Bill McKibben was one of the first people to warn of the dangers of global warming 30 years ago with his book The End of Nature. He is a founder of the environmental organization 350.org and the author of 15 books and hundreds of articles and essays, many of them for The New Yorker and some for The Nation. He’s also been teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he’s the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies. Now he has published a new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? This interview has been edited and condensed.
JW: You wrote your first book 30 years ago on pretty much the same topic as your new one, Falter. I guess this one could’ve been called I Told You So. But you decided not to take that course. It is striking that for 30 years we knew that climate change was coming, and a lot of people will tell you, ‘We did nothing.’ I’d like to look a little more closely at the “we” in that sentence. There’s you and me, and then there’s the people who ran Exxon.
BM: Yes. If you asked me 30 years ago, one of the things I would not have expected is how slow we would be to react as civilizations. And for a while, that really perplexed me. But it’s come into focus much more clearly in recent years. Great investigative reporting at places like the LA Times, the Pulitzer Prize–winning website InsideClimate News, and the Columbia journalism school revealed over the last few years that the fossil-fuel industry knew everything there was to know about climate change back in the 1980s. And they believed what their scientists were telling them. Exxon started building all its drilling rigs to compensate for the rise in sea level it knew was coming.
But of course the thing they didn’t do was tell any of the rest of us. Just the opposite. They’ve spent billions of dollars building the architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that has spread with relentless efficiency the lie that science was unsure about climate change. And you can measure the results of that lie by the fact that the man in the White House right now believes that climate change is a hoax manufactured by the Chinese. That’s a view so delusional that, if someone started muttering it to you seated on a public bus, you’d get up and change seats.
So that’s where we are. We’ve had a 30-year completely phony debate about whether global warming was real, a debate that both sides knew the answer to when it began. It’s just that one of them was content to lie about it in an effort to preserve its business model.
JW: Your new book, Falter, says things are looking pretty bad for humans right now. But of course there’s an opposing school of thought, which you can find in a dozen books and a hundred TED Talks, that says things are getting better. There’s less infant mortality today, people are living longer, more people are literate now than ever before. Of the 55 million people who died around the world in 2012, only 120,000 of them died in wars. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says people like you (and me) nevertheless just seem to “bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch.” He’s optimistic about our future, he says, because “so far, humanity has made a lot of progress solving what seemed like intractable problems.” What do you say to Steven Pinker?
BM: It’s not that he’s completely wrong. We have made enormous progress on certain things over the last 30 or 40 years, and that makes it all the more tragic that we’re now seeing that progress begin to disappear in the wake of very rapid physical deterioration. In fact, after more than a decade of steady decline in the number of hungry people on earth, that number went up last year—because of climate change and associated natural catastrophes. After a decade of fairly steady decline, the incidents of child labor went up again last year because of climate change and similar shocks that inevitably end up with impoverished families putting kids to work.
Of course, if we keep on current trends, this is only going to get worse—much worse. Look what happened when 2 million migrants left Syria as a result of the civil war there—a civil war that, by the way, was triggered at least in part by the worst drought in the history of what we once called the Fertile Crescent. Two million migrants leaving was enough to discombobulate the politics of Western Europe, just as a smaller number of migrants leaving the drought-stricken highlands of Honduras and Guatemala have been enough to help discombobulate the politics of our country. Now figure that the UN’s low prediction for climate migrants by midcentury is 200 million—and their high prediction is a billion. Ask yourself how much development, how much progress, how much anything we’re going to be getting in a world like that.
JW: Let’s talk about what is to be done now to slow the pace of climate change.
BM: We’re in a climate moment now, and you can see it coming from all directions: whether it’s the Extinction Rebellion that brought traffic to a crawl in London in recent days, whether it’s the millions of school kids who are walking out of school following the lead of Greta Thunberg in Sweden, whether it’s the young people pushing the Green New Deal here in this country with increasing success, whether it’s the divestment movement now cresting.
JW: Harvard Heat Week started April 22. The goal of Harvard Heat Week is to “put the heat on Harvard” to divest from fossil fuels.
BM: We’ve reached a point where 8 trillion dollars’ worth of endowments and portfolios have divested in part or in whole from coal and oil and gas. It’s gotten to the point where it’s really putting the hurt on the industry. There was a big story in Politico a couple of weeks ago about the heads of all the coal companies saying they could no longer raise capital. There were no investment funds that were willing to give them money, because they had divested. That’s one powerful part of this. It would, of course, be good if Harvard joined in, belated though it would be at this point—but it’s good to be raising the issue with the rich, powerful, and out-of-touch people who run that institution.
JW: Some people wonder why the big oil and gas corporations don’t take the lead in making money in alternative energy. Does Exxon have to hate solar panels?
BM: The answer to that is really interesting, I think. Yes there’s money to be made in the next energy future. People are going to get rich putting up solar panels. But there’s not Exxon-scale money to be made. If you think about it for a minute, you’ll realize why: Once you get the solar panels up on the roof, the energy comes for free. The sun rises every morning. From Exxon’s point of view, that’s the stupidest business model you could imagine. They’ve spent 100 years charging people more every month for what they get.
So they’ve tried everything they can to beat back the rise of renewable energy and the utilities. Eventually they’re going to lose. The price of wind and sun just keeps dropping and dropping. It’s now the cheapest way in the world to generate an electron. And that’s eroding the fossil-fuel company’s power slowly. “Slowly,” however, is a problem—because we need it now to go quickly. Fifty years from now we’re going to run the world on sun and wind. The question is, is it going to be a completely broken world that we’re running on sun and wind, or will we have made the transition in time to avert the absolute-worst-possible outcomes? We’re already going to be in some trouble. There’s no stopping global warming. That’s not one of the options on the menu. But there may be still some opportunity to slow it down.
JW: I know from everything you’ve written that you are not optimistic about the human game. But you do have reasons for hope. How do you balance these?
BM: Well, I think that you’ve got to get up and fight every morning. And I think the fact that there’s this movement building is a very good sign. It’s what I and others have worked hard for many years to build—and now we see it starting to come true. I worry sometimes that we waited too long to get started, and that the momentum of climate change is very, very grave indeed. But at least we’re starting to engage the question now.
And what option does one have but to hope and to work hard, until the scientists tell us that there’s no point in it anymore? We’re not at that point yet. The best science indicates we have a window, albeit a fairly narrow one that’s clearly closing rapidly, to make some fundamental change. The IPCC in its report last September gave us a 12-year timeline—now 11—to have made fundamental transformations. That’s why we’ve got no more presidential elections to waste, no more congressional cycles to waste, no more anything to waste. From now on we better be making the right decisions in sharp time. Some places are beginning to. New York City in just the last days passed the Green Deal for New York, a really ambitious piece of climate legislation in the world’s financial capital. That’s a good sign about where the smart money is starting to point. Let’s hope we can make it happen fast enough.
JW: And we do have models of how to bring big changes when the obstacles seem tremendous—in the nonviolent protest movements of the 20th century.
BM: That’s right. It’s the other great technology along with solar panels. That’s the greatest tool that we have. Our job is to change the zeitgeist. The job of the fossil-fuel industry is to keep everybody thinking that burning rocks from underground is the normal and obvious way to proceed. Our job is to make it so that people see that there is a clear, better alternative, and that we can seize it—and seize it fast.