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Exposing the climate denial lies: Bill McKibben, the truth and the fight against the fossil-fuel industry

The fossil-fuel lobby would cook us all off the earth if given the chance. One man has stood up to it for decades


Wen Stephenson
November 1, 2015 12:30AM (UTC)

In October, a month before a show at the Orpheum, I drove up to Burlington, Vermont, on Bill McKibben’s and 350’s home turf, to attend the “dress rehearsal” for the national “Do the Math” tour, set to launch in Seattle the day after the election. On assignment for Grist magazine, I’d been invited to spend some time “backstage” with the 350.org team, watch their run-throughs for the evening’s production, and chat with McKibben and the others. And though I was on assignment, everyone knew (including of course my editor at Grist, Scott Rosenberg) that I was hardly there to cover it as a conventional reporter. Earlier that year I’d helped launch 350 Massachusetts, the independent grassroots network started by 350.org’s allies at Better Future Project, a young nonprofit in Cambridge (on whose board I served until late 2014). And I was getting involved with other alumni in the nascent, student-led Divest Harvard campaign. You could say my assignment in Burlington was an inside job.

Perhaps this is where I should pause and explain that Bill McKibben and I have been acquainted for many years, having worked together occasionally when I was an editor at the Atlantic and the Boston Globe. As I dove deeper into the climate movement, we developed a kind of collaboration as fellow writers and activists. Not that Bill and I have ever really become close friends—we don’t hang out with each other, we’ve never shared much about our personal lives—but we have a warm, collegial relationship.

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I say all of this not only for the sake of transparency, but because Bill McKibben has had a significant impact on my own thinking about climate. That doesn’t mean I’m incapable of stepping back and giving my honest view of his work. Much of what I write here he’ll probably appreciate; some of it he may feel compelled to argue with. I don’t know. But I’m sure I’ll find out.

The Saturday night crowd on the Burlington campus was festive, raucous, pumped. When the man on the stage, Bill McKibben, said it was time to march not just on Washington but on the headquarters of fossil-fuel companies—“it’s time to march on Dallas”—and asked those to stand who’d be willing to join in the fight, seemingly every person filling the University of Vermont’s cavernous Ira Allen Chapel, some 800 souls, rose to their feet.

“The fossil-fuel industry has behaved so recklessly that they should lose their social license—their veneer of respectability,” Bill told the audience. “You want to take away our planet and our future? We’re going to take away your money and your good name.”

Before heading up to Burlington, I’d asked Bill what the divestment campaign represented for the climate movement. How did it compare with the fight against Keystone XL, now more than a year since he and 1,252 others were arrested at the White House, leading Obama to delay his decision for further review?

“Fighting Keystone,” he told me, “we learned we could stand up to the fossil-fuel industry. We demonstrated some moxie.” But, he added: “We also figured out that we’re not going to win just fighting one pipeline at a time. We have to keep all those battles going, but we also have to play some offense, go at the heart of the problem.”

His “Do the Math” talk—which grew straight out of the Rolling Stone piece and the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s analysis of fossil-fuel reserves—left no doubt about what that problem is, its scale, and its urgency. One simply cannot repeat this too often: To have any decent chance of preventing runaway warming within this century—to slow the process down and maybe, ultimately, stop it—something like 80 percent of fossil-fuel reserves must stay in the ground, forever, and the world must mobilize an all-out global shift to renewable energy.

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Given the sheer amount of money at stake—tens of trillions of dollars—the odds of anything like that happening under current political conditions are roughly nil. Bill’s point was that, if there’s going to be any hope at all of preserving a livable climate, those political conditions must change decisively, starting now. And they can—but only if and when enough people, including those in power, understand the simple carbon math and realize that the fossil-fuel industry and its lobby are prepared to cook humanity off the planet unless somebody stops them.

The most affecting display in Burlington that night was a show of faces—people, all around the world, who since 2009 had organized and participated in 350.org’s massive “global days of action,” involving thousands of demonstrations in hundreds of countries, on every continent— and who were already suffering the impacts of climate change: in Kenya, Haiti, Brazil, India, Pakistan, the Pacific island nations, and many other places, including the United States. Projected on the big screen behind Bill, they were a profound reminder of the human costs of global warming. Likewise, Bill’s message was about far more than math and carbon reserves. It was about justice and injustice, right and wrong—what you could call the moral equation.

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On Saturday afternoon, after Bill and the rest of 350’s small production crew ran through their script in the empty, echoing Ira Allen Chapel, I tagged along with them for lunch a short walk from the UVM campus. I asked Bill how the idea for the tour had been born.

