One of the most influential environmentalists of the twenty-first century, Bill McKibben is a best-selling author and the founder of climate group 350.org. His advocacy and journalism have helped shape the global climate movement, including fossil fuel divestment, opposition to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and the People’s Climate March. In addition to authoring more than a dozen books, McKibben writes frequently about climate change for publications including the New York Times, New Yorker, and Rolling Stone. Foreign Policy designated him as one of its original 100 most important global thinkers and the Boston Globe called him “probably the nation’s leading environmentalist.” McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College.
You kicked off the fossil fuel divestment movement in 2012 with an essay in Rolling Stone calling on investors to sell shares in companies with hydrocarbon reserves. You’ve had some big wins since then. This September, Harvard announced that it’s divesting its $40 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies. Yale has taken a different approach, releasing a set of five “ethical investment principles,” including that fossil fuel producers must make some effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support government climate regulation. What do you make of Yale’s approach?
Yale’s just playing games to avoid divesting.
It’s really clear at this point that anybody with a conscience and a calculator is divesting from fossil fuels because of the powerful message that it sends. That means Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, the UC system. The big, huge state pension funds, New York State, New York City, Maine, Quebec. It’s by far the biggest corporate campaign of its kind in history.
For a while Yale could hide behind Harvard and pretend that it had some cover. That cover’s gone now. It really, really is time for Yale to do the right thing.
We watched this game play out 30 years ago when the subject was divestment from apartheid. Now, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who ran the apartheid campaign, has said, climate change is the human rights issue of our time.
It’s painful for those of us who really love Yale to see it refusing to take a stand here.
Beyond Yale, this fall marks COP26, the 26th United Nations climate change conference. It has been decades since the first attempts at multilateral solutions to climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Do you still have faith in the capacity of national governments to tackle the climate crisis? Or do you see other actors, such as the private sector or subnational governments, as the most promising hubs of climate action?
It’s such a huge problem that we need action on every front, unfortunately. National governments have proved incredibly vulnerable to the lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry. It’s been excruciatingly slow to see them move into action.
We’re finally beginning to see action. In part, that’s because movements of people around the world have gotten big enough to counterbalance some of the power of the fossil fuel industry. And partly it’s because engineers have done such a good job of lowering the cost of renewable energy that it’s less daunting now than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
So, the question is not whether we’re going to see movement. We are. The world is inevitably moving towards renewable energy. The question is whether we’re going to see it happen quickly enough to even begin to catch up with the physics of climate change.
You know, 50 years from now we’re going to run the world on renewable energy. But if it takes 50 years to get there, it’s going to be a broken world that we run on solar and wind.
Our imperative is to make it happen really fast. The IPCC has told us we need to cut emissions by half by 2030. That’s why it’s so painful to see institutions like Yale just dragging their feet.
On the subject of government-led climate action –– what do you most want to see from the Biden administration right now?
Getting this Build Back Better bill through with its climate provisions intact would be the first serious action that the federal government has taken on climate change in all the years that we’ve faced this crisis.
There are plenty of other things, too –– blocking new fossil fuel development, ending subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. But this month, the focus is powerfully on this attempt to get a Build Back Better bill through.
It’s worth noting –– there are 48 Democratic senators who are willing to support it. That’s pretty remarkable. All told, it’s the most ambitious piece of legislation since LBJ and the Great Society.
As a long-form political journal, we’re interested in the power of writing. You’ve published long-form opinion pieces at key inflection points in the climate movement, such as the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline. To what extent do you believe in long-form journalism and essay-writing as forces for change?
I think they’re really important.
You know, I wrote the first book about climate change, which was serialized in the New Yorker back in 1989. Clearly, it was important. But really, there’ve been lots of important books and articles.
I will say that it took me about 10 years to figure out that we need to do more than write books and articles and have symposiums.
Those are important to win the argument, but it became pretty clear that you could win the argument and still lose the fight –– because the fight was less about data and reason than about money and power. A lot of my work in recent years has been organizing.
What’s your next book or project?
I have a book coming out in the spring –– it’s not a memoir exactly, but the subtitle is, “A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened.” It describes growing up in the suburbs of Boston –– I grew up in Lexington, MA –– and reflecting on American history and race and the kind of mass prosperity that the suburbs represented 50 years ago, and how all those things have curdled in one way or another. The title is The Flag, The Cross and The Station Wagon.
The other project that I’m working on is launching this organization we’re calling Third Act, which is about organizing people over 60 for progressive action. We’ve got to get the Boomers and the Silent Generation more in the game. It’s been a lot of fun trying to get it off the ground.
Is there a question or issue that you think people in the climate movement aren’t discussing enough right now?
Finally, there’s a whole bunch of good climate journalism going on. For the first time in my lifetime –– and in the lifetime of this issue –– there are now hundreds of talented people thinking about this issue a lot and writing well about it.
If there’s a place where we really need more attention, it’s on not just the fossil fuel companies, but on the banks, insurance companies, the asset managers that are a financial lifeline. And on their ancillary partners, the groups that support them –– law firms, PR firms.
There’s a lot of work going on. Law Students for Climate Accountability are trying to get law students not to go to work for firms that are worse than their competitors. Clean Creatives is trying to stop people from heading off to work for PR firms that are just fronts for the fossil fuel industry.
So I think there’s going to be lots and lots of places for young people to demonstrate their clear concern for the climate crisis in the years ahead.
Does this moment that you’re describing –– the calls for climate action right now –– feel fundamentally different than the past decades of your fight?
Yes. We’ve clearly managed to shift the zeitgeist in powerful ways.
A strong majority of Americans now are concerned about the climate crisis and want action. That number is up 10% over the course of this year.
That reflects the ongoing spate of disasters that we see all the time. It reflects the ongoing organizing that’s built enormous movements –– especially among young people, junior high and high school students chief among them. It reflects the fact that we have an obvious and easy economical alternative in solar power, wind power, and batteries. Now the thing is just to make it happen fast.
I want to go back to the fact that Yale in particular is managing to really besmirch its name at this point. There’s been a lot of great climate science done there, and a lot of great work at the Forestry School, the School of Environment. Remarkable research on these problems. But the fact that Yale is still trying to make a buck off the end of the world is really distressing.
My wife is a proud Yale graduate. The first female Rhodes Scholar in the country. I listen to her when people call her up from Yale asking for money, as they do. She always says, “I would love to be doing that, but not while you’re socking it away in Exxon.”