On April 22, 1970, 20 million people across the U.S. marched, attended speeches and sat in teach-ins, marking the first Earth Day, and spurring on the enactment of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the founding of the EPA, all of which occurred later that year. Then and now, activism has been critical to enacting environmental and climate policy, and in shifting attitudes of the general public to the urgency of mitigating climate change, but why is activism so important, and how can it be done effectively?
Climate Now sat down with Bill McKibben, author, journalist and environmental activist who has led protest movements against development of the Keystone Pipeline Project (which aimed to pipe oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to Nebraska where it could link with other pipelines heading to the refineries of Texas), and for the global divestment from fossil fuels (currently amounting to $40 trillion of lost capital for fossil fuel companies, and counting). Bill joined us to discuss why activism is so important to enacting climate policy, how the biggest movements come together, and the work that needs to be done next.
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James Lawler: [00:00:00] Welcome to Climate Now, a podcast that explores and explains the ideas, technologies, and the practical on the ground solutions that we’ll need to address the global climate crisis and achieve a net-zero future. I'm James Lawler, and if you like this episode, leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. Share it with your friends, or tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org. So today on our interview segment, we'll be speaking with renowned author activist Bill McKibben about how to build a successful impact movement by taking a look at how he and fellow activists built the Keystone Pipeline protest movement and the fossil fuel divestment movements.
But before we get into that, Let's look at “This Week in Climate News.” For “This Week in Climate News,” I'm joined by co-host Julio Friedman and Darren Hau.
So speaking of Bill McKibben, he happens to be quoted in an article from a few days ago on January 25th in The Times of London. This article is written by Richard Curtis, who's co-founder of Make My Money Matter [00:01:00], and Christiana Figueres.
Who is former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. McKibben says in the article, “money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns.” And it, the article raises the sort of shocking, I think, statistic that despite climate pledges and net zero targets and sustainability strategies, the world's 60 biggest climate banks have $4.6 trillion to the fossil fuel industry since the Paris Climate Agreement was struck in 2015. And in 2021 alone, those same banks funneled $185.5 billion toward the top a hundred oil and gas expanders.
Darren Hau: So James, certainly the idea is to build less and less of the fossil fuel infrastructure. But given energy prices, inflation, everything, I think the focus, the conversation in everyday media has shifted towards how do we also make sure that we have that energy supply in the near term?
What do you all think is the right balance to strike here?
Julio Friedmann: We all [00:02:00] know that we need to really decarbonize rapidly, and that means a lot of de-fossilization too. We have to use less fossil fuel to hit key global targets. On even a broader topic though, like this, the, the question of like, what should the banks be doing?
People want secure energy supply and when they don't have it, the costs go through the roof. Nations collapse. The Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy has been predicting for years that we were cyclically underinvesting in fossil fuels, even with the targets for. Even with those climate targets we were spending too little, and lo and behold, when there was a shock, there was a shock.
We need to spend the money on the infrastructure. We need to make sure those shocks don't happen before we stop investing in fossil fuels.
Darren Hau: Sounds good.
So one article that crossed my radar this week was Rivian Chief lobbyist, Jim Chen leaving. This is very interesting because it just highlights the whole dealership versus direct sales debate.
So Jim Chen has a really interesting [00:03:00] background. He used to be the lobbyist for Tesla and was successful in getting Tesla to be able to do direct sales in many states in the U.S., and was hired at Rivian to do much of the same thing. And essentially what this article says is he had a much harder time of this at Rivian because in the years since Tesla's success, dealers have kind of wised up to use that phrase, and it was quite a struggle to get any further dealer traction for direct sales.
You know, why are dealers concerned about direct sales? Well, number one, they won't be able to take a cut out of, um, out of sales to customers. But number two, they're a little bit concerned about EVs more broadly because EVs require much less maintenance. You know, and what my understanding is, is that dealers get almost 50% of their revenue from maintenance. The other 50% is sort of like upfront sales. Furthermore, if they're going to gear up to sell EVs, they have to invest in the charging infrastructure to support that. So I think there's, this just [00:04:00] raises a big question of how are we going to get a better consumer experience for EVs while still bringing dealers along for the ride in a way that incentivizes them?
