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Bill McKibben: Green New Deal Is a Chance to “Remake Not Just a Broken Planet, But a Broken Society”

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President Trump signed two executive orders last week to facilitate the approval of pipeline projects at a federal level, limiting states’ ability to regulate such projects. The move is intended in part to clear the way for permitting on the northeastern Constitution pipeline, which has stalled after New York invoked the Clean Water Act to reject the project on environmental grounds. We speak with Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org and the author of the new book “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. President Trump signed two executive orders last week to facilitate the approval of pipeline projects at a federal level, limiting states’ ability to regulate such projects. The move is intended in part to clear the way for permitting on the northeastern Constitution pipeline, which has stalled after New York invoked the Clean Water Act to reject the project on environmental grounds. This is President Trump speaking Wednesday in Crosby, Texas, where he signed the orders.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My first order will speed up the process for approving vital infrastructure on our nation’s borders, such as oil pipelines, roads and railways. It will now take no more than 60 days. That’s a vast improvement. And the president, not the bureaucracy, will have sole authority to make the final decision when we get caught up in problems.

AMY GOODMAN: In response, last week we spoke to Dallas Goldtooth, organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. I asked him to explain the pipeline executive order signed by President Trump.

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: You know, what we’re seeing right now with these executive orders is nothing but an act of aggression against the authority for states to protect their homelands or protect the residents of their state and the lands within the borders of those states, mainly targeting the Clean Water Act. Really, what Trump wants to do is take away the states’ abilities to enforce environmental regulations against pipeline projects or other infrastructure, fossil fuel projects, and take and give that power solely to the federal government. You know, this is—it’s kind of absurd that, you know, Trump, being a representative or the figurehead of the Republican Party, is wholeheartedly endorsing an ideology that the federal government has a final say over what happens within the borders of a state and that the state has very little recourse to address these issues. The other—there are just two executive orders, so that was the first one.

The second one really specifically talked—focuses on the cross-border—the border crossing of pipelines. In this regard, we’re talking about Keystone XL. I know Enbridge, Enbridge Line 3, was also one of those pipelines that had to deal with crossing the border from Canada to transport tar sands oil. And really what the president is trying to do, and he did this a couple weeks ago by approving Keystone XL a second time, is saying that he, as the president, has the sole power to approve these projects, and is encouraging the State Department to say—to act only as advisers to the president to sign these projects.

And there’s something really—something really insidious and dangerous about this, that is just a part, a continuing part, of Trump’s legacy for overreaching his executive powers, is that the president has stated that because he is the president, he is not a federal agency, therefore he’s not beholden to any environmental regulations that federal agencies have to follow, in particular the National Environmental Protection Act, parts of the Clean Water Act. You know, he’s saying that, “As the president, I actually am—I don’t have to follow those, because I’m not a federal agency.” And that’s very, very dangerous precedent to start here, especially as we look towards a rapid expansion of fossil fuel development in this country at this current moment and what we’re trying to fight against in the protection of Mother Earth and the sacredness of the land itself.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dallas Goldtooth, Diné and Dakota organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. You can visit our website to see the full interview with Dallas. Still with us, Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, the global climate organization, his new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? So, there you have Trump in Crosby, Texas, and you have one of the leading indigenous activists responding. But talk about your response last week, Wednesday.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, first of all, it was great to see Dallas, who’s one of the savviest organizers in the whole world and has done an immense amount. And I feel much the same. I mean, what Trump’s trying to do is short-circuit this really effective protest movement that’s been built up around pipelines. In fact, Trump had another—I mean, I’ve got to say I took it almost a little personally, these executive orders, because, see, part of one of them also took aim at the divestment campaign, the fossil fuel divestment campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain that that has—where that is now.

BILL McKIBBEN: We started, the year after some of us started this Keystone resistance, and which turned into a big resistance against pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure, in general, following the lead of indigenous people up in Alberta. The next year, a bunch of us—Naomi Klein and I and others—started this fossil fuel divestment campaign to get institutions to sell their stock. Well, it worked better than we thought it would. It’s become, by some measures, the largest anti-corporate campaign of its kind ever. I think we’re now at $8 trillion worth of endowments and portfolios that have divested in part or in whole.

And it’s really beginning to take a toll on the industry. Earlier this year, Shell said in its annual report that divestment had become a material risk to its business. A couple of weeks ago, the heads of many of the biggest coal firms in the world were at a Houston energy conference, and they were quoted by Politico as explaining that they just could not find capital anymore for new coal projects. Too many funds had divested. People had been scared off.

