Bill McKibben on Sandy, ‘swamped Manhattan,’ and climate-change activism

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A shot of a 'swamped' East Village. (Instagram via JesseAndGreg)
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Jed Lipinski

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In an article for Rolling Stone in August, the author and environmental activist Bill McKibben laid out some conditions that might cause Americans to turn against the fossil-fuel industry, which he claimed is “systematically undermining the planet’s physical systems.”

One of those conditions was a “megadrought” that decimates Midwest agriculture. The other was a “giant hurricane” that “swamps Manhattan.”

The piece, titled “The Reckoning,” became one of the most read articles in Rolling Stone’s history. In it, McKibben lists three simple, harrowing statistics about the future of the globe.

First, governments agree that it is unsafe to warm the planet by more than 2 degrees Celsius. Second, scientists say that we can afford to dump around 565 gigatons (a gigaton equals one billion tons) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have a chance of remaining at that 2-degree mark. And third, fossil-fuel companies currently have proven oil, coal, and gas reserves equal to around 2,795 gigatons. That is, five times the amount we could release to stay below 2 degrees of warming.

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If we use all the carbon reserves we now possess, McKibben writes, it “would create a planet straight out of science fiction.”

And yet, he goes on, president Obama gave Shell permission in July to commence drilling in the Arctic. Furthermore, Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon, said he plans to spend $37 billion a year looking for more oil and gas.

On Sunday afternoon, Bill McKibben and members of his organization 350.org staged a protest in Times Square. Partly in response to the absence of climate change discussion during the presidential debates—the first time the subject was not addressed since 1988—the protesters unfurled a giant pink parachute reading “End Climate Silence.” An image of hurricane swirled beneath it.

The protest was the opening salvo for a 21-city tour of the country that 350.org plans to launch on Nov. 7. The tour, called “Do the Math,” is an attempt to popularize a connection between extreme weather, climate-change theory and the fossil-fuel industry, McKibben writes on the blog math.350.org. The events will feature a cast of actors, artists, musicians and academics, including Naomi Klein and Desmond Tutu. Beginning in Seattle, it will make its way to The Hammerstein Ballroom on Nov. 16.

In a phone interview on Monday afternoon, McKibben took a rest from his copiously updated Twitter feed to discuss what he says is the real meaning of Frankenstorm, the Do the Math campaign, and how the country might divest itself of fossil fuel companies.

In an appearance on Democracy Now on Monday, you said that warmer temperatures brought about through climate change have caused the atmosphere to hold more water, which leads to greater rainfall and bigger storms. How is Sandy connected to the effects of climate change?

Sandy is exactly the kind of storm people have been saying is likely to happen. Here’s another way of saying it: How much of a believer in coincidence do you have to be to have this storm happen during the warmest year in American history; when summer starts in March with the weirdest, most statistically anomalous heat wave we’ve ever seen; when we lose half the ice in the Arctic; when we have absolutely epic drought across the middle of the country; and when we have the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded over Cape Hatteras in the middle of the largest storm we’ve ever measured. You’ve got to be working pretty hard to convince yourself that’s a coincidence.

You also said that Frankenstorm is aptly named, but maybe for a different reason from the one most people are using the term for.

It’s stitching together nature and something else, nature and the man-made. And that’s what makes it very scary. We have good records of barometric pressure going back a long time. We have good records of storm surges going back a long time. We’re going to bust through them, just like we busted through the temperature record this year. Just like we busted through all the records going back as far as anyone can imagine for ice in the Arctic. I wrote a book a few years ago called Eaarth, and that was the point I was trying to make: that Earth is becoming a different place. And the way we begin to stop this from happening is by letting the most powerful and richest industry in the world just keep digging us further into this hole.

You write in your article that the planet has already warmed by around 0.8 degrees Celsius, which means we’re already part of the way to the 2-degree limit, beyond which it’s pretty scary to imagine.

The scary thing, really, is that all this stuff happening now is what happens when the temperature of the earth goes up around one degree. If the temperature goes up 5 degrees [Celsius]—which is entirely plausible, since the same guys who told us this was going to happen are telling what will happen if we don’t get off coal and gas soon—then we’ll be looking back fondly at the years when it was just Sandy that we were dealing with.

How did you come across the new statistics you used in “The Reckoning”?

I came across them around six months before the Rolling Stone piece came out. Some British financial analysts issued this report, which I just happened to see and look at carefully. It really opened my eyes. I know this stuff at some level, of course, but it sort of removed any possibility of wishful thinking, doubt, speculation. It just put it down in the coldest, hardest numerical truth about what’s going on. That is: The fossil-fuel industry is going to break the planet unless we stop them.

How did the idea for the Do the Math Tour come about?

Well, it’s no coincidence that we’re launching it the night after the election. Because the message is, no matter who wins, it’s clear that Washington is not going to solve our problems at the moment. The fossil fuel industry has bought one party and scared the other. So nothing ever happens. We get little steps forward, but they’re dwarfed by big steps backward. We need to change the power equation. We need to reduce the power of the fossil fuel industry.

What’s the best way to do that?

One way to do that is to try a divestment campaign like the one in South Africa a quarter century ago. Their strategy took several years, through all kinds of work on college campuses. But they had 200 colleges, and 100 city and state governments and lots of churches that sold their stock in companies doing business in South Africa. That didn’t immediately take these companies down. But it began to worry them: they have grants, they want financial stability, not instability. And so, things began to change. At a certain point, those companies wound up pulling out of South Africa. Somehow the South Africans did it without Twitter!

So you think Twitter will help remove our commitments to fossil fuel?

In 350.org, we’ve built the first global organization to take on the biggest problem that the planet has ever faced. We’re the only one to deal only with this problem. And we’ve done it in five years, starting with no money, myself and seven undergraduates. We work very much in the real world. We’ve had 10 to 15,000 demonstrations in 191 countries. We’ve been to jail. I think it’s safe to say, had Flickr and Twitter and Facebook not been invented, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did.

What does 350.org want to accomplish?

We need the fossil fuel industry to stop lobbying in Washington, and to stop exploring for new fossil fuel. We need to start working with everybody else to come up with a plan to leave 80 percent of the fossil fuel industry’s oil, coal and gas reserves in the ground. I.e, we need them transform themselves into energy companies, not fossil fuel companies.

Why do you think neither candidate mentioned climate change during the debates?

I think it’s just too much fear of crossing the fossil-fuel industry. But it must be said that it was mentioned once. Mitt Romney got up during his convention speech and mocked the idea of slowing the rise of the oceans. I wonder if that’s winning many votes right now in New Jersey this afternoon.

Photo of Bill McKibben by Kris Krüg.