"Victory for People's Uprising": Bill McKibben on U. of California Divesting from Coal and Tar Sands

September 10, 2015


Bill McKibben

co-founder of He’s the author of several books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet and, most recently, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist. He will be speaking this evening at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House at 7 p.m. with Naomi Klein, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Cynthia Ong, Eddie Bautista and other social movement leaders from across the world. The event is called "Off and On: The Climate Movement and Road Through Paris."

The University of California has announced that it has sold off more than $200 million worth of investments in coal and tar sands companies. University officials say the move was prompted by concerns over environmental sustainability as well as the increasing riskiness of investing in the coal and tar sands industries, which have both seen their profits plummet in recent months. Bill McKibben, co-founder of, hailed the move. The European Green Party and recently launched the "Divest for Paris" challenge, calling on institutions, individuals and governments to divest from fossil fuels ahead of the climate summit in Paris later this year.


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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, 2015 is on track to be the hottest year in recorded history. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released a report showing that July was the single warmest month on planet Earth in history. Nine of the 10 hottest months since record keeping began in 1880 have occurred since 2005.

This news comes as scientists at Columbia University released a report which shows that global warming has worsened the California drought, now entering its fourth year. Meanwhile, this summer saw wildfires explode across the western United States, with Washington state breaking the record for acres burned this year. The state had the single largest wildfire on record.

And some have attributed the surge of migrants from Syria to Europe to changing weather patterns. According to Time magazine, large swaths of Syria suffered an extreme drought from 2006 to 2011, which was exacerbated by climate change. That drought reportedly led to increased poverty and relocation to urban areas.

AMY GOODMAN: All this comes as time is running out for the diplomats who are trying to forge a meaningful climate change agreement ahead of the U.N. climate summit in Paris later this year. On Monday, French President François Hollande noted Paris talks could risk failure if countries do not make stronger commitments. He also warned that the ongoing migrant crisis could escalate to include people fleeing natural disasters if climate change isn’t tackled properly.

PRESIDENT FRANÇOIS HOLLANDE: [translated] Yes, there are even risks that there could be a failure. All the contributions have not been made. We have hardly 60. The sometimes sensational statements are not often financial guarantees. In other words, financing is not flooding in with people’s awareness. There needs to be a pre-decided agreement on the subject of financing so that heads of state and governments can return to Paris with the certitude that we will be able to reach a conclusion. If we do not reach a conclusion, I have evoked the situation of the refugees and dispossessed. If we do not reach a conclusion, if no single substantial measure is put in place to assure this transition and adaption, then it will not be hundreds of thousands of refugees in the next 20 years that we will have to address, but millions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: French President François Hollande said his country would focus over the next three months on ensuring there was $100 billion in place to tackle climate change by 2020. Meanwhile, the environmental group and the European Green Party recently launched the "Divest for Paris" challenge, calling on institutions, individuals and governments to divest from fossil fuels ahead of the climate summit in Paris later this year. On Wednesday, the University of California announced that it had sold off more than $200 million worth of investments in coal and tar sands companies.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk about all of this, we’re joined by Bill McKibben, co-founder of, author of a number of books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He is speaking tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Naomi Klein and other social movement leaders from around the world. The event is called "Off and On: The Climate Movement and Road Through Paris."

Welcome to Democracy Now! What needs to be done right now? Why don’t you start off with the University of California? This is breaking news.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, it is, and it’s kind of a shock, I got to say. We started this divestment movement, you remember, three years ago. And when we started, it was small. The first college to divest was Unity College up in Maine, whose endowment was, I think, under $10 million, maybe well under $10 million. In the past two weeks, the California state Legislature has to divested CalPERS and CalSTRS, two of the biggest pension—two of the 20 biggest pension funds on Earth. And then yesterday comes the news, kind of out of the blue, that the UC system, you know, the iconic campuses at Berkeley and UCLA and Santa Barbara and Davis, beginning to divest at least from coal and tar sands oil. Their portfolio is not $10 million, it’s $98 billion. There’s a kind of just dramatic momentum behind this people’s uprising on climate change. We’ve finally gotten it through our heads that unless we push hard, our leaders aren’t going to do what needs doing, so now we’re pushing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the impact on the fossil fuel industry, what’s their—because they inevitably have a fight-back plan?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, yeah. I mean, the fossil fuel industry is fighting and, in many cases, winning. I mean, they’re extraordinarily powerful. They were able to gut climate legislation in the California Assembly yesterday. The oil industry kept Jerry Brown from being able to pass some of his signature legislation. And the same around the world. But they’re beginning to—we’re beginning to fight them to a draw in place after place. You know, I’ve talked with you two several times over the years about that, say, Keystone pipeline that isn’t built yet. Last week, our colleagues in Australia said that it was pretty clear now that the world’s largest coal mine, slated for Queensland, isn’t going to be built. Activists have been able to force every major bank on the planet to say they wouldn’t fund it.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you make of last week’s headlines? One, President Obama was the first sitting U.S. president to go to the Arctic. He used it as a moment to address the issue of climate change, to educate the United States and people around the world. And at the same time, he opens up the Arctic to drilling.

