Tuesday

25th Sep 2018

Interview

Climate activist McKibben: 'not sure we started in time'

  • More than a thousand activists temporarily shut down machines at a coalfield in Germany in August. (Photo: Tim Wagner/350.org)

Bill McKibben has a house “covered with solar panels”. He drives a hybrid-electric car.

However, the one lifestyle change that the American environmentalist would recommend has nothing to do with consuming less energy, or getting it from a renewable source.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Bill McKibben: 'I'm not at all convinced that we've started in time. We'll see.' (Photo: Bora Chung)

“It's not that we shouldn't do things at home. We should. But I don't try to fool myself that I'm stopping climate change that way”, he told this website.

“Given the emergency that we're in, given the short time that we have to act, it's a lot more important at the moment to change the policies of the people running things, then try to get everyone on the planet to instantly shift their ways of life”, noted McKibben. The most important policy change he advocates, is to stop using fossil fuels.

“If you had to do one thing, it would be to organise. To become engaged in a movement that can change this stuff.”

McKibben is the leader of one such movement, the campaign group 350.org. He is possibly the most famous environmentalist in the US, and last year over 300,000 people responded to his invitation to join a climate march in New York. In 1989, he published The End of Nature, which has been credited as the first book on global warming for a general audience.

Bill McKibben spoke to EUobserver in Paris, where in December the world's countries will try to reach consensus on the first legally binding international treaty aimed at slowing down climate change since 1997.

“Paris will come out better than Copenhagen did. It won't come out very well, but it will come out better than Copenhagen”, said McKibben, referring to the disappointing experience of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, when global leaders only managed to produce a non-binding document despite early high hopes for a binding accord.

“The meeting will not end without an agreement”, he added.

The American is both optimistic and pessimistic about a prospective Paris deal.

“The good news is twofold”, McKibben said. “One is that the price of renewable energy is falling dramatically, so there is room to move. … Even five or six years ago you had to be willing, like Germany, to spend a lot of money if you were going to do something effective. The price of a solar panel has fallen 80 percent since Copenhagen.”

“The second reason for optimism is we're steadily building a bigger movement. The warning from scientists should have been sufficient to get the world up and moving – but it clearly has not been. So it's a good thing that we now have a lot of people in the streets too.”

1 degree Celsius, 2, 3, 4?

However, he also noted that it is “way too late” to stop global warming.

The average global temperature has already risen 0,8 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution, and 2015 may be the hottest year on record, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The commitments in the Paris deal will be scrutinised if they amount to limiting global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius, which scientists agree is a kind of tipping point.

“We may – emphasis on 'may' – still be able, if we do everything right, to keep it from getting to the point where it undermines our ability to have civilizations. Even that at this point is an open question.”

“And even two degrees is... if one degree melts the Arctic, we're kind of idiots to find out what two degrees will do”, noted McKibben.

“If the temperature actually goes up three or four degrees, then there is no preparation that will avail us. If the sea actually rises ten, twelve feet, then even your Netherlands is going to be out of tricks”, he said, referring to the interviewer's country of origin, famous for the dikes preventing the half-under-sea-level nation from drowning.

Not a very upbeat message, is it?

“I wrote the first book about climate change and it has the cheerful title 'The End of Nature'. I am not an optimist by nature. I try hard to build movements and see what we can do, but I'm not at all convinced that we've started in time. We'll see.”

Fossil fuel companies contemptuous

McKibben's organisation, 350.org, will continue to encourage people to protest. Last month, more than a thousand activists managed to temporarily shut down machines at a coalfield in Germany.

Fossil fuel companies, McKibben said, “deserve to be treated with a certain kind of contempt”.

“If you watch the Arctic melt, and your response to it is: 'good, now we can go drill for oil', then … your level of responsibility is disgusting”, the green activist said.

He pointed out the irony of US president Barack Obama's recent announcement for a climate plan, while at the same time giving the green light to Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic.

But “despite the fact that they're clearly intellectually bankrupt”, coal, oil, and gas companies “continue to wield huge power” to influence politicians.

“In the US the two Koch brothers – oil and gas barons, biggest lease holders in the tar-sands in Canada – they've pledged to spend more money in the next election than the Republican or Democratic parties spent on the last one: $900 million.”

'Ambitious' plans?

Obama's climate plan – to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 – is “what we should be doing”, according to McKibben.

It followed the EU's agreement last year that greenhouse gas emissions from power plants (and other installations falling under the emissions trading programme) should be cut by 43 percent compared to 1990 levels, a plan which the EU called “ambitious”.

Is one plan more ambitious then the other?

“The only judge of whether anybody is being ambitious enough, is physics. This isn't like a normal political problem, where the negotiation is carried on by two different groups of people, and you reach some kind of compromise in the middle, and it all works. This negotiation is between human beings and physics. And at the moment, it's entirely clear that the proposals that human beings have come up with are inadequate to meet the demands that physics is making.”

Consume less to save planet, Pope says

The religious leader called on consumers to use their economic power to force businesses to change towards cleaner production methods.

Dutch government appeals landmark climate ruling

The Dutch government is appealing a court ruling telling it to take more action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A green activist believes the ruling has changed the "atmosphere" on climate change.

Magazine

Climate host Paris's green goals bogged down by bureaucracy

The French capital, host of climate talks four weeks from now, has set ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption. But a multi-layered regional administration limits the impact of its actions.

News in Brief

  1. UN chief: World suffering from 'trust deficit disorder'
  2. Stalemate in Sweden as parliament ousts prime minister
  3. Migrant rescue ship heading to French port
  4. EU angry at British tabloids on Brexit
  5. UK to allow EU flights in no-deal Brexit
  6. Greek reporters arrested after story on 'mishandled' EU funds
  7. Austrian minister urges police to out foreign sex offenders
  8. ECB's Draghi set to clarify role in secretive G30 group

Opinion

No chance of meeting EU renewable goals if infrastructure neglected

Following the 2030 renewable target of 32 percent, chair of the European Parliament's environment committee Adina Valean argues in order to reach our climate and energy goals, we need both public and private investment over the next decade and beyond.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  2. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  3. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  5. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  6. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  7. IPHRCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  8. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  9. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  10. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  11. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow

Latest News

  1. EU court delivers transparency blow on MEP expenses
  2. Russian with Malta passport in money-laundering probe
  3. Cyprus: Russia's EU weak link?
  4. Missing signature gaffe for Azerbaijan gas pipeline
  5. Every major city in Europe is getting warmer
  6. No chance of meeting EU renewable goals if infrastructure neglected
  7. Brexit and MEPs expenses in the spotlight This WEEK
  8. Wake-up call on European Day Against Islamophobia

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  3. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  5. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  6. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  8. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  9. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  11. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  2. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  4. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and Reconciliation Is a Process That Takes Decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  5. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  6. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  7. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  9. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  12. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us