At End of Warmest Year on Record, "Alternative Nobel" Winner Bill McKibben Urges Action on Climate

December 31, 2014
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As the warmest year on record comes to a close, we end the last show of 2014 with climate activist and author Bill McKibben. He recently announced he is stepping down from the daily leadership of the climate action group, which he co-founded in 2007 and where he has been a leading voice warning of the dangers of not confronting global warming. He says he will remain a senior adviser and active member of the board, keeping 90 percent of his daily work the same. We play an excerpt of McKibben’s speech earlier this month in Stockholm, Sweden, where he received the Right Livelihood Award, known as the alternative Nobel Prize.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: "Step by Step," Jesse Winchester, the sing-songwriter who played a major role in the '60s antiwar movement when he moved to Canada to avoid the draft, was later pardoned by President Carter. He's one of many musicians we lost this year. He died April 11th. He was 69 years old.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, as we end today’s show with author and activist Bill McKibben, who recently announced he’s stepping down from the daily leadership of, which he co-founded, where he’s been a leading voice against climate change for years. This group gets its name from a comment by climate scientist Jim Hansen, who said the world must cut carbon dioxide emissions to 350 parts per million to avoid dangerous alterations in the climate. Current emission levels exceed that.

McKibben wrote in a statement earlier this month, quote, "I’m stepping down as chair of the board at to become what we’re calling a 'senior advisor.' ... I will stay on as an active member of the board, and 90 percent of my daily work will stay the same, since it’s always involved the external work of campaigning, not the internal work of budgets and flow charts." He said, "I’m not standing down from that work, or stepping back, or walking away."

Well, earlier this month, Bill McKibben was in Stockholm, Sweden, where he received the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the "alternative Nobel Prize." This is an excerpt of his address.

BILL McKIBBEN: As we meet here today, the world is almost done with what will be the hottest calendar year in all the years that we have measured temperatures. 2014 saw the warmest temperatures, by far, ever recorded in the northern Pacific. It was also the year when we learned, tragically, that the melt of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now irreversible.

Twenty-five years ago, when I wrote the first book-length account of this crisis, none of these wounds could have been predicted. But that’s because scientists are conservative—the damage has outpaced their forecasts. Every ocean, including the one outside these doors, is now 30 percent more acidic than a generation ago. Every continent now sees drought and flood on an unprecedented scale.

Every scientific body now urges upon us, with ever more desperate rhetoric, the need for action. You’ll find in your packet, as one concise reminder of the relevant points, a recent publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science outlining, once more, the grim and by now very plain facts of climate change.

And yet, so little action has come. The world will meet again a year from today in Paris to try and reach a treaty, a replay of the meeting that five years ago ended in fiasco in Copenhagen. So far, the fossil fuel industry has been powerful enough to block substantial action in most nations, especially the United States, historically the biggest source of carbon now overheating the Earth.

We in the climate movement have long since concluded that the fountain of fossil fuel money, which buys politicians and spreads disinformation, can only be met if we coin our own currency—in this case, the currency of movements: passion, spirit, creativity. Sometimes we need to spend the currency of our own bodies and head to jail.

And so, here is the good news to temper that bleak weather forecast: All over the world that movement is finally rising. In late September, 400,000 people filled the streets of New York to demand that the U.N. take action on climate. That was the largest demonstration about anything in the U.S. for some years and the largest demonstration about climate change in history. Those people were joined that day by protesters in 2,600 other cities around the world. The world’s first truly global problem is seeing the world’s first truly global movement.

And it is beginning to have an effect. The same night of that march in New York, the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune announced that they were divesting their holdings in fossil fuel companies. The first family of fossil fuel was selling its oil stock. In so doing—in so doing, they joined institutions, from Stanford University to the Church of Sweden—and hopefully soon the city of Stockholm and many others in this green-minded country. Just as 30 years ago, when the question was apartheid in South Africa, the world’s people are coming together to withdraw their money from the companies that simply refuse to change their practices.

Those companies—Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Gazprom, China Coal, BP, all the rest—have in their combined reserves five times more carbon than the world’s scientists say we can safely burn. And yet those companies have told their shareholders and their banks that they will dig up that coal and oil and gas, and burn it. If they carry out those business plans, then there is no mystery about how this story ends: The planet will simply break.

And so we must fight—peacefully, but firmly. We must build green cities. And like so many others, I’ve gotten to visit Stockholm’s green neighborhood, Hammarby Sjöstad. It’s a model of what the future could look like, as congenial as it is ecological.

