Tell Me More: Climate Change Crisis
Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.
In this episode, activist and environmentalist Bill McKibben offers his perspectives on climate change, including the critical underestimation that scientists made during the past thirty years, the best way for individuals to make a difference, and the one fact about our climate that you need to know—to understand our century.
McKibben is the founder of 350.org, the first global grassroots climate change movement. His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as one of the first written for a general audience on the realities of climate change, and he has been named to Foreign Policy’s inaugural list of one hundred most important global thinkers. The Boston Globe cited him as “probably America’s most important environmentalist.”
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.
In this episode of Tell Me More, activist and environmentalist Bill McKibben offers his perspectives on climate change, including the critical underestimation that scientists made during the past thirty years, the best way for individuals to make a difference, and the one fact about our climate that you need to know—to understand our century.
McKibben is the founder of 350.org, the first global grassroots climate change movement. His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as one of the first written for a general audience on the realities of climate change. In October, McKibben spoke with Kelly Sims Gallagher, professor of energy and environmental policy and director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at The Fletcher School. Let’s listen in.
KELLY SIMS GALLAGHER: Well, Bill, we know you founded 350.org and this was the first global grassroots climate change movement, which has organized more than 20,000 rallies around the world, spearheaded resistance to the Keystone pipeline, and launched the very fast-growing fossil-fuel divestment movement. What inspired you to found 350.org?
BILL MCKIBBEN: Well, that’s a good question. You were in on this activism stuff way before me. I was a writer about climate change. I wrote the first book about climate change thirty years ago next year. And I believed at the time that if people merely explained, as scientists were doing, that the most dangerous thing in the world was happening, that somebody would do something about it. That seemed to me, in my simple-minded way, what to expect. But nobody did anything about it. You and I were together at Kyoto and that was about as close as we ever got to people even trying and it wasn’t very impressive even there.
At a certain point, I just decided that writing another book was probably not going to move the needle, that it was time to see if we could organize in a serious way. And so, drawing on some of the lessons learned from places like Ozone Action, where you did such amazing work, we tried to see what we could do on a global basis.
GALLAGHER: Given all you’ve accomplished already in 350.org, what do you feel has been the most important or successful accomplishment at this time?
MCKIBBEN: Let’s be very clear—none of it has been anywhere near successful enough. This is a battle we’re still losing—and losing in a dramatic way. Probably the most useful things we’ve done are (1) build a movement where there wasn’t one before, a climate movement around the world for the first time; (2) begin this fight against new fossil-fuel infrastructure—we helped start it with the Keystone pipeline; now every pipeline, every coal mine, every frack well gets fought; and (3) drawing attention mostly through this big divestment campaign to the links between money and the fossil-fuel industry and their continued plunder of the planet. That has grown into the largest anti-corporate campaign in history. We’ve got about $7 trillion dollars now in endowments and portfolios that have pulled out of fossil fuel. So those are probably the three things that have been most useful, I’d say.
GALLAGHER: What about the engagement of this new generation or younger generation of people? When I look at 350.org, to me that strikes me as one of the most important accomplishments of all. You gave a vehicle to these younger people to find ways to express themselves and to take action.
MCKIBBEN: It’s true that 350 started as myself and seven undergraduates at Middlebury. It’s odd, I don’t ever think much about that, because I don’t think of them as young people. They’re just my colleagues.
It’s true that, around the world, younger people are doing more than their share of the work, and that’s appropriate since they’re the ones who are going to pay the highest price, in a sense, as the climate changes. I think it’s been heartening to see, also, increasing involvement of old people in this fight. The hardest people to get involved are those in the middle. Maybe because they’re busy, because they’ve got other things on their mind, whatever. But yeah, young people are punching above their weight, no question.
GALLAGHER: Let’s go back to The End of Nature, which is one of my favorite books of all time, and, honestly, one of the books that inspired me to get interested in climate change. I remember reading it in college.
And, as you said, it was the first, or among the first books ever, written about climate change. At the time, we already knew a lot—I think we could say we already knew a lot, scientifically, about the problem. But there was a lot we didn’t know. As you look back to 1989, and think about our evolution of knowledge from then until now, what do you think has changed?
MCKIBBEN: Well, first of all, if it inspired you to get involved in all of this, then it was worth writing, because you’ve done an enormous amount of good. We knew the basic outlines of the story, none of which have changed over the last thirty years. The only thing that we were really wrong about was how fast and how hard this was going to pinch. And it’s happened a hell of a lot faster and pinched a hell of a lot harder than we would have expected.
Scientists, by their nature, are a conservative bunch. They are prone to underestimating, not overestimating. That’s the bias of the profession. They don’t like to go out on limbs in any way. And so they underestimated, and nobody quite could have understood just how finely balanced the world’s physical systems turned out to be.
The extra heat that we’ve introduced has caused enormous changes already, and the things that in 1989 we thought would manifest late in the twenty-first century showed up early in the twenty-first century. That’s bad for many reasons, including that it just means that we have that much less margin to do anything about them.
GALLAGHER: When you think about some of the impacts that are already manifesting themselves around the United States, which ones spring to mind as most concerning—most alarming to you at this time?
MCKIBBEN: Well, I would say that the ways that the hydrological cycle’s been disrupted are probably the most profound. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold. If you wanted one fact to understand our century, that might be it. It means that, in arid areas, we get way more drought and look at what happened in California over the last ten years. Absolute record droughts, followed by the absolute record wildfires, followed by the mudslides as the rain fell on the denuded hillsides.
