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Youth Bringing a New “Spirit” to Climate Fight


Following Friday’s youth-led climate strike — the largest-ever global protest focused on climate — we speak with Bill McKibben, longtime journalist and co-founder of 350.org. McKibben’s latest piece for The New Yorker is titled “Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns,” and his cover piece for Time magazine is headlined “Hello from the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different.” McKibben’s 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” was the first book for a general audience about climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. World leaders are gathering today here in New York for a one-day U.N. Climate Action Summit. Dozens of world leaders are planning to address the summit, but President Trump is skipping the gathering. Instead, he plans to attend a U.N. event focused on religious freedom and religious persecution.

Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Organization has just released an alarming new report warning that the five-year period from 2014 to 2019 is the hottest on record, marked by accelerating sea level rise and soaring carbon emissions.

Today’s summit comes three days after 4 million people took part in a Global Climate Strike. And the protests are continuing. Climate activists in Washington, D.C., are attempting right now to block morning rush-hour traffic.

As we continue our climate coverage, we turn to Bill McKibben, the longtime journalist, co-founder of 350.org. Bill McKibben’s 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first book for a general audience about the climate crisis. His other books include Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? His latest piece for The New Yorker is going viral, its headline, “Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns.” He also recently had the cover story of Time magazine, his piece called “Hello from the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different.”

Bill McKibben, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, after your journey to Washington, in Congress last week, for all that was happening there, then in the streets here in New York on Friday for the Global Climate Strike. Talk about your experience of this.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, look, Amy, I’ve had the privilege of getting to be a part of every one of the global mobilizations over the last 10 years. And Friday was really different. It was a quantum step up in numbers, but also in spirit. You know, you were down at the Battery, and your crew did an amazing job. And it was all ages, and it looked like New York. It was as diverse as this city, and the same was true all over the world. It was such a privilege to get to have 350 kind of help out behind the scenes around the planet, because we got to look at these pictures as they were flooding in from everywhere.

You know, there were a couple of times when — you know, I’m an old guy. I don’t cry easy. But there were a couple of times when I — there was a picture from Kabul, in Afghanistan. A girls’ school walked out in protest. Of course, it’s dangerous, so there were soldiers, front and back of them. But just to think about that for a minute. I mean, it’s brave for a girl to go to school in Kabul, much less to not go to school and to walk out. There were remarkable pictures from Bangladesh, from across the South Pacific. The earliest pictures were coming in from the Solomon Islands, from people arriving to strike by canoe, a dugout canoe. You know, I mean, just —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, didn’t something like 300,000 Australians protest as the prime minister, the Australian prime minister, is meeting with Trump in Washington, D.C.?

BILL McKIBBEN: That’s right. Scott Morrison was having state dinner with Trump, but there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Australians, some of the biggest demonstrations down under ever.

And by the way, this coming Friday, there’s parts of the world that are going to have — didn’t do it last Friday, are doing it this Friday. So, watch for the pictures from New Zealand, from Spain. In Canada, we think there will be 300,000 or 400,000 people in Montreal alone. So there’s more yet to come in this remarkable, remarkable action.

AMY GOODMAN: In New York, so many young people were going out from their classes that the New York Public Schools administration had to announce they could leave and they wouldn’t be marked absent.

BILL McKIBBEN: That’s right. I think, actually, the city was proud to do it. And clearly, for kids all over the place, this wasn’t a day for no education. This was a day when people were learning all kinds of things and teaching all kinds of things. It was education at its best.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, as I went to Boston on Friday, coming out at the Government Center Metro, thousands and thousands, you know, the young people holding signs: “The oceans are rising, and so are we.” I mean, there — and then they marched to Boston Common, and that was just one little example all over this country.

BILL McKIBBEN: Exactly, exactly. No, it was beautiful. And what it demonstrates is, you know, as the World Meteorological Organization points out, we’re at a tipping point physically. The planet really is starting to break in profound ways. We’re also at a tipping point, maybe, politically. There’s finally enough recognition, enough demand for action, that maybe things will start to happen. Now, how that race between destruction and hope comes out is anybody’s guess. It really depends on how quickly we’re able to mobilize.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to ask you about Washington last week.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You had Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist, addressing —or, you could say, dressing down — the congressmembers. I want to turn just to a small clip of Greta testifying.

GRETA THUNBERG: My name is Greta Thunberg. I have not come to offer any prepared remarks at this hearing. I am instead attaching my testimony. It is the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius, the SR1.5, which was released on October 8th, 2018. I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Greta Thunberg, speaking before part of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Bill McKibben, you were there.