But beautiful as that vision is, we can’t be taking one step forward and another back. This is the point at which I become the impolite dinner guest who criticizes the host. In this city, for instance, planning continues on a massive highway. Ask yourself whether in a decade or two that is the legacy this planet needs, or whether a sharp and dramatic move toward public transit and car sharing might not be better. My fellow—my fellow honorees last night had the rare privilege of getting to walk aboard the good ship Vasa, and it occurred to me that perhaps projects like that highway may represent the sort of grand and expensive ventures perhaps not perfectly suited for the world in which they must sail.

And ask yourself—ask yourself sharp questions about trying to make every possible penny off the current situation. If Vattenfall, for instance, simply sells its stake in German lignite mines, there is no question that the coal will eventually be dug up and burned. Is not the really responsible course, for a nation that grew wealthy in part by burning fossil fuel, to make the small economic sacrifice and keep that coal forever underground where it can do no harm? Is that any different than what, for instance, we’ve asked of the Brazilians when it comes to the Amazon, that they keep it standing?

And we very badly need Sweden’s cities and governments to follow the lead of the Church of Sweden and divest those fossil fuel holdings. We simply must defeat those forces that want to delay large-scale change so they can have a decade or two more of profit. There’s no ducking that fight. If you invest in fossil fuel companies, you profit from the destruction of the Earth. That’s the definition of "dirty money." Those who invest in fossil fuel companies are making a wager that the world will do nothing to combat climate change. That’s an immoral wager. And it’s an unwise wager, as well, because civil society really is rising up.

I am reminded of the iconic scene earlier this autumn, when our colleagues in 12 Pacific Island nations, nations that will be underwater on the current trajectory by the end of this century, they took their traditional canoes and transported them to the largest coal port in the world, Newcastle in Australia, and for a day used those tiny canoes to block some of the largest ships in the world, to keep them in port. Their slogan, a good slogan for the whole world, would be: "We’re not drowning. We’re fighting."

I’m reminded of the scenes in North America earlier this year, where cattle ranchers and Native Americans formed what they called the Cowboy-Indian Alliance, a CIA slightly different than the one Mr. Snowden used to work for, to block the Keystone Pipeline and its cargo of filthy oil from the tar sands of Canada.

We stand in solidarity with Andean activists losing the glaciers that supply their drinking water, and with Bangladeshi activists watching the seas rise in the Bay of Bengal. We learn from African leaders like Desmond Tutu, who recently called climate change the greatest human rights challenge of our time, and from Sámi leaders from the top of the world, who are watching berserk winter weather wreck time-honored ways of life. We struggle alongside residents of Delhi and Beijing and the other smog-choked metropolises of our planet, for we know that their children die from the same fossil fuel combustion that endangers the whole Earth. We look with great inspiration to the countries like Germany that are demonstrating daily that it is entirely possible to turn to renewable energy for the power that we need on this planet.

Global warming is a test for all of us, the test in our time on Earth. It’s a test in a sense of whether the big brain was a good adaptation after all. Clearly, that brain can get us in a good deal of trouble, but maybe, just maybe, it is attached to a big enough heart to get us out of some of that trouble. I cannot promise you that we will win this struggle. We have waited a very long time to get started, and the science is quite dark. But I can promise you that in every corner of the world we will fight and fight hard. Thank you so much for helping spread word of that struggle with this great honor.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bill McKibben, founder of, accepting the Right Livelihood Award in the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm earlier this month.

That does it for this year’s Democracy Now! By the way, a very special happy 70th birthday to our West Coast coordinator, Chuch Scurich. Tune in in 2015—that’s the rest of the week—for our holiday specials. On Friday, we’ll air our interview with comedian Russell Brand.

RUSSELL BRAND: I know that people are ready for change. I know that alternatives are possible and that you constantly see how hard the establishment has to work to maintain order. Look at all these institutions, the banks of the Thames lined with institutions to hold ordinary people down. Constantly through the media, they try to prevent different arguments emerging. That is because they know change is inevitable. Change is just a different story. We, people in the media, have an obligation to reframe this argument, to tell people that they can change the world, that we are connected to one another. We have more in common with each other. We have more in common with the people we’re bombing than the people we’re bombing them for. People that say the system works work for the system. We can change the world. The revolution can begin as soon as you decide it does in yourself, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Friday, Russell Brand on Democracy Now! We’ll also air our interview with Julian Assange talking about When Google Met WikiLeaks. Now, Thursday, we’ll speak with Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi and JPMorgan Chase whistleblower Alayne Fleischmann, "The $9 Billion Witness: Meet JPMorgan Chase’s Worst Nightmare."

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