I'm looking forward to seeing if any dealers have really innovative new business models.
Julio Friedmann: So one of the things that your story shows, Darren, is how these complexities in the system build as we get scale. When it's a couple of facilities or a couple of dealers, nobody cares. But as you start getting hundreds of thousands of dealers, lots and lots of vehicles, the situation changes.
We're seeing two different stories, but more with the technology bent where we're seeing both the minus side and the plus side of this. One of them is that wind farms around the world have been suddenly falling apart and damaged that the very tall ones or the slightly older ones are suddenly collapsing and having very high capital costs.
This is, in my estimation, entirely par for the course when you scale any technology. As these things scale, there's growing pains, and so the fact that we're [00:05:00] suddenly mounting these huge things and conditions they've never been done before in use cases where they haven't been operating for dozens of years, we should expect these kinds of challenges to manifest.
The alternative of this is every once in a while we solve some of these problems, and I was excited to see a story associated with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finally, uh, giving the permit for the NuScale small modular reactor facility, and creating this new regulatory posture makes it possible for us to start bringing some of these new technologies into the field.
So it's a damped and driven system. It's one step forward, one step backward sometimes. But for years, the costs of nuclear have been going up because the regulatory issues have made it hard to field. Now it looks like we start getting some of these things in the field. We might see the opposite trend in the future.
I consider these to be neither news that's good, nor news that's bad. [00:06:00] It's just what you should expect as these things. Nuclear has a small but really important part in the power grid. In general, renewables will be cheaper and better, but not in all markets and not for all applications.
Darren Hau: Another article that came across the news this, this past week, Shell bought, uh, San Francisco based EV charging company called Volta.
So this company actually raised, uh, a little under $300 million in a SPAC, and then reach a market valuation of $2 billion. At the time of the acquisition, uh, they were purchased for only $169 million. So what, what does this mean? I mean, obviously there's a lot of charger stations that have to be built. This is gonna be a booming industry, but in some ways it reminds me of where the solar industry was back in the early, uh, 2010s where solar was expanding at a fast rate, but all of the companies were bleeding money.
It's a hard business, right? Project development pouring. You know, routing conduit like that, that is, that is moving physical bits, [00:07:00] and that's very, very tricky. So I think what'll be really interesting i:s how do we get that talent? How do we find better practices? And then how do we maybe find new financial models that actually make this a viable business?
Julio Friedmann: Well, speaking of banks and speaking of new financial models, and speaking of human capital and speaking of Shell, all of those things come together in the last story of this week. Bloomberg, there was a story saying, a class action wave is coming for ESG claims. That's a real issue, and it's true, and it started with Shell.
It started with the Dutch Court in the Netherlands. Finding Shell at fault for claims that it had made first on its climate goals and then on various ESG pronouncements. And as a consequence, now there is in fact a wave of suits following this accusations of greenwashing, some of which are merited, some of which are not.
The courts will decide some of that, but [00:08:00] it's gonna be harder to get new financial models and it's gonna be harder to get people to work in the. and what this is mostly gonna be is a drag on the enterprise. All of these suits, all of these things around ESG, and we need greater cooperation. We need greater speed, we need greater concordance and agreement.
Starting with litigation is problematic. We have certainly seen that without things like litigation or public movements like the ones that Bill McKibben's groups do, it's hard to get people at the table. You often need some kind of external threat like that, but it is really easy to over litigate and overreach, and I think that's what we are about to see.
James Lawler: Now to our interview segment.
Today I'm joined by Bill McKibben, an author and environmentalist turned activist. He's the founder of many successful climate movements, some of which we'll discuss today. He's the author of The End of Nature, which is one of the earliest books written for a layman [00:09:00] audience about global warming, published in 1980.
He is a writer for The New Yorker and has published in numerous other outlets around the world, including the New York Review of Books, National Geographic, and Rolling Stone. He founded 350.org, the first global grassroots climate campaign, now working in 188 countries around the world. He also founded the Third Act, which organizes people over the age of 60 to work on climate and racial justice.
