Bill McKibben: Scientists can't save us

The celebrated author on the primary obstacle to action on climate change and the urgent need for a mass movement

Published March 19, 2015 8:00AM (EDT)

  (Time Books/Steve Liptay)
(Time Books/Steve Liptay)

This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

Jacobin Bill McKibben has been a force in environmental politics for more than thirty years and authored fifteen books. In 2008, he helped found, an international organization dedicated to building a movement “that reflects the scale of the climate crisis.”

In the years since, the scale of that crisis has only become more apparent — the rate of climate change is accelerating at a pace not seen for at least a millennium, and the inequalities of its impact, from the scramble for water in Brazil to the oil refinery strike over safety in the United States, are constantly display.

In reaction, larger sections of the movement have explicitly adopted the climate justice framework — a framework that recognizes the different ways in which people experience climate are organized along lines of social, structural oppression: racism, sexism, transphobia, colonialism, and class exploitation.

Examining these intersections, as well as living through the worst economic crisis in living memory, has forced the movement to again confront the role of capitalism and state power in driving social oppression, economic injustice, and ecological devastation.

While the debate over analysis and strategy is far from settled, the climate justice movement has won concrete victories, and its ranks have swelled. President Obama recently vetoed a bill greenlighting the Keystone XL pipeline (though it may re-emerge after State Department review). Hundreds of thousands marched for climate justice in New York City this past fall. And fossil fuel divestment campaigns are growing on college campuses around the world.

Yet with the window to bring the earth into a “safe zone” shrinking by the day, these discussions are only becoming more pressing.

McKibben’s has long been one of the most visible contributors to that debate. In his 2010 book Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, McKibben asks what it will take to adapt, politically and socially, to a world drastically altered by climate change. His proposals are people-centered and focus on breaking the power of the fossil fuel companies.

But he’s also partial to decentralization, which should raise red flags: we can’t hope to subdue the most centralized, highly organized institutions of capital with diffused power. Additionally, McKibben doesn’t advance a critique of capitalism, whose very logic has demanded exponential increases in the use of fossil fuels.

It’s true that the fossil fuel industry has an unsurpassed capacity to destroy the planet. But it’s also true that fossil fuels are a social force, a class project: “no piece of coal or drop of oil has yet turned itself into fuel,” Andreas Malm notes. That is, the large-scale consumption of fossil fuels, and in turn, the power of the fossil fuel industry, is a product of capitalist production — not the other way around.

Despite the criticisms ecosocialists might have of McKibben, his work has been crucial in the struggle to halt capitalism’s assault on the planet. I spoke to McKibben on the state of the climate justice movement, the intersections between climate justice and other movements, and why he recently supported the first nationwide strike of oil refinery workers since 1980. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What do you see as the primary obstacle to action on climate change?

The financial might — and consequent political power — of the fossil fuel industry.

What, in your experience, has been the driving force behind new activists becoming involved with the climate justice movement?

I think all kinds of people want to be engaged in the climate fight, but the biggest deterrent is the sense that we’re too small to actually do anything about such a large crisis. And that’s true — each one of us is too small. So that’s why many of us have built a movement to  let people feel, in their solidarity, powerful enough to matter. And not just to feel that way — to really matter.

Can you speak about the role of disasters — like the recent refinery explosion, train derailments, etc. — and the role they play in driving people toward activism, or at least help change people’s ideas about what needs to be done?

I think above all the steady pull of “natural” disasters — floods, droughts, and so on — has woken people to the peril of our present course. And yes, we have constant reminders of the other ways in which fossil fuels are unsafe.

Why did you think it was important to stand with workers in an industry that is actively seeking to expand onshore oil production in the United States at a moment of climate crisis?

Because they’re also making people work in unsafe conditions. They’re treating their employees with almost the same cavalier highhandedness they treat the planet.

I think all of us have a responsibility to try and make our workplaces help the planet, not hurt it. And it’s incredibly exciting to be working with lots of labor groups doing just that. The various transit unions, for instance, whose drivers and mechanics are among the greenest workers out there; the nurses who end their shifts and then step forward to fight fracking because they know what pollution does to lungs.

Moving from workers to students, we’ve seen in the first six weeks of 2015 some important steps forward on the fossil fuel divestment campaigns on college campuses, particularly the success of the divestment campaign at the New School. Can you speak a bit about why the divestment campaigns are important? What’s the next step for student organizers once they’ve won divestment from university administration, or to put it another way, what’s the next target after divestment?

