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Meet Bill McKibben

Meet Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben believes that India and China must stop using coal as their main source of energy development, and that the U.S. and Europe need to finance much of the gap between coal and whatever else they'll use. Photo: Nancie Battaglia.

Prolific author, avid cross-country skier and passionate environmentalist, Bill McKibben roused the world in 1989 with his brilliant book The End of Nature. McKibben sounded the alarm bell on climate change, and introduced the crisis to the public, long before most scientists  or policy-makers were aware of the phenomenon. In 2007, McKibben founded the Step It Up organisation, launching a year of grassroots actions around the globe demanding an end to political and corporate business-as-usual. Jennifer Scarlott spoke with this tireless activist about his new initiative, dubbed simply: 350.org.

You’ve managed to harness remarkable writing skills with exemplary organising skills to create grassroots movements to combat climate change. Your organisation has a rather mysterious name: 350.org. What does it mean?

It’s the most important number on Earth. A year ago, when the Arctic started to melt so quickly, some of the world’s top scientists asked a basic question: how much carbon dioxide can we have in the atmosphere and still have a habitable planet. The answer they arrived at, after much computer modeling, was 350 parts per million (ppm). If we stay above that level for long, monsoons may start to shift, sea levels will rise aggressively and glaciers will melt even more quickly.

Why is climate change the most urgent issue of our time?

I’ll answer that with another number – 387. That’s the current atmospheric concentration of CO2 – we’re already over the safe level. This is not a problem for our children – this is a problem for right now, and if we don’t solve it soon, the momentum will simply be too great. The warming will continue for eons. Rajendra Pachuari, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said we have until 2012 to make fundamental change. I spoke recently to newly-arrived college freshmen in the U.S. – they won’t graduate until 2012. I asked them not to wait for graduation before taking action!

Why is your focus on the grassroots, rather than on global leaders?

Because we need a movement to show leaders that we want change, and can deal with its implications. At the moment, leaders – especially in the U.S. and the global South – get no pressure from their people, and so they are slow to act. When they do, it’s half-hearted. But, if enough people understand that 350 is the line, that will help push leaders in the right direction.

The U.S. will hold a historic presidential election in early November. What is 350.org’s role?

We’re running a letter-writing campaign so that people all over the world can demand that the winner come to Poland in December for the next big climate conference, the last important planning meeting before the final talks in Copenhagen in December 2009. You can participate by going to 350.org – you should participate because the winner of the next American election will play an outsized role in helping or hindering this process.

What role would you like to see the U.S., and India, play in a new climate change regime?

The U.S. needs to commit to real cuts in carbon emissions at home, and rejoin the leadership in the international fight. India needs to declare the truth: that it will suffer grievously from climate change, and that it will suffer grievously if it doesn’t develop. That will put pressure on the West to start working towards a grand bargain.

What should India ask the U.S. to do to fight climate change, and vice versa?

India, and China, must reach the grand bargain I just referred to. Both countries need to agree to stop using coal as their main source of energy development – and the U.S. and Europe need to finance much of the gap between coal and whatever else they’ll use. This will be extremely hard politically for all concerned – which is why we need to drive home the 350 message. People simply must understand that there isn’t an alternative (or there is, but it’s the destruction of civilisation).

These divers found their own way to demand climate action from U.S. lawmakers in 2007. Photo Courtesy: www.stepitup2007.org.

Many Indians feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of environmental crises like climate change. What advice would you give them?

To demand real change from the West and from their own leaders. When you feel overwhelmed, you tend not to act – which just makes the problem worse. We need to break this cycle with political action. All of us in the West are drawing on the example of Gandhiji; I wonder regularly what counsel he would give.

Lester Brown was in India recently, speaking about the need to put the fight against climate change on a wartime footing. How can ordinary Americans and Indians convince vested business and political interests to work toward 350?

It’s the carrot and stick. We need to set forth the subsidies and tax policies that encourage vested interests to make the switch. And we need to put a fitting price on carbon so that they’re discouraged from simply treading water.

What value do you feel India’s tiger forests provide in terms of carbon sequestration and storage?

I think we need to extend our view of forests. Not only do they clean our water and provide habitat for wildlife – now we know they are crucial allies in our fight to hold the planet’s temperature down. One way of regarding a tree is as a column of safely-stored carbon. It’s the perfect example of how nature can do many things in one place!

Do you feel that the answer to climate change lies in environmental technology (ET) alone, or do we need to pursue other solutions as well?

We need new technology, but we won’t get it in sufficient quantity unless we change the economic ground rules to make carbon-based fuels more expensive. Right now, a new windmill has to compete with a coalmine – which is not fair, since the coalmine does enormous damage to the environment and the windmill none at all. Charging the mine for the damage – pricing carbon fairly – will let markets go to work, and stimulate more technology.

How do you respond to critics who call you a modern-day Don Quixote?

Some days, I think they’re right. Other days, I open the e-mail and see people from all around the world creatively joining the 350.org cause, and then I think there might be quite a few other Don Quixotes out there as well. In any event, I guess I’d do what I do even if I knew we were going to lose – it seems morally incumbent upon us. This is the biggest thing human beings have ever done; those of us who can see it happening can’t stand idly by.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVIII No. 5, October 2008.

 
 
 

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