Bill McKibben is no theologian, but he firmly believes that the oil industry has more money than God.
And the industry’s gain became humanity’s loss. Between the lies and deception that funded the oil industry’s cause, more than 30 years of precious time was stolen — time that could have been spent bringing the fight against climate and resource degradation to a successful end. If that end is a possibility at all.
McKibben, environmental activist, author and founder of 350.org, an international organization that encourages the use of renewable energy and divestment from the fossil fuel industry through political action and grassroots organizing, spoke at 10:45 a.m. Thursday, August 15 in the Amphitheater, continuing Week Eight, “Shifting Global Power.”
In 1989, Mckibben released The End of Nature, which is now considered the first book on global warming written for a general audience.
His book issued warnings of what was to come because, at the time, it was clear what the environment was facing and still faces: When coal, oil and gas burns, carbon dioxide is released, and the molecular structure of carbon dioxide traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out into space.
But what he didn’t know 30 years ago, was how fast and how hard that carbon dioxide would impact the Earth, mostly because it was an “experiment the world had never carried out before.”
“Scientists, it turns out, are conservative in their projections, and the planet turned out to be extraordinarily out of balance,” McKibben said.
Last summer, McKibben took a trip to Greenland, home to one of the world’s greatest ice shelves. There is so much ice in Greenland that if it all melted, it would raise the average level of the ocean by 23 feet. The trip’s intent was to take two women, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, from Marshall Islands in Micronesia, and Greenland native Aka Niviâna, to the top of an ice sheet and have them perform a poem that showcased the linkages between their homelands in the face of climate change.
“It was extraordinary to watch because it reminds us, among other things, that climate change is the greatest injustice that we have yet to figure out how to work on this planet,” McKibben said. “The iron rule of global warming is the less you did to cause it, the quicker and harder you are going to feel it.”
While riding above Greenland in a helicopter, McKibben witnessed a glacier collapse into the ocean below, a powerful example of what he said is happening everywhere, all the time.
“It was both incredibly beautiful and incredibly sinister,” he said. “Something like that is happening every second, of every minute of every hour of every day on this planet. Every time it does, the ocean rises a fraction of a millimeter. And over time, this kind of global change is reshaping the planet on which we were born.”
Since there is no plan that could refreeze what has already melted, McKibben said the world’s current state is one of “enormous peril, with precious, little time to solve it.” And that’s the worst news he has to offer.
The good news is that over the last 15 years, scientists and engineers have done their jobs “just about as well as politicians have done theirs badly.” The cost of solar panels and wind turbines has fallen 90% over those 15 years, making it the least expensive way to generate power around the world.
“If we really wanted to make that all-out push, there is no practical or technological reason that we couldn’t, in relatively short order, replace the coal, gas and oil that currently powers our world, with the sun and the wind that wash across this planet every day,” McKibben said.
And over those same 15 years, McKibben’s idea of creating change has evolved. He used to believe people would read his book and then they would change. Then he believed if enough books were released and enough speeches were delivered, leaders would take necessary action. But after a certain point, it became clear to him that “we had long since won the argument,” because by 1995, the world’s scientists were in agreement about what was going on.
“We won the argument, but we were losing the fight because the fight was not about data and reason,” McKibben said. “The fight was what fights are always about: money and power.”
The fossil fuel industry, the world’s richest industry, had enough money and power to continue its business model for a few more decades, even if it would cost the planet itself. Over the past five years, McKibben said investigative journalism from the Los Angeles Times and the Columbia Journalism School have painted a clear picture of what the fossil fuel industry knew and what they did — or didn’t — do about it.
As it turns out, by the early 1980s, the fossil fuel industry knew “pretty much everything” there was to know about climate change, and at the time, Exxon was the biggest and most profitable company in the world.
“There was year after year when Exxon made more money than any company in the history of money,” McKibben said. “They had a great staff of scientists and their product was carbon, so of course they were going to find out what was going on.”
By 1983, Exxon’s senior scientists had informed the senior executives how much and how fast the planet was going to warm. To compensate for rising sea levels, the executives started to build drilling rigs higher above sea level. What they did not do: tell “any of the rest of us.”