In the episode today, we'll explore the key ingredients necessary to building a successful. And how they were applied in the Keystone Pipeline protest movement and the fossil fuel divestment movement. We'll also explore how to tell a story that people connect with, which I believe is absolutely central to the success that Bill's had so far in his career.
James Lawler: So Bill, for the uninitiated, I'm wondering if you might be able to start by telling us a bit about your background, how you got into your. Advocacy and [00:10:00] activism work in the climate space to, to begin with,
Bill McKibben: I started out in all of this as a writer. I, I as a young writer, uh, in my mid twenties. I at the New Yorker magazine, I wrote a, the book that was turned out to be the first book about what we then called “the greenhouse effect, “and what we now call "climate change.”
A book called The End of Nature that ended up going all over the place. So thanks, and you know, in a sense, when I began that book, I suppose I was more traditional journalist, and by the time I was finished with it, uh, it was clear to me that, uh, I cared how this story came out. I didn't want the planet to heat up and blow away.
You know, I'm a writer, uh, and but teacher by nature and by profession. And so I think in both cases, [00:11:00] trained to believe that the most important job is to win the argument, and that if you win the argument, eventually the powers that be will do the right thing. So I devoted a decade or more to writing endlessly about climate change and giving talks and organizing symposiums.
James Lawler: And what years were we at this point you're, you're describing
Bill McKibben: In the nineties. First, that book came out in 1989, so I spent the next decade doing all that kind of argument-winning right? Until at some point it became very clear to me that we had won the argument. Overwhelmingly, the science was obvious, robust, uh, well developed and totally scary.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm.
Bill McKibben: The problem was that we were winning the argument, but we were still losing the fight because it turns out that, I’m afraid, as is usually the case, the fight was not [00:12:00] about data and reason and evidence. The fight was about what fights are normally about money and power. And the other side in this fight, the fossil fuel industry was rich enough and hence politically powerful enough that it could afford to lose the argument and still go on just keeping its business model intact, at which point in the earlier part of this millennium, uh, it began to occur to me that we were gonna have to build some matching power of our own so we could take them on in this fight. And that that power wasn't gonna come from money because we were never gonna have as much as Exxon.
So we had to find a different currency to work in, and the only real currency on offer was the de currency of movements, you know, passion, spirit, creativity bodies. And that's when we began trying to kind of do [00:13:00] this work, uh, beginning about the middle of the aughts we started what turned into 350.org, the first global grassroots climate campaign that's now organized about 20,000 demonstrations in every country on earth except North Korea.
James Lawler: Wow. 20,000 demonstrations in every country on earth except for North Korea. That's unbelievable.
Bill McKibben: I mean, at first we were just raising consciousness as it were, holding, you know, doing lots and lots of days of these big days of action around the world. You know, people would come together and demonstrate and whatever in order to, to just, because there were lots of parts of the world, including lots of parts of this country, where they, people, hadn't paid much attention to this notion of what kind of trouble we were in. But within a couple of years, as we built this movement, we started putting it more actively to work. The two best examples probably were in 2011 when we helped sort of [00:14:00] nationalize and then internationalize this fight against the Keystone Pipeline, uh, which became the first real big battle with big oil.
And certainly the first time they'd lost, been told they couldn't do something they weren't gonna do. That was a massive effort. And then the next year in 2012, in the same time, we launched this fossil fuel divestment campaign that's become the largest anti-corporate campaign of its kind in history, encouraging institutions of all kinds, pension funds, universities, churches to sell their stock in oil and gas and coal. We're at about $40 trillion now in endowments and portfolios that have divested from fossil fuel.
James Lawler: I'd love to just dive a little deeper on both of those. So the Keystone pipeline, what if you had to boil down the ingredients of the success that you, and, you know, the, [00:15:00] the movement had in stopping the
pipeline.? And it obviously, this is not just one moment in time there, this is a concerted effort over a significant period of time. But what would those ingredients have been, and to what degree is that playbook replicable in, in, in sort of other contexts in this effort?
Bill McKibben: So the first ingredient was remarkable leadership from people on the ground in the most affected areas.