That’s why Trump’s trying to push back on that and on pipelines. I think, in so doing, he’s done us, in a sense, a favor. I mean, it’s pretty much like he’s providing the blueprints to the climate death star, you know, and saying, “Here are the couple of places you might want to push really hard, because it clearly hurts.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell me if you think this will add to that movement: President Trump coming under fire earlier this month for falsely claiming windmills cause cancer. He made the remarks in a speech to the National Republican Congressional Committee, where he touted U.S. oil and gas drilling while mocking renewable energy.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations. Your house just went down 75% in value. And they say the noise causes cancer. You told me that one, OK? Whirr! Whirr!

AMY GOODMAN: Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley called Trump’s remark “idiotic,” saying, quote, “I wish his staff would tell him I’m the father and now the grandfather of wind energy tax credits.”

BILL McKIBBEN: Look, Trump is obviously a ludicrous buffoon in almost every situation, but never more so than here. His dislike of windmills dates to his desire for a Scottish golf course where no golfer would have to see one in the distance. But what he’s—the reason that Grassley is standing up for this is because places like Iowa now make a ton of money off the wind. It’s not like anyone is going to defeat these technologies. Wind and sun are free. That’s why they’re coming so fast.

What the fossil fuel industry, with Trump as one of its helpers, wants to do is slow that transition down, stretch it out, so that their current business model can last a couple more decades. The problem with that is that if we don’t get action really soon, if we let it stretch out, those are the decades that will finish the work of breaking the planet. It’s why the urgency of something like the Green New Deal is so crucial.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, the Seychelles President Danny Faure visited a British-led science expedition exploring the depths of the Indian Ocean. From there, he gave an impassioned speech on climate change inside a manned underwater submersible, 400 feet below the ocean’s surface.

PRESIDENT DANNY FAURE: The ocean is huge, covering almost 70% of our planet, but we have managed to seriously impact this vast environment through climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, plastic and other pollution and other threats. From this depth, I can see the incredible wildlife that needs our protection, and the consequences of damaging this huge ecosystem that has existed for millennia. … We must act accordingly. This issue is bigger than all of us. And we cannot wait for the next generation to solve it. We are running out of excuses to not take action, and running out of time.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Seychelles President Danny Faure, again, speaking 400 feet below the Indian Ocean’s surface. Bill?

BILL McKIBBEN: It reminds me so much of watching Mohamed Nasheed from the Maldives take his whole Cabinet down in scuba gear for a Cabinet meeting to send the U.N., a decade ago, a message that we had to get back to 350 parts per million. It is now, at this point, the leadership of those most vulnerable states, the low-lying island states, places like Bangladesh, they are—I mean, the hair on fire is much too subtle an understatement. They understand that the absolute survival of the places where they live and the oceans around them is now at stake. You’d say they were the canaries in the coal mine, if it wasn’t such a horrible metaphor, at this point. They’re on the cutting edge. And remember that it’s their citizens who are really on the forefront of this movement everywhere. I dedicate this new book to our colleague Koreti Tiumalu in Fiji, who was one of the greatest activists we ever met, in the Pacific Climate Warriors.

AMY GOODMAN: Going from them and from the Seychelles president to 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who has inspired this global student strike. She was speaking just a few weeks ago for a call for more action on climate. This is Greta recently addressing a rally in Berlin.

GRETA THUNBERG: The older generations have failed tackling the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. When we say to them that we are worried about the future of our civilization, they just pat on our heads, saying, “Everything will be fine. Don’t worry.” But we should worry. We should panic. And by panic, I don’t mean running around screaming. By panic, I mean stepping out of our comfort zones.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Greta Thunberg. She was speaking in Berlin. When she first did her vigil alone for three weeks in front of the Swedish parliament, and MPs were saying to her, “Go to school,” she said, “We have done our homework, and that’s why I’m here.”

BILL McKIBBEN: She’s an amazing force. I mean, her basic point is, if governments can’t be bothered to prepare the world for climate change, it’s a little rich to demand that I sit in school all day preparing myself for the future. And it’s a message that’s amplified and resonated. There were millions of schoolchildren out on March 15th.

And now it’s time for adults to heed the call. Those kids were saying, in one rally after another, “We need adults backing us up.” Watch, over the next few months, as people try to organize the adult equivalent of those strikes, getting people out of their businesses for a day at a time, because if you think about it, I mean, they’re disrupting education as usual. We need to disrupt business as usual, because it’s business as usual, literally, that’s doing us in. It’s the fact that we just keep doing, going on doing what we’re doing, not changing in any dramatic way, at a moment when the world demands transformation.

