Bill McKibben on Keystone, Congress, and Big-Oil Money

Author/activist Bill McKibben says environmentalists cannot ease up after their recent victory in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. In a conversation with Yale Environment 360 contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, he talks about what he’s learned about the power of the fossil fuel industry — and why the battle over Keystone is far from over.

Bill McKibben is a patient man. Twenty-three years ago, he published The End of Nature, one of the first books written for a general audience that laid out the issue of global warming. Nearly two decades later, after the U.S. and the international community continued to fail to take action, he moved from journalist to activist, founding, which has grown into a global movement to solve the challenge of climate change. In January, he and won a surprising — if short-term — victory when President Obama put the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline on hold pending further review.

Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben
Last week, McKibben sat down with Yale Environment 360 contributing writer Elizabeth Kolbert to talk about the Keystone project and about what the pipeline battle has taught him about how Washington, D.C., operates. In a wide-ranging discussion, he explained why he believes environmentalists only win temporary victories, why activists must keep up pressure on the Obama administration, and why he’s concerned about the president’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. One thing he was unprepared for, McKibben said, was the true extent of the influence the fossil fuel industry’s campaign money has on Congress and how difficult it will be to end federal oil and gas subsidies.

“It’s as if the politicians are sort of pillows in front of the fossil fuel industry,” he told Kolbert. “And you spend all your time going after them and don’t get at the guys behind them.”

Elizabeth Kolbert: You led the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline this summer and fall and the Obama Administration rejected the application for construction of the northern leg of the pipeline. But just a few days ago the president announced that he was expediting the permitting process for the southern leg. So what’s going on?

Bill McKibben: Well, part of it is just a little bit of the rooster taking credit for the dawn — you know, they didn’t need a permit from the president for the southern leg, unfortunately. It’s a great shame, and we’re working hard with our friends in Texas and Oklahoma to try and block it. And it was also a great shame to see the way in which the president did it. It has to make one have some foreboding. If he’s really as completely into pipelines as he was saying, that increases the odds that eventually he’ll approve the [Canadian] border crossing.

Kolbert: Back in November when the administration turned down the application for the pipeline you wrote to opponents of the pipeline, “Big news: we won, you won.” Now was it a win or was it just a temporary reprieve?

McKibben: Well, as I said in that letter, and as I’ve said probably 5,000 times since, all environmentalists ever win is temporary victories. That’s the only kind we get. And this one may be more temporary even than most. We’ll see. We’ll see some time before or after the election. I mean, clearly, if Mitt Romney wins the election, then definitely they get to build a pipeline. And if Barack Obama wins they may get to build it. He says he’ll make a decision in 2013. And the Senate may push him to do it sooner. Who knows? We barely won the fight we had in the Senate a few weeks ago, a couple of votes. But we sent 800,000 messages to the Senate. It was the biggest burst of concentrated environmental activism in many years.

Kolbert: You did get out an extraordinary number of signatures, and you got out an extraordinary number of bodies, and you got an extraordinary number of people who got arrested. And yet we still see this.

McKibben: Well, yes. So this is the thing, and it’s instructive. It has been for me. I mean we’ve had hundreds of thousands, millions of people engaged in this fight, and yet it’s still almost impossible even to win small temporary victories. And what it demonstrates is the unbelievable power of the fossil fuel industry.

I mean, I’m not used to Washington so it almost — it didn’t shock me, I’m not that naïve — but it startled me that they took a vote in the House of Representatives to speed up construction of this thing. And 234 people voted
Even if we manage to stop this pipeline, it doesn’t stop global warming — not even anywhere close.”
for it. And they’ve taken $42 million from the fossil fuel industry. And you can predict exactly how people are going to vote by how much money they took. The first Democrat in the Senate to vote for it, to demand Keystone, was Joe Manchin from West Virginia. He’s taken more money from the fossil fuel industry than any other Democrat. I mean, it’s almost mathematical, you know. It’s elegant in its mathematical precision. And I hadn’t quite understood that.

