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Bill McKibben: Youth Who Led Global Climate Strike Are Bringing a New “Spirit” to Climate Fight

StorySeptember 23, 2019
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Following Friday’s youth-led climate strike — the largest-ever global protest focused on climate — we speak with Bill McKibben, longtime journalist and co-founder of McKibben’s latest piece for The New Yorker is titled “Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns,” and his cover piece for Time magazine is headlined “Hello from the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different.” McKibben’s 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” was the first book for a general audience about climate change.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. World leaders are gathering today here in New York for a one-day U.N. Climate Action Summit. Dozens of world leaders are planning to address the summit, but President Trump is skipping the gathering. Instead, he plans to attend a U.N. event focused on religious freedom and religious persecution.

Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Organization has just released an alarming new report warning that the five-year period from 2014 to 2019 is the hottest on record, marked by accelerating sea level rise and soaring carbon emissions.

Today’s summit comes three days after 4 million people took part in a Global Climate Strike. And the protests are continuing. Climate activists in Washington, D.C., are attempting right now to block morning rush-hour traffic.

As we continue our climate coverage, we turn to Bill McKibben, the longtime journalist, co-founder of Bill McKibben’s 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first book for a general audience about the climate crisis. His other books include Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? His latest piece for The New Yorker is going viral, its headline, “Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns.” He also recently had the cover story of Time magazine, his piece called “Hello from the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different.”

Bill McKibben, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, after your journey to Washington, in Congress last week, for all that was happening there, then in the streets here in New York on Friday for the Global Climate Strike. Talk about your experience of this.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, look, Amy, I’ve had the privilege of getting to be a part of every one of the global mobilizations over the last 10 years. And Friday was really different. It was a quantum step up in numbers, but also in spirit. You know, you were down at the Battery, and your crew did an amazing job. And it was all ages, and it looked like New York. It was as diverse as this city, and the same was true all over the world. It was such a privilege to get to have 350 kind of help out behind the scenes around the planet, because we got to look at these pictures as they were flooding in from everywhere.

You know, there were a couple of times when — you know, I’m an old guy. I don’t cry easy. But there were a couple of times when I — there was a picture from Kabul, in Afghanistan. A girls’ school walked out in protest. Of course, it’s dangerous, so there were soldiers, front and back of them. But just to think about that for a minute. I mean, it’s brave for a girl to go to school in Kabul, much less to not go to school and to walk out. There were remarkable pictures from Bangladesh, from across the South Pacific. The earliest pictures were coming in from the Solomon Islands, from people arriving to strike by canoe, a dugout canoe. You know, I mean, just —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, didn’t something like 300,000 Australians protest as the prime minister, the Australian prime minister, is meeting with Trump in Washington, D.C.?

BILL McKIBBEN: That’s right. Scott Morrison was having state dinner with Trump, but there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Australians, some of the biggest demonstrations down under ever.

And by the way, this coming Friday, there’s parts of the world that are going to have — didn’t do it last Friday, are doing it this Friday. So, watch for the pictures from New Zealand, from Spain. In Canada, we think there will be 300,000 or 400,000 people in Montreal alone. So there’s more yet to come in this remarkable, remarkable action.

AMY GOODMAN: In New York, so many young people were going out from their classes that the New York Public Schools administration had to announce they could leave and they wouldn’t be marked absent.

BILL McKIBBEN: That’s right. I think, actually, the city was proud to do it. And clearly, for kids all over the place, this wasn’t a day for no education. This was a day when people were learning all kinds of things and teaching all kinds of things. It was education at its best.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, as I went to Boston on Friday, coming out at the Government Center Metro, thousands and thousands, you know, the young people holding signs: “The oceans are rising, and so are we.” I mean, there — and then they marched to Boston Common, and that was just one little example all over this country.

BILL McKIBBEN: Exactly, exactly. No, it was beautiful. And what it demonstrates is, you know, as the World Meteorological Organization points out, we’re at a tipping point physically. The planet really is starting to break in profound ways. We’re also at a tipping point, maybe, politically. There’s finally enough recognition, enough demand for action, that maybe things will start to happen. Now, how that race between destruction and hope comes out is anybody’s guess. It really depends on how quickly we’re able to mobilize.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to ask you about Washington last week.


AMY GOODMAN: You had Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist, addressing —or, you could say, dressing down — the congressmembers. I want to turn just to a small clip of Greta testifying.

GRETA THUNBERG: My name is Greta Thunberg. I have not come to offer any prepared remarks at this hearing. I am instead attaching my testimony. It is the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius, the SR1.5, which was released on October 8th, 2018. I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Greta Thunberg, speaking before part of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Bill McKibben, you were there.

BILL McKIBBEN: So, a few minutes later, this was my favorite moment. You know, as usual, the congressmen can’t help themselves, are just gassing on for minute after minute, unable to take a cue from Greta’s concise eloquence. One Republican, just on and on and on, “China this, China that,” “Why should we do anything? China’s not doing anything,” yadda yadda yadda. It goes on like this for five minutes.

And Greta looks up at him and says — she said, “I come from a small country called Sweden. In Sweden, sometimes people say, 'Why should we do anything, because the United States is so big and wastes so much?' Just so you know.” It was my favorite moment of congressional testimony in a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to go, speaking of schools, to the divestment movement, because there was massive news last week after the University of California voted to divest from fossil fuel companies. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, two top university investment officials said it was the long-term risk posed by fossil fuel investments, rather than concerns over the environment, that led them to pull some $150 million in fossil fuel assets from the university endowment. In fact, isn’t it bigger, something like $80 billion?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, the endowment portfolio of the University of California system and the pension fund is $80 billion. This is the biggest educational divestment ever and from the biggest public education system on the planet — such a shoutout to the students, professors, alumni, who for seven years have waged an absolutely in-your-face, unrelenting campaign. This is a huge deal.

