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As U.N. Backs Fossil Fuel Divestment, Bill McKibben on Vanuatu, Oxford Vote, California Water Crisis

March 16, 2015
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Bill McKibben

co-founder of 350.org. He’s the author of several books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

As the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu is devastated by Cyclone Pam, 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben links the storm to global warming and responds to the new decision by the the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to back the fast-growing divestment campaign to persuade investors to sell off their fossil fuel assets. This comes as University of Oxford alumni, donors and students are watching a vote set for today on whether the school will divest its endowment from the top 200 companies involved in exploring or extracting fossil fuels. McKibben also discusses news from NASA that California’s water supply could be exhausted by next year. Meanwhile, the environmentalist and former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed has been sentenced to 13 years in prison after he was found guilty of ordering the arrest of a judge while in office. Nasheed became famous in 2009 for holding a cabinet meeting underwater to show the threat of climate change to his island nation. McKibben is the author of several books, including "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." 350.org has been posting updates about the situation in Vanuatu on its live blog at 350.org.


TRANSCRIPT

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

AMY GOODMAN: Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale spoke Monday about plans to rebuild after Cyclone Pam.

PRESIDENT BALDWIN LONSDALE: We have to be very careful how we build our houses, all infrastructure, how we build our infrastructure in place. We must take into account this disaster that has happened to us, so that we can build better infrastructure, better place for development in Vanuatu.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben is joining us now, co-founder of 350.org, author of a number of books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Bill, we want to talk about a number of issues here, but can you start off by talking about what’s happened in Vanuatu—350.org is active there—and how it links to climate change?

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. We’ve been hearing sporadically from our coordinator in Vanuatu, Isso Nihmei, who has been doing a lot of relief work as this crisis has unfolded. The picture is, as you’ve been saying all morning, extraordinarily grim. Port Vila, the capital city and the place with most of the infrastructure, took a huge hit. But the winds were higher, the seas were higher and the infrastructure much flimsier, to begin with, on many of the outlying islands, so the picture, I’m afraid, is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

The tragedy, the bottom-line tragedy here, as in so many other places around the world, is that Vanuatu’s development has been put back decades with this destruction of roads, bridges, hospitals, schools. This is what’s happening now around the world as people begin to kind of run on a tilted treadmill trying to develop on a disintegrating planet.

And the people in Vanuatu know exactly what the culprit is. You know, in one of the most beautiful demonstrations of the climate change era, last summer Vanuatu and 10 other Pacific Islands’ Pacific Warriors, 350’s Pacific Warriors, built indigenous traditional canoes and took them off to Newcastle in Australia, the largest coal port in the world, and used them to blockade the great coal ships in an effort to demonstrate exactly what Cyclone Pam also demonstrated—the incredible vulnerability of so many of the poorest people in the world to the rising temperatures that we’re inflicting on our one Earth.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, in a broader way, about the threats that small island nations face? And then we’re going to take this home, not to a small island nation, but to California, to talk about the issue not of too much water, but of too little.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. Look, if you’re low to the water on an island nation and the sea level starts going up, that makes everything that happens, every cyclone that comes, that much more dangerous. Even without a cyclone, in the Pacific earlier this month, the huge king tides in Kiribati flooded many, many homes and villages. Add to that things like the ongoing heating and acidification of the oceans’ waters and the concomitant erosion of coral reefs around the world. In many of these nations, coral reefs provide the best defense against a raging ocean. And that defense is breaking down everywhere. Add to that the fact that we keep seeing these super typhoons, super cyclones. You know, warm air holds more water vapor than cold. It allows, in arid areas, for more evaporation, and hence more drought. We’ll talk about California in a second. But once that water is up in the air, it’s going to come down someplace. And so, we see, from Boston, which just set yesterday the all-time record for snowfall, to places that are getting hammered by big storms, we’re seeing more and more and more devastating downpour. This is a worldwide problem. But, of course, places like Vanuatu are at the very sharpest end of the stick because they are so, so vulnerable.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about another climate crisis closer to home. On Thursday, a NASA scientist wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times headlined "California Has About One Year of Water Left. Will You Ration Now?" Jay Famiglietti, who authored the piece, is the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, and a professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine. He wrote, quote, "the simple fact is that California is running out of water—and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century. Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing," he wrote. Bill McKibben?

BILL McKIBBEN: Hey, it’s up and down the West Coast of the United States. Yesterday, Washington state declared drought emergency over large regions. The snowpack in the Olympic Mountains is about 8 precent of normal. The snowpack up in the Sierra Nevada, which has to water pretty much all of California, is 20 or 25 percent of normal. We’re in the fourth year of a drought, and the scientific papers published in the last couple of weeks said that California can really start expecting, in our new climate regime, that drought will be the new normal. Last year, the satellites indicated that California had lost about 63 trillion gallons of groundwater to evaporation. That took so much weight off the crust there that the Sierra Nevada mountains jumped a half-inch. Look, there’s no way that you can have civilizations of the kind that we’ve built in California without water. And there’s less and less of it all the time.