Kolbert: Journalists are not known for their romantic view of American politics. But in the last few years, you’ve sort of made this transition from journalist to activist that, as you’ve pointed out, you didn’t even expect yourself to make. What have you learned in the process about politics?

McKibben: Well, it’s money-soaked, and so without enormous effort nothing happens. It’s not clear to me that we aren’t kind of, when we take on these political fights, aren’t kind of punching ourselves out. It’s as if the politicians are sort of pillows in front of the fossil fuel industry. And you spend all your time going after them and don’t get at the guys behind them. And I think more and more we’re going to have to try and engage the fossil fuel industry itself. So beginning this year we need to really go after the subsidies that they get paid. It’s not going to end the fossil fuel industry. Even without them, they’re still by far the richest industry on Earth, whatever. But at least it’s a way to start challenging them head on. Because they’re very much definitely not used to losing. And the most interesting thing with the Keystone stuff, in a way, was that they lost temporarily anyway. And it just drove them nuts. I mean, they’re “take no prisoners.”

Kolbert: So is that the next step for opponents of the pipeline? What is the next step?

McKibben: It’s not clear, at least not clear to me, what the next political stage of it is. But opponents of the pipeline are mostly people who are engaged in this larger fight about climate. And so one of the things that’s next for us is just remembering that even if we manage to stop this pipeline, it doesn’t really stop global warming. Not even anywhere close. It’s one skirmish in a huge, huge war. I guess what’s next, in a sense, is trying to figure out how you go from playing defense to playing offense. And this fight about subsidies is one way to do that.

Kolbert: I read an online debate you did on the Huffington Post with Ezra Levant, who had made this argument, which I’ve actually had people tell me, that getting oil from the Canadian tar sands is the ethical alternative to buying oil from the OPEC dictators. And one of the charges that he made, and I just quote, is “if the anti-oil sands lobbyists who pressured Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline proposal really cared about carbon emissions they’d have directed all their energy to campaigning against coal power instead.”

Click to enlarge
White House Tar Sands Protest

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Keystone XL opponents demonstrate in front of the White House last summer.
McKibben: The point is we have to somehow manage to beat all this stuff. There’s too much carbon — way too much carbon in those oil sands, and there’s even more carbon in the coal fields. Which is why we’re deeply engaged in this fight to prevent these coal ports from being built on the West Coast. I was just out in Bellingham [in Washington state] working on that. It’s why, in Kosovo, we’re in the middle of this big fight to stop this huge coal-fired power plant they want to build. And in South Africa. And it’s why we’re taking on subsidy stuff all over the world. So in that sense, he’s completely right. But it’s an absurd defense of the tar sands. It’s like, well, there’s a lot of other carbon somewhere else. Yes there is. And we’ll fight that, too.

Kolbert: Obama and his team are calling his energy strategy “all of the above.” There’s a piece in the [New York] Times today about how the Republicans are indigant because they point out that was their energy strategy.

McKibben: I said some place the other day, you know, “all of the above” doesn’t strike me as a particularly intellectually serious strategy. What if someone running for president says, “I have an all of the above foreign policy? I like all countries equally.” Everyone would say, “You do? Really? North Korea and England are sort of the same, in the same category?” So saying we’re going to do a lot of oil drilling, and open up every coal seam we can find, and we’ll have some solar panels, doesn’t engage really with the physics and chemistry of climate change.

Kolbert: I mean does Obama even have an energy strategy at this point?

McKibben: Well, at the moment, like all presidents, he has one — his entire being is focused on re-election… And to this degree one has to sympathize:
“Everyone, me included, made the mistake of relaxing after 2008.”
The oil industry, these guys are pouring everything they have at him. The Koch brothers the other day said, “We’re going to spend $200 million on the election.” if you’re Barack Obama’s campaign guys, that’s terrifying to hear. And to that degree, one understands I suppose the fix he’s in.

