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Bill McKibben: Obama Can Salvage His Climate Legacy by Rejecting Keystone XL Oil Pipeline

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Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of 350.org, joins us to discuss “Draw the Line,” a national day of action this Saturday to protest the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Already this week on Monday, 13 people were arrested during a protest in Houston in front of the offices of TransCanada, the company behind the controversial project. McKibben has just come out with the new book, “Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.” McKibben argues that Obama’s pending decision on whether to approve or reject the Keystone XL’s construction is a historic opportunity. “If [Obama] says no to the Keystone pipeline, he will be the first world leader ever to say, 'Here is something we are not going to build because of its effect on the climate,'” McKibben says. “It might have the effect of unfreezing the climate negotiations that have been wrecked ever since Copenhagen … Sometimes Obama, correctly, can blame his absurd Congress. But in the case of the Keystone pipeline, he gets to make the call himself. So he darn well better make that call.”

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue now with Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of 350.org, which has called for a day of action this Saturday to protest the Keystone XL and demand that President Obama stop the proposed pipeline. Already this week on Monday, 13 people were arrested during a protest in Houston in front of the offices of TransCanada, the company behind the controversial project. Also this week, Bill McKibben’s new book was released. It’s called Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist_. You can go to our website to read chapter onehoney.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power is set to hold a hearing on President Obama’s plan to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. EPA chief Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz are scheduled to testify about why the plan is necessary. Out of the 17 Republican members of the committee, 14 of them have publicly disputed the existence of climate change.

Bill McKibben, do you feel there have been advances in awareness of climate change? Talk about the activism you’re engaged in right now.

BILL McKIBBEN: I think what’s going on is the fight is sharpening, OK? People are getting engaged, and the fight over the Keystone pipeline is a good example. When we started this two years ago, everybody said, “Oh, it’s a done deal. You’ve got no chance.” But people all over the country stood up—this leaderless, sprawling, interesting movement.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what it is.

BILL McKIBBEN: This is pipeline down under the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. People who are opposing it are indigenous allies, First Nations people in Canada—because it’s a disaster up there—farmers and ranchers along the route, and then people all over the country—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what are some of the effects?

BILL McKIBBEN: —who understood its climate effects.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are some of the climate effects that are anticipated?

BILL McKIBBEN: Jim Hansen at NASA said, if you tap into, if you burn all that economically recoverable oil up there in Alberta, then it’s game over for the planet. There’s just too much carbon. I mean, there’s eight or 10 of these formations around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: What is it about that oil?


AMY GOODMAN: Tar sands.

BILL McKIBBEN: —incredibly dirty stuff. They call it bitumen. It’s oil mixed with sand. So you have to—not only is it dirty like all oil in terms of carbon emissions, but it’s extra dirty because you’ve got to heat it up or whatever to get it out of the ground in the first place. I was just up there this summer to look at the tar sands complex, and the—I mean, the technical name, I think, for what was going on up there is Mordor. I mean, it is unbelievable. You just can’t imagine how gruesome it is.

But its biggest effect, in the end, is the pool of carbon that it pours into the atmosphere, that drives the global warming that accounts for the pictures you just showed from Colorado. We’ve destabilized the planet’s climate system, and the only question is how much farther we’re going to go. We’ve raised the temperature of the planet one degree already. But the scientists who told us that would happen now tell us we’ll raise it three or four degrees before the century is out, unless we get off coal and gas and oil. And if it goes up anything like that, then all you’re going to ever be talking about by—you or your successors, by mid-century, are just an endless series of those kind of images. What we call civilization will just be a big disaster response operation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And when is President Obama expected to make a decision on the pipeline? And so, why this protest this Saturday, the planned day of action?

BILL McKIBBEN: Sometime—sometime in the next year he’s supposed to make a decision. For a while we were happy with delay, because it was, in a way, all that we could hope for. But now it’s become very clear that this is an opportunity for the president. If he says no to the Keystone pipeline, he’ll be the first world leader ever to say, “Here’s something we’re not going to build because of its effect on the climate.” That would be a big deal. It might have the effect of unfreezing the climate negotiations that have been wrecked ever since Copenhagen, which, if you think about it—

AMY GOODMAN: Who wrecked them?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, I mean, it was a joint wreckage effort, but it’s clearly the blackest mark on the Obama record. I mean, in 50 years, people will look back at this administration, and they won’t really remember much about the sequester or the war in Libya or whatever it is; they’ll think, “Huh, this was our chance here at Copenhagen, and nothing happened, and the world’s sole superpower was a big part in nothing happening.” Some of the time Obama, correctly, can blame his absurd Congress. But in the case of the Keystone pipeline, he gets to make the call himself, so he darn well better make that call.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve certainly laid the groundwork, 350.org and many other environmental groups. Take us on the timeline, why it’s come to this point where a decision wasn’t released a while ago. A couple of summers ago, when he was in Martha’s Vineyard with his family, you guys engaged in this civil disobedience. Twelve hundred of you were arrested. And then talk about what happened next.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. So that was the biggest civil disobedience action in 30 years in this country about anything: 1,253 people went to jail. And that sort of brought this issue, which no one knew about, to public attention. And then we followed the president around the country and sort of bird-dogged him, and very politely, really, people would chant, “Yes, we can stop the pipeline,” surrounded the White House with 15,000 people, sort of five deep, shoulder to shoulder. A few days after that, he said, “OK we’ll take a year and study this.” Now, there were people who said that was cynical, it would just get him past the election. Maybe so. You know, what do I know? But we’re now, obviously, past the election.