It all went back, he said, to that seminal 2011 report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative in London. Bill told me that he and Naomi had both read that report early in 2012—and when they saw the numbers, they both realized the implications. “It exposed a real vulnerability of the fossil-fuel industry,” Bill told me, “because it made clear what the outcome of this process was going to be if we continued.”

There was a long pause, as he searched for just how to phrase what came next.

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“There’s always been this slight unreality to the whole climate-change thing,” Bill went on. “Because most people, at some level, kept thinking—and rightly so—‘Yeah, but no one will ever actually do this. No one will actually, knowingly, destroy the planet by climate change.’ But once you’ve seen those numbers, it’s clear, that’s exactly what they’re knowingly planning to do. So that changes the equation, you know?” I noted that the people who built the fossil-fuel industry didn’t set out to wreck the planet. It’s an incredible accident of history that we ended up in this fix.

Bill nodded. There was, he said, “a sound historical reason” for the development of fossil fuels. “But that sound historical reason vanished the minute Jim Hansen basically explained, twenty-five years ago, that we’re about to do in the earth. And now that we’ve melted the Arctic, it’s well under way, at this point—it’s outrageous, is all it is.”

“Now we have the new, and in some ways, the most important set of facts since the original science around climate. This stuff on who owns what, in terms of reserves—it’s the Keeling Curve of climate economics and politics,” he said, referring to the graph of the ever-rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, one of the foundational discoveries of climate science. “These are the iconic numbers for understanding where we are now.”

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So could divestment generate enough leverage, economic or otherwise, to make a difference? I wanted Bill to explain how it was an effective strategy.

“I think it’s a way to a get a fight started,” Bill said without hesitation, “and to get people in important places talking actively about the culpability of the fossil-fuel industry for the trouble that we’re in. And once that talk starts, I think it does start imposing a certain kind of economic pressure. Their high stock price is entirely justified by the thought that they’re going to get all their reserves out of the ground. And I think we’ve already made an argument that it shouldn’t be a legitimate thing to be doing.”

And not just those existing reserves. Perhaps the most damning number to emerge out of the divestment fight is this: 674 billion. That’s how many dollars, according to Carbon Tracker, the top 200 publicly traded fossil-fuel companies spent in 2012 alone on exploration and development of new reserves. (It remains to be seen whether the recent collapse of oil prices will lead companies to pull back significantly on such spending.) In other words, in the face of global catastrophe, those who lead the industry have not only bankrolled a wildly successful effort to sow confusion and denial of climate science—and to obstruct any serious response to the crisis. In the meantime, they are busy digging us an ever deeper hole, committed to a business model that by any sane measure should be called genocidal.

Bill likes to say that what he and the rest of us are demanding is not radical—indeed, fighting to preserve the planet for our children and future generations is inherently conservative. The “real radicals,” Bill will tell you, run fossil-fuel companies. Nothing could be more radical than the catastrophic course they’re pursuing: willingly changing the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, consequences be damned.

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At perhaps the key moment in Bill’s “Do the Math” talk, he played a video clip of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2012. Bill eviscerated the onscreen Rex in a darkly comic back-and-forth that would’ve made Jon Stewart proud. The Exxon chief, having made news by acknowledging that climate change is real and that warming “will have an impact”—while his company was spending, according to Bloomberg, as much as $37 billion per year exploring and drilling for more oil and gas—went on to express confidence that “we’ll adapt.” Agricultural production areas will be shifted northward, Tillerson suggests. (Never mind, Bill points out, that you can’t just move Iowa to Siberia, and that there isn’t any topsoil in the tundra.)

“It’s an engineering problem, with engineering solutions,” intoned Rex—who, as Bill noted on stage, was making $100,000 a day.

“No,” Bill replied. “It’s a greed problem. Yours.”

In 2011 and 2012, the tone of the climate movement was shifting. Maybe it all went back to the failure of Copenhagen in 2009, the collapse of climate legislation in the Senate in 2010, and the disillusioning, infuriating lack of climate leadership by Barack Obama. With a kind of desperation, but with history as a guide, people began talking and writing in earnest about building a genuine grassroots movement, a peoples’ movement, based on something more, something broader and deeper, than all the lobbying money and the corporate-style, K-Street-friendly communications strategies of the big green groups. A movement built on something more like moral outrage—and moral indictment.

