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Bill McKibben is an environmentalist and writer who founded the international climate campaign Twenty years ago, with his book "The End of Nature," he offered one of the earliest[…]

A conversation with the writer and environmental activist.

Question: When did we first discover that humans could alter our climate? 

Bill McKibben: The first person to even come up with the idea was in the late 19th Century, the great Swedish chemist Arrhenius who later won the Nobel for other work did some back of the envelope calculations about what would happen if we burned all the coal that we were at that point beginning to burn. Oddly enough, his numbers come not that far from what the biggest super computers on earth are now cracking out—but really nobody paid any attention until really the 1980s. That’s when we had computers big enough to begin effectively modeling the climate and that was the first point at which scientists really began to sound the alarm. Probably Jim Hanson, the NASA scientist before congress in June of 1988 saying "Global warming is real" is as good a point as any to kind of pick as the starting date for the global warming era. 

Question: If we had addressed the issue in 1988, would we be in the same predicament we are in today? 

Bill McKibben: We wouldn’t be in the same position. We might still be going to have to deal with some mild effects of climate change, but we would be well on our way now to having made the transition away from fossil fuel. It’s going to turn out to be a great, great historical shame that we didn’t pay attention when we knew what was going on. You know I wrote the first book about all of this 21 years ago in 1989. At the time, I was 27 and believed that people would read the book—which they did, it was translated into 24 languages I think—and then they would act and solve the problem, which they didn’t. 

The only thing we didn’t know 20 years ago when I wrote "The End of Nature" was how fast is this going to happen, where is the red line? Being human we all hoped that it was some ways away, so it would be somebody else’s problem to deal with. Those hopes have been steadily evaporating. For the last 10 or 12 years it’s been very clear that the earth was more finely balanced than we realized and that we were seeing change happening ahead of schedule and on a larger scale than we expected, but I think if you were looking for a date, summer of 2007 when we saw the very rapid melt of sea ice across the Arctic was really the pointed... I spent that summer getting phone calls from scientists I’ve known for a quarter century who have always been worried and concerned, but all of a sudden were panicked, or saying no matter what physical phenomena we look at we’re seeing this kind of violent flux. 

Question: Do you think it’s still possible to avert the worst effects of global warming? 

Bill McKibben: Everything is relative. We’re not going to stop global warming, obviously. We’ve already warmed the planet a lot. That’s what this new book “Eaarth,” that’s the point it makes. This is already underway and in a big way, but what is bad can always be made worse. If we don’t act soon then the stakes are really civilizational in scale. So far we’ve raised the temperature about one degree with another one degree locked in from the emissions we’ve already put into the atmosphere. One degree has been enough to melt the Arctic. Two degrees will do more damage, but if we don’t act very quickly, scientists are quite clear that the temperature will go up four, five, six degrees in the course of this century and that’s just change of a sort that we’ve never even contemplated. 

Question: What symptoms of climate change will we soon see? 

Bill McKibben: Well think about things we’re already seeing. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold. The atmosphere has about 5% more moisture in it than it had 40 years ago, which is an astonishingly large change in a basic physical parameter. That means that we’re seeing huge increases in the amount of deluge and downpour and flood. There is a record rainfall and flood event someplace around the world almost every week now. The hundred-year storm comes to many places every three or four years. It’s taking a great toll on infrastructure, on human life. You know, this spring we watched hundreds of people killed in Rio, in the middle of Rio de Janeiro in mudslides after the largest rainstorms they’d ever recorded in that city. Look at the chemistry of seawater. The ocean is our metaphor for vastness on this planet, but that hasn’t stopped it from changing in profound ways. Seawater is 30 percent more acidic than it was 40 or 50 years ago because the oceans are absorbing so much carbon from the atmosphere. Everything frozen on earth is melting. Glaciers are melting with great rapidity all over the planet. Some of them have disappeared in the western US, in the Andes. You can go on for many days just listing the effects we’ve already seen. If we don’t do things quickly, the effects that are coming as the temperature gets hotter and hotter will be even more dramatic. The latest studies indicate that by the mid- to latter part of the century we could be seeing grain yields for corn and soybean and wheat fall 20, 30, 40 percent. That would be trouble of an all-encompassing sort. 