I’m old enough to remember when California was a kind of golden paradise. No more: It’s increasingly under siege. Once water goes up in the air—evaporates up in the air—it’s going to come down and so we see incredible flooding.
Hurricane Harvey last year was the largest rainstorm in American history. It dropped five feet of rain on Houston. Hurricane Florence this fall was the biggest rainstorm in the history of the East Coast. It dumped the equivalent of all the water in Chesapeake Bay on the Carolinas. This can only happen on a planet where you’ve changed the temperature and, hence, the amount of water vapor that the air can hold.
There’s plenty of other things that are going on. We’re seeing dramatic heat waves. We’re beginning to see sea level rise really show itself, especially along the southeast coast. That’s with—and this is important to remember—that’s with about a one-degree Celsius rise in temperature. The U.N. has pledged to try and hold the temperature rise to two degrees. At the moment we’re in a trajectory that would raise the temperature about three and a half degrees Celsius—seven degrees or so Fahrenheit, six or seven degrees Fahrenheit. So, three, four times as much rise in temperature as we’ve already seen. And the damage that comes from it won’t increase in linear fashion. It will increase in exponential fashion as we breach one boundary after another.
GALLAGHER: We’re sitting here in greater Boston, which is, of course, a coastal city. What do you think the future looks like for Boston and coastal cities around the world, absent any new action?
MCKIBBEN: Well, Boston is relatively easy to figure out. I mean, this is a city built on landfills. We have good maps of where the water is going to go and where it’s already going. After the Nor’easter at the start of 2018, the mayor of Boston said we’re seeing flooding in places that we’ve never seen it before.
Look, if I had money to invest in real estate, I wouldn’t put it in these big new developments they’re putting in South Boston, because I don’t think the long term is likely to be very good to it. It’s not as bad as Miami. It’s probably not as bad as Venice. It’s not as bad as in Accra or in Mumbai or places like that, but every place is going to feel the heat.
As you know, one of the sad aspects of climate change is it hurts most those who have done the least to cause it. So, Boston, for the foreseeable future, is going to have enough money that at least people won’t be living in corrugated huts and dying and whatever. That’s already happening in many places around the world.
GALLAGHER: Well, let’s turn to the role of the United States in the world on climate change. Where do you think the United States should be relative to where we are now?
MCKIBBEN: Well, in any fair or rational world, the United States would be taking the lead in dealing with this question. We’re the country that has poured the most carbon into the atmosphere. China, which you’ve studied so carefully, now produces more carbon per year than we do, but over the historical timeframe, we’re still the champions. And, of course, in per-capita terms, we make the Chinese look like pikers. They can hardly hold their heads up compared to the amount of carbon we pour into the atmosphere.
So that’s what we should be doing. What we are doing is being the only country on Earth that won’t take part, even in the modest Paris Climate Accords. There are many, many reasons to feel deeply ashamed for our country during the course of the disgusting presidency we’re now enduring. But on that list, just about the highest was the decision to withdraw from Paris. And the repercussions are enormous. We learned of the election of the new president of Brazil, who’s announced not only his plan to remove all protections from the Amazon, but his decision to follow Trump in exiting from the Paris Accords.
GALLAGHER: What do you think are the most effective ways that American citizens can get involved on climate change?
MCKIBBEN: Well, look. Everybody knows the individual actions they could and should be taking. Those are important—my house is covered with solar panels, and so on. I don’t try to fool myself that that’s how we’re going to solve climate change at this point. Had we fifty or seventy-five years to deal with this problem, then that would probably work. But we don’t. We should have started fifty years ago, and we didn’t. So now the most important thing an individual can do is try to be a little bit less of an individual. Join together with other people to form the kind of movements large enough to have some hope of effecting policy at the level that physics now requires.
GALLAGHER: What advice do you have for students who want to become activists and environmentalists?
MCKIBBEN: Well, the only advice is to get to work. Age is no barrier to doing this work. In fact, college campuses are where some of the best work is being done. One of the most important movements around the world is this fight for divestment of endowments. Every American college has one and most of them remain invested in fossil fuel, including, I think, Tufts. Colleges yammer on all the time about their sustainability plans and their green dining halls and so on and so forth, that’s good and well, but your endowment is just as much a part of your campus as your football stadium or your dorm or whatever else. You better green it, too, and that’s probably the place where you have the most leverage.
GALLAGHER: Can you tell us one thing about yourself that people don’t know? It can be anything.
MCKIBBEN: Well, let me think. I am a diehard Red Sox fan, so it’s been a good year for me. Not only watching them win, but watching them win in the right way. In an age of great blowhards, it’s a great pleasure to see a modest crew of people who let their good work do their talking for them. So only four months now until spring training starts, and I can’t wait.
Kelly, what a pleasure to get to sit with you and just to be able to say thanks for all the work that you’ve done in the world.
GALLAGHER: And let me also thank you for everything you’ve done as well.
HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Be sure to subscribe to listen to more episodes of the podcast, and please take a minute to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s Tufts—T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U.
Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, and Dave Nuscher. This episode was recorded by Nicolas Chung. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Production support provided by 5 to 9 Media. Special thanks to the Tufts Office of Sustainability, the Environmental Studies Program, the Tufts Institute for the Environment, the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, the Fletcher School’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.