So first that, uh, indigenous groups in Alberta especially where the tar sands are at the source end of this pipeline. And so they'd begun fighting the tar sands companies years before and were smart about it and there were also, uh, people on the ground in some of the states that this pipeline was supposed to go through…[00:16:00] Nebraska, most particularly, uh, farmers and ranchers who got upset about it and began doing great organizing.
James Lawler: What was the main thing that that galvanized those communities
Bill McKibben: In those cases? Well, you know, in the indigenous communities it was: land is being, uh, destroyed by the single most destructive industrial project in human history perhaps. If you anyone doubts that, go look at Google Earth for a little while in the areas around Fort McMurray and Alberta, and you'll see. For farmers and ranchers it was these guys are taking by eminent domain farmland that’s been in our hands for many generations. And, but I mean, what was interesting about their ability to cooperate, of course, was that, uh, you know, these are basically the descendants of people who stole land from the other people , you know, and eventually they formed what they called the CIA, the Cowboy Indian Alliance [00:17:00]. Um, and that was important. But the other part that really, I, it was crucial to winning, to making this into a big issue and eventually winning. It was… we also managed to bring on board huge numbers of people who were nowhere near the pipeline, uh, by arguing that it was a key part of the fight against climate change.
And then if you were concerned about climate change, that this was a way that you could get engaged. And that began in that summer of 2011 with scientists like Jim Hansen from NASA explaining the stakes. And then, you know, we organized, um, two weeks of civil disobedience outside the White House, the Obama White House, and that turned into the largest civil disobedience action about anything in this country in a long time.
1200 and some people went to jail and [00:18:00] over two weeks, and it was beautiful and well done and, and, and all of that. And that kind of lit the match that made it a big national issue. I think probably, uh, if it had only been people in Alberta and people in Nebraska, big oil is big enough that it could have rolled them, but definitely they were the key in getting things sort of started and on a firm ground and took a decade to finally put the last spike in the, you know, in this project. It was only when Biden finally took office that it was once and for all.
James Lawler: Right. And why was it, when the demonstration happened, the demonstration outside the White House, why did that become sort of a lightning rod for climate interest? Like why did people show up to that one?
Bill McKibben: Well, I mean, we did some good organizing, but I, when I proposed that we'd do these arrests, I [00:19:00] think there were a number of people who were dubious that whether anyone would actually show up and My sense was that we'd reached a point where, people were actually eager for some sacrifice.
That they were, um, worried enough about where we were and felt as if so little was happening, that, that there would be a lot of people who kind of wanted to up the ante in non-violent ways. And that turned out to be the case. And once all those people had been arrested, it really did transform it into a national fight.
James Lawler: And that was because it got pick up in press than it otherwise would have?
Bill McKibben: Yes. Eventually. Exactly right. Even before the press was paying that much attention, you know, there's enough kind of self-created media these days that one's able to sort of spread the word about things within the enough people to get a lot of people to show up in Washington.
And then they all spread [00:20:00] the word and eventually Yes. The media started picking it up. There wasn't as much coverage of climate stuff in 2011 as there is now. Politicians paid attention right away because they know how difficult it is to get people mobilized in those kind of numbers.
James Lawler: Right. Fascinating. So, so Bill, the other big initiative that you're, that's ongoing today is the disinvestment campaign. Can, can you talk about how that started? and
Bill McKibben: I Sure can.
James Lawler: where that is now?
Bill McKibben: I'll tell you this story. In 2012, a small London based think tank Carbon Tracker Initiative, put out a little study.
Um, and it didn't get much notice at the time, uh, but it's really, it was quite a simple and elegant piece of work. It just took the, what the various fossil fuel companies had said about the size of their reserves that they were planning to dig up and sell, [00:21:00] you know, information they have to give shareholders or governments, or banks, you know, it's what their business plans, and it added them all up and said, “here's how much, here's how much all the world's fossil fuel companies are planning at the moment to dig up and burn.” And then it added up. It compared that number with what physicists say is the most carbon we could, you know, still burn and have any hope of avoiding complete chaos. And what do you know? It turned out that the first number was about five times higher than the second number.
James Lawler: I remember that. That was so terrifying.
