Bill McKibben is a freelance journalist, writer, and environmental activist. McKibben has published numerous books and articles on the environment and has founded and organized several environmentalist groups. His first book, The End of Nature, published in 1989, is widely credited with introducing climate change to a general audience. In 2008, he organized 350.org, the first global, grassroots climate change movement, which launched 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries in 2009. McKibben is the most prominent environmentalist opponent of the Keystone XL Pipeline project, and he helped organize the People’s Climate March in September.

The Politic: What was the immediate motivation behind the People’s Climate March?

I think everyone started thinking about it a year ago when Ban Ki-moon said he was going to have world leaders come to New York to talk about climate change, and these guys have done nothing but talk about it for 25 years. We’ve reached the point where we didn’t want to just listen to them again, so we decided to invite ourselves to the party too.

The Politic: The “acceptable” increase in global temperature is two percent, which we’re nearing with the burning of CO2.

We now have less than 500 gigatons left to burn before we go past two degrees, which the governments of the world have set as the red line. That’s a very tall order, to try to decarbonize our economies that quickly. Now, we know that it can be done, because there are one or two countries that have tried. Germany is a great example. Ironically enough, the country that caused more than its share of the planet’s problems in the twentieth century is providing way more than its share of the solutions in the twenty-first. There were days this summer when Germany generated 75% of its power from solar panels and windmills. So it’s not so much a technical problem as a problem of political will.

We’re certainly not going to stop global warming. The temperature has already gone up a degree, and even if we do everything right, it’s going to go up another degree. That will cause great havoc. We’ve already seen the acidity of the oceans grow by 30 percent; we’ve watched most of the summer sea ice in the Arctic disappear; and we’ve seen enough ice melt in the Antarctic that it’s begun to shift the gravitational field of the planet. So, you know, if you’re in California now, in the midst of the worst drought ever recorded, we’re not going to figure out how to reverse all this. Our job right now is trying to prevent it from getting worse than it has to get, and it’s unclear that we can do that, but we can try, and we are trying.

The Politic: I’m interested in how you maintain optimism and the will to fight despite grim realities. Here at Yale, for instance, the “no” decision on a fossil fuel divestment proposal has discouraged a lot of students. Do you have any recommendations for environmental activists trying to keeping the spirit alive?

I think that there’s no reason to feel glum about things like Yale saying, “No, we’re not going to divest,” because that’s what Yale and Harvard and everybody else said about apartheid stock thirty years ago. Then, people just went to work on them, and eventually they relented. In this case—this is the good news and bad news—our great ally is Mother Nature, and she will continue to make a persuasive case, month after month, until eventually we listen.

We’re going to win the fight. We’ll be powering our lives with the sun and wind 100 years from now. The question is, are we going to win the fight in time to make a difference or not? I’m more hopeful now than I have been in a while. The march was a great moment, and it was a great moment that evening when the Rockefellers announced that they were divesting all of their holdings in fossil fuels. If we’ve reached the point where the greatest fossil fuel fortune heirs, the Rockefellers, think that it’s unwise and immoral to be invested in fossil fuels, I can’t think what excuse the rest of us would have. Especially since the Rockefellers—this is probably useful for people at Yale to think about—made it clear that they had tried repeatedly, meeting after meeting, to get Exxon to change their business from a fossil fuel company to an energy company. If the folks at Exxon weren’t willing to listen to the family that founded them, then the odds that they’re going to pay much attention to Yale or anybody else engaging with them are pretty darn small.

The most important thing that any individual can do is to not be an individual, to join together with other people in figuring out how to be an effective part of this fight. And that’s why we set 350.org; that’s why we try to build movements. And now that we sort of have movements, we need everybody to move them forward, to make them bigger and stronger. If we have a chance at this, that’s where it lies.

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