And the way they announced it was actually sort of quite helpful. They said, “Yeah, we” — I mean, they clearly didn’t want to acknowledge how much work had been done. But they were like, “Yeah, you know what? We’re losing our shirt on fossil fuel. We can’t keep doing this, so we’re out of here.” And that message rings loud and clear.

We’re now — we passed, last week, the $11 trillion mark on divestment. There’s a big gathering, for people who are in New York, Thursday night at Riverside Church, beginning at 7:00, to talk about — you know, to sort of hear about all that’s going on with the divestment and finance movement. There will be some more big surprise announcements there of some really interesting developments. But this campaign has — just keeps burgeoning.

And now, as you said, we’re ready to go to the next step, not just the fossil fuel companies. It’s time to, head on, deal with the banks and insurance companies and asset managers that are providing the lifeline to this fossil fuel industry.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the universities that are still grappling with this. So, you have UC out. That’s going to put enormous pressure on other institutions.

BILL McKIBBEN: Right. Oh, the guy who was saddest to hear the news was, doubtless, the president of Harvard, because they’ve been — they and Yale and everybody else have been, “Oh, we don’t — we can’t do this. None of the big universities will do it.” Well, the biggest of all has now weighed in. I mean, it’s not like the University of California is some fourth-rate enterprise. They’ve won 62 Nobel Prizes. You know, it’s one of the great research institutions in the whole world. And they’ve taken seriously what their scientists said. So now they’re out of climate change stock.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you mentioned the role banks are playing in financing the fossil fuel industry. You cite in your pieces the largest bank in the U.S., JPMorgan Chase. Talk about the banks —


AMY GOODMAN: — and the insurance industry, and the role they play.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. Rainforest Action Network and others have done great work over the last few years in digging up all the data to highlight what’s going on. In the years since Paris, the four big U.S. banks — Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, BofA — have dramatically increased their lending to the fossil fuel industry. Chase is number one with a bullet, as one of the Rainforest Action Network activists said. They lent, over the last three years, $196 billion. So, if the guy who runs Exxon is a sort of carbon giant, so is Jamie Dimon, the guy who runs Chase. I mean, they’re pouring money into the destruction of the planet. They’re doing everything they can to make a profit off that destruction. We’ve got to figure out how to stop that. And I think we will.

AMY GOODMAN: In your Time cover story, you wrote, “Let’s imagine for a moment that we’ve reached the middle of the century. It’s 2050, and we have a moment to reflect — the climate fight remains the consuming battle of our age, but its most intense phase may be in our rearview mirror. And so we can look back to see how we might have managed to dramatically change our society and economy. We had no other choice.” Explain this look back.

BILL McKIBBEN: So, Time asked me to try and imagine a world that actually worked. That’s not easy, because an incredible number of things have to go right from this point on. But if we did everything right from this point, if we cut off the supply of money to the fossil fuel industry, if we passed something like the Green New Deal and implemented it fast, if we did everything necessary to keep fossil fuel in the ground, then we’re not going to stop global warming. That’s off the table. But maybe we can limit it to the point where it doesn’t cut off our civilizations at the knees.

It’s a close question. But if we do, not only will the — if we do those things, not only will the planet survive, our civilization survive, but there’s reason to think that they could thrive, too, that the world that we create will be, above all, a world where we’ve escaped some of the incredibly damaging hyperindividualism of the kind of consumer society we live in now, and replaced it necessarily with a kind of ethic of solidarity. That’s what it’s going to take, because we’re now in a survival challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: Did Nancy Pelosi meet with Greta Thunberg in Congress, Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, who, when mocking the Green New Deal, talked about “the Green dream or whatever they call it”?

BILL McKIBBEN: I think they met briefly, and Chuck Schumer had a bunch of young climate activists in and things. I wouldn’t hold my breath for Congress next week passing the Green New Deal. I do think that there are promising signs out on the campaign trail that the people contesting for the Democratic primary have had no choice, because of the outpouring of feeling around this, to really begin to dramatically reevaluate what the Democratic Party’s going to do in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. Climate Action Summit is taking place today. What’s going to happen at the U.N.? And what about the fact that President Trump, a proud climate change denier, is not attending?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, truthfully, if I were him, I wouldn’t have gone, either, because he would have heard the longest, lustiest boos that any world leader ever got. You know, the U.N. is not going to solve —

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, he was laughed at. And —

BILL McKIBBEN: This year, he would have been. The U.N. is not going to solve the climate problem, but it is important that the secretary-general is doing his best to crack the whip. He told countries they weren’t going to be allowed to talk if they were still opening new coal plants. He told the Japanese and others, “You guys, sorry, you’re actually not going to get up and speak.” It’s a sign that even a place as diplomatic as the U.N. has begun to reach the end of the tether here.

AMY GOODMAN: And then we will be playing on Democracy Now! Greta Thunberg’s speech before that U.N. General Assembly today. She is going to address them. And the U.N. secretary-general said, “You can only speak about your solutions.” Is that right?

BILL McKIBBEN: That’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to ask you to stay with us for a moment — we’re going to post online at — to get your assessment of the presidential candidates and their positions on climate, the climate crisis, global warming and the Green New Deal. That does it for our show. Bill McKibben, co-founder of His latest book is Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Special thanks to our digital fellow Julia Thomas, who was also in the streets of New York City. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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