Bill McKibben: It really was terrifying. So at first nobody read it except I read it and Naomi Klein, my dear friend, she read it too. And we both thought, this is really interesting because what it did was, in a sense that's now hard to sort of imagine it, it allowed us to see the fossil fuel companies for the first time as real rogue players, [00:22:00] i.e. if their business plans were followed, there was no longer any drama about how all this was gonna end. They were gonna wreck the planet.
And that's different from sort of normal corporate malfeasance, you know, I mean, you scratch very hard at almost any corporation and you can find it doing something wrong. But this was, their entire existence was devoted to a project that, you know, the outcome of which was going to be extinction.
James Lawler: Right. It's sort of like you have this, you have, you have kind of, you have what you need to convert a participant in, in sort of a context, into a character in a narrative, right?
Bill McKibben: Yes. I think that that's very perceptive. Well, it reminded us once we'd sort of made that leap of we'd both been in college in the years when the big fight was about apartheid in South Africa and one of the tools that the South African liberation movement [00:23:00] had asked people around the world to use was divest from the companies that were underpinning that white rural government in South Africa.
And it had been very successful. And this seemed to us comparable. So first thing I did was write a piece about it for Rolling Stone which went savagely viral.
James Lawler: Yeah, that was, and that was the first thing I read, I think of yours, Bill, was that. Yeah, that was the huge, you became a star overnight when that came out.
Bill McKibben: Well, it, I mean it was a, it, it was interesting. Um, cuz it's basically a piece about numbers. I mean, I think the headline was something like the “Terrifying New Math of Climate Change” (“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”) or something. But people really responded because I think what you said was very acute. It allowed people to really understand that there was a, that there were bad guys [00:24:00] in this story, and, and more than that, you know, by proposing this divestment campaign, we were able to offer a way for everybody to take them on. In, in retrospect, I think even more than we realized at the time, it was a smart idea because most people don't live right next to a coal mine or an oil well, or a pipeline, but everybody lives adjacent to some pot of money: a university endowment, a church fund, a local city pension fund, whatever it is. And so all of those, many, many, many thousands of, of money became locuses for a fight. We decided we had to draw attention to it.
So we did this road show that autumn around the U.S. And it was crazy. We did, I think, 28 cities in 30 days or something. We had this bus, like a country music band, tour [00:25:00] bus that you know.
James Lawler: And what year was that now?
Bill McKibben: 2012. Autumn of 2012. And you know, we'd give a talk and then jump in the bus and sleep and get to the next city. And there was a lot of enthusiasm in part because it was coming right on the heels of this keystone thing. So we were, we were speaking every night to three and four and 5,000 seat venues across the country.
James Lawler: Oh my goodness.
So it, it started working and working quite beautifully by the time we were done that roadshow, there were divestment campaigns underway on 400 college campuses and, you know, every religious denomination you could think of, and people were starting to go after big city pension funds and charitable foundations and, uh, you know, on and on and on.
And so it really just started ripping and roaring and it's never really stopped where it, as I say, about 40 trillion now in endowments, in poor, and within a few years you could tell, I mean, our, our, our [00:26:00] original thinking was that it would, as we put it, erode the take away the social license of these companies, and surely it did that it became a, you know, the best vehicle for expressing our understanding of just how irresponsibly these companies were operating.
But eventually it grew large enough that it really began to interfere with their ability to access capital. When Peabody Coal went bankrupt in 2016 or ‘17, they listed divestments as one of the reasons. Uh, Shell, a couple of years ago in their annual report, said that divestment had become a material risk to its business, which is good.
And fittings since Shell's business is a material risk to life on planet Earth. You know, and one of the things about it that was really useful, that we hadn't understood, was that it trained a huge generation of climate activists, especially on college campuses, who now had a direct way to [00:27:00] take on climate change.
And then when they graduated, wanted to keep on doing it. And it was almost entirely veterans of the fossil fuel divestment movement that then went on to form the Sunrise Movement when they got outta school. Uh, Varshini Prakash, the remarkable Executive Director of the Sunrise Movement who brought us the Green New Deal.
Uh, you know, I'd met her first when she was 17 and was running the divestment campaign at UMass Amherst, which was an early success, uh, after they occupied the administration building and so on and so forth. Uh, you know, so… without the Green New Deal, we never would've gotten the Inflation Reduction Act that we finally got this year and things.
