Bill McKibben Sees Climate Strikes in Our Future

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Honoree Bill McKibben accepts an environmental media award October 2013.  (Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Environmental Media Association)

Before the student strike, before Greta Thunberg, before Extinction Rebellion, there was Bill McKibben.

For years, McKibben, the hard-charging environmentalist and author, has been at the forefront of the climate action movement. In 1989, he published one of the first climate change books written for a general audience. In recent years, he's aggressively made the case for fossil-fuel divestment and encouraged environmental protest through the group he founded, The group's name is derived from the measurement 350 parts per million, the upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere generally considered to be safe. (Yeah, we blew past it a few years ago.)

McKibben, appearing on KQED's "Forum" radio program Tuesday, discussed the existential threat of climate change, which he calls "the most epic of fights" and is the central focus of his new book, “Falter.” Additionally, McKibben talked about President Trump, inequality, ExxonMobil and his skeptical view of genetic modification.

Below are excerpts of McKibben’s answers, edited for length and clarity.

The End of the Human Game?

When I started talking about climate change when I was a young man, it was still a warning. Here’s what is going to happen if we don’t do the things that scientists tell us we should do. Since we didn’t do any of these things, it’s no longer a warning; it is now the brute reality of everyday life. Sometimes we see it up close with a camera. The whole world commiserated with California last fall, watching a town literally called Paradise turn into hell inside half-an-hour. Today, as we talk, Mozambique was just hit with a second record cyclone in a month.


Political Pressure Building.

It has been beautiful to watch the Green New Deal stuff. Those are mostly young people, and they are veterans of the fossil fuel divestment campaign. That divestment campaign around the world built up a great deal of pressure, we are at $8 trillion worth of endowments and portfolios that have divested. Now there is this magnificent pressure coming from Extinction Rebellion shutting down the city.

Look at what tens of millions of young people did around the world this year following the lead of Greta Thunberg in Sweden. We've seen these climate strikes and walk outs from school. Our job, now, is to do what those kids have asked and back them up. We’ll be calling for adult climate strikes in the near future. We need to disrupt business as usual.

Unprecedented Urgency of Democrats

People are waking up. There is a poll out this morning from CNN, saying that among Democratic voters, climate change is now the number one issue, ahead of health care and the economy. You can see the response to that by all the Democratic candidates. They are talking about climate change nonstop and with a level of urgency that we’ve never seen. In the past, we used to pray that someone would ask one question about climate change. They never did. Now, it is a top-tier issue in the primaries.

Trump Badly Out of Touch 

His insistence that climate change is a hoax manufactured by the Chinese is—even for his most fervent supporters—a stretch. [Note: Trump later called this claim a "joke."] If you were sitting on the BART train next to someone started muttering that climate change was a hoax manufactured by the Chinese, you’d get up and move seats.

More Carbon Pricing Required

There is no reason anymore not to have a price on carbon. It is the only thing we are allowed to spew into the atmosphere for free. Where it would have been sufficient 30 years ago, but it no longer is sufficient, we have to do other things, too, as negotiations on a carbon price proceed. The oil industry, for a price on carbon, would demand a lot of things in return that are bad ideas. The most important job is to continue to build up enough political pressure so that when these negotiations take place, they take place in the best possible climate.

Exxon's Culpability

We now know from terrific investigative reporting from the L.A. Times, Columbia Journalism School, and the website Inside Climate News that the big fossil fuel companies knew everything there was to know about climate change by the 1980s. Exxon was the richest company in the world, it had an endless staff of scientists, and its product was carbon, so of course they were going to figure out what it did. By 1982 or 1983, their scientists were telling their executives: ‘Here is how fast and how much it is going to warm.’ And their executives believed them. Exxon began building its drilling rigs to compensate for the rise in sea levels they knew was coming. What they didn’t do was tell the rest of us.

Worry Over Designer Babies

There are some things that feel very much to me like climate change did 30 years ago, that are not yet fully played out in our world, but where the threat is very obvious and getting more so all the time. For instance, with human genetic engineering. In October a Chinese doctor produced the first two designer babies in human history.

The scientific community has pushed back against this some, trying to draw up guidelines against this germline genetic manipulation, but it is very clear that there's a bevy of entrepreneurs, many in Northern California, looking for the chance to sell people improved versions of their offspring.

For me, what’s interesting here, we took for granted the stability of the physical planet. It was very hard to get anyone to understand that it was possible inside of 30 years to melt most of the sea ice in the Arctic or change the chemical composition of the ocean. We take human meaning for granted, too. Once you start down these paths, it is hard to get off them.