Question: How will our civilization change? 

Bill McKibben: New planet, we need new habits, new ways of going about things. The biggest habit on our planet at the moment is a kind of addiction to economic growth and to the idea that growth will solve every problem that we face. That’s a habit of mind that we’re going to have to get out of. We’ve reached those limits to growth that people started talking about in the 1970s. When you melt the Arctic that is a pretty good sign that you’ve gone too far and so we’re going to need to figure out instead how to build a world that is stable, secure, kind of hunkered down, that’s built for endurance, not for speed. I think that means more and more that our economies will need to become more localized, less sprawling, less vulnerable, more resilient. We can see that starting slowly to happen. The number of farms in the United States increased the last five years for the first time in a century and a half and it’s because there is this local food movement that is building up that kind of resilience in place after place. 

Question: What should be the role of the government when it comes to climate change? 

Bill McKibben: Well we have a very crucial role for government to play-- simple, but crucial. We need our Congress to put a price on carbon dioxide. Fossil fuel needs to pay the price for the damage it causes in the atmosphere. And that will run up the cost of gas and oil and everything else with the result that we quickly put our economy in the direction of using less. That’s the only way we have to effectively spur this transition from fossil fuel to something else. Now we can do that without bankrupting people. There are good proposals in Congress right now to take the money generated by that, in essence, tax on carbon, and rebate it directly to taxpayers with a check every month. Most people would actually come out ahead unless they were using insane amounts of energy, but we need to do that nationally and globally just as fast as we can and we need it to be really serious and driven by science. Once government has done that piece of work, once it has set a price on carbon I think it would be well advised to step back and let market forces accomplish much of what they’re capable of accomplishing once they get the information they need in the form of that price signal to act. 

It is something that should have come out of Copenhagen and out of our own Congress. We’ve been running the largest global grassroots climate campaign for about a year and a half now, something called that last October organized 5,200 simultaneous rallies in 181 countries, what CNN called the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history, all geared at trying to build support for this kind of mechanism. In Copenhagen we got about 117 countries to agree with this call, but they were the wrong 117. They were the poorest countries in the world. The most addicted ones, with ours at the lead, so far haven’t done what needs doing. 

Question: Do we have the time or resources to make the switch from coal to renewable energy? 

Bill McKibben: The best data we’ve got from NASA indicates that we have to be out of the business of burning coal entirely on this planet by the end of the 2020s and well before that in the Western world. That’s an extraordinarily tall order. Even just to do it in a perfect world would be very difficult because it would mean quickly building up capacity for wind and sun and to do it against the objections of the very powerful fossil fuel industry is hard as hell. So far we’re not moving quickly or really even at all in that direction. We need to very, very badly. 

There is no way to pick up the pace without doing strong political organizing. This is a political fight in the end. It’s the power of people who care about the future versus the power of large corporations that care about their very short-term profit—and so far they’re winning. And we continue to organize like crazy at We’ve built the largest movement there has ever been about any of this, but we need much bigger. 

Question: How can we retrofit our existing infrastructure to accommodate these changes? 

Bill McKibben: Well let’s talk first about how difficult it’s going to be to keep infrastructure maintained on the planet that we’re now building, the one that is getting hotter by the minute, okay. In that world our infrastructure, which is already decaying and deteriorating comes under all kinds of stress. When there is flood after flood after flood it gets very expensive to try to maintain roads and bridges and everything else. I tell the story in the book of my tiny town in Vermont that had the two biggest rainstorms in its history six weeks apart in the summer of 2008. They washed the road to town and left us isolated for days. The governor had to come visit in a helicopter. You know, we rebuilt the road at a cost of a million and a half dollars to reach 500 people at the top of the hill. That kind of story is being told all over the planet. There is no way that we can keep up with this pace of change. That’s why we need to figure out how to build much smaller, more localized, more resilient communities. The infrastructure that becomes key to that isn’t roads and bridges so much. They’re still important, but the really crucial infrastructure for the future is the electronic one, especially the Internet. It’s our one wildcard and if we’re lucky we’ll be able to live pretty decent local economic lives the way that people did a long time ago and at the same time maintain strong links all over the world, not to sell stuff to each other, but to tell stuff to each other, to keep in contact in all kinds of good ways. 

