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Bill McKibben on Earth Day at 50: We Must Stop Subsidizing Fossil Fuel Industry Wrecking the Planet

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, when more than 20 million Americans joined in actions to protect the environment — 10% of the U.S. population at the time. Half a century later, in the middle of a pandemic, protests planned around the world have moved online, and the Trump administration has gutted the Environmental Protection Agency — established not long after Earth Day — rolled back fuel economy standards and eased the enforcement of pollution regulations. “The countries that flattened the coronavirus curve early on are doing far better than those like ours, which delayed,” says Bill McKibben, author, educator, environmentalist and co-founder of 350.org. “That’s a pretty perfect analog to the 30 years that we’ve wasted in the climate crisis.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we mark this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, started have a century ago. Ten percent of the U.S. population participated in events.

We are joined by Bill McKibben, who is the founder of 350.org, author, educator, environmentalist. His latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? His recent piece in The New Yorker, “How We Can Build a Hardier World After the Coronavirus.” And in The Nation, he wrote a piece, “This Earth Day, Stop the Money Pipeline.”

Bill, we’re going to try this again, from your home in Vermont, hope we have a better connection. Talk about the significance of this Earth Day 50 years later, and what needs to happen now in the midst of this pandemic.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. And thanks for bearing with me in the midst of all the rearrangements we’re all making in our lives.

Look, 50 years ago, as you say, was probably the biggest day of political action in American history, and it came out of the fury over the dirty air and the dirty water that marked our country. People were wearing surgical masks 50 years ago today, too, but they were doing it to protest the almost unbreathable air in many of our cities, the kind of air we now see in places like Beijing and Delhi. Those early warriors, we owe a great debt of thanks to, because they changed the zeitgeist, and in the wake of that massive show of protest, President Nixon, conservative Republican, signed the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, everything else — all the acts that Donald Trump is systematically trying to gut. That was a remarkable accomplishment, and our air and water are cleaner, but we didn’t make the kind of systemic, fundamental changes that we would have needed to head off the much deeper environmental perils that face us now.

I mean, in the last 50 years, Amy, the temperature has obviously gone sharply up. We’ve lost half the sea ice in the summer Arctic. The chemistry of the oceans has changed, and changed dramatically. We’ve lost some of the biggest living things on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef, large parts of our rainforests. Half the wild animals in the world are dead now compared to 40 years ago.

Those are remarkable changes that need to be met with remarkable upsurge again in protest and action. And we’re seeing some of that. And we’ll see some of it today, albeit online, at this 72 hours of Earth Day online live. It begins at 9:00 on Earth Day morning. It’s a struggle, a deeper struggle than we’ve ever seen before. And the salience of that struggle is highlighted as we deal with the pandemic.

What are the messages that come out of this strange moment in human history? One, that reality is real, that you can’t hector or fight with or force to negotiate or compromise chemistry or physics or biology. Both the COVID microbe and the carbon dioxide molecule are immune to political persuasion, no matter how much our president yells at them. If they say, “Stand six feet apart,” we stand six feet apart. If they say, “It’s time to stop burning coal and gas and oil,” then that’s what we need to do.

Similarly, we’re learning lessons about delay and timing here that are crucial. As you know, the countries that flattened the coronavirus curve early on are doing far better than those like ours, which delayed. That’s a pretty perfect analog to the 30 years that we’ve wasted in the climate crisis.

And I think, third, maybe most powerfully, the lesson that we’re learning is social solidarity is almost everything. You know, Amy, this era in our political life began, in a sense, with Ronald Reagan announcing that the nine scariest words in the English language were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” But those aren’t the scariest words in the English language. The scariest words are “We’ve run out of ventilators,” “The hillside behind your house has caught on fire.” And those kind of things, we can only face together. So, maybe, maybe we’ll see the beginning of the end of this doctrine of every man for himself, as we come through this linked —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bill —

BILL McKIBBEN: — and escalating series of crises.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bill, I wanted to ask you —

BILL McKIBBEN: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Given the — ironically, this pandemic has led to a situation where the air on Earth is probably cleaner, as I think you’ve remarked, than at any time in recent memory, as a result of so many planes being grounded, so many cars unable to — the passengers get into them, and so much of industry ground to a halt. I’m wondering your thoughts about how the pandemic is going to affect the battle over climate change in the future.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, so, there are people on Earth, Juan, who are getting literally their first lungfuls of clean air this month, in their lives. And as we’re worrying about the [inaudible] we must, that comes with coronavirus, we should think also of all the other things that go after our lungs. We [inaudible] a million children in Delhi [inaudible] just from breathing the air. So, there’s definitely some — there’s definitely a kind of kinship, that even as we all live through the horror of this pandemic, there are people who are glimpsing the way that the world could be. If we all go straight [inaudible] normal, it won’t mean very much. [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: Bill — 