BILL McKIBBEN: So, a few minutes later, this was my favorite moment. You know, as usual, the congressmen can’t help themselves, are just gassing on for minute after minute, unable to take a cue from Greta’s concise eloquence. One Republican, just on and on and on, “China this, China that,” “Why should we do anything? China’s not doing anything,” yadda yadda yadda. It goes on like this for five minutes.

And Greta looks up at him and says — she said, “I come from a small country called Sweden. In Sweden, sometimes people say, ‘Why should we do anything, because the United States is so big and wastes so much?’ Just so you know.” It was my favorite moment of congressional testimony in a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to go, speaking of schools, to the divestment movement, because there was massive news last week after the University of California voted to divest from fossil fuel companies. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, two top university investment officials said it was the long-term risk posed by fossil fuel investments, rather than concerns over the environment, that led them to pull some $150 million in fossil fuel assets from the university endowment. In fact, isn’t it bigger, something like $80 billion?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, the endowment portfolio of the University of California system and the pension fund is $80 billion. This is the biggest educational divestment ever and from the biggest public education system on the planet — such a shoutout to the students, professors, alumni, who for seven years have waged an absolutely in-your-face, unrelenting campaign. This is a huge deal.

And the way they announced it was actually sort of quite helpful. They said, “Yeah, we” — I mean, they clearly didn’t want to acknowledge how much work had been done. But they were like, “Yeah, you know what? We’re losing our shirt on fossil fuel. We can’t keep doing this, so we’re out of here.” And that message rings loud and clear.

We’re now — we passed, last week, the $11 trillion mark on divestment. There’s a big gathering, for people who are in New York, Thursday night at Riverside Church, beginning at 7:00, to talk about — you know, to sort of hear about all that’s going on with the divestment and finance movement. There will be some more big surprise announcements there of some really interesting developments. But this campaign has — just keeps burgeoning.

And now, as you said, we’re ready to go to the next step, not just the fossil fuel companies. It’s time to, head on, deal with the banks and insurance companies and asset managers that are providing the lifeline to this fossil fuel industry.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the universities that are still grappling with this. So, you have UC out. That’s going to put enormous pressure on other institutions.

BILL McKIBBEN: Right. Oh, the guy who was saddest to hear the news was, doubtless, the president of Harvard, because they’ve been — they and Yale and everybody else have been, “Oh, we don’t — we can’t do this. None of the big universities will do it.” Well, the biggest of all has now weighed in. I mean, it’s not like the University of California is some fourth-rate enterprise. They’ve won 62 Nobel Prizes. You know, it’s one of the great research institutions in the whole world. And they’ve taken seriously what their scientists said. So now they’re out of climate change stock.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you mentioned the role banks are playing in financing the fossil fuel industry. You cite in your pieces the largest bank in the U.S., JPMorgan Chase. Talk about the banks —

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: — and the insurance industry, and the role they play.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. Rainforest Action Network and others have done great work over the last few years in digging up all the data to highlight what’s going on. In the years since Paris, the four big U.S. banks — Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, BofA — have dramatically increased their lending to the fossil fuel industry. Chase is number one with a bullet, as one of the Rainforest Action Network activists said. They lent, over the last three years, $196 billion. So, if the guy who runs Exxon is a sort of carbon giant, so is Jamie Dimon, the guy who runs Chase. I mean, they’re pouring money into the destruction of the planet. They’re doing everything they can to make a profit off that destruction. We’ve got to figure out how to stop that. And I think we will.

AMY GOODMAN: In your Time cover story, you wrote, “Let’s imagine for a moment that we’ve reached the middle of the century. It’s 2050, and we have a moment to reflect — the climate fight remains the consuming battle of our age, but its most intense phase may be in our rearview mirror. And so we can look back to see how we might have managed to dramatically change our society and economy. We had no other choice.” Explain this look back.

BILL McKIBBEN: So, Time asked me to try and imagine a world that actually worked. That’s not easy, because an incredible number of things have to go right from this point on. But if we did everything right from this point, if we cut off the supply of money to the fossil fuel industry, if we passed something like the Green New Deal and implemented it fast, if we did everything necessary to keep fossil fuel in the ground, then we’re not going to stop global warming. That’s off the table. But maybe we can limit it to the point where it doesn’t cut off our civilizations at the knees.

It’s a close question. But if we do, not only will the — if we do those things, not only will the planet survive, our civilization survive, but there’s reason to think that they could thrive, too, that the world that we create will be, above all, a world where we’ve escaped some of the incredibly damaging hyperindividualism of the kind of consumer society we live in now, and replaced it necessarily with a kind of ethic of solidarity. That’s what it’s going to take, because we’re now in a survival challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: Did Nancy Pelosi meet with Greta Thunberg in Congress, Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, who, when mocking the Green New Deal, talked about “the Green dream or whatever they call it”?