AMY GOODMAN: People are more active than they’ve ever been on climate change. Talk about the change in understanding across the political spectrum in this country. This country’s so important because it’s historically the greatest greenhouse gas emitter. But also, you say, look at people, and look at me here with my computer in my hand, an extension of the human body.

BILL McKIBBEN: Look, we’re in a climate moment now. OK? That’s good news, something. The IPCC report last fall that gave us 10 years to make a change, the fires in California, the rise of the Green New Deal, somehow these things have finally captured people’s attention. So, as we enter, say, this presidential cycle, as you know, we used to fret and complain because they never had asked a question at any presidential debate about climate change. Well, I’m not worried about that, going forward. That’s going to be one of, if not the biggest question. Candidate after candidate, as they announce for president, are saying this is the most important issue that we face. Buttigieg said it yesterday in South Bend. That’s really important.

The question now is: Can we commit people to moving quickly enough? This is one of these places where I have to kind of restrain myself from saying, “Oh, if only you had listened to me when,” because—

AMY GOODMAN: Thirty years ago.

BILL McKIBBEN: —30 years ago, there were—30 years ago, there were things we could do that weren’t very hard. If we had made some fairly small adjustments, put a price on carbon, say, or something, we’d be on a very different trajectory now. Having let the fossil fuel industry delay action for three decades, we’re now at the point where everything is hard. And it’s going to be, for even the bravest politicians, a real stretch.

AMY GOODMAN: And you talk about this being a climate moment. It’s an everything moment for 2020. And you see this in the Democrats, for example, close to 20 now who are running for president.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You have Jay Inslee of Washington state, the governor, running, saying climate change is his only issue.

BILL McKIBBEN: Only issue. What’s interesting this time is—and, you know, the way that we’re thinking about it at 350 Action and, I think, a lot of environmentalists are thinking about it, is, we actually need all 20 of them to be climate candidates. What we’re playing for now is less a set of policies, though the Green New Deal is the set of policies that we’re going to need, but what we’re playing for most of all is a change in the zeitgeist, a sense of what’s natural and obvious and normal, going forward. And if we can get that change, then the legislation will follow rather easily. The point is getting that across, taking us from the place where we weren’t paying attention to climate to the place where we’re understanding that it is the issue of our time.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, when we talk about it as the issue, it’s part and parcel with the inequality in this country, the power of these economic giants. You have, for example, oh, Chase, Seattle activists recently rallying against Chase Bank’s alleged—of their investments in fossil fuels.

BILL McKIBBEN: They shut down 44 branches last week.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about—and then talk about JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, their response to all of this.

BILL McKIBBEN: So, the financial community, we really need them to step up. Most of them have issued reports announcing that they care about climate change, but they keep the money spigot open for the fossil fuel industry. That’s why people are able to build pipelines, because people keep lending them money. And so, increasingly, there’s pressure on the banking sector.

And the other place where you’re going to see more and more of it is pressure on the insurance sector. They have more money than anybody. And they should know better. They’re the ones with the actuarial tables demonstrating just what hot water we’re in, and yet they continue to lend money to the fossil fuel industry, too. The pressure on these guys to stop and change their ways is only going to grow more intense.

Look, this whole complex of the fossil fuel industry and the financiers who back them, they’re the Philip Morris of today. The only difference is, you know, where Philip Morris took us out one smoker at a time, Exxon is figuring out how to take us out one planet at a time. And that’s why the resistance is growing more vocal, angrier.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the Green New Deal, this paradigm-shattering approach that McConnell tried to humiliate the whole idea of by taking a vote at this moment, when even those who supported it didn’t want this to happen. The power of this new Congress, people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and what the Green New Deal means to you?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, partly, it’s great personal appreciation, because the kids who are doing it, this Sunrise Movement, which is a wonderful outfit, an awful lot of them, maybe most of them, cut their teeth on college campuses as part of this divestment movement. And it’s a reminder of how movements grow. But now they’ve introduced this legislation that is the first time we’ve had an answer to climate change that’s on the same scale as the problem itself. That’s why it’s important. It gets the scale right, and it understands that at this point we have to address it alongside inequality, alongside the economic insecurity that people suffer from, that this is an enormous crisis, but also an opportunity to remake not just a broken planet, but a broken society.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, his new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? We’ll do Part 2 of this discussion and really look at artificial intelligence and why that is so significant to him, the threat he is talking about, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org.

When we come back, we’ll speak with investigative reporter Allan Nairn in Indonesia on the elections that are taking place there and what he has discovered about one of the leading presidential candidates, Prabowo. His plans to make mass arrests of political opponents? Stay with us.

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