Bill McKibben is a distinguished scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College, and founder of 350.org. He writes for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Nation. His most recent book is Radio Free Vermont. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: Before we talk about climate politics, let’s talk about the climate: As we speak, Hurricane Florence is heading for the Carolinas.
Bill McKibben: These days there’s always some new illustration of our folly. Florence is going to be a bloody and brutal affair, I’m afraid. It does remind us of just how much of a role stupid political decisions play. You may remember that it was the North Carolina state legislature six years ago that voted to ban the use of the latest science as it related to sea-level rise in coastal planning. That’s one of the reasons, I guess, that so many more structures there are in harm’s way now, as Florence approaches.
JW: While Hurricane Florence is hitting the Carolinas, many of the world’s leaders are meeting in San Francisco at the Global Climate Action summit, to “take ambition to the next level.” The summit is hosted by California’s governor, Jerry Brown. On the eve of the summit, Brown signed into law a bill requiring 100 percent clean-electricity in California by 2045. What do you think about that?
BMcK: It’s good. It’s precisely what California should be doing. It’s the final step in California addressing the demand side of the energy problem. California becomes the second state in the union to pledge this 100 percent goal. Hawaii was the first. It’s ambitious, but entirely doable. They’re ahead of their targets now. It puts into contrast California’s lack of action on the other half of the equation, the supply side. California continues to permit an almost endless number of oil and gas wells around the state, so that’s the other thing that activists have been asking for. So far, we have seen no real sign of progress there.
JW: Before we get to the “keep it in the ground” side of things, I want to stick for a minute on the issue of 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. Los Angeles, which of course is the biggest city in California, gets more of its power right now from coal than from any other source. There’s a huge coal-burning plant located in Arizona, so that people in LA won’t see any air pollution. The LA Department of Water and Power goal is to stop using that coal plant, and replace it by 2025 with a new plant in Utah that will burn methane. What do you think about LA moving from coal to methane?
BMcK: That’s not much of an improvement. I think what’s going to happen, and I think this may accelerate under these new plans from Sacramento, is a much more ambitious effort to move to renewables. No one’s going to be building big new gas or coal-fired power plants because of the economics, especially in a sunny place like California. Between the falling cost of going solar, and now the ever-reducing cost of storage, renewables are the logical way to address these problems.