Your food is going to come from people that you know or people in your general area. Your power is going to come from solar panels on people’s roofs, from wind turbines, from small hydro, from all the ways we can do it in gentler fashion, but what is going to come through the Internet is information, is ideas, is that fresh air that keeps small towns from becoming parochial, that keeps city neighborhoods from becoming parochial, that kind of contact and it’s a very useful thing to have. 

Question: How does farming need to change? 

Bill McKibben: Right now the agriculture that we depend on in this country is very heavily fossil fuel based. Soil is a kind of matrix for holding plants upright so you can pour oil over them to make them grow. The average bite of food you eat has traveled 2,000 miles to reach your lips. It’s marinated in crude oil by the time it gets there. The incredibly intense energy use of agriculture is an astonishing problem. It generates lots and lots and lots of our greenhouse gasses and it depends on a supply of petroleum that is quickly running short. So we need something different and the outlines of that something different are pretty clear I think. We need to replace some of that fossil fuel with human labor and energy on farms. At the moment, one percent of Americans farm. There are half as many farmers as prisoners in this country. We’re never going to go back to 50 percent of Americans on the farm, but we’re going to have to head a little bit in that direction because we need more hands at work growing our food and substituting for some of that endless fossil fuel. And it turns out there are lots of people who want to do that kind of work. And as we see demand grow—farmers markets have been the fastest growing part of the food economy for 10 years now—as we see that growth taking place we get more and more and more farmers coming forward to meet it, which is very, very nice to see. It will help immensely if we put a price on carbon at the congressional level, at the global level. The day that that happens the logic of the farmers market will be immediately apparent, not just to people who want good food, but to people who will quickly understand what an insane subsidy we’ve been giving in the form of cheap fossil fuel to big industrial agriculture. 

Question: What responsibility do wealthy countries have to developing nations? 

Bill McKibben: The gap between rich and poor in this world has always been a sin, but now it is a wicked practical impediment to getting done that which we need to do. If you live in China where there are still 600 million people living in pretty bitter rural poverty the world looks a lot different to you than if you live in an American suburb. The easiest way to pull those Chinese or rural Indians or Africans or South Americans out of that poverty would be to burn the cheap coal that is widely available in most of those places. That’s how we did it in this country over the last 200 years. That’s what fueled our prosperity. It’s a cruel thing to say to people in those parts of the world. Look, you can’t do this because the atmosphere is already filled by us. So in moral terms and in practical terms we have very strong incentive to not only cut our own emissions to give other people some room, but also to transfer some wealth in the form of technology mostly north to south to allow those societies to skip over as much of the fossil fuel stage as they can and go straight into the kind of world of renewable power. That’s only just and it’s only smart. 

Question: Is there a source of renewable energy that can replace fossil fuel? 

