Photo: Nancie Battaglia.
In recent months, students at hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States have been demanding that universities stop investing funds in coal, oil, and gas stocks. The students hope this will force more people to discuss climate change and take action. "In this March 2013 interview," global climate activist and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben tells Sanctuary’s U.S. Youth Contact Julia Worcester why we have to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels and how collective action can bring about change. Can the youth of India follow the lead of young people in the U.S.?
Tell me about 350.org and why you created it.
350.org has turned into the first big global climate campaign. It was started in 2008 by myself and seven undergraduates, and now it has organized rallies in every corner of the world. It also spearheaded the drive against the Keystone XL pipeline. This proposed pipeline by TransCanada Corporation would carry up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Alberta, Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, worsening climate change and putting people, wildlife, and water sources at risk from toxic oil spills. 350.org is now working to help schools and colleges switch from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.
Why do you work so hard to fight climate change? Is it in part because you’re a father?
It actually started much before that – in 1989, I wrote the very first book about climate change, The End of Nature. I’ve tried to do what I can ever since – but of course the birth of my daughter Sophie made me start looking further into the future than merely my own lifetime.
strong>Is environmentalism a “special interest” or should it concern everyone?
Only those people who live on this planet! Extraterrestrials, doubtless, have other worries.
What is fossil fuel divestment? Why is it your focus now?
The American political system is blocked by the economic power of the fossil fuel industry – they spend so much money in Washington D.C. that they have prevented any real action. So we need to lessen the power of the fossil fuel industry in other ways. One way to do this is the way we made people understand the damage caused by the tobacco industry here in the U.S. Today, everyone understands that cigarettes are injurious to health. Similarly, we need to go to our schools, colleges, and universities and get them involved in opposing the fossil fuel industry.
Can social movements work? Why do they succeed?
They work when they change the way people watching from the sidelines see the world. The civil rights movement in the U.S. made it clear to most people that separating people based on their colour was wrong. Our job is to make it clear why we’re making so little progress on climate change and how that could change.
How can people free themselves of their fossil fuel addiction?
By using public transport and so on. But what is very important is joining in the movement for real structural change. That’s what we work on at 350.org. If we can get basic changes – most importantly, put a price on carbon that show the damage it does in the atmosphere – then we’ll make progress much more quickly.
Are you excited about all of the activism in India?
Absolutely, I’m excited! At 350.org we just carried off a big “India Beyond Coal” day, which was a huge success. India is one of the most important countries right now because it could be the great leader in what the engineers call “distributed energy”: using solar panels in every village that offer reliable, clean power instead of big, centralized power plants.
Who should be the focus of the effort to fight climate change – leaders, or ordinary people?
We can convince leaders, but only by building movements. Politicians respond to power. So, when 1,253 people went to jail to protest the Keystone pipeline, President Obama suddenly paid attention. I was one of those jailed. It was amazing to know that the day after we were arrested, twice as many people were sitting in front of the White House awaiting arrest.
What does success for the climate change movement look like?
A fast change to using renewable energy. This is already happening in Germany, where on some days this summer, more than half the country’s power came from solar panels within its borders. If they can do it, we can all do it too.
Do you have any words of advice for students, as we join the fight against climate change?
You guys are going to have to lead – the divestment fight is a great place to start. Join in at www.gofossilfree.orgFor Bill McKibben’s climate advice to governments, go to: bit.ly/1133AXeFor a 2008 Sanctuary interview with McKibben, go to: bit.ly/10AvQVE