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Bill McKibben: local, ardent activism is only clear solution to slowing catastrophic climate change

Russ White
Bill McKibben, Kirk Heinze

“I used to think that we were having an argument about climate change and if we just wrote more books, eventually our leaders would be persuaded. But that’s not true; the argument ended a long time ago,” renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben told me on Greening of the Great Lakes. “Science is very clear about what’s going on.”

McKibben delivered the 16th Peter M. Wege Lecture on Sustainability on October 5 to a packed house at the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium and spoke with me after his presentation. The talk was titled Down to the Wire – A Hot Fight in a Hot World.

“Even the oil companies, 30 years ago, knew everything there was to know about climate change. But they spent a lot of money staging this sham debate because they didn’t want to change anything they were doing, and they figured the best thing to do was throw as much chum in the water as they could to muddy the waters. And what do you know, they’ve succeeded so well that we now end up with a president who thinks climate change was invented by the Chinese.

“It’s been a sham debate. And while we’ve been debating, the ice caps have been melting, the oceans have been acidifying, and the temperature has been rising.”

McKibben says the Trump administration is doing great damage to our environment.

“The Koch brothers are getting all their dreams that they’ve paid for over the years. They’re coming to reality now, and it’s very sad to watch the work of many people over many decades being undone on behalf the greediest and dirtiest people in the country.”

McKibben argues that his activism is, at its roots, fundamentally conservative, not radical.  And, for him, activism ranges from signing petitions to taking to the streets. 

“All we’re asking for is a world that’s a little bit like the one we were born on to – a world where there’s a little ice at the north and the south, some coral reefs left in the middle, and a world where we still have winter. That’s not radical; that’s a deeply conservative demand.

“Radicals work at oil companies. And if you’re willing to go alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere and you’re willing to do it once you’ve seen that it’s melting the poles, then that’s some heavy duty, no kidding radicalism that you’re engaged in.”

He says it’s hard to imagine how much damage Exxon has done simply by not telling the truth about what their own scientists discovered in the 70s and 80s.

“If Exxon had just said in 1989 after Jim Hansen had testified before Congress that our scientists are finding the same thing, then no one would have said ‘Exxon is being a climate alarmist,’ everyone would have said ‘OK, this is bad news because we depend on fossil fuel, but I guess we better get straight to work figuring out how not to depend on fossil fuel.’

“We wouldn’t have solved the problem by now, but we’d be well on the way to solving the problem.”

I wondered aloud to McKibben, then, why Exxon wouldn’t have been more aggressive buying up wind, solar, and other renewable energy infrastructure.

“Exxon could have owned the solar industry. They had plenty of cash on hand. I think the reason they didn’t is that, though you could make a lot of money putting up solar panels everywhere, you couldn’t make as much money as you could with oil. And the reason is once you have the panel on the roof, the sun comes for free. Exxon doesn’t like that. Exxon likes to set up a situation where they have to pull their truck up to your house every month for the rest of your life and you have to write them a check. That’s a better business model.

“I suppose if we could figure out some way to let Exxon buy the sun and charge us for it, then they’d probably be willing to go ahead and do solar panels all they wanted.”

On a brighter note, many utility companies across the country are reducing their reliance on fossil fuels to provide our energy and have long-range plans to increase their use of renewable sources of energy.  But how quickly?

“We have to get off fossil fuel long before 2050. By then, we’re going to run the whole world on renewable energy because it’s cheap. The question is are we going to do it by 2030 because that’s what we need to do in order to avoid having a broken planet.

“I don’t actually want a planet for my daughter and granddaughter that’s filled with solar panels and windmills but is also too hot to live on. I want to do this in time to actually keep the worst from happening.

“Things are changing very fast; there are no two ways about it. When I started writing about this 30 years ago when I wrote the first book about it, it was still pretty abstract and theoretical. No more.”

McKibben has penned his first novel titled Radio Free Vermont – A Fable of Resistance.

He says he was inspired to write it because “I’m so tired of just being depressing all the time. So this is kind of a funny book about my state of Vermont seceding from the Union. It’s mostly about how to resist, which is something I think about a lot.”

Greening of the Great Lakes airs inside MSU Today Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 94.5 FM and AM 870.

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