Bill McKibben: I think there is no source of renewable energy that replaces one-for-one fossil fuel. Fossil fuel is really great stuff. It’s concentrated in a few places. It’s incredibly energy-rich, dense in BTUs. It’s easy to transport. It’s too bad that it’s wrecking the planet. There is no silver bullet that replaces it. Maybe there is enough silver buckshot if we gather it all up. The energies that we will rely on in the future, things like wind and solar, are far more diffuse and scattered than fossil fuel. They’re everywhere, but nowhere in overwhelming abundance and hence the tactic, the sort of thinking, about how to gather them together is going to have to be different. Instead of a few centralized big burners, you know, going through mountains of coal we’re going to have to have an energy system that looks more like the Internet with lots and lots of nodes; lots and lots of people bringing stuff to market and taking stuff away. I have solar panels all over the roof of my house in Vermont. On a sunny day I’m a utility. I’m firing electrons down the grid. You know my neighbor is cooling his beer with the sunlight that falls on my shingles okay. That’s good in all kinds of ways. It lets us put environmentally benign technologies like solar panels into pretty easy use. It also reduces the vulnerability of these systems. You know it’s not just banks that are too big to fail in our economy. It’s the agricultural system and the energy system as well. It would be much better to have an energy system that depends on lots and lots of solar panels on lots of people’s roofs because, I don’t know, say some terrorist decides that he wants to take out my solar panels. He could climb up on my roof with a hammer and dismantle them and then I have a problem, but it’s not a problem that cascades across the transmission grid you know and it’s not spewing deadly solar particles into the atmosphere either. It’s a relatively small problem and in a planet that is going to have plenty of problems this century we need to work hard on keeping them small. 

Question: How can we incentivize people to go solar? 

Bill McKibben: Well this is a place where government subsidy makes sense. We need to jumpstart the production of all this stuff. The cost of them is falling pretty rapidly and it will fall more rapidly as we get more and more of them in place. The manufacturing cost curve works to our advantage here. It makes a lot more sense to subsidize solar panels than it does to subsidize coal and oil, which we continue to do in large quantities because we’ve known how to burn coal and oil for 200 years. We’ve gotten most of the manufacturing advantage that we’re going to get from any subsidy. Now it’s just pure payoff to politically connected players, so that is certainly part of it. 

Question: Are other countries adapting their energy use better than we are? 

Bill McKibben: I mean almost every country is doing it better than the United States right now. We’re leading in nothing in this way. If you go to Germany you’ll find the largest installed solar capacity in the world even though it’s a pretty cloudy Wagnerian place. If you go to Denmark you’ll see a quarter of the power coming from the wind. You’ll see almost everybody hooked up to these combined heat and power plants that are very highly efficient. You know there is a lot of places across northern Europe and central Europe that are doing quite remarkable things. If you go to China you’ll see the largest installed renewable base in the world. You’ll see cities of millions of people where essentially everyone gets their hot water from solarthermal panels up on the roof. You’ll see the largest wind farm in the world. If you go to Abu Dhabi, where they’ve making lots of money on oil for a long time but realized that oil isn’t there forever, you’ll see the largest solar array on the planet. They’d like to make money in the future as well. 

Question: Why are we so behind? 

Bill McKibben: We’re so behind for two reasons. One, we’re the most addicted to fossil fuel of any country and hence it’s hard for us to kind of imagine change. It seems too scary. For some reason the Europeans and others are just bolder in this way or more rational or something. But we’re also behind because this is the headquarters of the fossil fuel industry and they’ve used their enormous power to keep change from happening. ExxonMobil made more money each of the last three years than any company in the history of money. In our political system that buys them a lot of power to prevent change from happening and they’ve done it effectively. 

Question: Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? 

Bill McKibben: In some ways I’ve sort of given up trying to figure out whether I’m an optimist or a pessimist. I just get in the morning and do my work and see what we can. Scientifically, one has to be more pessimistic. These changes are happening enormously quickly. That’s what this new book of mine I’m afraid is kind of first to really catalog. It’s a much darker scene even than we thought 20 years ago. Politically, though we haven’t yet accomplished anything, the last year has been good. This huge upswing of support for really means that for the first time we have a movement going to kind of press for the political change that we need. If we can make the movement large enough and powerful enough then I think we have some chance of changing the politics. But it’s going to be a close call at best whether we get the change we need in the time we need. Clearly it won’t come fast enough to prevent an enormous problem, that’s already underway. Hopefully it will come fast enough to prevent sort of ultimate trouble. 
Recorded on April 13, 2010