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Will Obama block the Keystone pipeline or just keep bending?

obama 18-Oct-2013
White House

As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on -- and it’s now well over two years old -- it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.

Let us stipulate at the start that whether or not to build the pipeline is a decision with profound physical consequences. If he approves its construction, far more of the dirtiest oil on Earth will flow out of the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and reach the U.S. Gulf Coast. Not just right away or for a brief period, but far into the future, since the Keystone XL guarantees a steady flow of profits to oil barons who have their hearts set on tripling production in the far north.

The history of oil spills and accidents offers a virtual guarantee that some of that oil will surely make its way into the fields and aquifers of the Great Plains as those tar sands flow south. The greater and more daunting assurance is this, however: Everything that reaches the refineries on the Gulf Coast will, sooner or later, spill into the atmosphere in the form of carbon, driving climate change to new heights.

In June, President Obama said that the building of the full pipeline -- on which he alone has the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down -- would be approved only if “it doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” By that standard, it’s as close to a no-brainer as you can get.

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Movements without leaders: What to make of change on an overheating planet

McKibben speaks to the crowd at the Walk for Our Grandchildren from Camp David to D.C.
350.org
McKibben speaks to the crowd at the Walk for Our Grandchildren from Camp David to D.C.

The history we grow up with shapes our sense of reality -- it’s hard to shake. If you were young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous animal than if you came of age during Vietnam.  I was born in 1960, and so the first great political character of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a shadowy, child’s sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic one as his legend grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I think, I imagined that he set the template for how great movements worked. They had a leader, capital L.

As time went on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was much more than Dr. King. There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar Evers to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, and there were tens of thousands more whom history doesn’t remember but who deserve great credit. And yet one’s early sense is hard to dislodge: The civil rights movement had his face on it; Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for suffrage.

Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment -- even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrants' rights -- don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.

It’s true, too, in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: The fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival.

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A tale of two Earth Day heroes: Tim DeChristopher and Sandra Steingraber

Tim DeChristopher
Tim DeChristopher.

Earth Day, oddly, has never been a huge deal for me. I’m just a little too young to really remember its remarkable debut in 1970, when one American in 10 went out in the streets to demand action on clean air and water. That unprecedented activism laid the groundwork for the swift passage of legislation, and the almost-as-swift rehabilitation of lakes and rivers. But in the years after, many Earth Day celebrations drifted in a slightly more corporate direction; there wasn’t anything wrong with them, but they didn’t seem to be helping arrest environmentalism’s slide into relative impotence.

This year, however, the holiday really resonates, because there are two heroes reminding us of the sacrifices they’ve made to move the fight forward, and the way the rest of us need to step up our game.

One is Tim DeChristopher, who will be out of federal custody today after serving 18 months for an inspired act of civil disobedience. He participated in an auction for federal leases to drill for gas and oil even though he ... wasn’t a rich oilman. The federal government was unamused—instead of charging him as an activist who’d pulled off a creative stunt, they treated him as a financial criminal whose intent had been to defraud. (This was the same Department of Justice that didn’t manage to find anyone to prosecute for bringing down our financial system with their greed.) And so he’s given up a year and a half of his life.

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Is the Keystone XL pipeline the ‘Stonewall’ of the climate movement?

protest-climate-keystone
Josh Lopez

A few weeks ago, TIME magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast the “Selma and Stonewall” of the climate movement.

Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we’re aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the “environmental review” the State Department is conducting on the feasibility and advisability of building the pipeline. And there’s good reason to put pressure on. After all, it’s the same State Department that, as on a previous round of reviews, hired “experts” who had once worked as consultants for TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder.

Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks. (I’m not kidding. The section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac River out of downtown D.C.)

It was certainly joyful to see marriage equality being considered by our top judicial body. In some ways, however, the most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings. In one weekend, Democratic Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), and Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) figured out that they had “evolved” on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too, had “evolved,” once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe bet.

Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to do about the Democrats.

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Knock it off, NYT: In defense of James Hansen and other climate hawks

I’ve met many good people in my life, and a few great ones. And one of the marks of the latter, it seems to me, is that they’re often under attack.

