Bill McKibben – Do the Math

December 10, 2012

When we last had Bill McKibben on this show in 2010, I was mainly treating him as another bestselling science author—one who happens to focus on climate change.


Something kinda big happened in the intervening years, and McKibben has become, simply put, the country’s leading environmental spokesman and advocate through his organization

From protests against the Keystone XL pipeline to, most recently, his “Do the Math” tour, rallying of college students to call for their universities to divest from fossil fuel companies… McKibben now speaks for a stunning mass movement of concerned people.

Many of them are young. And many of them are terrified at what is happening to the planet that, in his last book, McKibben renamed “Eaarth,” because, he said, the old name just didn’t really capture it any longer.

So, we are simply thrilled to welcome him back on the show.

Special thanks to Matt Licata for his help on this episode.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, December 10th, 2012. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. 

I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. 

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We have a great show for you today with a great guest, the environmental leader and bestselling author Bill McKibben. So when we last had Bill McKibben on this program in 2010, I was mainly treating him as, you know, another best selling science author, one who happens to focus a lot on climate change. Well, something kind of big happened in the intervening years. And Bill McKibben became, simply put, the country’s bar none leading environmental spokesman advocate, an activist from protests against the Keystone XL pipeline to most recently, his do the math tour on climate change and his rallying of college students to call for their universities to divest from investments in fossil fuels. McKibben now speaks for a stunning mass movement of concerned people, many of them young. Many of them terrified at what is happening to the planet. The planet that in his last book, McKibben decided, needed a different name because the old name just didn’t describe it any longer. 

So we are thrilled to have him back on the show. 

Bill McKibben, welcome back to a point of inquiry. Chris, as always, what a pleasure to be with you. It’s a pleasure to have you for for the second time on the show. And when we last visited with you, you were talking about your last book, which is which is awesome. I can never pronounce it right, though. It’s it’s Earth, right? 

Well, you got it. You got it. Channel your inner Schwarzenegger a little more. It’s you know, it’s the earth a r t h. And it’s you know, the conceit is in the title. 

It’s just that we’ve already changed the planet. The trouble is, you know, I wrote it in 2010, in the two years before we’ve added at least another a maybe two. 

You know, this summer was almost beyond belief. Watching the Arctic melt by the time it was over, Jim Hansen said it best just said, look, this just what a planetary emergency it looks like. 

I know it’s incredible just how much weather has changed the complexion of the climate issue just just since that time and since that time, something else has happened. I mean, you had already created 350, dawg. I think it was in 2008, 2009. But but since then, I mean, it’s really come on strong. I feel like I’m talking to not not just an author, but the leader of a mass movement. I mean, what happened? When did you know that that was happening? 

Well, you know, 350 has been a kind of interesting operation. We started it in, as you said, in 2008, myself and seven undergraduates with no money or anything. And our first goal was massive worldwide education. It was an absurd, kind of ludicrous goal. But somehow we managed to kind of do it. We’ve held about 20000 rallies now in every country on Earth except North Korea. And we’ve brought the news of climate change to a lot of places where people know about it, including a lot of parts of the US. But given the pace of the physical deterioration of the planet, it’s been sort of clear that we needed to sharpen that beyond that kind of education into real action. And we probably started that, in a sense, 18 months ago with this fight against the Keystone pipeline that we sort of spearheaded. It became the largest disobedience action in 30 years in this country. And one of those rare it’s temporary, but do powerful winds over the fossil fuel industry. We don’t know whether the president will keep his moratorium in effect, but for now, though, they’re building, unfortunately, a kind of southern extension of this thing. They have not been able to put their border crossing across to the tar sands of Canada. And that means there’s 900000 barrels a day of tar sands oil, the dirtiest stuff on the planet that isn’t flowing. 

That was good. It taught us a lot about how to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. But it also taught us that we probably weren’t going to win one pipeline, one coal mine, one oil well at a time. It’s an incredible amount of work and there’s just too many of them. Hence the effort now, the kind of third stage of our work here and around the world to take on the fossil fuel industry as a whole more directly. I wrote a long piece this summer for Rolling Stone kind of laying out the math of of why it is that these guys have become public enemy number one. And we can talk about that. The good news is in the last the last six or eight weeks, we’ve managed to translate that analysis into a real movement. We don’t just come back from this month long, every single night road show that we did across the country playing two big sold out houses to 3000 people in every corner of the country. And better yet, it’s launched a real move. As of today, we’re closing in on 160 campuses with active divestment movements from fossil fuel. It’s the biggest student movement about anything. A couple of decades. And it’s just beginning to lift off and mushrooming in a powerful way. 