So just a way of saying that movements build upon themselves and that they work off, they feed off ideas and stories. On some level, the fight is now morphed in a lot of ways to taking on the big [00:28:00] banks, Chase , Citi, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, that are the four biggest lenders to the fossil fuel industry because about 90% of their financing now is coming from bank loans and from bond issues that have to be underwritten by these banks. So that's where a lot of this action's going now that's getting big enough that it's beginning to frustrate the, uh, treasurers of red states, red oil states who are trying to, you know, uh, put pressure on the banks to keep lending happily - the
treasurers of the blue states who have a lot more money are increasingly um, uh, coming on side to demand action. So it'll be an interesting watching it play out, and we're headed for this big day of action. In March of this year 3/21/23 on your agenda when people will be, you know, lots and lots of groups.
Third Act kind of, which we can talk about, kind of got it [00:29:00] started, but lots of groups are joining in to, uh, uh, go after these, uh, banks in and, and because we understand now that they're just an, and we have the data to show an enormous part of the problem that we.
James Lawler: Having faced this problem now, Bill, for some time of how to accelerate awareness, understanding how to ignite a sense of urgency in people to take action and understanding what those dynamics are like and how you pass tipping points there to kind of catalyzed action.
What is your playbook looking forward knowing how much acceleration still needs to take place?
Bill McKibben: Two problems here. Interlinked problems of vested interest and inertia.
James Lawler: Okay. Can you un explain what you mean by that, these two problems?
Bill McKibben: Well, vested interest means big oil. Okay. And big oil does everything it can to help inertia along , uh, to make sure that change is, is hard, as [00:30:00] hard as possible.
And, and the only way to overcome that is….Well, I mean, the first big effort to overcome that inertia and it had to overcome immense amounts of vested interest was the Inflation Reduction Act past this past year by the Congress. It took 34 years after Jim Hansen testified before Congress, 34 years and 40 days for the Congress to actually act on climate change.
But when they did, they did it. Not a great bill. It had to go through Joe Manchin and he has taken more fossil fuel money than anybody else in DC. So, you know, he gutted many important things, but it did stagger across the finish line, thanks to great organizing, and it has $400 billion, $500 billion for heat pumps and electric vehicles and solar panels and wind turbines and transmission lines and all the other things that we [00:31:00] badly need to speed up this process now. So now, the movement, climate movement has two jobs. One is its traditional job of trying to weaken and hold and check the fossil fuel industry, and that's largely at the moment this bank work that I've been describing.
And the other is, um, this new task of trying to help organize to make sure that that money gets spent, spent well and spent quickly. Uh, there's 140 million homes in America. Uh, they have roughly a billion machines that run on at the moment, mostly fossil energy, furnaces, water heaters, uh, uh, cars, stoves.
Um, those are all things that have been switched out so that they can run on electricity, and then the sources that electricity have to be made clean. Those are huge [00:32:00] jobs. There's no technological obstacle to them. The technology's now available and affordable, but 140 million homes is a lot of homes. That's a lot of just friction, you know, like, because most of us , there's a furnace down in the basement, and as long as it doesn't break, like.
Whatever. Right. We've got other things to worry about, you know, so…This is an organizing challenge and people are trying to figure out how to make it work. There are groups like Rewiring America and Solar United Neighbors and things like that, that are gearing up to do the kind of community-based level organizing that'll be required.
James Lawler: That was Bill McKibben, writer and activist, founder of 350.org and third act. It's fitting that this episode is coming out now because I'm excited to share that climate now is launching what we're calling our Net-Zero Cities initiative, which are a series of events across the [00:33:00] U.S. fostering local partnerships and igniting conversations to help cities achieve Net-Zero.
For more information on that, or to nominate your city for our Net-Zero City event, visit info dot climate now.com/netzero cities. That's it for this episode of the podcast. If you liked it, leave us a review, share it on your social networks and share it with your friends. To get in touch with us, email us email@example.com or tweet us at @weareclimatenow.
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Climate now is made possible in part by our science partners, like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility. More information on the foundation's climate work can be found at livermorelabfoundation.org.