Talking Climate Change with Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben (left) and David Moulton

Recently, TWS Director of Climate Change Policy caught up with Bill McKibben, author of the new book EAARTH and the founder of and one of the leading voices in the fight against carbon pollution and climate change.  The two of them talked about the looming specter of climate change, what needs to be done about it, and (since they are both originally from New England) a little Revolutionaty War bragging rights.

David Moulton: You are from Lexington, I am from Concord. In Lexington shots were fired by no one knows who and the colonists ran. In Concord, the colonists stood their ground, fired when fired upon, and chased the redcoats back to Boston. Would we be British today if Concord didn’t have Lexington’s back?

Bill McKibben: I think the American Revolution probably was going to happen one way or another, but I'm awfully proud that it started in Lexington. Where, by the way, many of the colonists ran on to the battlefield despite overwhelming odds. When you say 'run,' perhaps you mean Jonathon Harrington who, mortally wounded in the British volley, crawled across the Green to the doorstep of his house where he died in the arms of his wife. I spent my high school summers giving tours of the Battle Green; it reminded me early on that patriotism and dissent weren't contradictions

DM: Bill, you’re new book Eaarth is like reading a survival manual after the apocalypse. How do we keep hope alive so that people don’t just give up while still being realistic about the fearful impacts of climate change?

Bill M: The only way to keep hope alive is to fight for change--hence, for instance, the kind of work you do, and the campaigning we carry on at Right now the situation is grave, and there's no use sugar-coating it; but I find action is a good antidote to despair

DM: The Wilderness Society has spent 75 years fighting to preserve healthy ecosystems in the United States. Now we are confronted with a threat that could severely compromise the viability of communities dependent on our forests and wildlands for drinking water, agriculture and jobs. As an educator, what have you found to be the most effective way of describing the intimate connection between the well-being of humans and the health of their natural surroundings?

Bill M: We can and should talk about things like water--I live on the edge of the Green Mountain National Forest, and clearly its great utilitarian value is not as a source of timber but as a filter for clean water. Still, the appeal of wilderness will always be most of all its affect on our mental health--as a place to remember what a privilege it is to be part of this gorgeous planet

DM: You use the phrase “graceful decline” , which sounds very negative. But your description of a more resilient less carbon-dependent civilization – one less centralized, more dependent on local agriculture, more connected and more attuned to community needs – sounds in many ways like an improvement, not a “decline”. Why shouldn’t young Americans think of using less carbon as wasting less, polluting less, and living more sustainably, as opposed to withering into a lesser state?

Bill M: I think there's no getting around the fact that we're going to get smaller--and some of that will be hard for us. I doubt, for instance, that we'll be able to enjoy the constant mobility of the jet age, though I think we'll make up for it to a large extent with the mobility offered by the Internet. I agree that we're going to find a world in many ways more interesting and rewarding than the current high-consumer era; I just don' want to underestimate how difficult the transition will be.

DM: One paradox I see in your book is that while you extol the virtues of community structures less dependent on huge National Projects, effectively capping carbon pollution appears to demand participation in a global deal at the highest level of government – a big International Project. How do we get people simultaneously to decentralize their personal consumption of energy while insisting that policy makers support moving towards a grand bargain with the world? In other words – how do we think globally, but act locally?

Bill M: I think you've seized on just the right question. We need to act globally and locally simultaneously, and the global action we're demanding--a serious price on carbon, that will cut dramatically the use of fossil fuel--will help local economies more than any other measure I can think of. (It will, for instance, help dismantle the ruinous economics of industrialized farming).

In some ways, it's this question that influenced the development of It's why we organize huge global days of action (CNN:'the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history) in thousands of local places at once. 7400 work parties in 188 countries this past October, for instance--not a march on Washington, but thousands of demonstrations that we can link together to make them more than the sum of their parts.

DM: Thanks Bill. DC is a climate wasteland right now – half the new members are in various forms of climate denial. Your frequent admonition that this has to be driven from outside the power centers is truer than ever.

Bill M: Good questions, friend, and many thanks for your hard work