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Bill McKibben: To Confront the Climate Crisis, We Need Human Solidarity, Not Walls & Cages

Web ExclusiveSeptember 23, 2019
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Bill McKibben, the longtime journalist and co-founder of 350.org, talks about climate migration, the 2020 Democratic candidates, the Green New Deal and more. 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.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our conversation with Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org. His new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? His latest piece for The New Yorker, “Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns.” And he’s had a cover story in Time magazine, “Hello from the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different.” Yes, Bill McKibben wrote, in 1989, the seminal book, The End of Nature, the first book for a general audience about climate change.

And we’re speaking on the day of the U.N. climate summit, the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations, a few days after the largest climate protest to rock the globe, 4 million people, it’s estimated, in cities all over the world. In fact, your group, Bill McKibben, is the one that was putting out the photos from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Australia to New Zealand to the United States, all over, showing the images of people in the streets, young people and old.

BILL McKIBBEN: It was so much fun to get to back up Fridays for the Future and all the youth organizers here who were doing this, just to be able to watch how good they are at doing this and to really try and build a multigenerational climate movement, which is precisely what we need.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we are here, yes, right after the Climate Action Summit, though there are protests around climate that are happening all over in the next weeks, but also in a presidential primary season. Some eyes might glaze over. How is it possible that for more than a year now we’re going to go through this primary season with these candidates? But others might say, and I think you’re among them, who say, “No, no, no. This is an incredible opportunity.” Candidates are often senators or governors, politicians who are very insulated, in fact, in between times when they have to run. And now there’s this window where they have to respond to the public. And you are certainly using this moment. So I’d like to ask you, of the, what, 20 presidential Democratic presidential candidates that are still out there, the kind of work you’re doing, pressing these candidates to formulate their positions on the climate crisis.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. So, 350 Action, which is the (c)(4) political part of our operation, has been doing its best to turn them all into climate candidates. We set up the kind of original climate scoreboard for the various presidential candidates. And there have been young people out bird-dogging every event, every rope line, or making sure that these guys understand what the bottom line for the climate movement is.

And the bottom line is not having someone say, “I care about climate change. It represents an existential risk.” The bottom line is: Are you signing on to something that looks like the Green New Deal? Are you signing on because it’s within your power as president to do it to announce that there will be no mining and drilling on public lands? And are you saying we’re going to stop fracking around the country?

It’s been incredibly impressive to watch how far this field has moved. Look, four years ago, Bernie broke down this door, you know? He started talking in really serious terms about climate change. You’ll recall in the 2016 debates, in the primaries, at one point they asked, “What’s the most important issue facing the planet?” And Bernie just looked up and said, “Well, I mean, that’s obvious. It’s climate change.” That was something that no American politician really had enunciated before in quite that way.

As with many things, it’s spread across the field now, and so we’re getting remarkable commitments from everyone, pretty much everyone, down the line. Elizabeth Warren, the week before last, said she would stop fracking across America. That’s big deal. It’s all big deal. And it’s all because people are out there making this demand.

We’re not — I mean, assuming that a Democrat wins this time, an assumption on which my future mental health is entirely predicated, because I cannot — I don’t know about the planet, but I can’t take another four years of Trump, OK? Assuming a Democrat wins, we’re not really going to have an open primary next time, you know. There will be an incumbent and whatever. This is our chance in the political system for the next eight years to get these guys fully on the line and as committed as it’s possible to be.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you said making sure they sign on to the Green New Deal. Explain what that is?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, it’s not at this point a solid, fully fleshed-out piece of legislation, but everybody knows what it means now. It means a commitment to systemic change in order to cut in half the emissions that we’re producing over the course of the next decade. That requires things like a federal jobs guarantee, to allow anybody who wants to be part of this transition to do it. You know, it requires real commitments to environmental justice and climate justice in the most hard-hit communities. It requires a hell of a lot of work.

