Preaching to the choir

Bill McKibben talks renewables, civil disobedience and Bernie Sanders

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Bill Mckibben speaks to anti-fracking protestors in Thornton, Colorado on May 14.
Sam Dyer

Scrolling through the staff page on 350.org, a global grassroots organization dedicated to preventing climate change, it can be hard to spot founder Bill McKibben. He appears several scrolls down the page, between the U.S. deputy divestment campaign manager and the fossil free Netherlands coordinator on the alphabetical list. In one sense, the inability to find McKibben right away can be disconcerting, and yet, it is actually somewhat reassuring. The movement goes beyond one person; the responsibility to curb global warming rests with all of us.

“This really is a leaderless movement,” says McKibben, a prominent environmentalist, activist and writer. “There are tens of thousands of leaders. Maybe leaderless is not quite right. Maybe it’s a leaderful movement.”

Regardless of his humility, McKibben has been at the forefront of the climate change debate since publishing his first book The End of Nature in 1989. For more than 25 years, he has been protesting the continued development and extraction of fossil fuels while collaborating with global grassroots movements around the world to advocate for a widespread switch to renewables. And in one sense, it’s working.

For more than four days — approximately 107 hours — in early May, the Portuguese National Energy Network relied solely on renewable energy from wind, solar and hydro power. The same week, the United Kingdom reported up to 12 hours of coal-free electricity for a number of days in a row.

And last year, on one particularly windy day in July, wind farms in Denmark produced 140 percent of the nation’s energy needs, with the surplus going to Germany, Norway and Sweden to be stored for later use. By the end of 2015, the Danes had produced 42 percent of their electricity from wind.

“I think eventually we’re going to have solar panels and windmills all over the place and that’s how we’ll run the world,” McKibben says. “But I’m not convinced we’ll get there in time to catch up with climate change.”

On a windy day in July 2015, Denmark was able to produce 140 percent of its energy needs from renewables alone. We have the technology, but not the will.Wikimedia Commons
On a windy day in July 2015, Denmark was able to produce 140 percent of its energy needs from renewables alone. We have the technology, but not the will.

Despite his decades-long fight, 2016 is already the hottest year on record and McKibben continues to question the political will to turn things around. While the engineering technology is there, the systematic reliance on carbon energy remains.

“You’d think that would be the easier part, that the engineering would be hard,” McKibben says. “Humans are actually pretty good at engineering, they’re just not much good at self restraint.”

Obviously frustrated by the lack of commitment he sees in Washington to confront climate change head on, the activist can be rather pessimistic about the current state of the global climate. However, in his estimation, one candidate in 2016 does possess the will to change the system — his Vermont neighbor Bernie Sanders.

At the end of May, Sanders announced McKibben as one of his five representatives on the platform committee for the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Although the DNC chair has the authority to select all 15 members to the committee — charged with drafting the 2016 party platform to be voted on at the convention in Philadelphia in July — the DNC responded to a request from Sanders to give the candidates split representation. In the end, in what is seen by many as a victory for Sanders, Hillary Clinton is allowed six appointees, Sanders five and the DNC chair the remaining four. Sanders’ appointments are all well-known progressives; Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), author of Race Matters Cornel West, Native American activist Deborah Parker and Arab-American Institute President James Zogby will join McKibben.

This marks McKibben’s first foray into the political realm, spending the majority of his career teaching, writing and pursuing on-the-ground activism that’s included major protests around the world and a handful of arrests in the U.S. But at this point, McKibben says he’s willing to do pretty much whatever it takes in an effort to curb climate change.

“Oh hell, I’ll try anything,” he says. “It’s my strong sense that we really are at the moment here that if we don’t get going, it’s not going to happen.”

McKibben says his goal as part of the platform committee is to represent Sanders’ ideas about energy and climate change — ideas that in large part mirror his own. Breaking away from Washington’s acceptance of billions of dollars in federal lobbying from the oil and gas industry and a dependence on fossil fuels; a move towards renewables backed by leaving the majority of coal, oil and natural gas in the ground; updating the electricity and transportation infrastructure; and incorporating combating climate change into his national security platform, stating that it is a leading cause of instability around the world.

“Don’t know if we’ll be able to get them in the platform, since his appointees are a minority, but we will try,” McKibben says.

Bill McKibben is one of Bernie Sanders' five appointees to the Democratic National Convention platform committee. McKibben and Sanders are Vermont neighbors. Wikimedia Commons
Bill McKibben is one of Bernie Sanders’ five appointees to the Democratic National Convention platform committee. McKibben and Sanders are Vermont neighbors.

McKibben, as he admitted to Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, is in many ways more comfortable protesting outside at large political events like the DNC than being on the inside. However, he says, when Sanders asked him to join the committee, he couldn’t refuse.

“It seemed to me that Bernie had earned the right to ask any of us to do some work, considering what he’s taken on this year,” he says. “Also, he’s a neighbor, and, you know, neighbors helping neighbors…”

This neighborly and community mindset has driven much of McKibben’s work over the last several decades. It caused him to partner with his students at Middlebury College, where he teaches environmental studies, to launch 350.org and it caused him to join forces with different groups in Nebraska and Canada already protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011.

“One’s intuition that one is much too small to affect the global climate is in fact correct,” McKibben says. “I’m looking out at my solar panels as we speak and happily, but I don’t try and fool myself that they’re actually how we are going to fight this problem. This is a structural, systemic problem. It has to be fought on those grounds. And that means the most important thing an individual can do is not be an individual all the time. Join with other people in movements to make change happen.”

With this perspective, McKibben says he’s much more inspired by the community organizing of say the French Resistance during World War II — a collection of different groups, voices and activists rallying behind the common cause of defeating the Nazis — than the more centralized leadership approach of say the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In doing so, he takes absolutely no personal credit for leading the global climate change movement.

“I’m very cognizant that I’m the smallest part of it and really that my skillset isn’t all that good,” he says. “I think I was useful at a particular moment but you know I’m a writer which means I’m an introvert. There’s a lot of people who are a lot better at giving speeches, rousing people up, than I’ll ever be.”

As a writer, McKibben began his career with the expectation that people would act after reading the information he presented on the greenhouse effect and the threat of global warming.

“So my theory of change then was people will read my book (The End of Nature) and they will change,” he says. “That actually turns out not to be quite how it happens. At a certain point it just became clear to me that another book was not going to move the needle.”

As time passed and it became even more scientifically apparent that climate change was a significant global threat, McKibben says it became less about presenting the facts through writing and speeches, and more about public influence and political sway.

“We weren’t engaged in an argument [anymore], we were engaged in a fight,” McKibben says. “Fights aren’t about data and reason, they are about power and money. The fossil fuel industry had a surplus of both so we were going to have to build some power of our own if we were going to have any chance in this fight.”

“Our currency isn’t money obviously,” he continues. “It’s passion and spirit and creativity and that’s what we set out to try and build. Try and get out as many bodies as we can. And to some degree that’s been successful now.”

Perhaps the most tangible success has been defeating the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported more than 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico. The Obama administration officially rejected the project in Nov. 2015, stating it didn’t serve national interests.

“It was the first time big oil had gotten beaten like that, you know?” McKibben says. “It inspired people everywhere standing up to everything.”

But for the activist, the personal sense of victory came months before the November announcement. In May 2015, at an industry event in Washington, Marty Durbin, the CEO of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, lamented to his peers about the “Keystone-ization” of other infrastructure projects, raising the question of how to stop it. And the sentiment made its way into national media.

“That’s when I really knew it had been worth the whole thing,” McKibben says.

But the fight isn’t over; the movement is continuing to gain not only public momentum but also increased scrutiny from the oil and gas industry and their political counterparts.

Since May of this year, McKibben has been under constant video surveillance by America Rising Squared, a conservative research group that admits it is out to discredit him and other environmental leaders. The video on the group’s website of McKibben’s recent Thornton appearance (above) seems to have been shot from the position of the videographer pictured at the far left in the above photo. BW has not been able to identify this videographer or confirm that they were the source of the smear video.
Since May of this year, McKibben has been under constant video surveillance by America Rising Squared, a conservative research group that admits it is out to discredit him and other environmental leaders. The video on the group’s website of McKibben’s recent Thornton appearance (above) seems to have been shot from the position of the videographer pictured at the far left in the above photo. BW has not been able to identify this videographer or confirm that they were the source of the smear video.

In early May, America Rising Squared (AR2), a privately-funded conservative research group, brazenly announced a negative ad campaign targeting McKibben and other environmentalists. Much like political opposition groups seek to discredit political opponents, AR2 has said it “will uncover the extreme rhetoric and the hypocrisies of the Environmental Left” by tracking their targets, researching them and releasing videos hoping to undermine their influence. The Hill reported AR2 has dedicated $100,000 to the campaign.

Through its Core News Vine website, AR2 has already released several short videos of McKibben at different events around the world, including a recent protest in Thornton. McKibben joined Colorado activists, citizens and politicians in Colorado on May 14 protesting a proposed oil and gas development near an elementary school as part of a global wave of Break Free from Fossil Fuel events. The Core News video is a close up of McKibben during his speech at the event talking about traveling across the country for different events, using carbon as he does so, and then shows a car, presumably with McKibben inside, as it drives away.

But McKibben remains undeterred by the efforts of the smear campaign and says he will continue to travel and speak, protesting the use of fossil fuels and calling for a switch to renewable energy at a systematic, political level.

“I don’t enjoy it, but compared with things that people around the world suffer daily from climate change, it’s manageable,” McKibben says of the video tracking. “I’ll do my best to keep rolling.”

Like the Thornton protest and building off of the Keystone XL and other similar victories, McKibben and the movement of environmental activists he inspires have increasingly relied on acts of civil disobedience to draw media attention to the issues of global warming. McKibben’s most recent arrest came in March, protesting natural gas storage in empty salt caverns underneath Seneca Lake in New York. And while these tactics have proven somewhat successful in the past, he says they aren’t, nor should they be, the only option.

“Civil disobedience is one tool in the activists’ tool kit, but you don’t want to overuse any tool because it gets dull,” he says. “There are places where [arrest] is appropriate but there are a thousand other ways to get the point across.”

From petition signing to lobbying elected leaders to fundraising for renewable energy to divesting and boycotting, there are many other methods of resistance, McKibben says. And regardless of tactics, he remains confident the movement against fossil fuels will only continue to grow.

“I think it will continue to escalate because Mother Nature is an excellent recruiting sergeant,” McKibben says. “Each passing month brings new evidence of our folly and with it more people willing to get engaged.”

He acknowledges Boulder’s commitment and contribution to the renewable energy movement and was scheduled to speak at Naropa University on June 18. However, his acceptance to the DNC platform committee caused him to cancel that engagement. Regardless, he says, he appreciates speaking in places that are already on board with the climate movement, for the sense of camaraderie and shared vision it provides.

“There are moments when you’ve got to preach to the choir,” McKibben says, “because it’s really important to have the choir singing in tune and all singing the same song as loudly as possible.”

  • ernie_oertle

    BONEHEAD!!! Thick-as-a-brick!! “…a global grassroots organization dedicated to preventing climate change ..” — “… to preventing climate-change/global-warmin ..” !!!!!!!!!!??? Preventing????
    Why go on reading after encountering some leftwinger-luncy like that?!! The left!, great self-pat-on-back agents of Change are revealed as so limited in their imagination that they seek to hoodwink something about stifling Weather to a Status-Quo! I mean, the notion of `curbing’ climate-change is just silly. Not only does it reflect badly on some watermelon **environmentalist** camp, it reflects badly on the pedant woolpuller who strung together 2000+ words to make this article. Does BW pay by the word?
    And Bernie? You’re trying to snow us w/ Bernie also?!! BS is an old-style GusHall blustering culprit. One deviation short of a plain-out political gangster. I mean, it’s beyond pathetic given the criminal & economic history of socialism in this world, you dimbulbs would still be saying `neo-bolshevism yeah! dat’s dah ticket!! Yeah, Rule of people by just some men instead of by disembodied Law, yeah! dat’s dah ticket!!’

    • Colorado Shu

      ease off the Redbull and jellybean diet my friend so you might live long enough to see palm trees take root in Portland, Maine with the rest of us.