James Hansen arrested at a Keystone protest.
Ben Powless
James Hansen being arrested at a Keystone protest.

Like this morning. I opened the newspaper to read a column in the New York Times by Joe Nocera. It’s his fourth column pushing for the Keystone XL pipeline; fair enough. (Though in the third, he managed to get the economics of carbon so completely backward that he had to append a long correction to yet another column.)  This time, though, the vehicle he used was an attack on NASA scientist James Hansen, who had correctly identified the huge amount of carbon in the tar sands of Canada and Venezuela. Nocera didn't like Hansen lending his credibility to the fight against Keystone XL, and even though Hansen been meticulous to make sure he’s always spoken as a private citizen, the columnist insinuated he should lose his job: Are these, he asked, “the sort of statements a government scientist should be making?”

If Nocera’s crusade against Hansen leads to pressure from his employers, it wouldn't be the first time -- he’s been in trouble with every presidential administration since George H.W. Bush, and for precisely the same reason: Unlike most scientists he’s been willing to loudly sound the alarm about climate change, and try like hell to get across the message that we must act. From the very first day he came to public notice, warning Congress in 1988 that global warming was real, the establishment has tried to tell him to speak more softly. He hasn't listened -- not because he’s an ideologue, but because he’s a father and a grandfather.

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Beyond baby steps: Analyzing the cap-and-trade flop

Time to step it up, kid.
Shutterstock
Time to step it up, kid.

Watching the collapse of the effort to create a cap-and-trade plan for carbon emissions in 2009-10 was profoundly depressing. Reading Theda Skocpol’s insightful history [PDF] isn't much more fun -- but it’s certainly useful, in a Santayana kind of way. Since this is a mistake we can’t afford to repeat (the planet is running out of spare presidential terms and congressional sessions), Skocpol performs a real service by helping figure out what went wrong.

The first thing to be said, I think, is that this behind-the-scenes route was worth a try. Given the stakes, you would think elite players, especially in the business community, would have been willing to make the relatively small and painless changes the cap-and-trade law envisioned. Such inside-the-Beltway lobbying is how most environmental change has come, at least since the decline of the '70s-era movement that really powered the most important legislation.

But this was too big -- there was too much money at stake. The climate issue, it turned out, didn't fundamentally resemble acid rain after all. The fossil fuel companies, which had spent a lot of money helping erect the hard-right political edifice then near its height in D.C., saw that they didn't have to give away anything. They could block even this small change for now, and continue to put away truly record profits.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Solar Mosaic: Kind of a big deal for clean energy

Get it?
Shutterstock
Get it?

You know what’s fun? What’s fun is watching young people figure out how to change the world they've inherited.

Case in point: Billy Parish. When I first met him, he’d just dropped out of Yale. Not because he couldn't hack it. Because he didn't think it was as important as fighting climate change. And so he built the Energy Action Coalition, the nationwide student mobilization against global warming. And he built it in a particular way, as a coalition of like-minded groups on hundreds of campuses -- he was charismatic, but he put his charisma to use helping to leverage many disparate voices into one force.

As he got older, he let others take over the student movement, and he went to work looking for practical solutions to the same crisis. Given his skills and drive, he could have become a conventional entrepreneur, starting some solar start-up that would make deals and build projects and collect revenues. But his basic sense never wavered: What we needed was a way for communities to work together.

And so, Monday, Solar Mosaic starts accepting investments. If you live in New York or California, or you are an "accredited investor" in other states, you can invest money; it will be used to put up solar panels on a grand scale, and the revenues will pay you a nice rate of interest. It's a way, one of the first, to put lots of individuals' money to work building the future we need.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Obama vs. physics: Why climate change won’t wait for the president

earth pendulum
Shutterstock

Change usually happens very slowly, even once all the serious people have decided there’s a problem. That’s because, in a country as big as the United States, public opinion moves in slow currents. Since change by definition requires going up against powerful established interests, it can take decades for those currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses.