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Bill’s tone had been changing as well. There were hints of it in those brutal opening chapters of his book Eaarth, released in the spring of 2010, where he surveyed the planet’s damage and the all but certain ravages to come. And when the watered-down-to-nothing climate bill finally died in the Senate that summer, he let loose with a much-quoted broadside headlined “We’re hot as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” As though finally venting emotions long suppressed (he’s a New Englander, after all), he wrote with trademark but now seething understatement: “I’m a mild-mannered guy, a Methodist Sunday school teacher. Not quick to anger. So what I want to say is: This is fucked up. The time has come to get mad, and then to get busy.”

Still every bit the soft-spoken, self-effacing speaker—and still droll, even laugh-out-loud funny, on stage—Bill had both darkened and toughened his message. It was as though, as a person of faith—yes, it’s true, Bill McKibben is a lifelong churchgoer, Sunday school teacher, and sometime preacher—he had discovered his “prophetic voice.” He may not thunder, that will never be his style, but he has become, I want to say, a sort of modern-day Jeremiah.

Bill flatly rejects any such comparison. “I’m not a prophet,” he tells me. Full stop. But this much is undeniable: Bill seems to have remembered a basic truth of transformative social movements—that they’re driven not by “positive messaging” (much less any simplistic, poll-tested “win-win” market optimism) but by deep moral conviction and moral outrage at intolerable injustice. The movements that change the world are moral struggles—and spiritual ones.

The fact that Bill is a lifelong churchgoing Christian is well known to his friends and colleagues, but no doubt strikes some of his secular readers and fans as strange, possibly a little embarrassing. Reporters have occasionally picked up on this aspect of his life, mentioned it in passing, but what’s rarely if ever explored is just how central Bill’s brand of faith is to his outlook and to the whole arc of his life’s work. If you’re one of those secular readers, I hope you’ll bear with me here. This is not an exercise in self-righteousness, or evangelization, or whatever. Bill is not inclined to any of that (and neither am I). Nor is this by any means simple. No, what I’m trying to do is suggest, as best I can, who Bill McKibben is, where he’s coming from, and what really drives him.

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Perhaps I should start by mentioning that Bill McKibben was born in Palo Alto, California, in 1960, and grew up comfortably middle class in Toronto and in Lexington, Massachusetts, in the Boston suburbs; that his father was a journalist who worked for BusinessWeek and the Boston Globe and was arrested in 1971 on the Lexington town green supporting an antiwar protest by Vietnam veterans; that his family went to church on Sunday and the church youth group was a big part of his life; that he went to Harvard, where he was editor of the Crimson, and where he became good friends with the late great Reverend Peter J. Gomes, rector of Memorial Church; that he went straight on to the New Yorker, where he wrote “Talk of the Town” pieces for five years before quitting in protest when legendary editor William Shawn was forced out; that while in New York he and others started the homeless shelter at the famous Riverside Church; that he and his wife, Sue Halpern, a fellow writer, moved to the Adirondacks, and that he turned his full attention to what was happening to the planet; that they eventually moved to the Green Mountains of Vermont, overlooking the Champlain Valley, where he has taught at Middlebury College ever since. That they have a daughter named Sophie who’s now in her early twenties. That Bill is seldom happier than when he’s out in the woods after a snow.

But really, the first thing that should always be said about Bill McKibben is that he’s the guy who wrote, while still in his twenties, The End of Nature. Not just the first book for a general audience about global warming, but without exaggeration, an American classic—a prescient tour de force, in which he reported on what was already the well-advanced science of human-caused climate change, and then proceeded to sketch the broader contours and substance of the subject as we still know it twenty five years on. Rereading the book even now, you realize that there’s been precious little new to say about climate change, in big-picture terms, since Bill explained it to us. Others had of course written about looming ecological catastrophe, “limits to growth,” the Earth’s carrying capacity, and so on. But when it comes to climate change, and its import, Bill was there first.

But he didn’t just get the scoop; he went deep. Indeed, that was the real scoop. He thought hard about it, felt it, and wrote a bold, searching, moving—and, like most classics, in some ways idiosyncratic—extended essay on the meaning of what humanity has done to the earth and everything on it. Or more precisely, what our modern civilization has done to it. His subject is not only the fact that we’ve changed the composition of the atmosphere, but what it feels like as one struggles to comprehend the consequences, to take it all on board, philosophically and spiritually. I’m far from alone, I feel sure, when I say that the book has affirmed and clarified my sense of a spiritual crisis at the heart of the climate crisis.