Well, all of this is is stunning. And actually, you know, you’ve charted the course of all the things I want to ask you about. So I have to, like, pick one. But I just want to ask you first before we talk about the Keystone Excel. Talk about this divestment campaign that has caught on like wildfire. 

How do you negotiate the merger of writer and activist? I mean, it’s sort of paradoxical. So many writers are it’s sort of like these anti-social characters out of the movie Despicable Me or something like that, you know, but but movements need charisma. They need empathy. 

I mean, have you see this is this is the problem. Yeah. We really could use a charismatic leader. And that’s not me. 

You know, it is you. It clearly is you. Because, I mean, that’s app I saw. 

I’m you know, I do what I can. And we had this great what was great about this roadshow we did around the country was it was bringing in all instead of just being somebody sort of giving a lecture, you know, we had either on tapering. 

Person. All kinds of the people that we love to work with all over the world. We had, you know, Naomi Klein was there a lot. And Van Jones on tape every night. And not great scientists. You know, Jason Box at Ohio State, the young scientists, too, been telling us for the last couple of years what’s going on in group one. We had Desmond Tutu, you know, who’s worked with 350 from the beginning as one of my great heroes, talking about the parallels between divestment from South Africa and from fossil fuel. Kumi Naidu, who runs Greenpeace International. Reflecting on his days as a South African student activist, when, as Duke, was there a bunch of knights? Reverend Lennox Yearwood, who runs the hip hop caucus. We just had kind of traveling on Josh Fox, who made Gasland Mardie Carbonates from the Indigenous Environmental Network on and on and on and on. Every night, different folks showing up. That’s what movements look like. You know, they’re their dynamic collection. So of some of the people who like each other, who work well together, who come from different perspectives, but understand how to cooperate. And it’s precisely what we’ve needed for a long time. So I’m I’m not charismatic leader, but it is fun to get to play impresario a little bit and bring together sort of people who really are charismatic and magnificent. 

Well, you might be selling yourself a little show in the. But let me talk about 350, dawg. We’re gonna pass 400, dawg. 

We’re gonna pass it in, like, two years. What does that mean? 

Well, it means we’re in big drop. You know, 350 is the most important number in the world. But no one even knew about it until 2008. And Jim Hansen kind of admired request. 

He and his team calculated what the safe level of carbon in the atmosphere would be, that any value above 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed, into which life on earth is adapted. Which you can tell by looking around. I mean, you know, we’ve taken some of the largest physical features on Earth, say the Arctic, and broken them, you know, and done it in short order. We’re already way, way too high. 

So stopping global warming, sadly, is no longer one of the options that’s on the table. The only question is now, can we keep it from just overwhelmingness? Can we keep it from getting. Absolutely impossible to deal with. 

What about President Obama? I mean, can’t win in terms of can we stop it? It does seem like you’re waiting with bated breath for him to take the lead on climate change. But sometimes he sounds like he really wants to take on that other moments. He’s sort of really blah. I mean, it’s like he’s it’s hard to decode. What do you make of that, sir? 

Very. I can’t. I can never figure it out. 

I mean, I think that, like most politicians, it’s foolish to wait around for them to do to lead. 

I mean, we talk about political leaders, but that’s kind of a misnomer, I’m afraid, at this point. 

For the most part, you have to hope that if you can get something going, they’ll follow along. 

You know, we’re going to get the real test of whether President Obama has any interest in helping much with this sometime in the course of the new year when he makes the call on the Keystone thing. In this case, he doesn’t have to get John Boehner’s permission and he doesn’t have to find any money any time. It’s just a pure straight up and I call it you’re going to sign the piece of paper or not. He set it aside a year ago for more study and we needed to study more in the interim. You know, I would contend that Mother Nature filed her public testimony. We had the warmest year in American history. We had the hottest month ever recorded in American history in July 2012, any month in a year. 

We had that weird sort of statistically impossible summer in March. You know, when the temperature was 94 degrees in South Dakota, two days before the end of winter, we had record wildfires in Colorado and New Mexico. 

They gave in to that just epic drought that still is the sieging the the heartland of the country and turning the Mississippi into a big ditch. We had that rapid, rapid, rapid melt of the Arctic and we had a pretty bizarre storm that came up the East Coast late in the hurricane season, the lowest Berrima pressure ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras, the largest storm we’ve ever measured, a thousand and forty miles across. That’s just on our continent. You know, you look around the rest of the world, the same sort of thing going on. So it’ll be interesting to see what kind of study the president makes of all that. You know, I think we’re going to find out a lot. 

