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RFK, Jr. and Bill McKibben: Time for Obama to Act on Climate Change
By Farron Cousins
New reports have come out this week showing that 2012 was officially the hottest year on record. North America alone was plagued with hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, blizzards and numerous other forms of weather that have almost all been linked back to anthropogenic climate change. Earlier this week, Ring of Fire’s Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. spoke with 350.org founder Bill McKibben about the threat of climate change and what President Obama needs to do during his second term to address the problem. The transcript of that conversation follows, and the interview will run this weekend on Ring of Fire:
Kennedy: Welcome to Ring of Fire. I’m Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Few sitting U.S. presidents have faced more environmental disasters than President Obama. Some of those disasters like the BP oil spill were clearly man made while others came in the form of hurricanes, blizzards, droughts and floods that have a more attenuated connection to anthropogenic activity. The natural disasters that have been plaguing this country for the last few years and the world should provide more than enough indication that catastrophic climate change is real and is a serious threat to our planet yet we’ve seen very little action from the President on climate change and an active and aggressive antagonism from the business community and from the Republican Party towards any steps towards controlling our carbon emissions. In his second term Obama hopefully will handle things differently and joining me now to talk about what needs to be done is Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org and one of my personal heroes. Welcome to the show, Bill.
McKibben: What a pleasure to be with you as always.
Kennedy: Let’s start talking about numbers. You gave intellectual clarity to this issue by reducing it to a series of numbers in a Rolling Stones article, very influential article that you published last summer and essentially what you say in that article is that there’s a global consensus that we have to maintain the climate below two degrees Fahrenheit and you point out that the two degrees which is a number that was developed back in very, very early probably 1995 that based upon what we’re seeing today that most scientists are saying that’s way too high because we’ve had a 0.8 degree rise already and we’re seeing desertification all over, great floods, hurricanes, etc.
In order to maintain that we have to limit the amount of carbon that we put into the atmosphere to 565 gigatons, but the oil industry and the coal industry own reserves that amount to five times that number and those reserves have already been valued in the marketplace by investors, by pension funds, by schools who have their own pension funds, etc. and it makes the oil industry a very, very difficult snake to tangle with. You’ve one other number which is kind of the solution which is 350.org which is the name of your organization and let’s start with that number.
McKibben: Sure, that’s kind of the bottom line, but unfortunately we’re not going to get back to it soon. Three hundred and fifty parts per million CO2, that’s how much the scientists say we really could safely have in the atmosphere and have a planet like the one that you and I were born onto. We’re not getting back there anytime soon. The only question now is whether we can keep things from getting absolutely catastrophic. The world, as you say, is defined under catastrophe as a two degree increase in temperature. We’re halfway there. If we burn 565 more gigatons of carbon, we’ll be all the way there and that’s bad news and that will take us about 15 years at current rates, but the really bad news is the other number you alluded to. The fact that the fossil fuel industry has in its reserves 27,095 gigatons of carbon, five times that much and what that means, of course, is that really the end of this story has been written. That coal and gas and oil is still below ground, but it’s going to be burned. It’s economically above ground. It’s what their share price is based on and it’s what they borrow money against. It’s going to be burned unless we rewrite this script dramatically and that means building the kind of movement that can stand up to the money power of the richest industry on Earth.
The only good news I can give you in a week when we’ve seen the U.S., we just found out that the U.S. came through by a large margin the warmest year in its history last year, in a week where we watched Australia set almost unbelievable records for the warmest temperatures ever seen down under. The only good news I can give you is that that movement is building. As of today, we took those numbers from that Rolling Stone piece and we did this road show out around the country, 22 cities in 24 nights with big capacity crowds, sold out crowds at concert halls and things. By the time we were done there are now 210 U.S. campuses with divestment campaigns to get their trustees to sell their investments in coal and oil and gas to do what a generation ago people did with investments in apartheid tainted companies.
We’ve got to figure out a way to reduce the legitimacy, take away the social license, tarnish the power of that richest industry, the fossil fuel industry. Maybe if we do then they’ll be some hope for our champions in places like Washington to get something done.
