Cleaning Up Episode 98 Edited Highlights – Bill McKibben
ML In your own words, who is Bill McKibben?
BM 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. What I started doing about 15 years ago was some of the first large-scale organizing, movement building, around climate change. We started first an organization called 350.org. We've organized 20,000 demonstrations in every country in the world except North Korea. That was the first iteration of a global climate movement. And at the moment, because I'm old now, we're 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.
ML Do you ever go back to The End of Nature and have a look at what you wrote?
BM I do go back and look at it occasionally. 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. 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, and that sadness is still very much with me. But 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.
ML You say that the science has held up pretty well, but the actual temperatures that we're at are not as extreme as the forecasts back when you wrote that book…
BM Truthfully, I think the temperature forecast has been pretty much correct. 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. The stuff that we thought would happen in 2060 or 2070 is happening now. It turns out that scientists are very conservative by nature and tend to under-predict, not over-predict. 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. Pace is now the most important of all the variables. The other thing, that I think physical scientists aren't capable of capturing, is that the political arrangements of a planet are more fragile than we realized, too. 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.
ML The social scientists are at best sort of narrative-Cassandras, but not really scientists in any meaningful description, are they? There are instabilities that have always been with us.
BM 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. 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. I think that what's interesting is the way that all of these things coincide. The most interesting element is the rapid and destabilizing plummet in the cost of renewable energy. What that means is potentially astonishing. Humanity is legitimately at the point where in very short order, we could end the 200,000-year career of setting stuff on fire. 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.
ML That sounds wonderful, and can be packaged into a very positive narrative of empowerment… But on the other political side, there's a narrative that says this shift to renewables is destabilizing.
BM It's definitely destabilizing. 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 we're converting to a technology that relies on resources - sun, wind, human intelligence - that are available everywhere around the world. None of it's easy or simple. But 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.
ML Liebreich Now, in the US, in large part because of your own activism, you've got the Inflation Reduction Act. One of the things I find most interesting about it is how it puts the US back into the technology leadership game…
BM 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. 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 will be a more important political bloc than people who mine coal and run oil companies. 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. 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.
ML You mentioned Wall Street - I was trying to find out how many times you've actually been arrested? Definitely one of them was to do with protesting Chase Manhattan’s investment in fossils.
BM 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. The reason that we got arrested at the Chase branch was to help kick off our campaign - that was a little derailed by the pandemic - but has been powerful and is growing even as we speak. The big financial players 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. 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. 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.
ML I wanted to challenge you because I notice you don't go to China and protest against Sinopec or Saudi Arabia and protest against Aramco. What's your theory of dealing with those?
BM 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. But do I wish we lived in a world where it was possible to be acting democratically in as many places as possible? Yeah. 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.