It’s so strange because, you know, Sandy helped pave his way to reelection. I’m I really think it made a difference. And yet when he does his press conference or when Jay Carney does a press conference, they refuse to link it to climate change. Even the science is actually there. I mean, I’ve written. If nothing else, Sandy, you know, his the sea level rise was higher. So the storm surge was higher because of climate change is just it’s very, very simple, that argument, even if all the others are complex and yet the president is not willing to make the link. 

It’s amazing to me what the fossil fuel industry is the most power industry in the world has ever seen. It got more money. I mean, you know, I’m no theologian. I’m just a Sunday school teacher. But they’d go I mean, even God, you know, and and that means here everybody’s always afraid of all their money. It didn’t help quite as much as you might have thought. In this past election, they ran five million dollars worth of ads against Bill Nelson in Florida about the Keystone pipeline, you know, explicitly about it, blasting him for having blocked it and it didn’t move the needle. I think we’re reaching the point when even people who aren’t particularly courageous policy may find a tiny bit more room to work. But we’ve really got to do the work weakening the fossil fuel industry. That’s why this campaign is important, because we’re going to be able to excite overnight because, you know, when colleges pull out their money, it’s because we’re going to try and turn them into tobacco, you know? They’ll still have some money, but they will kind of pollute, won’t let them stay, let them block any change to the status quo for 20 years. 

I would remind our listeners of Bill McKibben last book, Earth. I don’t know if I France. It is available through our website point of inquiry, dawg. Okay, so let’s talk about making fossil fuel companies like tobacco. And let me be a little. I don’t know. Devil’s advocate. I mean, are they bad faith actors to the same degree? I mean, you know, the tobacco. Everybody knows that image of all the tobacco chiefs before Congress holding up their hands and swearing. I mean, you know, there is some misinformation that’s come from fossil fuel companies. But, I mean, a lot of them are not even culpable in that, you know. And unlike tobacco, if I could just just add, you know, tobacco. 

Doesn’t provide any necessary service to society, really. 

You know, I wish I could look at it the other way, too. I mean, to be damaged by tobacco, you have to partake of it. Yeah. 

Be damaged by climate change. You just have to, you know, call this planet home. Yeah, I think they’re pretty damn cold. I mean, they bankrolled for years all kinds of misinformation and lies and whatever BS some though not. All right. Yeah. I mean. Well, yeah. Yeah, but they’ve bankrolled their bankroll. Every bad politician you can think of. I mean, they yeah. They’re the big money behind the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute. And these guys have done everything they can think to keep us from making change. And it’s not as if they didn’t know. I mean, look, they sat and watched the Arctic melt. Okay. What was their response? Was their response to say, huh? We’ve got a problem here. Let’s start thinking about what we’re gonna do about it. No. Their response was to say, wow, let’s go drill in the Arctic for some more of this stuff. So I think you can talk. I want to let you know what exactly their culpability is there in the way of a pollution. And they could be part of that solution if they wanted to. I mean, I know the day that they decide they want to be energy companies, not fossil fuel companies, they’ll play a role. But they’re not going to make that decision as long as they’re free to make as much money as they’re making now, as long as they’re free to throw out their waste for free. Then they’re going to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

Well, let’s say you succeed. And I mean, you know, I agree that just is divesting. 

Probably won’t take away, you know, the wealth of of the major four, which is, of course, is just gigantic, many trillion dollar industry. But supposing and, you know, you write this in in Rolling Stone, I mean, a lot of the value of many energy companies is based upon the proven reserves of fossil fuels that they that they have somewhere in the world that they haven’t burned yet. They have a it dug them up, but they’re there. 

And that’s part of the value on the books. And you point out rightly that that if that value was wiped away, they would be worth less. And that’s a big enough impact that you would. Triggering some kind of economic collapse, if that happened, right? 

I mean, is that now that I’ve read it, we’d be triggering an economic transition. And the good news is that we begin to see how that can happen. I mean, you know, twelve years ago, 10 years ago, when we talked about renewable energy, we did it. Yes. With their fingers crossed a little bit. It wasn’t clear how we’re ready for primetime all this was. But that’s no longer the case. I mean, I think in certain ways, the most interesting thing that’s happened this year, the the good counterpart to a very grim news from places like Iraq is the remarkable news coming out of Germany. 

