Be Afraid

09.27.13

30 Years to Catastrophe—Bill McKibben’s Mission to Save Us

Thirty years is all the time we have to dramatically change our consumption of fossil fuels—or face catastrophe. Mark Hertsgaard on the new U.N. report—and how Bill McKibben learned to do something about climate change.

Bill McKibben should feel vindicated today. 

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s premier scientific body on the issue, has just endorsed the path-breaking argument he made last year in Rolling Stone that most of the Earth’s remaining fossil fuels must not be burned if civilization is to avoid catastrophic amounts of global warming. 

Humanity can burn no more than 1 trillion metric tons if it is to have a better than 50-50 chance of limiting average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the IPCC declared today in the “Summary for Policymakers” of its Fifth Assessment Report on climate science. Scientists have long warned that going beyond 2C would unleash devastating, perhaps irreversible, changes in the climate system, including harsher heat waves, deeper droughts, stronger flooding, and relentless sea level rise. For their part, the world’s governments have agreed, notably at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, to respect the 2°C limit. Nevertheless, commensurate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have not been made.

Now, the IPCC has for the first time embraced the concept of a “carbon budget” and, by implication, McKibben’s argument that most of the planet’s remaining fossil fuels must remain in the ground, unburned. The IPCC calculates that humanity has already burned through slightly more than half of its carbon budget (531 metric tons by 2011) since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. As Justin Gillis reports in a strong piece in the New York Times “at the rate energy consumption is growing, the trillionth ton will be released somewhere around 2040…. More than three trillion tons of carbon are still left in the ground as fossil fuels.”

In short, humanity has roughly 30 years to quit fossil fuels and shift to a new foundation of clean, renewable sources such as solar and wind power (which, luckily, are now expanding at spectacular speed throughout the world.)

The need to keep most fossil fuel in the ground is what has driven McKibben and other activists to press President Barck Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. If built, the pipeline would transport carbon-dense tar sands from Canada across the Midwest to refineries on the Gulf Coast. McKibben has called Keystone XL “a fuse to the second largest deposit of carbon on the planet.” And over the past seven years, he has helped build and lead a grassroots movement that now stands a good chance of defeating the pipeline—a pipeline that, until recently, was seen as a done deal.

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Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist By Bill McKibben 272 pages. Times Books. $26. ()

Part personal memoir, part organizing manual, McKibben’s new book, Oil and Honey tells the inside story of how the Keystone fight has been waged, the political lessons to be drawn, and what comes next in the larger battle to preserve a livable climate. Anyone interested in the climate battle, pro or con, will find much of value here. The book also describes how McKibben’s shift from being a full-time writer to a more than full-time activist has unsettled, and in many ways saddened, him personally. In this regard he writes about seeking refuge by helping a bee-keeping neighbor tend to his hives, a mission that provides a second narrative thread throughout the book that is less engaging.

For McKibben, life as an activist meant life on the road, spreading the message and rallying the troops with countless speeches and media interviews. He was away from home more often than not, enduring one bus, car or plane ride after another, punctuated by stops in cheerless budget hotels. “Hilton should open a budget division called Purgatory,” he writes. As grueling as the travel schedule was the ceaseless torrent of emails, many hundreds a day, except on the weekends, “when email dropped off to an almost manageable level.”

All of this clashed with McKibben’s true nature, he came to realize, which, as a writer, was to sit alone in a room, reflect upon the world and communicate what he had discovered to his readers. “I miss, sometimes desperately, the other me,” he confesses. “The one with time to think.”

What you have to understand about McKibben is that he is a church-going person.

But time, he emphasizes, is what humanity lacks most in the face of climate change, so it was into the fray. The book’s subtitle is, The Education of an Unlikely Activist, but McKibben might better be called a reluctant activist. This memoir makes clear that he gave his life over to activism not because he wanted to, and certainly not because he craved celebrity, but because he felt he had no moral alternative. Knowing all that he knew about the dangers of climate change—and as the leading reporter on the beat for the past 25 years, he knew as much as anyone—and seeing how little progress was being made, he felt he had no choice but to get more directly involved in the fight.

What you have to understand about McKibben is that he is a church-going person. He has been since childhood. He doesn’t make a big deal about it, but it is key to comprehending him as a writer and, now, as the activist who has put the Keystone pipeline and the larger climate crisis at the center of national politics. (Remember how Mitt Romney pledged that his first act as president would be to “build the Keystone pipeline,” even if he had to do it with his own hands? And just this week, congressional Republicans are threatening to push the U.S. government into default unless Obama and the Democrats agree not only to defund the Affordable Care Act but also to approve Keystone.)

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Environmental activist Bill McKibben speaks to the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vermont on Feb. 7, 2012. (Toby Talbot/AP)

I should say that I’ve known McKibben as a professional friend and colleague since we were young pups writing for editor William Shawn at The New Yorker in the 1980s. I can’t recall ever having had a conversation with him about religion per se. But my own upbringing was similar to his (though my denomination was Lutheran, his is Methodist) and I recognize a New Testament outlook when I see it.