It’s not just California. Go south to São Paulo, the fifth- or sixth-largest city in the world. People are there in a drought so desperate for water that they’ve begun to try and drill through the concrete in their basements looking for groundwater. There have been parts of the city that have been undergoing severe water rationing. This is what happens when you raise the temperature of the Earth. There is no huge surprise in it. But it is horrifying to see it play out.

AMY GOODMAN: As we speak, Oxford University in Britain is set to vote on a measure to divest from coal. The decision could come during our show. Meanwhile, the U.N. body responsible for global climate change negotiations is backing the fast-growing campaign persuading investors to sell off their fossil fuel assets. Nick Nuttall, the spokesperson for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UNFCCC, said, quote, "We support divestment as it sends a signal to companies, especially coal companies, that the age of 'burn what you like, when you like' cannot continue." Well, at the U.N. climate talks in Peru in December, Democracy Now! senior producer Mike Burke asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about the movement to divest from fossil fuels.

MIKE BURKE: Mike Burke from Democracy Now! in New York. Over the past year, many churches, investment funds and schools have joined a movement to divest from fossil fuel companies. And I’m wondering if you support this movement?

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: It’s encouraging these days that there is a greater awareness and willingness that they are now investing their resources into more sustainable energy. Of course, practically speaking, in our real world, this fossil fuel may have to continue to be used as our energy sources.

AMY GOODMAN: That was U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Again, the U.N. body responsible for global climate change negotiations has just announced it’s backing this fast-growing campaign persuading investors to sell off their fossil fuel assets. Bill McKibben, how significant is this? Is it a real shift?

BILL McKIBBEN: You know, I remain slightly in shock about the whole thing. Three years ago, it was a few of us. You know, I wrote the first big piece about this for Rolling Stone magazine. At this point, this idea, this divestment idea, now encompasses great universities, from Stanford to Sydney to Stockholm. It encompasses religious denominations—United Church of Christ, the World Council of Churches. There are cities, like Oslo and Seattle; the Rockefeller family, the first family of fossil fuel. Today, Oxford is taking a vote. In a couple of weeks, people are descending on Harvard—you know, all kinds of people, Al Gore, yes, but also a two-time Reagan appointee to the SEC, also Desmond Tutu, all Harvard alumni of one kind or another—demanding that the university sell its shares. So, this has become one of the many faces of the fossil fuel movement, the fossil fuel resistance. And it’s very much hand in hand with those Vanuatuans standing up to the biggest coal mines in the world in Australia. Those coal mines can’t be developed without the kind of financial lifeline that we’re trying to cut off when we do things like divestment.

So, you know, the news is very bad from the physical world, from what’s going on in the surf and in the atmosphere and in our drying reservoirs. At least the fight is fully underway. There’s a strong resistance being mounted at every level. And the fact that the U.N. itself has now said we should be divesting from fossil fuel is just an indication of how powerfully people have organized around the globe.

AMY GOODMAN: George Monbiot just tweeted, "I’ve pledged to hand back my degree if Oxford University does not divest from #fossilfuels. Please make the right decision." Also, Harvard University, again, the divestment movement is launching the first week of April, continuing to push for it there.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yes, George Monbiot is going to hand back his Oxford degree. And almost as powerfully, Natalie Portman has demanded that Harvard divest. So, it’s everywhere now, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of small island nations, I want to ask you what happened to the former president of the Maldives. A documentary was made based on his life, The Island President. Environmentalist and former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed has been sentenced to 13 years in prison after he was found guilty of ordering the arrest of a judge while in office. The judge was appointed by his predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years before Nasheed became its first democratically elected president in 2008. Nasheed became famous in 2009 for holding a cabinet meeting underwater to show the threat of climate change to his island nation. We spoke to the former president in 2012 when that film on his rise to power and climate activism was released in New York. Again, that film called Island President was directed by Jon Shenk. This is an excerpt.

MOHAMED NASHEED: If we can’t stop the seas rising, if you allow for a 2-degree rise in temperature, you are actually agreeing to kill us. I have an objective, which is to save the nation. I know it’s a huge task. I’ve been arrested 12 times. I’ve been tortured twice. I spent 18 months in solitary.

We won our battle for democracy in the Maldives. A year later, there are those who tell us that solving climate change is impossible. Well, I am here to tell you that we refuse to give up hope.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from Jon Shenk’s The Island President. Well, the former President Nasheed reiterated the urgency of the climate crisis for small island states when we spoke to him on Democracy Now!

