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Bill McKibben on Exxon, the Power of Divestment, and Being Targeted by Shadowy Right-Wing Group

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On Wednesday, ExxonMobil shareholders rejected a series of resolutions calling for climate action. It was the first Exxon annual meeting since a series of revelations that for decades the company covered up its own scientific findings linking rising carbon emissions to dangerous climate change. For more, we’re joined by Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org. His recent piece for The Guardian is headlined “Let’s give up the climate change charade: Exxon won’t change its stripes.” McKibben was once arrested in a one-person protest outside an Exxon gas station, where he was holding a sign that read: “This pump temporarily closed because ExxonMobil lied about climate.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to Anna Kalinsky, who’s speaking to us from Dallas, where she just spoke up at the Exxon shareholders meeting, challenging the Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson, talking about her grandfather’s findings, oh, decades ago, we’re joined by Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org and a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College. His recent piece in The Guardian is headlined “Let’s give up the climate change charade: Exxon won’t change its stripes.”

Bill, we’re speaking to you at your home in Middlebury, Vermont. Can you talk about what happened at the Exxon meeting, its significance, what shareholder resolutions were voted down, and where you believe the movement should go from here?

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. First of all, just to say, Anna, what a good job yesterday! And that’s not an easy thing to do, to get up in an auditorium like that and speak—literally speak truth to power. So, good for you.

Look, what happened yesterday at the Exxon meeting is the same thing that’s happened at every Exxon meeting since 1990. There have now been upwards of 70 shareholder resolutions put forward to do something about climate change, and most of them incredibly mild, merely “give us a report about what you plan to somehow do someday to deal with some direction with climate change.” Every single one of them has been voted down. That’s why, you know, the Rockefellers, whose family founded the darn company, divested all their stock and gave up in trying to change that way a year or so ago, and instead joined this huge, growing movement to demand real change. And I’ll note that—one very good piece of good news yesterday: While Exxon was stonewalling and continuing its time-honored traditions, University of Massachusetts became the largest public university system to divest from all fossil fuels, which was a very powerful moment, indeed, in this big campaign.

I should add, too, that it’s not just Exxon, though Exxon—because, as Anna says, we now know that they knew everything about climate change, that there’s a sort of particular—a particular horror in their story. But earlier this week at their annual meeting, the CEO of Shell said—explained that we didn’t want to switch to renewables too quickly because that would, quote, “imperil the dividends,” unquote. We’re living in a world, as you know, Amy, that’s basically sliding out of control. 2016 is crashing every record we’ve ever had for high temperature. We’re losing vast swaths of coral reef. We’ve got unprecedentedly large early season fires burning in the boreal north. And this guy thinks the thing that’s in peril is his dividends? That should tell you what you need to know.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Bill McKibben, could you say something about the progress that the divestment movement has made and why you think divestment is likely to be a more successful strategy with Exxon in getting them to change their climate policy?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, I think that the real point of the divestment movement has been to kind of withdraw social license from these fossil fuel companies, and thereby reduce their political power. The reason we haven’t gotten anywhere on climate change for the 40 years that we’ve known about it is precisely because these guys wield so much political power. I mean, look, Exxon knew perfectly well that what Anna’s grandfather was saying was correct. They set to work climate-proofing all their own drilling rigs and other installations to account for the sea level rise they now knew was coming. But at the same time, they set up this vast framework, with others, of climate denial and deceit and disinformation. And they continue to, you know, hand out campaign checks to precisely the politicians that make sure nothing ever happens on these issues.

So, the point, at this point, is to use this divestment movement as a vehicle to get that across. And it is working. It’s not just, or even mainly, that there have been—it became the biggest divestment movement ever. I think at this point, you know, we’re closing in on $4 trillion worth of portfolios and endowments that have divested. The point is that it’s taken the basic message, the message that we have five times as much carbon in our reserves than any scientist thinks we could possibly burn, and it’s gotten that through. You know, three or four years ago, that was people like me writing in, you know, Rolling Stone. Now it’s the head of the World Bank, the head of the IMF, the governor of the Bank of England speaking to the world’s insurance industry at Lloyd’s of London. That message is getting through everywhere except Exxon and its ilk. Yesterday, Mr. Tillerson was boasting about how the company was going out and making new finds of oil in new places around the world. We have five times as much carbon in our reserves already as we can burn. The idea that we should celebrate the exploration for new hydrocarbons at this point goes past irony into some dark place that I don’t really have a name for.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, Jane Mayer just did another major New Yorker piece, this one called “Sting of Myself,” about a shadowy right-wing organization, America Rising Squared, that targets you, Bill McKibben. Can you talk about this?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, not really, because, as you say, their—you know, no one knows where their money is coming from and things. I just know that now when I go out to speak, there are always people trailing around after me with video cameras and things. They said that it was—that they were—that it was the first time they—you know, anyone had done this on this scale to someone who wasn’t running for president, which I have not the slightest desire to run for or anything like it. I don’t know quite what to make of it, except it’s sort of creepy. But there you go. It’s—you know, on the list of problems afflicting the world, it’s probably somewhat smaller than the fact that we just lost a huge part of the world’s coral reefs in the course of two weeks as this pulse of hot water—

AMY GOODMAN: But what’s the group, and who is targeting your? Who’s funding it? And how do you know this is happening?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, we know it’s happening because they announced it. They sent out a memo to Politico saying that they were spending all this money and having trackers everywhere. And now they’ve put up little, you know, few-second clips of me, not of anything me speaking, just of me in wherever I am, to prove that they’re there. And I don’t know what’s going to come of it. And no one knows who’s funding it. But, you know, it is what it is.

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