As corny as it may sound, McKibben takes seriously what Jesus urged in the Sermon on the Mount: to “thirst for what is right and good” and to treat others accordingly. McKibben has taught Sunday School and even preached sermons on occasion, but his concern with living a moral life comes across most plainly in his voluminous writings, which now include 14 books and hundreds if not thousands of articles. An anecdote in Oil and Honey demonstrates the lengths to which he’ll go to honor Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies,” even paid lackeys of the fossil fuel companies that are broiling the planet.

During a public debate in Washington, McKibben dared to suggest that Big Oil “was using the congressmen it funded heavily to make [the Keystone pipeline] happen.” When a Republican on the panel who had received buckets of oil company campaign contributions took offense at his statement, writes McKibben, “I suddenly felt bad… I was raised to be nice. Had I hurt his feelings?”

The writer’s instinct, McKibben notes, is simply to tell the truth. But an activist he learned to behave like politician, which sometimes meant keeping his mouth shut. Thus when Obama, near the end of the 2012 campaign, decided to shore up his credentials as a defender of the American way of life by posing in front of a pipeline and bragging that his administration had added enough pipe over the past four years “to encircle the Earth and then some,” McKibben was privately appalled. But, he explains, “if at that point I’d said, ‘The president is simply doing the bidding of the oil companies,’ which was true, it would have made it that much easier for the White House to renege on [its earlier promise to re-evaluate the Keystone project], reasoning that I’d already taken my worst shot.”

McKibben’s behind-the-scenes accounts of high-level political jostling are entertaining—his cat-and-mouse phone calls with White House adviser Jon Carson are especially juicy—but most valuable are his strategic insights about what constitutes successful activism. They are worth considering, again regardless of which side of the issue one supports, because McKibben (and his colleagues at the group he co-founded, 350.org) have achieved something that no one else managed over the past 20 years: making climate change an issue the mainstream media and politicians of every stripe must engage.

The most important of McKibben’s strategic insights is also the most basic, though most big U.S. environmental groups have long failed to heed it: politics is about power, not about being right. Solid science and smart policy proposals are crucial, but they matter little without the political muscle needed to make government and corporate leaders pay attention. If being right on the merits were sufficient, McKibben’s The End of Nature, the first mass market book on global warming, should have solved the problem back in 1989. It took McKibben himself until 2006, when he led his first big march against climate change, to figure out that “this fight was about power, [and] we who wanted change had to assemble some.”

That meant pursuing a political strategy quite different from what most big U.S. environmental groups were following. McKibben discusses this delicate topic more diplomatically than necessary. Is it because the Christian in him doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings? Or because, as an activist, he has to continue working with those groups? In any case, he opines that the environmental movement had become merely “a collection of environmental groups, each doing impressive work but often without enough connection to the grassroots or to one another.” These groups were “masters of the inside game” in Washington, but that approach was not succeeding, “mostly because there’s been no outside game to go with it.” McKibben set out to build that outside game—“the surge of people that produces respect and maybe even a little fear in leaders.”

To do so, he focused his efforts not on the mythical political center that Washington-centric politicians and journalists are always invoking but on preaching to the choir. “You might think it’s a waste to preach to the choir,” he writes, “but the truth is, you need to get the choir fired up, singing loudly, all out of the same hymnal…. Usually, they’re singing so many different tunes that no distinct harmony emerges.”

That choir is far from the only religious touchstone in McKibben’s activism. Inspired by the embrace of nonviolent civil disobedience by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement—an embrace grounded in Christ’s teaching to “love your enemies”—McKibben and 350.org helped organized a series of mass arrests in front of the White House in August 2011 that landed 1,253 people in jail and put Keystone and climate change on TV and computer screens around the world. The big environmental groups, none of whom (save Greenpeace) had previously engaged in civil disobedience, quickly endorsed the new strategy in an open letter to Obama. “The movement we’d long needed was starting to emerge,” writes McKibben.

This new movement has transformed Keystone from a slam-dunk certainty four years ago—when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “inclined” to approve the project—into a doubtful proposition today. Conventional wisdom inside the Beltway still says Keystone will be built, but that’s the D.C. echo chamber talking. Consider: President Obama, in his landmark climate change speech in June, not only brought up Keystone when all the “experts” said he wouldn’t, he declared that the pipeline would not be approved if it “significantly exacerbate[d] the problem of carbon pollution.” That’s quite a limb for a president to go out on. Since Keystone would enable the burning of one of the largest, dirtiest pools of carbon on the planet, it’s hard to see how Obama could now approve the project with a straight face.

“I can’t promise you we’re going to win,” McKibben told the more than 40,000 people who gathered on the National Mall in bitter cold last February to renew the pressure on Obama to get serious about climate change. “But I’ve waited a quarter century, since I wrote the first book about all of this, to see if we were going to fight. And now, today, at the biggest climate rally in U.S. history, I know we will.”