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Bill McKibben's Posts


The great carbon bubble: Why the fossil-fuel industry fights so hard

The 2012 version of NASA's iconic "Blue Marble" image. (Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video.)

This essay was originally published on TomDispatch and is republished here with Tom’s kind permission.

If we could see the world with a particularly illuminating set of spectacles, one of its most prominent features at the moment would be a giant carbon bubble, whose bursting someday will make the housing bubble of 2007 look like a lark. As yet -- as we shall see -- it’s unfortunately largely invisible to us.

In compensation, though, we have some truly beautiful images made possible by new technology. Last month, for instance, NASA updated the most iconic photograph in our civilization’s gallery: “Blue Marble,” originally taken from Apollo 17 in 1972. The spectacular new high-def image (shown at right) shows a picture of the Americas on Jan. 4, a good day for snapping photos because there weren’t many clouds.

It was also a good day because of the striking way it could demonstrate to us just how much the planet has changed in 40 years.


Say it ain’t Kosovo: U.S. State Dept. pushes coal in Eastern Europe

An existing coal plant in Kadikej, Kosovo. (Photo by Andreas Welch.)

The U.S. State Department is one of those places where, for better or for worse, a long-term outlook has prevailed in the past. Faced with the overwhelming problem of totalitarianism, secretaries of state developed policies of containment and Cold War that dominated the planet’s public life for decades; historians debate their soundness still, but there was an unbroken resolve behind them that lasted across generations.

That’s why it’s odd to see State so feeble in coming to grips with by far the biggest international problem we face at the moment: the spectre of climate change that now haunts an entire planet. Clearly it puts at risk security, cooperation, development: everything State is charged with monitoring and protecting.

But when it came time to judge the proposed Keystone pipeline, the State Department pronounced itself uninterested in the climate impacts of helping open up Canada’s tar sands, the second-biggest pool of carbon on earth. And now, apparently, the department is leaning on the World Bank to approve the necessary loans for a giant coal-fired power plant in Kosovo despite a barrage of studies showing that the plant will hemorrhage money and carbon.

Read more: Coal


Keystone XL decision is a big win — for now

McKibben protesting the Keystone XL. (Photo by Emma Cassidy, Tar Sands Action.)

Last spring, almost no one outside of Nebraska had heard of the Keystone XL pipeline. As late as October, when the National Journal surveyed 300 "energy insiders" in D.C., 91 percent predicted that the Obama administration would approve the permit for the pipeline. TransCanada stacked 1,700 miles of pipe along the proposed route, so confident was the company of victory.

Today, the State Department and the president denied the permit for the pipeline. It's one of the rare days in the 20-year climate fight when scientists can smile and Big Oil has to frown. Because citizen activists around the country were willing to put their bodies on the line, and because the environmental movement worked with rare unity and coordination, a done deal has come spectacularly undone.

There are no permanent environmental victories, certainly not this one. TransCanada (or any other company) is free to reapply for a new permit, though I imagine this time the State Department process will be conducted with more transparency and less favoritism. And of course the biggest caveat of all: Even if every drop of tar-sands oil remained safely in the ground, we’ve still got more than enough coal and gas and oil to crash the climate system.

But people stood up, and then Barack Obama stood up. He stood up to very naked threats: Last week, the head of the American Petroleum Institute promised "huge political consequences" if he didn’t go along. They have the money to make good on that threat, so this decision was not just right but brave. It wasn’t the conciliatory Obama people have complained about so often.



Is global warming an election issue after all?

Climate change as a campaign issue could be a surprise winner for Obama.Photo: The White HouseThis essay was originally published on TomDispatch and is republished here with Tom's kind permission. Conventional wisdom has it that the next election will be fought exclusively on the topic of jobs. But President Obama's announcement last week that he would postpone a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election, which may effectively kill the project, makes it clear that other issues will weigh in -- and that, oddly enough, one of them might even be climate change. The pipeline decision …


McKibben to critics: Forget NIMBY — the new battle cry is ‘Not On Our Planet’

My very favorite piece of punditry about the Keystone XL pipeline appeared the day after President Obama sent it back for more review, perhaps killing it off altogether. It came from the pen of a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations named Michael Levi, who had spent the last few months endlessly opining about why the pipeline should be approved. Proven conclusively wrong, his sour-grapes op-ed explained that, in fact, environmentalists had damaged the cause of clean energy because they’d joined with Nebraska ranchers "who simply did not want a pipeline running through their backyards" to defeat the …


We won a temporary victory on Keystone XL, but the fight goes on

Dear Friends, Um, we won. You won. Not completely. The president didn't outright reject the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. My particular fantasy -- that he would invite the 1,253 people arrested on his doorstep in August inside the gates for a victory picnic by the vegetable garden -- didn't materialize. But today the president sent the pipeline back to the State Department for a thorough re-review, which most analysts are saying will effectively kill the project. The president explicitly noted climate change, along with the pipeline route, as one of the factors that a new review would need to …


Keystone pipeline's last defense: Cold, hard cash

Photo: doctorwonderWhat do you do if you've lost an argument? Say you really really want to build a big pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta so that you can sell your bitumen to the world. But 20 of the nation's top scientists have written to the president to say it's a terrible idea -- and the planet's leading climatologist says burning the tar sands would be "game over for the climate." And nine recent winners of the Nobel Peace Prize have condemned the plan. And Robert Redford has just made a video explaining why the plan is an attack …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Oil


Where did Obama's mojo go?

Photo: DavidThis essay was originally published on TomDispatch and is republished here with Tom's kind permission. For connoisseurs, Barack Obama's fund-raising emails for the 2012 election campaign seem just a tad forlorn -- slightly limp reminders of the last time 'round. Four years ago at this time, the early adopters among us were just starting to get used to the regular flow of email from the Obama campaign. The missives were actually exciting to get, because they seemed less like appeals for money than a chance to join a movement. Sometimes they came with inspirational videos from Camp Obama, especially …


Stopping bad things and starting good ones

Sometimes the world asks different things of you. A couple of weeks ago, many of us heeded the planet's call to block a bad thing: the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta down to the Gulf of Mexico. All in all, 1,253 of us ended up in jail, and many more helped in other ways. That fight's not over yet, not by a long shot. (You can keep up with developments at But we've all got another side too, one that wants to start good things. Which is why I'm looking forward so much to …