Kennedy: Let’s talk about Rex Tillerson who you characterized as one of the most evil people on the planet and I would have to agree with that assessment. This is an outlaw industry and he was the CEO of Exxon and the CEO of Chevron incidentally who’s almost as bad, but not quite as big, have promoted, talk about the statements he made recently about change.
McKibben: What an interesting guy. It’s kind of a point where even the head of Exxon can’t deny that the climate is changing. He gave a speech this past summer in which he said for the first time as an Exxon CEO basically the subtext was ignore all the things my predecessors have told you, the climate is, in fact, changing, but then he said, “Don’t worry, it’s an engineering problem with engineering solutions” and someone says, “Well, what do you mean?” He says, this was the line that really got me, he said, “If we need to move our crop production areas, then we will.” We made a crop production area, I believe, is what other people call a farm, we made it too hot to grow food in the most productive farmland on the face of the Earth this summer. The drought and the heat across the Midwest caused the price of grain to go up 40 percent around the world because of our failed harvest.
Kennedy: It broke records that have been standing since the Dust Bowl and as you point out in your article, it’s one of the scary items that lets you know that we’re really headed for a science fiction nightmare is that they had rain in Saudi Arabia when the heat was 109 degrees. The hottest rain ever recorded in the history of the world.
McKibben: Was the hottest rain ever recorded until about six weeks later last summer when in the desert of California they managed to record rain at 116 degrees. It’s something that we thought was physically impossible. The planet is changing with insane speed and we can’t adapt to it easily. We can’t move our farms. It’s true that Exxon has melted the tundra for us, but that doesn’t mean we can just move Iowa up there and start over again. There’s no soil. The risks that we’re taking, the changes that we’re making are far larger than anything humans have done before. This is the epic story of our time. It makes the fiscal cliff or whatever look like a minor pothole in the civilizational road. It’s time to build that movement.
The next big chance for people to help will be President’s Day weekend in DC on that Sunday, we’re going back to Washington among other things to remind the President that no one’s forgotten about this Keystone Pipeline. That’s something he can block by himself and if he did it would keep 900,000 barrels of oil a day underground. A not insignificant quantity and we’ve got to try and screw up his courage to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. He delayed it for a year and in that year Mother Nature filed her public testimony. We had the hottest year in U.S. history. We had the drought. We had super storm Sandy. We had the Arctic melting at a completely unprecedented pace. We had a world of trouble and if we’re not going to respond with even the easy stuff like blocking Keystone, I think the odds that we’re going to do anything on the scale that require or banish the next mall.
Kennedy: I think one of the keys to getting Obama to act is to get him to read your Rolling Stone article from last summer. And earlier we were talking about the fiscal cliff and as I read your piece most recently I was thinking about the irony of the panic that you see on Capitol Hill and in the American press about these deficits which are fairly trivial deficits compared to the environmental deficit that we’re running up with the oil industry which is nowhere covered in the press and nowhere addressed seriously by our political system.
McKibben: One of the parts that makes it almost comical to me is that the incredible worry that official Washington has over forecasts for things in their Social Security system for 2047 or 2053 or something.
Kennedy: Eighty years from now.
McKibben: Their fervent belief in economic forecasts, but they’re just a complete shrug of the shoulders at the fact that the world’s scientists are now all but unanimously telling them the worst thing that ever happened on the planet is happening right now and you guys were key to stopping it and they can’t, I know why they can’t. They can’t because they’re bought. Chevron two weeks before the election made the largest single campaign donation since Citizens United, millions and millions of dollars into republican congressional races. Then the CEO of Chevron a couple of weeks after the election said, “Well, don’t ask me what to do about climate change, it’s all up to our world leaders.” Exactly the same guys that he’s pimping into office. This is why we’re trying to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. We’re going to play defense on horrible things like Keystone. We’re going to try and play offense with the fossil fuel industry and turn them into the tobacco industry, take away some of that political power and as I say, the good news is that young people are starting to step up. This campus divestment movement is for real and quite beautiful and I think this demonstration in Washington on President’s Day will be the largest environmental gathering in many, many years in Washington.