BILL McKIBBEN: — normal looks like, then —

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, we’re going to try to fix your — we’re going to try to fix this feed a little better, but I do want to read what Trump tweeted again. We said it earlier. He said, “We will never let the great U.S. Oil & Gas Industry down. I have instructed the Secretary of Energy and Secretary of the Treasury to formulate a plan which will make funds available so that these very important companies and jobs will be secured long into the future!” Can you, Bill McKibben, respond to what he is saying right now in the midst of this pandemic?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, the great oil and gas industry has been subsidized for a hundred years with trillions of dollars in taxpayer money. And now there’s no demand for its product, and it’s being [inaudible]. So, the oil industry is in huge trouble. We saw great news yesterday when Oxford University, most famous university on Earth, divested from fossil fuel, on the theory that you could never — that it’s both immoral and uneconomical; more good news this morning, when the American University did the same thing here in the States. These are powerful signs.

And yes, all they’ve got left is kind of political juice, and Trump will do everything he can to try and bail them out with our money. We’ve got to try and make sure that that doesn’t happen, that workers get protected, that we have a just transition for people who, through no fault of their own, are employed in that industry. But it’s folly of the highest order to continue subsidizing an industry that, A, is wrecking the planet and, B, no longer makes any economic sense.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bill, I wanted to ask you about your emphasis of late on cutting off the money spigot for the fossil fuel industry. There’s the announcement recently of Citigroup that they are going to — the third-largest bank in the United States, that they’re going to, from now on, not invest in new coal-fired power plants or oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Circle. Is this movement beginning to have a real impact on the financial underpinnings of the fossil fuel industry?

BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah, Juan, it sure is. You know, one of the sadnesses about the pandemic, from an organizer point of view, is that this movement was cresting, and there would have been, today, people doing nonviolent civil disobedience, sit-ins, in probably half the 5,000 Chase Bank branches around America. Some of us were arrested at the first of these in January in an effort to kind of launch this thing. We can’t do that, obviously, so people are going online. This Earth Day Live thing is going to be really spectacular.

But the finance arm of the climate fight really has been growing fast in the last year. Probably the biggest victory was getting BlackRock to — well, getting BlackRock to make a series of announcements — this is the biggest asset manager on Earth, really the biggest box of money on the planet — getting them to make a series of announcements about their new climate policies. Now we’re monitoring to see if they’re serious about it, to see if they’re actually doing it. One of the first tests will come next month, when Chase Bank, biggest bank in the world, tries to reappoint 81-year-old Lee Raymond to the lead — post of lead independent director. He’s the guy who ran Exxon for 15 years in the years when it was pioneering corporate climate denial. And now he runs the board of the biggest fossil fuel funder on Earth. That’s the kind of thing that needs to stop. And we’ll see. I mean, this pressure is going to be as unrelenting as we can make it, even amidst a pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: And New York City Council, what will it be voting on, Bill McKibben? You just had a virtual news conference with city councilmembers.

*BILL McKIBBEN: Yes. Brad Lander and other city councilmembers announced Monday that they were seeking to help cut ties between the city and banks like Chase that don’t take climate change seriously. And that’s a big deal, because cities do a lot of business with these guys.

Remember, Amy, that one difference between — I mean, we’ve pressured the fossil fuel companies very hard and to great effect. The divestment campaign is the biggest anti-corporate campaign in history now, with $14 trillion engaged. But the fossil fuel industry will fight to the last bridge. They only know how to do one thing. If you’re a bank like Chase, yeah, you lend them a lot of money — a quarter-trillion in the last four years to the fossil fuel industry — but it’s still only 6 or 7% of your business. So, you might change, and change fast, if you’ve got sufficient pressure. And that’s the pressure that people are building now.

AMY GOODMAN: And the live stream of the three days of celebrations, Bill McKibben, in the midst of this pandemic, where can people go? And your final comment on what this pandemic can mean? Arundhati Roy talks about the pandemic as a portal, and how, in the midst of this terrible suffering, something can come out that makes this world better and safer for everyone.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, google “Earth Day Live” to join this live stream. And then take a moment to reflect about the beauty that remains yet on even this hard-pressed world. It is our job, the job of our time on Earth, to try and figure out how to slow down and limit the civilization-threatening changes that we see going on around us. We’re capable of doing it. The engineers have provided us with the gift in the form of sun and wind energy. Let’s see if we can come together to take advantage of it. We better. If we’re on the current trends, then 50 years from now, Earth Day won’t be a celebration. It will be a funeral.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, we thank you for being with us, author, educator, environmentalist, co-founder of 350.org. We’ll link to your pieces in The New Yorker magazine, as well as The Nation. In it, he writes, “This Earth Day, Stop the Money Pipeline.”

When we come back, Kumi Naidoo, the former head of Greenpeace and Amnesty International. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Shield Against Coronavirus” by Senegal hip-hop collective Y’en a Marre.

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