unfortunately, we're out of time and I won't be able to… There's a whole other topic I'd love to talk to you about - you wrote a book called Long Distance.
Bill McKibben There you go.
Michael Liebreich I've raced the Engadin skimarathon. You dedicated a whole year to doing cross-country skiing. You know, we are in some ways two leathery old mountain-men. We ought to be talking about that!
Bill McKibben But of course, it connects right up because there's no activity on Earth more vulnerable to the rise in temperature than cross-country skiing. So, that's one more good reason to try and keep the planet looking something like the one we were born on to.
Michael Liebreich You certainly have to change your choice of waxes. There's no question about that.
Bill McKibben All right. Many thanks. This is a real pleasure. Take good care, friend.
Michael Liebreich Many thanks. Thanks to you Bill. So, that was Bill McKibben, writer and activist, founder of 350.org, the Divestment Movement and Third Act. Our guest next week is Dev Sanyal. Dev was a 30-year veteran of BP, and a protégé of Lord Browne, our guest on episode 50 of Cleaning Up. He is now the CEO of Varo Energy, one of the largest investors in the world in biofuels and dedicated to investing in sustainable and clean energy. Please join me at this time next week for a conversation with Dev Sanyal. Cleaning Up is brought to you by Capricorn Investment Group, the Liebreich Foundation and the Gilardini Foundation.