BILL McKIBBEN: This is the one-step-forward, one-step-sideways, one-step-back thing that we’ve seen so often. Look, the president’s rhetoric in Alaska was truly great. He really understood what was going on. And that’s a big change. You’ll remember that in the last presidential campaign he didn’t even mention climate change. It was too scary a topic. Now he’s talking about it, and he’s doing some things about it. The clean power plant is a useful thing. But he’s unable so far to break with the habit of giving the oil industry what it wants.

And what it wanted this time was one of the stupidest things on Earth. I mean, look at Shell Oil up in the Arctic. It watched, as scientists said would happen, as the Arctic melted from the increasing temperature on this planet. Instead of looking at that and saying, "Huh, maybe we should become an energy company and start putting up solar panels," Shell looked at that and said, "The water has melted. That will make it easier to drill." If there is a more irresponsible company on Earth, I don’t know what it is. And it’s a shame to see Barack Obama helping in that process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you look at these—the beginnings now, we’ve seen some—the first Republican debate, there will be another one coming up soon. The host of candidates on the Republican side and their perspective on climate change, what are your thoughts?

BILL McKIBBEN: You know, they keep saying that they’re going to—you know, they’re going to start dealing with reality and try to move towards the—but they can’t help themselves. I mean, Donald Trump said that climate change had been invented by the Chinese in order to destroy American manufacturing. I mean, that’s not even—I mean, that we’re still in 2015 listening to any people who are taken seriously deny the fact of the single most important thing that’s happening on the planet is distressing in the extreme. The good news is that it’s now a great hindrance to the Republicans. When they—whoever they nominate, when they move to the general election, it’s going to cause them great problems that they don’t believe in physics, as it should. Part of our job is to make sure that the Democrat that they face takes seriously enough this prospect and is pushing hard on it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think? Do they? I mean, you’ve got Hillary Clinton. You’ve got Bernie Sanders, fellow Vermonter.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve got who was just in the studio, who you just passed, Martin O’Malley.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yes. You know, Bernie’s been aces up on this from the start. If there’s one guy who—if there’s one guy on Capitol Hill who really helped, say, in the Keystone fight when no one else wanted to touch it, that was Bernie. Hillary is beginning to—you know, again, she can’t bring herself to say anything one way or another about the Keystone pipeline, but she did come out against drilling in the Arctic. You know, we wait and see, as with so many things, from her, but we continue to press, and we continue to hope.

But we don’t put most of our chips, I’ve got to say, in the political process. Or rather, we work hardest on the kind of larger political process of changing the mood of the country and the world. And that project is going extraordinarily well. It was a year ago that 400,000 people were marching through the streets of New York in the biggest demonstration about anything in this country in a long time. There are going to be huge demonstrations in December in Paris. And then, in April, announced yesterday that we’re going to be doing a series of big actions at the 10 biggest, what we call, carbon bombs, these huge deposits of carbon, like the tar sands in Canada or these Australian coal deposits or the Powder River Basin. There’s going to be massive resistance there, because we know that Paris isn’t going to solve our problem.

AMY GOODMAN: What needs to be done for Paris?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, we’ve got to push hard. And, you know, we’ll get more than we did out of Copenhagen, because there is a movement. I mean, you were in Copenhagen. You remember what a travesty it was. And it was because nobody faced any penalty at home when they came back empty-handed.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama flew in. He was the one. And—

BILL McKIBBEN: Flew in. Flew in, flew back empty-handed. No real penalty. He can’t do that now, because there’s a big active movement here and in most other places around the world. The other reason that Copenhagen—or that Paris will be different, the other thing that’s changed is the price of a solar panel has dropped 80 percent in the intervening six years. We’re now at the point where the cheapest, smartest, most obvious, straightforward way to provide energy to all those people on Earth who do not have it is to make sure they have solar panels. And if there’s any kind of commitment at Paris to serious financing on, you know, these questions, then that will happen in the next 10 or 15 years, and it will be a beautiful thing to watch.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what do you expect at the state level has changed heading into Paris in terms of the possibility of reaching some sort of truly progressive agreement?

BILL McKIBBEN: We’re not going to reach anything like the agreement that we need. You’ll remember that the red line that they set in Copenhagen, the only achievement was an agreement that we would try to limit temperature increases to two degrees Celsius. That, in and of itself, is a pretty weak target. We’ve raised the temperature one degree so far, and that’s melted the Arctic. So, really, we probably wouldn’t want to find out what two degrees is going to do. At the moment, however, we’re on a track to four or five degrees. The best outcome from Paris is that these guys will figure out how to get that number down to three, three-and-a-half degrees Celsius, six, seven degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a disastrous scenario, but at least it gives us some idea of the gap that we’ve got to make up by taking on these companies directly, by changing in the next year or two the politics and the economics around this question.

We’re at a tipping point. I mean, look, lots of people are divesting right now. One of the reasons they’re divesting is the morality of these questions. The other reason they’re divesting is they’re losing money hand over fist. Far be it for me to be giving stock tips, but if people had listened to us three years ago at the start of the divestment thing, they would have made a lot of money in the last few years, because these stocks are now reflecting the fact that we simply cannot keep burning carbon in the quantities we’re burning it.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break. Bill McKibben, I want to thank you so much for being with us, co-founder of Tonight he’ll be speaking at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Naomi Klein and others about the environment.

This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute. We’ll talk about immigration in this country, migrating to the United States. Stay with us.

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