Sunday

28th Feb 2021

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.

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  • 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.”

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