“Instead, they embarked on a highly expensive, industry-wide campaign to build the architecture of deceit, denial and disinformation, that has kept us locked for 30 years in a completely sterile debate about whether or not global warming was real — a debate that both sides knew the answer to at the beginning, it’s just one of them was willing to lie,” McKibben said.
According to McKibben, that lie was the “most consequential in human history.”
“A small price on carbon 30 years ago, would have begun to steer the ocean liner that is the global economy a few degrees in a different direction, and 30 years later, we would’ve sailed into a different ocean,” he said.
McKibben said one can chart the power of that lie by looking at the presidents on either end of it. Thirty years ago, Republican President George H.W. Bush believed climate change was a real problem and said he would fight the “greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” Three decades later, current Republican President Donald Trump said “climate change is a hoax manufactured by the Chinese.”
Once McKibben realized climate change was a fight and not an argument, he began to think about how fights are won. Realistically, the fight to mitigate climate change couldn’t be won by outspending Exxon, Shell or BP. However, history does suggest that, from time to time, people are able to come together in movements that — when large enough — can counterbalance power.
One of those movements was McKibben’s International Day of Climate Action on Oct. 24, 2009. With 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, CNN called it the “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”
Pictures flooded the internet of communities participating in Wales, Cape Town, Bangladesh, London, Beijing, Sana’a and many others. McKibben, who had always been told “environmentalism was for rich, white people,” was struck by the photos.
“Most of the people we were working with around the world were poor, black, brown, Asian and young, because that’s what most of the world is composed of,” McKibben said.
McKibben showed a photo of a group of children from Haiti, standing in water after a powerful hurricane. In the photo, a little girl holds a sign that reads “Your actions affect me.” McKibben realized that statement is true for her, but the opposite is not true for many global citizens and leaders who might see the photo on the internet.
“There is really very little anyone in Haiti can do to solve this problem,” he said. “They can’t burn less fossil fuel because they are hardly burning any now. They can’t come to the White House and protest because we don’t let Haitians come into the country, let alone for something like that.”
In other movements and protests, internal change has been impactful. Earlier this year, the TransCanada Corporation changed its name to TC Energy and announced they would, yet again, delay the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline because “too many people are in the way.” Examples like that have a ripple effect, McKibben said.
“You also, by demonstrating that it is possible to stand up to the oil industry, set in motion a series of events which means that now, every pipeline, every coal mine, gets fought and fought hard around the world,” he said. “That is extraordinarily good news because we win an awful lot of those fights.”
Whether it be a campaign, protests, movement or even signs, every effort in the fight for balance matters, McKibben said. And stories of the “big and the powerful” against the “mighty and the few” have been told again and again, which always begin the same way: with people acting outside of their comfort zones.
“The planet is way, way outside of its comfort zone, so you need to be, too,” McKibben said. “That means different things to different people.”
For McKibben, going outside of his comfort zone took him to a place he never thought he would go: jail. Just last week, he was arrested after an “immigration and climate” protest, as climate is driving people to leave their homes.
“What choice do they have other than to move?” McKibben said. “The United Nations estimates between 200 million and 1 billion climate refugees this century — there’s got to be some answer for that beyond walls and cages.”
Although he is not encouraging anyone to get arrested, he doesn’t consider it to be the worst possible outcome.
“Getting arrested?” McKibben asked. “It’s not fun, but it’s not the end of the world — the end of the world is the end of the world.”
McKibben’s hero, Martin Luther King Jr., often quoted Theodore Parker who said, “We must believe that the arc of the universe is long, but that it bends toward justice.”
The arc of the physical universe, on the other hand, is short and it bends toward heat.
But young people should not have to be the “cannon fire” in efforts to reverse the damage; people of all ages need to take charge, McKibben said. But regardless of age, what is being done now is not enough, and that isn’t even the hardest truth for him to reveal. Even if people do everything right from here on out, there is no way to know if the fight will ever be won. There are no guarantees. No concrete answers. Only faith and the will to try.
“If we do not solve this problem soon, we will not solve it,” McKibben said. “We are called upon to act with all that we have. It is the fight of our time — and we need you.”