AMY GOODMAN: Then they did a study, the State Department.

BILL McKIBBEN: State Department does a series of incredibly bad environmental impact statements that somehow have found it makes no difference that you, you know, tap into these tar sands.

AMY GOODMAN: And who was the contractor that did the study?

BILL McKIBBEN: That—one of the reasons they’ve been weak is because they’ve essentially hired the friends of the pipeline company to do this. I mean, all of that’s just this endless, ongoing saga of corruption and lobbying and influence peddling.

AMY GOODMAN: But, perhaps, wouldn’t have been exposed if it weren’t for the activism.

BILL McKIBBEN: If we hadn’t—I think that’s right. If people hadn’t started down this path, then we wouldn’t. And it makes one wonder what goes on in all the cases where no one bothers to, you know, raise a ruckus. But in the end—from the beginning and to the end, this has been a question about Barack Obama, in the end. And, you know, if he does the right thing here, he’ll have at least the beginnings of some kind of legacy on climate. If he does the wrong thing, I’m afraid it’s one more of these cases, maybe the most egregious, where we look at him and say, “Eh, big talk, small action.”

AMY GOODMAN: Your book, Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist — a lot of people just know you as an activist, certainly not an unlikely one, but talk about the honey part.


AMY GOODMAN: We’ve just heard about the oil part.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yes. So, I’ve been on the road a lot, too much, and I’m going to be on the road less, because I want to get back and spend time in Vermont—that describe the work of my neighbor, first real chemical-free apiarist, beekeeper, in the country, a wonderful man named Kirk Webster. And it’s incurred a counterpoint to this other work that I’ve been doing. It’s about the local and the global, because we need to work on both fronts. We’ve got to build the kind of beautiful local economies that we’re starting to build in places like Vermont.

In counterpoint, sadly, we also have to work globally, because those global forces come to local places. Vermont—I mean, the pictures you’re showing today of Colorado were pictures of Vermont two years ago. And along with the roads and bridges, one of the things that got washed away were an awful lot of the beautiful, small organic farms that people had built over the last 20 years, you know? They were on river bottoms, and in 10 minutes they went from fertile soil to rocks and sand. There’s no way to escape. We have to both do that work close to home and do that work out in the world. So, really, that’s what the book is about.

But the best parts really are about the bees. One of the things that, really, I finally figured out, watching the bees, was a little bit about movements. You know, bees do this, their work, really without much leadership. It’s a cooperative operation, and a highly effective one. It’s the same kind of movement we’re trying to build around climate. It does not depend on great leaders. There is no Dr. King. What there is, is now this linked effort of thousands of groups around the country and around the world, who work on local things, but when the need arises, like this Saturday when we’re doing this nationwide protest on Keystone XL, they come together also to make those statements. People are getting sophisticated enough, I’m getting sophisticated enough, finally, to understand sort of how this local and global intermesh with each other. And it’s an exciting moment in that way. Who knows whether we started in time to get ahead of the curve of climate change? I mean, right now physics is winning. But people all over the world, really, are doing their best now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why are bees important, can you explain, for the environment?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, bees are—I mean, bees are a whole other story in and of themselves. And they’re not faring well, as you know. There were stories in the Times a few months ago saying we may have lost half the beehives in the country this year. A variety of things are happening. Climate change is playing some role, but there’s also this new class of pesticides, the neonicotinoids, that seem to be doing huge damage to bees. In Europe, they have now been banned, but of course in our republic the power of Big Ag has been enough to make sure that we’re going to keep killing bees a season or two more. It’s crazy. I mean, you know, there’s certain things we just absolutely need. One of them are the incredible services of the billions of bees who pollinate most of what we eat. And there’s no substitute. I mean, there are no drone bees we can go and build in a lab and send them out to do it. You can’t—you know, there’s not enough Americans to go pollinate by hand all the things that need pollinating. It’s crazy to be letting one of our great resources just disappear. But that’s increasingly what we’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: So you head to Seattle on Saturday?

BILL McKIBBEN: I’ll be in Seattle for this Draw—we’re calling Draw the Line Against Keystone XL, and one of the points we’re making is, look, if you’re worried about drawing—putting a red line against a deadly gas, this is one case where we can do it without dropping a missile on anybody. All we need to do is stand up to this pipeline, and it’s within the power of the president to do it all by himself.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, we want to thank you very much for being with us. We will post the first chapter of your book, Oil and Honey, online at democracynow.org. Bill McKibben is the co-founder of 350.org. The day of action has been called for Saturday to protest the Keystone XL and demand of President Obama to stop the proposed pipeline.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll be joined by a man whose name has become synonymous with the movement against fast food, who wrote Fast Food Nation. Now he’s written a new book, and it’s called Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. It’s Damascus, Arkansas. Stay with us.

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