And there’s one country on Earth that is taking this one non Scandinavian country that’s taken all this seriously to Germany and they’re making progress. It’s not perfect. It’s not without troubles. Of course, they’re going to be difficulties in this kind of transition. But they’re making progress faster than they or anybody else suspected. The German energy minister in the conservative government of the Merkel show, we’re going to be at 50 percent renewables in the twenty twenties and we may be at sixty five percent. It’s coming faster than we could ever have imagined. We’re no longer facing insuperable technological obstacle. There’s lots of research and development needs to be done and we should be putting money there. But what we really should be doing is laying the stuff we know about as fast as we can on a kind of wartime footing. And if we add the muscle of the fossil fuel industry behind that task, if that what they were pressuring them one thing, whatever to get done, then we’d be getting somewhere. Exons hundred million dollars every day looking for more hydrocarbons, even though everybody. 

This is not just me and Rolling Stone. Since then, the World Bank and the IEA have both come out the same analysis. We need to keep two thirds to 80 per cent of the reserves underground. To have any hope to stand below two degrees. You know, it’s that easy. If I may. So that’s the date. That’s the deadline. We’ve got to break in since we’re less worried at this point. I think about the puppets in Washington, then about the people pulling their shirt. 

Well, yeah. And that World Bank report really was stunning, basically. Just say, I mean, I read I didn’t read all of it, but I read enough to saying, you know, we’re going to have a four degrees Celsius warmer world by twenty one hundred if nothing is done. And they basically just say that will be catastrophic for civilization as we know it. 

I mean, no pulling punches for civilization and even and even for our economy. Yes. You know, that’s the part that No one. Everybody always talks endlessly, as you know, what the extreme and how expensive it will be to make this transition and whatever economists or way economists are terrible at subtracting. In my experience, you know, they’re very bad at just like pointing out that you really can’t have an economy on a on of any kind on a wrecked planet at the rate we’re going, you know. I mean, look, one degree, because this year the drought and in some part of Sandy, you know, that’s some huge chunk out of our GDP. Right. We start having this kind of stuff all the time. That’s what our economy will be, just this kind of emergency response department. And if you think this year was tough on us. 

Think about the economic impact on poor people around the world. When the price of corn and soybeans and grain in general goes up 40 percent in the course of six weeks because we have a failed harvest. 

Think about what that does to country after country, place after place. 

I want to remind our listeners one more time that Bill McKibben has latest book, Earth is Available through a Web site point of inquiry, dawg. 

Just one more one more thing that’s a little bit contrary, Bill. 

You know, given the horrible state we’re in and the gigantic threat to the planet, which I fully as someone’s reporting on the science for 10 years, I’m completely with you on that. 

But you could take that same evidence and say, you know what? It is such such a catastrophe that we are chording here that, yeah, I’d be nice to sort of stop the fossil fuel industry from burning all the reserves. But, hey, maybe we really should be thinking about geoengineering the planet and, you know, basically, you know, putting up a solar reflector to get some sunlight out of the earth planetary system. I mean, you could see that argument, too. 

There are people who are thinking about that and beginning to look at it. And I’m afraid we probably should be investing at least a little money in figuring out what the possibilities are. But it’s definitely, as you know, a kind of break the glass solution. There’s no reason to think it’s going to work very well. Most. You know, the the scientists tell us they don’t even have the computing power to analyze sort of how these, you know, sulfates in the atmosphere or things play out. If you do them, you’ve got to keep doing them for 10000 years without stopping, because otherwise you trigger runaway climate change if you stop. 

And, you know, most powerfully, none of them do anything at all to help with the fact that we’re destroying the planet’s oceans, acidifying them very rapidly. Even if there were no other result of burning fossil fuel, that would be more than reason enough to stop it fast. The oceans, after all, are kind of important part of our planet. 

Mm hmm. No, you actually just reminded me of something that I’ve forgotten, which is that, yes, geoengineering does not stop ocean acidification. But I just think, you know, I think that people still are not processing the the magnitude of the kind of game you’re playing. If you think about sea level rise and you think about humanity, it built near water. It built all of its infrastructure near water because a yeah, it was beautiful. B, it was extremely convenient for all kinds of things that you wanted to do, like getting things around. And in climate change is coming up and saying, whoops, you built in the wrong place. 

Yeah. And and the real trouble is that as long as we keep going like we’re gone, it’s not like you can say you can muster all the money and energy and everything to move New York a little bit, you know, and get it out of harm’s way for 50 or 100 years while the ocean just gonna keep rising and rising. Unless we get this under control very fast. That’s why, you know. Yes. We have to adapt to that which we can’t prevent. 

