Activist Bill McKibben on Keystone Pipeline and Protest Power

  • Activist and author Bill McKibben is one of the most recognizable faces of the climate change movement. Photo: Seth Butler/www.sethbutler.com

November 1, 2013

Saying “you could not think of a worse way to power the world,” of the Keystone XL Pipeline, outspoken environmental activist Bill McKibben recently talked with The Allegheny Front about the pipeline, about campaigning for divestment from fossil fuels, and about the award he'll receive in Pittsburgh soon. The following is an edited transcription of our Q&A with him and host Jennifer Szweda Jordan (her questions are in bold). McKibben's the founder of the climate action group 350.org. He will be in Pittsburgh Nov. 4 to receive the Thomas Merton Center's annual award for his work in social justice.

What our energy correspondent Reid Frazier learned, as he reported a series of stories on the Coming Chemical Boom, in the Gulf Coast, is that environmentalists there are concerned about this Keystone Pipeline because the oil that's coming down the pike is of such a grade that using it could really worsen air emissions there. I guess that’s the kind of thing you're trying to draw attention to.

Yeah, absolutely. This stuff is the dirtiest energy on earth. You could not think of a worse way to power the world. It’s dirty up there in Canada where they’re ripping up people’s indigenous homelands in order to get at it. It’ll be dirty if it spills along the route. It’ll foul the air in places like Port Arthur, Texas. And then that huge endless quantity of carbon will go up into the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming for everyone. So all in all, not a good situation.

About these big protests you’ve been leading against the pipeline. Some people look at protests and say, “Is this the kind of thing that makes a difference in social change?” But one might say that a couple years ago, President Obama or the Democrats could have approved the pipeline with little fear of political pain, but because of your work, that’s no longer a formality. How do you view that?

Yeah, I think that’s right. It was a done deal and it’s come undone for the time being. We’ve slowed ‘em down for two years, which is good. But we’re very hopeful, if the President does the right thing, it’s not like it’ll end climate change—it won’t, but it will be the first time a world leader has said ‘Here’s something big we’re not gonna do because of its affect on the climate.’ And that might, you know, be a good precedent on all kinds of things, including fracking.

You’ve called yourself an “unlikely activist.” You’re a writer, but you’ve made somewhat of a transition from journalism. Do you think there’s still a place for environmental journalism?

Sure, and I still do a lot of journalism. But I’m not a—you know, I couldn’t cover global warming deep for the New York Times, because I have a definite opinion. I really wish the world wasn’t going to warm up and wither away, you know. But I think there’s plenty of—I mean, I think we need lots of good environmental journalism in order to keep uncovering the stuff that’s happening.  I think that, by itself, it doesn’t add up to enough. You know, I thought, when I wrote the first book about all this 25 years ago that…  my assumption anyhow, I was 27 at the time and perhaps a little naive. But my assumption was that systems would react to new information--that our readers would take this most important of crises seriously and do things about it. It turns out that reason alone doesn’t always prevail. You need to figure out how to make powerful people change what they’re doing. And that requires other kinds of power--in this case, movements and things.

Some analysts say that the Keystone XL Pipeline has given the environmental movement something very visible, very tangible to fight against. As opposed to debating the issues around something more nebulous, say, like cap-and-trade. But others are saying that Keystone has become too much of a focus. 

We’re focused on all kinds of things at 350.org. We’re in the middle of this huge divestment campaign on campuses, cities, denominations worldwide. You know, I’m off to Europe in a day to try and spur some action around divestment there to match what’s going on in this country. The big study from Oxford University just called it the fastest growing divestment campaign in history.  So we’re doing our best to take the fight to the fossil fuel industry all over the place.  We're not going to win it one pipeline at a time, but, ya know, we could lose it one pipeline at a time. So we gotta play both defense and offense.

And If you could just say quickly what the divestment campaign is.

We’re trying to get institutions—churches, colleges, whatever, to sell their stock in fossil fuel companies. ‘Cause these guys are a rogue industry. They’re poised to pour far more carbon into the atmosphere than the atmosphere can absorb.

You mentioned denominations divesting. I’ve been thinking about a tension, for example, in the Catholic Church. There are a number of religious orders within the Church signing on to help fight climate change in various ways. But this is also a church in which bringing up population control is a difficult issue. How do you navigate that?

Well, I don’t think, truthfully, that, at least as far as climate change goes, population’s that huge an issue.  Most of the population growth we’re going to see comes in places that use so little energy that they’re not—they’re sort of rounding errors in the fight.  And truthfully, for better or for worse, I don’t think that the Catholic Church is that big a problem in this regard. If one looks at the planet’s demography, the two countries on earth with the lowest birth rates are Spain and Italy, which are probably the two most Catholic developed countries on the planet. The two most Catholic developing countries are probably Brazil and Mexico and they’ve shown remarkable declines in birth rates--an awful lot of individual Catholics who are well ahead of the hierarchy on this one. And it’s a great thrill to watch Pope Francis starting to, um, well, starting to, uh, return the Church to a place where it could be—the kind of, near the moral vanguard of the planet. His concentration on poor people, on the environment, are going to be very welcome developments. What a breath of fresh air.

As we think about the environmental concerns about fossil fuel, we all, of course, are culpable of using fuel. You flew in here very recently and were gone within 24 hours—coming in for a protest to Pittsburgh. How do you deal with your own desire to travel and work in the environmental movement? Planes, of course, aren’t run on solar or wind power.

You know, I think there’s very little way to avoid using a certain amount of fossil fuel at the moment. I mean, at home, I’m able to cover my house in solar panels and drive an electric car and things. But I am out on the road much more than I wanna be, organizing, and that takes, under current arrangements—fossil fuel. You might want to take the train but if there isn’t a train, you can’t take it.  The fact that we all use fossil fuel is exactly the problem. It’s indicative of the fact that this is a structural problem, in the end—that our systems are set up this way and the reason they’re set up this way is the enormous power of the fossil fuel industry. That’s what we have to fight. We’re not going to win the fight one light bulb at a time, at this point. We’re going to have to do it by making structural change. This is, in theological terms, structural sin, not individual sin. And, hence, that’s where the attack’s gotta go.

When you were in town for the Power Shift youth environmental convergence, what did you try to get across to the activists?

I wanted to share what an interesting movement this is. It's a kind of leaderless movement. It doesn't have a Dr. King or anything. It looks the way we want our energy system to look. It's thousands of nodes of people ready to go. That's how we organize at 350.org. You don't call everybody to march on Washington, usually. We usually have marches that take place in thousands of places at once. Because we have these new technologies, we're able to link together that real world action and make it larger than the sum of its parts. Those young people are absolutely in the league to me and that's exciting for me to see.

You're receiving the Thomas Merton Center Award. Merton was a monk and an antiwar activist. What's the connection between your work and his?

Look, he was a great man and I'm not. But he was very engaged, you know, though he lived a life mostly of solitude and retreat. He was nonetheless deeply engaged with the world. I try to do that—be as engaged as I can as well.  Plus, we're both writers. Though perhaps he was a better one than I am—he's an inspiration in that regard as well.