But it is sad, in part because in the last campaign, when Hillary Clinton and others said, “We have to have a gas tax holiday to deal with rising gas prices,” Barack Obama was the one guy who said, “You know what, that’s a stupid idea, let’s don’t do it.” And he actually benefited politically from it. Because he talked to Americans as if they were adults on all of this. And I think we’re capable of having that conversation.

Kolbert: When I heard about the decision the other day that [the administration was] going to expedite those permits whether or not they actually needed them, I thought it sounded like a classic move of a politician who was taking the environmental vote for granted, that these people don’t have anywhere to go. I mean, is he right?

McKibben: Well, you know, it’s going to be hard to gin up the “Environmentalists for Romney” campaign… The calculations they were making in the fall, I’m sure, when they were responsive on Keystone, was, “We need people to be enthusiastic.” It’s a different stage now, and he’s campaigning. And the true ugliness of the GOP guys is clearer probably than it was on these issues. The thing that we all have to get out of the habit of is thinking, “Elect the right guy and we’re OK.” But if you elect the right guy then the definition of the right guy is, “He might listen to you if you put enough pressure on him,” OK? You could put endless pressure on Rick Santorum and nothing would happen. This is a guy who is campaigning with a piece of shale rock as his prop.

But the point is Election Day is no more important a political day than any other day on the calendar. It’s important, but so is every other day when you’ve got to get up and push whoever it is as hard as you can. And on
Natural gas was going to a bridge fuel… It turns out that the math doesn’t work.”
Election Day I think the main thing is trying to find someone who might be pushable. Everybody made the mistake, me included, of relaxing after 2008. Which at least in the case of energy was a mistake. Because, trust me on this, the oil industry and the coal industry didn’t relax for a minute. They were there every moment of every day. With the ever-present and extremely powerful profit motive to keep them focused and concentrated on their business.

Kolbert: Another big issue which I’m sure you get asked about all the time in the energy climate realm nowadays is fracking. And you hear a lot of talk about how natural gas could be a bridge fuel that’s going to lead us away from coal and toward renewable. What are your thoughts?

McKibben: Three or four years ago there was a certain part of me that was hopeful that we were going to find a lot of natural gas, and it was going to be a bridge fuel. It just turns out that the math doesn’t work. You’ve got this problem — a big problem, it looks like — with these fugitive methane emissions. We don’t know exactly how much. But even if you just converted the whole world to natural gas… The IEA [International Energy Agency] ran what they called a “Golden Age of Gas” scenario, and it had all of us off coal or something by 2025 and we’re all on gas… I can’t remember all the details, but it was a gas-run world. And the atmosphere then was still 660 parts per million C02. What we actually need is a bridge away from fossil fuels, or maybe we should dispense with the “bridge” metaphor and just nerve ourselves up to take the jump across the chasm into the new world.

Kolbert: I certainly don’t need to tell you, we just had a winter, in the Northeast at least, without snow, and now we’ve had this really weird June-in-March heat wave. And I saw on the website that you’re planning an event in May on the theme, “Time to connect the dots.” Do you think people are starting to connect the dots?

McKibben: I do. The polling shows that by six or seven percent increase this year in Americans who believe in and take climate change seriously. It’s back up near two-thirds or something. And the biggest reason that people cite is extreme weather, which we’ve had a lot of. Last year had more multi-
We can’t get anywhere near [a global agreement] as long as the fossil fuel industry exerts the power it does.”
billion dollar weather disasters than any year in American history. So this last week it’s been just insane. If you’re looking at the numbers instead of just kind of enjoying the heat, it’s not just creepy. It’s wild. I mean there’s no way that you should be breaking old temperature records by 30 degrees? There’s no way that places should be, you know, the record low for the day is higher than the record high previously for the date? There’s never been numbers anything like this… And this “connect the dots” day is important because our tendency is to think of these things as a one-off. It’s just how our psychology is.

Kolbert: In a couple months, there’s going to be another UN summit in Rio. But it seems like people have basically given up at this point on international agreements. Have you?