How so? Consider that well before the term “Anthropocene” gained currency—the widely accepted idea among Earth scientists that we have left the Holocene and entered an Age of Man, in which humanity itself is now a geological force—Bill argued that our impact on the planet carries world- and worldview-altering significance. We’ve changed everything, even the weather. And so the idea of “nature” as something vastly larger and independent of humanity, of human society, cannot survive. We’ve delivered the death blow. Or as Bill writes:

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An idea, a relationship, can go extinct, just like an animal or a plant. The idea in this case is “nature,” the separate and wild province, the world apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died. In the past, we spoiled and polluted parts of that nature, inflicted environmental “damage.” . . . We never thought that we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never really thought we could. . . .

Of course, as he acknowledges, “natural processes” go on. In fact, “rainfall and sunlight may become more important forces in our lives.” The point is, he writes, “the meaning of the wind, the sun, the rain—of nature—has already changed.” This realization leads him to what is perhaps the book’s central statement: “By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.”

I want to come back to that last phrase—“nothing but us”—but before I do, it’s crucial to understand the impact this realization has on Bill as a person of faith. Of course, in typical fashion, he disclaims: “I am no theologian; I am not even certain what I mean by God. (Perhaps some theologians join me in this difficulty.)” But he goes on to ask, “For those of us who have tended to locate God in nature—who, say, look upon spring as a sign of his existence and a clue to his meaning—what does it mean that we have destroyed the old spring and replaced it with a new one of our own devising?”

To answer that question, Bill finds himself drawn time and again to the Hebrew Bible’s story of Job. First, however, he has to deal with the often heard environmental critique of the Bible’s creation story, in Genesis, where God gives man “dominion” over the earth and commands him to “subdue” it. There in The End of Nature, Bill joins those who argue that this is far too narrow a reading, and observes that when we take the Bible as a whole, “the opposite messages resound.” Many theologians, he rightly points out, “have contended that the Bible demands a careful ‘stewardship’ of the planet instead of a careless subjugation, that immediately after giving man dominion over the earth God instructed him to ‘cultivate and keep it.’” But even this, he says, fails to really capture the depth of the Bible’s ecological message. For that, he turns to Job—“one of the most far-reaching defenses ever written of wilderness, of nature free from the hand of man.”

The Job story, of course, is a staple of Western literature, but to refresh, it goes like this: Job, we are told, is a wealthy, faithful, good, and just man, yet the devil makes a bet with God that if Job is stripped of all his possessions, his children, his happiness—really made to suffer—he will turn and curse God. The Lord is confident, and accepts the wager. Soon, Bill writes, “Job is living on a dunghill on the edge of town, his flesh a mass of oozing sores, his children dead, his flock scattered, his property gone.” But Job, though he curses the day he was born, won’t curse his Maker. He simply wants an explanation for his suffering. He maintains his innocence, and can’t accept the orthodox view offered by his friends that he’s being punished for some sin. Therefore God owes him an answer. What have I done to deserve this? Job demands.

Finally, God’s voice speaks to him from out of a whirlwind, and the answer—as Bill puts it in his short book on Job, The Comforting Whirlwind—is “shockingly radical.” It is God’s longest soliloquy in the Bible, and it is unsparing yet beautiful—perhaps, as Bill suggests, the foundation of Western nature writing. In Stephen Mitchell’s striking, poetic translation (the one Bill uses), God asks Job:

Where were you when I planned the earth?

Tell me, if you are so wise.

Do you know who took its dimensions,

measuring its length with a cord? . . .

Were you there when I stopped the waters,

as they issued gushing from the womb?

when I wrapped the ocean in clouds

and swaddled the sea in shadows?

when I closed it in with barriers

and set its boundaries, saying,

“Here you may come, but no farther;

here shall your proud waves break.”

Bill has called this “God’s taunt”—as if the Creator is saying, You little man, who do you think you are, demanding that I explain your suffering? Creation does not revolve around you. God asks (again in Mitchell’s translation): “Who cuts a path for the thunderstorm / and carves a road for the rain— / to water the desolate wasteland, / the land where no man lives; / to make the wilderness blossom / and cover the desert with grass?” Indeed, that is the rub. As Bill writes in The End of Nature: “God seems to be insisting that we are not the center of the universe, that he is quite happy if it rains where there are no people—that God is quite happy with the places where there are no people, a radical departure from our most ingrained notions.” To Bill, this is a profoundly comforting thought—that we are subsumed into something far larger, incomprehensibly powerful, and free of our touch.