BILL McKIBBEN: I think they met briefly, and Chuck Schumer had a bunch of young climate activists in and things. I wouldn’t hold my breath for Congress next week passing the Green New Deal. I do think that there are promising signs out on the campaign trail that the people contesting for the Democratic primary have had no choice, because of the outpouring of feeling around this, to really begin to dramatically reevaluate what the Democratic Party’s going to do in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. Climate Action Summit is taking place today. What’s going to happen at the U.N.? And what about the fact that President Trump, a proud climate change denier, is not attending?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, truthfully, if I were him, I wouldn’t have gone, either, because he would have heard the longest, lustiest boos that any world leader ever got. You know, the U.N. is not going to solve —

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, he was laughed at. And —

BILL McKIBBEN: This year, he would have been. The U.N. is not going to solve the climate problem, but it is important that the secretary-general is doing his best to crack the whip. He told countries they weren’t going to be allowed to talk if they were still opening new coal plants. He told the Japanese and others, “You guys, sorry, you’re actually not going to get up and speak.” It’s a sign that even a place as diplomatic as the U.N. has begun to reach the end of the tether here.

AMY GOODMAN: And then we will be playing on Democracy Now! Greta Thunberg’s speech before that U.N. General Assembly today. She is going to address them. And the U.N. secretary-general said, “You can only speak about your solutions.” Is that right?

BILL McKIBBEN: That’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our conversation with Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org. His new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? His latest piece for The New Yorker, “Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns.” And he’s had a cover story in Time magazine, “Hello from the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different.” Yes, Bill McKibben wrote, in 1989, the seminal book, The End of Nature, the first book for a general audience about climate change.

And we’re speaking on the day of the U.N. climate summit, the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations, a few days after the largest climate protest to rock the globe, 4 million people, it’s estimated, in cities all over the world. In fact, your group, Bill McKibben, is the one that was putting out the photos from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Australia to New Zealand to the United States, all over, showing the images of people in the streets, young people and old.

BILL McKIBBEN: It was so much fun to get to back up Fridays for the Future and all the youth organizers here who were doing this, just to be able to watch how good they are at doing this and to really try and build a multigenerational climate movement, which is precisely what we need.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we are here, yes, right after the Climate Action Summit, though there are protests around climate that are happening all over in the next weeks, but also in a presidential primary season. Some eyes might glaze over. How is it possible that for more than a year now we’re going to go through this primary season with these candidates? But others might say, and I think you’re among them, who say, “No, no, no. This is an incredible opportunity.” Candidates are often senators or governors, politicians who are very insulated, in fact, in between times when they have to run. And now there’s this window where they have to respond to the public. And you are certainly using this moment. So I’d like to ask you, of the, what, 20 presidential Democratic presidential candidates that are still out there, the kind of work you’re doing, pressing these candidates to formulate their positions on the climate crisis.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. So, 350 Action, which is the (c)(4) political part of our operation, has been doing its best to turn them all into climate candidates. We set up the kind of original climate scoreboard for the various presidential candidates. And there have been young people out bird-dogging every event, every rope line, or making sure that these guys understand what the bottom line for the climate movement is.

And the bottom line is not having someone say, “I care about climate change. It represents an existential risk.” The bottom line is: Are you signing on to something that looks like the Green New Deal? Are you signing on because it’s within your power as president to do it to announce that there will be no mining and drilling on public lands? And are you saying we’re going to stop fracking around the country?

It’s been incredibly impressive to watch how far this field has moved. Look, four years ago, Bernie broke down this door, you know? He started talking in really serious terms about climate change. You’ll recall in the 2016 debates, in the primaries, at one point they asked, “What’s the most important issue facing the planet?” And Bernie just looked up and said, “Well, I mean, that’s obvious. It’s climate change.” That was something that no American politician really had enunciated before in quite that way.

As with many things, it’s spread across the field now, and so we’re getting remarkable commitments from everyone, pretty much everyone, down the line. Elizabeth Warren, the week before last, said she would stop fracking across America. That’s big deal. It’s all big deal. And it’s all because people are out there making this demand.

