Do We Have Time and Resources for Renewable Energy?

As a first step, the government needs to put a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Fossil fuel needs to pay the price for the damage it causes in the atmosphere.
  • Transcript


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

Bill McKibbon: 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 McKibbon: 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 McKibbon: 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.

Recorded on April 13, 2010