And so back to Bill’s question: What does it mean that we, or at least some of us, have altered the atmosphere, changed the weather, the storms—that, in effect, we are adding force to the whirlwind? When God asks who set the boundaries of the oceans, Bill writes, “we can now answer that it is us. Our actions will determine the level of the sea, and change the course and destination of every drop of precipitation.” There’s a word for this, Bill likes to say: “blasphemy.” We have usurped God.

And considering how our power-grab has worked out, that is not a happy way to be—whether you believe in the Bible’s God or not. As Bill has said countless times in the past few years, we’ve taken creation’s, the planet’s, largest physical features—the Arctic, the oceans, the great glaciers—and we’ve broken them. We’re perhaps a decade away from an ice-free Arctic summer. The oceans are now an ungodly 30 percent more acidic, threatening the base of the marine food chain and all that depend on it. In other words, the end of nature is a pretty miserable place.

So it’s not surprising that The End of Nature concludes on a dark and deeply pessimistic note. The book pulls no punches. It’s too honest for that. What we’ve set in motion cannot be undone: “Now it is too late— not too late to ameliorate some of the changes and so perhaps to avoid the most gruesome of their consequences. But the scientists agree that we have already pumped enough gas into the air so that a significant rise in temperature and a subsequent shift in weather are inevitable.” Even had the nations of the world begun “heroic efforts” in the 1980s, he writes, “it wouldn’t have been enough to prevent terrible, terrible changes.” We would still be committed, Bill informs us, to a warming far greater than humans have ever experienced.

That—in 1989. And he was right.

This leads him to say things like: “If industrial civilization is ending nature, it is not utter silliness to talk about ending—or, at least, transforming— industrial civilization.” That would mean an acceptance of limits, an end to human hubris. Of course it sounds impossible—but what are the alternatives? “It could be that this idea of a humbler world, or some idea like it, is both radical and necessary, in the way that cutting off a leg can be both radical and necessary.” He suggests that there are signs, however small, of such radical new thinking, as among the bio-centric “deep ecologists,” citing Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First!, who drew inspiration from the writings of Edward Abbey (in particular his novel of eco-defense warriors, The Monkey Wrench Gang).

But that’s about as much hope as Bill will allow himself at the end of the book. Remember that phrase: without nature as an independent force, “there is nothing but us.” Ultimately, he is overwhelmed by a deep sadness and a sense of “loneliness.” Tellingly, I think, in the book’s final pages he even asks, “If nature has already ended, what are we fighting for?” He doesn’t really have an answer. Not yet. Not in The End of Nature.

Of course, the idea of nature that Bill pronounced dead is itself a product of the human mind—an artifact of our particular evolution as a species, or really, of a particular civilization. And I want to say, it’s as though Bill’s crisis, the spiritual crisis of The End of Nature, is really the struggle to let go of his own conception—you might call it the bio-centric, late-twentieth-century-environmentalist conception—of what nature means. It’s a struggle not unlike the struggle to let go of a deceased loved one.

And if that is the case—if in fact it is too late to save “nature,” if there is “nothing but us”—then yes, the question Bill asks in the end demands an answer: What are we fighting for?

At this point, I want to propose another way of looking at Job—the way I’ve taken to viewing the story, one I’ve known since childhood, in light of our catastrophe and in light of my own deepest fear, and despair, for the future.

I see Job there on the waste, alone and naked in the dust, covered with ashes, tormented, diseased, his children dead—bereft of everything that he owned and loved. And I hear him crying out (Mitchell again):

God damn the day I was born

and the night that forced me from the womb.

On that day—let there be darkness;

let it never have been created;

let it sink back into the void. . . .

On that night—let no child be born,

no mother cry out with joy. . . .

Let its last stars be extinguished;

let it wait in terror for daylight;

let its dawn never arrive.

We are Job. Worse, our children are—alone on the ash heap, cursing the day they were born. Because, on our current course, Job is the vision of our future, our children’s future—and for far, far too many, from the Philippines to the Rockaways, the vision of our present. It’s not only that human beings have “ended nature” and usurped the place of God, not only that we have inflicted that death on nature, this catastrophe bearing down on us. We—and most of all the innocent, alive today and yet to be born—must suffer it. There is no comfort in the whirlwind.

And so, when I get to the end of The End of Nature, I see my friend Bill as a much younger man—a young man, alone, in the throes of the spiritual crisis of our time, who has yet to come to terms with the fact that what we are fighting for, now, is not only the earth but each other.

Excerpted from "What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice" by Wen Stephenson (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

 


Wen Stephenson

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