MOHAMED NASHEED: Climate change is a real issue, and it is happening now. It’s not something in the future. If you—from Jon’s film, you would be able to see how precarious and how vulnerable the Maldives is. Any imbalance to nature will have very, very huge impacts on the low-lying Maldive islands—and not just simply the Maldive islands, but also all coastal regions around the world. I think about a third of the population of the world lives on coastal areas. And they will be seriously challenged if we are unable to do something about climate change in the next few years.

AMY GOODMAN: So that is the former president, Mohamed Nasheed, who has now been sentenced to 13 years in prison. Bill McKibben, do you know about this case?

BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah, no, I’ve been to the Maldives a number of times, and I know Nasheed reasonably well. He’s not only a great climate hero, a first among world leaders to really be willing to take a dramatic stand, he’s also the Mandela of the Indian Ocean. He spent five years in various prisons before he became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. The old thugocracy that ran the country for 30 years has re-asserted its control. The trial of Nasheed was a joke. He was not allowed witnesses, was not allowed to prepare for the trial, which was held in secret. Two of the three judges deciding on the case were also witnesses in it. You know, it’s Kafka come to the Indian Ocean.

There’s a strong powerful resistance movement in the Maldives. I have no doubt that the capital city of Malé is filled with people who are trying to overturn this injustice. I also have no doubt that the very desperate regime will continue brutalizing people, and it’s a great sadness. They have enough trouble in the Maldives dealing with the onset of climate change that they don’t need this sort of thing. But our hopes are very much with President Nasheed. There are lots of people organizing to try and bring world attention, because the thing that the Maldives—you know, the thugs who are running the country now thrive on is the fact that it’s a small country a long ways away from everywhere and we don’t generally pay much attention. But [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, when he was—when he was deposed in a coup, I believe the U.S. was the first, if not one of the first countries, to recognize the new leadership.

BILL McKIBBEN: You know, the U.S. does not have a particularly proud history in that part of the world. Let’s hope that they change their mind. It’s been good to see there’s been some international pressure on the government to at least try to live up to international norms. But since they’re not doing it, it’s going to take more of a response. Nasheed really is a hero and a great man, and it’s a shame to see what’s happening there. And we’ll continue to work on it just as hard as we can, because he is definitely one of our brothers in this climate fight.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, finally, as you’re there holed up or comfy in your home in Vermont, you mentioned Boston, that has also hit an all-time record, the amount of snowfall that has hit Massachusetts. Can you, finally, end by talking about what’s happening in the Northeast and the path to Paris, if you think what’s going to happen in Paris is important, the next U.N. climate summit?

BILL McKIBBEN: In the Northeast of the United States, we’ve seen over the last 50 years a 71 percent increase in the number of severe precipitation events, as the scientists put it—way more big rainstorms and way more big snowfalls. When it happens in the summer, like it did in Vermont in 2011 with Hurricane Irene, we get so much rain that things wash away. When it happens in the winter, as it is in Boston this time, we get snowbanks five stories high. This provides yet more impetus as we continue this climate fight.

I don’t think that Paris in December, the next big negotiations, is the absolute key. I think what happens in Paris will depend on what kind of organizing we do before that, how much we stand up to the real powers that be, which are the Shells and the Exxons and the fossil fuel industry. They’re the guys who are playing the politicians, not the other way around. And so, this fight around divestment, around things like Keystone, putting ourselves in the way of every new fossil fuel expansion—what we’ve been calling a fossil freeze—is absolutely crucial. It’s hopeful, because that fossil freeze comes in a moment when we’re also seeing a solar thaw, Amy. The price of solar panels is dropping so fast that their spread is now—the amount of solar power in the U.S. doubled last year. We could do this. If we can break the power of this industry, if we can throw off its dead weight, then the world actually has a fighting chance not of stopping global warming—it’s, as Vanuatu illustrates, too late for that—but of keeping it from getting entirely out of control. It is the greatest fight we’ve ever been in. And though we don’t know how it’s going to come out, we know that we’re all needed to make a real, real part in that battle.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, a final note: "Boston’s made history by having the snowiest, and probably most miserable, season since 1872." I’m reading from AP. "The final 2.9 inches came after a record-setting monthly snowfall of 64.9 inches in February"—well over five feet. "The worst previous single month was January 2005 when 43.3 inches fell," so it’s a third more than the worst previous single month.

Bill McKibben, I want to thank you for being with us, co-founder of 350.org, author of a number of books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. To see all our climate coverage, from the pope to Peru, the last U.N. summit, go to democracynow.org. When we come back, we learn about the case of Julian Assange. He’s been in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for 1,000 days. We’ll talk about the new Swedish decision. Stay with us.


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