And there’s a lot of that underway. You know, even with current scenarios, we’re clearly going to have to build some kind of sea wall or barrier or something to to protect New York. But much more importantly, we have to prevent that to which we cannot adapt. And that’s the most important work of the next few years, because that’s the window of opportunity. We have to head off the most sort of frightening science fiction scenarios. 

Well, so what are you expecting to happen on Keystone? I mean, we’re going to get some kind of decision. Do you have any any sense on what is your response going to be if it goes through? I mean, you seem to fear that that’s going to happen. 

I mean, I’m not a good. I don’t know about politics in Washington would fill a book. So my sense is, you know, going to do is fight as hard as we can. We’ve already held one big demonstration in Washington. We held it about 10 days after the election. We pushed the button to invite people to come, you know, and the e-mail blast, 10 minutes after NBC declared Obama the the winner. You know, as Naomi Klein said one night on this roadshow, we’re glad he won, but no honeymoons and no hero worship this time. And in fact, people should circle president this day on their calendar because we’re coming back to Washington in big numbers on that weekend to remind the president that no one’s forgotten about Keystone. 

And this time it’ll be a broad coalition of environmental groups. 

And it’ll be a powerful reminder. I don’t know how it comes out. I mean, look, you know, TransCanada, the company that wants to build this thing, has clearly wired the process. They’re going to get the State Department to approve it. They’ve you know, they they hired Hillary Clinton’s deputy campaign manager as their chief lobbyist. Not, I’m guessing, because of his extreme knowledge of pipelines. You know, that’s the kind of way they work. They’ve poured insane amount, some money, and it’ll come down to Barack Obama’s call. And my guess is, as is often the case, it’ll come down to whether we’ve done a good enough job of organizing, whether we convince him that in a sense, as is, I think it’s his legacy depends on beginning to leave some carbon in the ground. My guess is 50 years from now, when people look back at the Obama years, no one’s going to care at all about whether or not he faced the Republicans over some fiscal cliff for whatever the heck it is that they’re worried about in Washington this week. My guess is the only thing they’ll care about is whether we took action or not to deal with the emerging, pressing impossible problem of climate change. We have zillions of people in D.C., you know, frantic about what happens to the Social Security trust fund in 2040. We need more of them. Frantic about what happens to the planet’s climate. One before that. 

Well, let’s say that we. What would a reasonably realistically successful next four years on this issue look like to you? I mean, what would what would make you think? All right. I mean, this I didn’t get everything, but we got a lot. What would that be? 

I think what it would look like. I think how it would start would be blocking Keast. And with that, this sort of semi a unified environmental movement stretching from the grassroots to the big green organizations up to the White House, that would then work hard to get some things done in Congress. We need some kind of Syria is price on carbon. Everybody’s known that for a long time. It’s a hard reach, but not an impossible one, since Mother Nature keeps providing us with more and more reasons why. And since we have good mechanisms like fee and dividend that should be palatable to get it done. So that would be good. But but even that by itself is is doesn’t really help that much. What then has to happen is an all out. And I mean all out diplomatic offensive to make sure that this translates into action all around the world. We spend more money on our military than the rest of the world spends on theirs combined. But, you know, taking some of that focus and money and transferring it instead to the incredibly important national security task of, say, turning India into a solar powered country. Changing the trajectory of fossil fuel development across the developing world. That’s the huge challenge. We can’t do it until we’ve at least begun to get our own house in order. But once we do, that’s the that’s the world historic task. 

Well, hopefully, although, you know, people are not so psyched about the U.N., but they’re talking about 2015. I just I don’t know if it can all be done by then, but I mean, that would be that would be something. 

Well, we got to shame the U.N. in a little way and we to do Congress 350. Tahawwur is organizing a huge gathering in Istanbul in June. It’s five or six young people from every country on Earth. And we’re gonna just lay out what we need the U.N. to do, not to just keep jabbering away, but to actually get to work. And since they’re not going to give them the agenda to go on and then we’re going to push hard in Washington, in every other capital in the world. No guarantee we’re gonna win. None at all. But it’s very clear now that we’re going to fight. The spread of this divestment movement gives me real hope just to demonstrate how many people of all ages there are willing and ready to go to work. 

Well, Bill, I just got to say, in conclusion, I am I am awed by everything. And, you know, really stunned by everything you’ve achieved in just a short period of time. And I think I just want to applaud it. So thank you for everything that you do. 

Thank you for all your good writing minutes. An incredibly important part of this. And we enjoy just being written it and being kept up to date on this story all the time. What you’re doing is really key. Thank you. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show, you can visit us at point of inquiry dot org. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. You can follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry are not necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Atomize Isaach in AMRs, New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard on your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney