Interview published in Smith Journal, Volume 7
Writer and activist Bill McKibben wrote the first book on climate change. Now he’s piloting the fastest growing social movement in the world: the campaign to sell out of fossil fuels. This is how he explains it:
IN the mid-1980s I was reading the early science about global warming and thinking about it. Then came the ungodly hot summer of 1988, among the worst in North American history to that date. Crops withered, barge traffic on the Mississippi ground to a halt. It wasn’t as bad as 2012, but at the time it seemed horrific. Suddenly the science felt very real.
The next year I published my first book, The End of Nature. In part, it was the first book-length piece of reporting about climate change, but it was also part philosophical essay about its meaning. I was interested in the way that suddenly no place on Earth was unaffected by human presence – that’s what the title meant. My dominant emotion was sadness, not fear. Over time I’ve come to have more practical reasons for working to slow climate change, but that sadness lingers.
For me, a new line of thinking opened up last year once I saw the numbers put out by an organisation called Carbon Tracker. I’ve followed this all closely, but I’d never really understood in my gut that the end of the story was written. That unless we somehow change it, there is no room for speculation or wishful thinking. The fossil fuel industry has five times as much carbon in their reserves as the most conservative government on Earth says would be safe to burn.
Once you understand that, you understand that this has become a rogue industry. This formerly socially useful thing is now the greatest threat the planet has ever faced.
The other side is that – at least in American politics – the same companies whose business plan guarantees that the planet will tank are also the ones who are most efficient at corrupting our political system. They give the most money in campaign donations and spend the most money lobbying and advertising. They are the reason we never get anything changed.
So it seemed to me it was high time we went on offense against this industry, instead of forever playing defence.
In November we launched the Go Fossil Free campaign with a tour of the US, calling for universities to sell their shares in fossil fuels. We started the night after the presidential election. We sold out big concert halls every night, all across the country. That was exciting, but the most exciting thing was helping midwife an explosive movement. When we started there were a handful of campuses thinking about it, and now, there are more than 300.
So far six colleges have divested, but it’s early days. It’s actually happening faster than we thought. The City of Seattle divested its funds too. A number of religious denominations are thinking about it.
Divestment in this country has a real history – it’s a tool we use every once in a while. Most of the time when you have a problem with a business, it makes more sense to pass a shareholder resolution, hold a boycott, or run a petition, because it’s something the company can easily fix. If we’re mad at Apple for paying low wages to Chinese workers it’s not because we hate iPhones. But in this case, it’s not like there’s a flaw in the business plan; the flaw is the business plan.
But we’re not trying to bankrupt Exxon – a group of colleges selling their stock is not going to do that. We’re trying to take away their social licence, trying to reduce their power to dominate events, trying to make people understand that these guys are now outlaws against the laws of physics.
These are hard fights. It took Harvard seven or eight years before they partially divested during the campaign against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. It won’t happen easily. All these students know that. But they also know this is their future.
One of the reasons that universities are such a powerful place is that it makes little sense to pay for people’s education with investments in companies that guarantee they won’t have a planet to carry out that education on.
The same goes for retirement funds. Unless your goal for retirement is to work in endless emergency response to fires and floods, you can make wiser choices about where to put your money.
The movement is getting bigger and it’s spreading around the world. There’s something on our side: public perception that climate change is real has shot through the roof.
In the US, more than three-quarters of us are worried about global warming. It’s hard to get three-quarters of Americans to agree on anything – half of America thinks Elvis is still alive. It demonstrates that there’s a limit to how much money the fossil fuel industry can spend and how much damage Rupert Murdoch can do. At a certain point, who are you going to believe: Fox News or your own lying eyes?
If anybody has a good sense of how important this is, it’s Australians right now. In January, you guys broke every temperature record, day after day.
I’m visiting in June, listening to people talk about their experiences with the changing climate and showing the basic math that makes our predicament so difficult. If there’s one lesson I’ll try to draw, it’s this: when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Literally. It’s time to stop digging up new coal deposits.