Divestment campaigns are one front of many in this fight, but they help a lot because they begin the process of politically bankrupting the fossil fuel industry. They’ve been the key vehicle to spread the understanding that these are rogue companies, with far more carbon in their reserves than scientists think we can burn. It’s already spread far beyond colleges — churches, towns, states, pension funds are all caught up in this struggle now.

What steps do you think climate justice activists should take to ensure that the legacies and ongoing realities of colonization and marginalization are not only addressed in terms of climate justice, but also in terms of political sovereignty and economic rights?

I think we should work with great leaders like Idle No More on all kinds of fights. I think that the emergence of indigenous leadership on environmental questions has been the most important advance in recent years in our fight, and I imagine they have a good deal to say on a number of other important issues as well.

Continuing on that theme, what connections do you see for activists to link the climate justice movement to the struggles against social oppression, in particular the Black Lives Matter movement?

I was really glad to see climate activists go down to Ferguson to help; I think one of my greatest partners in the last few years has been the Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and I’m convinced he’s right when he says these issues are linked as being about, above all, power.

What kind of obstacles prevent public engagement with scientific research? What obligations do scientists have, if any, to engage in climate politics beyond their own research?

In a rational world, Jim Hansen would not have to regularly end up in handcuffs. We would long since have heeded the scientific alarm and gotten to work. But in the real world, I fear scientists have the same civic duty as the rest of us: after hours and on weekends it’s time to join together in real protest.

Can we really use blockades and divestment as a mechanism to buy time while the price of renewables comes down in the market? Can that approach work quickly enough given the extreme limits of our time frame? What about the people before profit/ecology before economy models of climate activism?

I think we can freeze the growth of the fossil fuel industry long enough for renewables to take the lead in this race — the price of solar panels has fallen enormously in the last few years, and it will continue to plummet. Whether it happens fast enough to outpace the warming of the planet is an open question, but in any event putting people (and every other living thing) before the profit of the fossil fuel industry is key.

What is your opinion of “degrowth” as outlined in Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate? Can it account for the socioeconomic and international disparities in development which have left some areas hyper-industrialized and others completely neglected?

Some places are clearly underdeveloped, and others are probably overdeveloped. In a just world we would concentrate our efforts at most things, including the spread of renewable energy, in the poorest places (which have, of course, done the least to cause climate change).

As exciting as the pipeline blockades, Idle No More movement, and growing demonstrations against inaction on climate change have been, they are clearly inadequate to the scale of the task at hand. We have only a short window in which to avert the most disastrous effects of climate change. What do you think it’s going to take to, at the very least, put us in a “safe zone”?

I think it’s going to take a bigger movement. And I would not downplay Idle No More and pipeline blockades as merely “exciting.” They’re beginning to put the fossil fuel industry on the defensive. Every month we slow down their expansion is another month for renewable energy to get cheaper and more ubiquitous. Time is not on their side. It’s not clear it’s on our side either, though, since the momentum of physics is large. Hence the need to make change quickly!

Although he vetoed the KXL pipeline for now, Obama has announced plans to expand offshore oil drilling, even as the ongoing damage from the 2011 BP Deepwater Horizon spill has come back into public focus, with a report that more than 5 million gallons of oil remain in the Gulf. After more than six years of what can be — at best — called equivocating, can climate justice activists still rely on pressuring the Democrats? Is it time for environmental activists to throw their weight behind a third party?

I think offshore drilling is a bad idea. And someone wiser than me is going to have to figure out about electoral politics. We build movements to try and change the zeitgeist; from that will flow, one way or another, political change. Or so I hope, but I’ve been disappointed before.

If we succeed in blocking the KXL pipeline, where should environmental activists turn their focus next?

We’ve long since turned from KXL to focus as well on a hundred other fights: coal ports in the Northwest, fracking in California and Europe, huge coal mines in Australia paid for by Indian billionaires, endless divestment fights, big pushes to support renewables. We’re active in every country but North Korea; the press has a relentless focus on KXL for reasons I don’t fully understand, but for us this is a fight with many, many fronts.

Finally, let’s return to Klein’s book. What do you make of her central contention: that capitalism is on a collision course with the climate? How central do you think the debate around capitalism should be to the future of the environmental movement?

The fossil fuel industry is the richest industry on earth. It’s the most centralized too, producing vast amounts of wealth and political power. If we can replace it with renewable energy, we’ll not only cut the carbon in the atmosphere, we’ll do our share to rebalancing the insanely lopsided social structure of our planet. Or so I hope.

By Trish Kahle

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By Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, and founder of the global climate campaign His latest book is "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.".

MORE FROM Bill McKibben

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