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Personnel Profile: Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, the largest international grassroots campaign dedicated to solving climate change. He is currently involved in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport tar sand oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and was amongst those arrested during the massive protests held at the White House. Another “Day of Action” asking President Obama to reject the pipeline is planned for Nov. 6.

Why has the Keystone XL Pipeline become the biggest environmental issue of the year?

They’re tearing up native land in Canada. The pipeline itself is risky and dangerous for the land it is running across. But the reason it became a huge issue, the reason it has turned into the biggest civil disobedience action in this country over anything else for the past 35 years or so, is that earlier this year James Hansen (NASA), and his team did some work to show how much carbon was in that tar sand. They said this is the second largest pool of carbon on earth and if you tap into it heavily it’s essentially game over for the climate. This is an incredibly serious issue for anyone dealing with climate change, and that’s what got us started on this path over the last year, to the point where it has become the environmental issue for the president between now and the election.

Is the political process getting in the way of what the planet needs to avoid major catastrophe?

The most discouraging thing about this work with the pipeline has been that the more we delved into it, the more we understood how rigged the system was. The State Department literally let TransCanada suggest the companies they wished to monitor the environmental review of this project. The department picked a company that had been a major client of the TransCanada pipeline. I’m not even sure if Dick Cheney would’ve been this blatant.

But one thing that is encouraging about the democratic process is that a lot of people have come together to take on what is a difficult issue, one that no one knew about even a few months ago. That rise has been spectacular and heartening to watch. We’ll see if that’s enough to persuade the president in this case to do the right thing. If your most important federal climatologist tells you, “These tar sands mean game over for the climate” you’d think that would be the point at which you would say: “Ok, let’s find some other way to power our lives.”

Even if the permit isn’t signed, is the country’s environmental policy changing at a fast enough rate?

None of this is fast enough. It’s not happening at the speed that the physics and chemistry are demanding. In Washington, we’ve had a 20-year bipartisan effort to accomplish nothing. Internationally, we’ve accomplished next to nothing. That’s why we’re getting more agitated, why we’ve had to up the stakes. People should not have to go to jail for this kind of change, but it doesn’t seem like there’s any choice, really.

The thing that everyone knows we eventually have to do is to put a price on carbon, so that it’s not treated as an externality. That’s what will drive down usage of fossil fuels. But we can’t do that while oil and coal companies are in the way, maintaining the kind of political power they have. That’s the subtext of most of these fights. Clearly, we’re not going to get a price on carbon out of the current Congress, and so for the moment the fight is to keep carbon in the ground wherever we can, hoping that will buy some time for the world to come to its senses. I’m afraid that the world will come to its senses, because Mother Nature is going to continue to provide us an endless series of teachable moments. The question is whether it will be sooner or later, because if it isn’t sooner the climatologists say we’re in literal hot water. So far we’ve raised the temperature of the earth a degree, and that has been enough to melt the arctic and change the planet’s hydrology, the way water moves around the planet, in pretty fundamental ways, hence more droughts and floods.

But the point is, worry less about the absolute plan for the ideal of the future and worry more about the trajectory of the moment. We are still increasing our use of fossil fuels and we have to turn that around. That’s one of the reasons this Keystone fight is so important. We’ve got to start learning to leave this stuff in the ground. We’ve been losing this fight for 20 years, but we better start winning fast. I say this with some certainty since I’m sitting here in Vermont where we’re trying to dig out the worst flooding we’ve ever seen.

Are there ways outside the political process to galvanize people? Perhaps the Occupy movement?

Absolutely. I think it’s very, very good news. I think we need to practice more civil disobedience, though it can’t be the only thing we do. We’ve already won the scientific fight about all this, the only thing that’s holding us back is the financial power of the fossil fuel industry. That’s been enough to block change. We’re never going to have as much money as they have, so we’re going to have to find different currencies to work in: creativity, passion, spirit, sometimes our bodies. I’ve been down to Occupy Wall Street, 350’s been a big part of it, helping out in ways we can. I think it’s all sort of one, large movement in many ways. It’s like a big resistance to the powers that be, that’s what we’re all engaged in.

If we’re able to get the president to do the right thing, it may be one of those moments we begin to get some momentum toward dealing with global warming. Stopping this pipeline, obviously, will not stop climate change. But it will help demonstrate that we’re starting to become a political force to be reckoned with.


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