We’re not — I mean, assuming that a Democrat wins this time, an assumption on which my future mental health is entirely predicated, because I cannot — I don’t know about the planet, but I can’t take another four years of Trump, OK? Assuming a Democrat wins, we’re not really going to have an open primary next time, you know. There will be an incumbent and whatever. This is our chance in the political system for the next eight years to get these guys fully on the line and as committed as it’s possible to be.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you said making sure they sign on to the Green New Deal. Explain what that is?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, it’s not at this point a solid, fully fleshed-out piece of legislation, but everybody knows what it means now. It means a commitment to systemic change in order to cut in half the emissions that we’re producing over the course of the next decade. That requires things like a federal jobs guarantee, to allow anybody who wants to be part of this transition to do it. You know, it requires real commitments to environmental justice and climate justice in the most hard-hit communities. It requires a hell of a lot of work.

And so, the people who are saying, “Yeah, we’ll do it,” are, I think, signing up for that. At least they’re saying it in public, so we can hold them responsible once they’re in office. It’s worth remembering that politics doesn’t end on Election Day. In fact, that’s just the beginning. After that, it’s the job of — and you’ll recall, I mean, I worked hard for Barack Obama to get elected, and then we organized the largest demonstrations outside the White House during the whole Obama administration in order to make him live up to his words around things like the Keystone pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. I mean, you got arrested outside the White House around Keystone XL.

BILL McKIBBEN: Several times, yes. So, what’s exciting is to watch the ways that movements are meshing. I went to jail last month in a protest in upstate New York, in a small town in upstate New York, about climate change and immigration, because, look, people are streaming to our southern border because they can’t grow food in the drought-stricken highlands of Honduras and Guatemala. The U.N. estimates there’s going to be a billion climate refugees this century. We better come up with something smarter than walls and cages in order to deal with this. We better embrace some kind of expansive ethic of human solidarity that allows a world to be in movement when it has to be in movement now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, rather than people’s eyes glazing over at the primary and just waiting for these debates that the corporate networks hold, these candidates are going out all over the country, and they’re in small meetings. They’re in large gatherings.

BILL McKIBBEN: No, not — it must be said, not all over the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Iowa.

BILL McKIBBEN: Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa and New Hampshire, and, increasingly, they’ll be in Nevada and South Carolina and, very usefully, in California, which has an early primary this year, and people are going to be paying attention to it. So, it’s really, really crucial. You know, the seven-hour climate town hall was not — you know, it was powerful because each of these guys had to sit still and talk for 40 minutes about climate change. And every politician has two or three minutes’ worth of talk on any subject on the planet. That’s what they do. But 40 minutes required them actually to learn some things, to go a little deep, to demonstrate some kind of comprehension of the greatest problem we’ve ever faced.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the insurance industry. In Part 1, we talked about the banks. What role does the insurance industry play?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, insurance, like banks, is a huge pool of money, which they invest in the fossil fuel industry. But more importantly, if you want to build anything on this planet — a new pipeline, a new LNG export terminal, whatever — you need insurance. No one’s going to invest in anything that isn’t insured, because — well, because there’s too much risk. So the insurance companies, simply by refusing to underwrite new projects, could stop the fossil fuel industry more or less dead in its tracks.

And they should, because other divisions of each of these companies have all the data to demonstrate just how completely screwed we are because of climate change. I mean, the insurance industry are the people on our planet we ask to analyze risk. And what are they doing? They’re now telling California homeowners and Florida homeowners they can’t have insurance anymore, because no one can insure against the now, you know, probability of wildfire and hurricane. We need them to stop helping the fossil fuel industry make this worse.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you let people know about these connections?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, that’s why I wrote this article in The New Yorker highlighting the really good work that people have been doing at places like the Sunrise Project in Australia on these issues. There’s a campaign called Insure Our Future that’s working hard on it. But we do need to bring it to the next level, because we don’t have much time.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, where the activism goes from here? We talked about the presidential race here in the United States, this massive climate protest. But I also go back to 2003 and think about February 15th. Ultimately, it would be just a month before the U.S. would invade Iraq. But millions of people rocked the globe for peace on that February 15th, freezing cold day in New York, subfreezing temperatures, but people came out. But still, at that time it was President Bush, invades Iraq. Where does the climate activism go today?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, I mean, the good news — the difference is that here there are a thousand pressure points. There, there was one guy making a decision. Climate change isn’t like that. And so we attack it on every possible front.

I think a lot of the work is — I think the analysis is, there are two sources of power on our planet: There’s political power, and there is economic power. They’re often interlinked, but we can press them from different directions. We have to win elections. We have to push for change in Congress. We have to pass the Green New Deal. We also have to shut off the flow of money to the fossil fuel industry. And, you know, that involves going after Wall Street at least as hard as we go after the White House.

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