And so, the people who are saying, “Yeah, we’ll do it,” are, I think, signing up for that. At least they’re saying it in public, so we can hold them responsible once they’re in office. It’s worth remembering that politics doesn’t end on Election Day. In fact, that’s just the beginning. After that, it’s the job of — and you’ll recall, I mean, I worked hard for Barack Obama to get elected, and then we organized the largest demonstrations outside the White House during the whole Obama administration in order to make him live up to his words around things like the Keystone pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. I mean, you got arrested outside the White House around Keystone XL.

BILL McKIBBEN: Several times, yes. So, what’s exciting is to watch the ways that movements are meshing. I went to jail last month in a protest in upstate New York, in a small town in upstate New York, about climate change and immigration, because, look, people are streaming to our southern border because they can’t grow food in the drought-stricken highlands of Honduras and Guatemala. The U.N. estimates there’s going to be a billion climate refugees this century. We better come up with something smarter than walls and cages in order to deal with this. We better embrace some kind of expansive ethic of human solidarity that allows a world to be in movement when it has to be in movement now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, rather than people’s eyes glazing over at the primary and just waiting for these debates that the corporate networks hold, these candidates are going out all over the country, and they’re in small meetings. They’re in large gatherings.

BILL McKIBBEN: No, not — it must be said, not all over the country.


BILL McKIBBEN: Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa and New Hampshire, and, increasingly, they’ll be in Nevada and South Carolina and, very usefully, in California, which has an early primary this year, and people are going to be paying attention to it. So, it’s really, really crucial. You know, the seven-hour climate town hall was not — you know, it was powerful because each of these guys had to sit still and talk for 40 minutes about climate change. And every politician has two or three minutes’ worth of talk on any subject on the planet. That’s what they do. But 40 minutes required them actually to learn some things, to go a little deep, to demonstrate some kind of comprehension of the greatest problem we’ve ever faced.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the insurance industry. In Part 1, we talked about the banks. What role does the insurance industry play?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, insurance, like banks, is a huge pool of money, which they invest in the fossil fuel industry. But more importantly, if you want to build anything on this planet — a new pipeline, a new LNG export terminal, whatever — you need insurance. No one’s going to invest in anything that isn’t insured, because — well, because there’s too much risk. So the insurance companies, simply by refusing to underwrite new projects, could stop the fossil fuel industry more or less dead in its tracks.

And they should, because other divisions of each of these companies have all the data to demonstrate just how completely screwed we are because of climate change. I mean, the insurance industry are the people on our planet we ask to analyze risk. And what are they doing? They’re now telling California homeowners and Florida homeowners they can’t have insurance anymore, because no one can insure against the now, you know, probability of wildfire and hurricane. We need them to stop helping the fossil fuel industry make this worse.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you let people know about these connections?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, that’s why I wrote this article in The New Yorker highlighting the really good work that people have been doing at places like the Sunrise Project in Australia on these issues. There’s a campaign called Insure Our Future that’s working hard on it. But we do need to bring it to the next level, because we don’t have much time.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, where the activism goes from here? We talked about the presidential race here in the United States, this massive climate protest. But I also go back to 2003 and think about February 15th. Ultimately, it would be just a month before the U.S. would invade Iraq. But millions of people rocked the globe for peace on that February 15th, freezing cold day in New York, subfreezing temperatures, but people came out. But still, at that time it was President Bush, invades Iraq. Where does the climate activism go today?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, I mean, the good news — the difference is that here there are a thousand pressure points. There, there was one guy making a decision. Climate change isn’t like that. And so we attack it on every possible front.

I think a lot of the work is — I think the analysis is, there are two sources of power on our planet: There’s political power, and there is economic power. They’re often interlinked, but we can press them from different directions. We have to win elections. We have to push for change in Congress. We have to pass the Green New Deal. We also have to shut off the flow of money to the fossil fuel industry. And, you know, that involves going after Wall Street at least as hard as we go after the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bill McKibben, I want to thank you for being with us, co-founder of 350.org. His new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? We’ll also link to his piece in The New Yorker, “Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns,” and his cover story for Time magazine headlined “Hello from the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different.”

Go to Part 1 of our conversation with Bill McKibben at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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