Kennedy: Bill, one of the scientists that you quote in your article suggests that every gas pump like every cigarette carton that has a picture of somebody with rotting teeth or cancer of the throat, that the gas pumps bear the same kind of warning, that this is killing us.
McKibben: Yes, I suppose that would be good. It’s not that we’re going to be able to stop it with sort of consumer boycotts and things, we can make some changes around the edges with our individual ways of life, but it’s structural reform that’s especially putting some serious price on carbon that has to lead the way. We can’t make those structural reforms until we’ve changed the political balance of powers which is why we do this sort of work and yes, things like that are an important part of it. The good news is if I expose it, it’s good news in a backhanded way, but clearly the events of the last couple of years have taught ordinary Americans a lot about this situation. The polling data shows upwards of three quarters of Americans are now very worried about climate change which is, as you know, it’s hard to get three quarters of Americans to agree on anything and we’d have the political basis there for action were it not for the outsized influence of the richest industry on Earth.
Kennedy: The CEO of Chevron gave an interview this week in which he said that there is really no future in solar, wind and that we should stop subsidizing these industries and that the subsidies going to the industries were grotesque. At the same day, the National Energy Agency released the numbers for the global subsidies to the oil industry which were $582 billion compared to around $80 million dollars to the renewables industry and this does not include, by the way, the externalities, not the direct subsidies. The war in Iraq. The BP oil spill.
McKibben: That’s the tax that you throw into the atmosphere for free. That’s the biggest subsidy of all that we just turn over the atmosphere to them for free. Your listeners will be pleased to know, I’m sure, that and I’m sure they are fretting about this that in the course of the fiscal cliff negotiations the massive tax subsidies to the fossil fuel industry were preserved intact. No worries, no tears need be shed for Shell, BP, Exxon at all. They did just fine as always.
Kennedy: Chevron announced a $24 billion profit. That’s not revenues, but that’s pure profit for this year. The use of the most profitable industry in the history of humankind of commerce and they are still getting these giant subsidies from governments because of the political clout that they’re able to exercise. How do we demonize them?
McKibben: That’s why we’re working very hard on this divestment campaign which is spreading beyond campuses elsewhere. The first city last week in the country, Seattle, to announce that it was divesting its city funds from fossil fuel industries and increasingly religious denominations are doing the same. The Congregationists and the Unitarians are leading the charge here. This is all very good news. It has to be taken on in a big way and we need more than our small forces at 350.org fighting. We’re doing everything that we can, but this is the movement of our time and unless we get people fully engaged. People willing to go to jail. People willing to spend their lives on it, I’d say our odds are slim.
Kennedy: It’s hard working with these pension funds because the oil industry is undeniably profitable for its investors and unlike South Africa which was rather easy to divest in back in the ‘70s, these are the hottest stocks in the world and if you go to somebody who’s managing the pension funds for firefighters or for teachers and they have a fiscal responsibility to the members to make sure that that fund grows enough to pay for their retirement, it’s hard for them to get out of those oil stocks.
McKibben: Of course the fiduciary responsibility of those guys is to make sure that there will be a way for people to retire and there’s something deeply ironic about investing in stocks in companies whose business plan guarantees that the planet’s going to tank. It’s at least as ironic as trying to pay for people’s education by investing in companies that pretty much guarantee there won’t be a planet for them to carry out that education on. None of this is easy. If it was easy, I suppose we would have done it. It’s hard. It’ll be a hard job. The only thing harder and it’ll be much harder is trying to inhabit successfully and profitably the world that we’ll create if we don’t get to work really soon.
Kennedy: Bill McKibben, a Schumann distinguished scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont. He’s the founder of the global climate and campaign 350.org and the author most recently of Earth, Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Thanks for joining us, Bill.
McKibben: Thank you so much, brother. Take care.
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