When Bill McKibben Speaks to Elizabeth Kolbert, Listen


Climate activists block traffic in London’s Oxford Circus on April 19, part of a string of protests organized by Extinction Rebellion. COURTESY OF VLADIMIR MOROZOV/AKX MEDIA

Two luminaries on climate, in conversation:

Why Bill McKibben Sees Rays of Hope in a Grim Climate Picture

end-of-nature.jpgThe world has done little to tackle global warming since Bill McKibben’s landmark book on the subject was published in 1989. In ane360 interview, McKibben talks about the critical time lost and what can be done now to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Three decades ago, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, the first book on climate change aimed at a general audience. McKibben went on to found the international environmental group 350.org, help launch the fossil fuel divestment movement, and write a dozen more non-fiction books, as well as a novel. In 2014, McKibben received the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes referred to as the “alternative Nobel,” for mobilizing popular support for “strong action to counter the threat of global climate change.”

falterbookpage.jpgMcKibben’s latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, was published this month and debuted last week on the New York Times bestseller list. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 , McKibben talks about why the critical time for action on climate was missed, where he still finds hope, and what the world will look like three decades from now.

“Thirty or 50 years out, the world’s going to run on sun and wind, because they’re free,” McKibben says. “The question is… what kind of world will it be?”

Yale Environment 360: It’s almost exactly 30 years since you published The End of Nature. One way to read that book is as a warning. How you would characterize Falter? Is it also a warning, or are we beyond that?

Bill McKibben: Look, 30 years ago this was all still prospective. You couldn’t really take a picture of climate change yet. Now, having wasted 30 years, we’re at the point where it’s a dominant fact of everyday life for hundreds of millions of people and promising to be the overwhelming fact of our time in the years ahead. It’s too late, obviously, to stop climate change. I hope that the book gets across that it may not be too late to keep it from getting absolutely out of control. It’s not a warning. It’s some combination of a report and a chronicle and a plea, I think.

e360: Over the last 30 years, you’ve been not just a chronicler of this problem and this battle, but one of the major players in it. Was there a moment when you said, “I’ve got to get out from behind this computer screen”?

McKibben: Sort of. Partly it was this dawning realization that I’d miscalculated. I was 27 when I wrote The End of Nature. My theory of change at the time was: People will read my book and then they will change. Even when I abandoned that, I continued to think that if we piled up enough data the powers-that-be would take the hint and get to work. At some point it became clear to me that we’d won the argument but we were losing the fight.

Also, sometime in the early aughts I went to Bangladesh on a reporting trip. And when I was there they had the first big outbreak of dengue fever, which is a disease closely tied to climate. The mosquito that spreads it is expanding its range rapidly as temperatures warm. I was spending a lot of time in the slums, so eventually I got bit by the wrong mosquito. I obviously didn’t die, but I remember looking at the lines of people lying on cots in the emergency clinics and thinking, “This is just unbelievably unfair.” There are 165 million people in Bangladesh, but they are essentially a rounding error in the world’s carbon emission tables. The iron rule of climate change is the less you did to cause it, the more and the quicker you suffer. Somehow, getting back to the States after that, back to the place that had poured more carbon into the atmosphere than any other, I did feel like it was time to do something more.

e360: Given all that has happened or, more to the point, hasn’t happened since The End of Nature, a person could be pretty down in the dumps. But in Falter you say that you are hopeful, or qualifiedly hopeful. How’s that?

McKibben: Part of it is the realization, looking back at the history, that it’s not really a failure of human beings and human nature that’s the problem here. It’s a hijacking of our political and economic system by the fossil fuel industry and a small number of like-minded people. It was our bad luck that this idea that markets solve all problems and that government should be left to wither away crested just at the moment when it could do the most damage. Against that now, we’ve spent the last 10 years building movements. We waited too long to get started, and I kick myself regularly for that.

But now that power is showing itself. Even in the last few weeks, just to watch Extinction Rebellion and [16-year-old Swedish activist] Greta Thunberg’s followers around the world shutting down schools, and the remarkable young people from the Green New Deal fanning out across this country – those things to me are signs that the fever the planet is running is producing in quantity antibodies to fight back…

Read the whole interview here.


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