Take, for instance, “the problem of our schools.” Don’t worry about whether there actually was a problem, or whether making every student devote her school years to filling out standardized tests would solve it. Just think about the timeline. In 1983, after some years of pundit throat clearing, the Carnegie Commission published “A Nation at Risk,” insisting that a “rising tide of mediocrity” threatened our schools. The nation’s biggest foundations and richest people slowly roused themselves to action, and for three decades we haltingly applied a series of fixes and reforms. We’ve had Race to the Top, and Teach for America, and charters, and vouchers, and … we’re still in the midst of “fixing” education, many generations of students later.

Even facing undeniably real problems -- say, discrimination against gay people -- one can make the case that gradual change has actually been the best option. Had some mythical liberal Supreme Court declared, in 1990, that gay marriage was now the law of the land, the backlash might have been swift and severe. There’s certainly an argument to be made that moving state by state (starting in nimbler, smaller states like Vermont) ultimately made the happy outcome more solid as the culture changed and new generations came of age.

Which is not to say that there weren’t millions of people who suffered as a result. There were. But our societies are built to move slowly. Human institutions tend to work better when they have years or even decades to make gradual course corrections, when time smooths out the conflicts between people.

And that’s always been the difficulty with climate change -- the greatest problem we’ve ever faced. It’s not a fight, like education reform or abortion or gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting opinions. It couldn’t be more different at a fundamental level.

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You be the pessimist! Here’s why the election gives me hope

If you want to feel optimistic about the possibilities for climate action in the wake of the election, here are the tea leaves to read.

Nineteen percent of voters were beneath the age of 30, something no one in D.C. expected. Young voter translates into "not primarily obsessed with my Medicare, hence able to think about the world." So the pros know this is the demographic that cares about climate.

Meanwhile, 41 percent of voters told exit pollers that the response to Sandy was an important factor in their vote. The climate silence of the campaign was broken by ... the climate. And then Obama got about the biggest cheer of his victory speech with a reference to wanting to save America from the destructive power of a warming planet.

Of course, if you want to feel pessimistic, there’s always: Sandy, which demonstrated we’ve waited a long time to get started. Not to mention the warmest year in American history, now concluding. Not to mention our epic drought. Or the small fact that this was the year we broke the Arctic.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Roll ‘em: A dispatch from 350.org’s Do the Math bus

Paul Anderson

Editor's note: During 350.org's cross-country Do the Math tour, Grist board member Bill McKibben will be filing occasional reports from the road for us.

Your average 51-year-old book author with a receding hairline doesn’t get that many opportunities to feel cool. Still, there are moments.

Right at the moment we’re speeding south on I-5 out of Seattle, nearing the Oregon border. There are eight of us from 350.org aboard this bus, which is good since it sleeps eight -- and we’re going to spend the next three weeks crisscrossing this country. I've got the late great Dobie Gray (“Up on the Floor”) cranked on Spotify. There are four -- count ‘em, four -- live wifi hotspots fired up -- more internet than you can shake an iPhone 5 at. Which is good, because you need the web to find the biodiesel stations.

We’re on a high from Wednesday night’s debut of the Do The Math roadshow in Seattle before a crowd of 2,000. It was a day beyond our wildest expectations. Not just the fired-up crowd (who shouted down the heckler who tried to cut things off before they began), but also the announcement from the mayor of Seattle that he was instructing the city treasurer to start investigating how to divest city money from the fossil fuel industry. And then the news that Unity College in Maine had chosen this day to become the first college in the country to sell off its fossil fuel stock. We’re rolling in more ways than one.

The problem with fighting climate change is that it never feels like we’re getting anywhere. Right now, though, we’re getting to the outskirts of Portland. And maybe the outskirts of doing some damage to the Exxon mystique, the Chevron reputation, the Shell brand.

I've got my Bidder70 baseball cap on, my earphones pulled down tight, and now my northern soul playlist has turned over to the too-soon-forgotten Prince Philip Mitchell and his not-quite-a-hit “I’m So Happy.” Don’t know if we’re going to win, but we’re rolling.

Read more: Climate & Energy