McKibben: The same problem as in this country. We do need an international framework because this is a global problem and eventually we’re going to have to solve it with a global agreement. But we can’t get anywhere near it as long as the fossil-fuel industry exerts the power it does in one national capital after another. That’s what happens. I mean you get to Copenhagen and just everybody, every leader who’s there knows, “I can’t get this deal through, you know, whatever system I have — my politburo, my parliament, my congress — even if I want to do it because there’s too much power in the fossil fuel industry.” So all we can try to do is just kind of keep this creaking thing alive in case we make some real political progress…

The thing we can’t let it do is be a distraction from the actual work of movement building. We can’t go to these things expecting that that’s where the problems will be solved… I mean I remember being at Kyoto and at the end of it the lobbyist for the oil industry — they’d actually done something in Kyoto, they actually agreed to some actual agreement — and this lobbyist said, “I can’t wait to get back to the Congress where we have these things under control.” I thought he was blowing smoke, but he was absolutely right. That’s how it works.

Kolbert: Wow, that’s a great line. The failure of the U.S., in particular, to confront climate change is sometimes cited as an indictment of the country’s major environmental groups. And your own turn to activism could also be interpreted as an indictment of those groups. Do you think that that’s fair? Do they deserve some of the blame?

McKibben: Who knows? I’m not a good enough historian. But I know that when we had this Keystone fight, everybody joined in. And it was really fun to watch and fun to work with. And everybody did the parts that they were
If you were a betting person, I’m afraid you’d be wise to bet we might not pull this out.”
good at. So we get to the Senate and then people from NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council] and LCV [League of Conservation Voters] and the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation — man, they’re good at getting into senator’s offices and giving them briefings and showing them PowerPoints. And, I mean, not only am I not good at that, I’d be terrible at it. I am not good at kind of pretending to respect people I really don’t — [laugh] all kinds of skills that I’m afraid it requires.

Kolbert: So it’s been more than 20 years since George Bush Sr. signed the “Framework Convention on Climate Change.” And by that point already your own book, The End of Nature, which had really introduced climate change to a lot of people, was already a couple years old. But as you put it recently, we’re no closer to dealing with climate change than we were in the late 1980s. So 23 years after the publication of The End of Nature, what gives you any reason, any optimism at this point, that it is going to get dealt with?

McKibben: Well, I’m not all convinced it is going to get dealt with. You know, you wrote that we seem to be on kind of a suicide mission as a civilization. And that case is easier to make than the case that we’re going to figure out how to deal with it. So I don’t know. I’m very hopeful that in the last few years we’ve finally built a big global movement that gets bigger all the time that didn’t exist before. And I’m hopeful that we’re getting closer to the nub of the problem.

We spent 20 years basically working on the model — let’s have our great scientists go talk to political leaders and tell them the problem, and then we’ll do something. This was a perfectly good model for what to do, but what it didn’t reckon with was the fact that while they were talking, the fossil fuel industry would be bellowing in the other ear — just bellowing this toxic mix of threats and promises and whatever else. I think we’re at the point where we kind of understand what the problem is in a way that we didn’t. And we’ll see if we can take it on… Mother Nature provides an almost endless series now of teachable moments. We’ll see if we can take advantage of them.


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If you were a betting person, I’m afraid you’d be wise to bet that we might not pull this out. But I just don’t think it’s a bet you’re allowed to make. I think the only thing that a morally awake person can do when the worst thing that ever happened is happening is try and figure out how to change the odds — with not any guarantee that it’s all going to come out OK. Because it may not. I mean it clearly isn’t going to come out 100 percent OK. We’ve already had big losses and they will get worse. Whether or not we can stop short of complete catastrophe, we’ll find out. And we won’t find out in a hundred years, we’ll find out rather more quickly than that. Our lifetimes will be more than long enough to see whether or not we actually grabbed hold of this problem or not.

I guess the only other thing is just that this, what’s the alternative? [laugh] Existential despair just seems like a kind of poor strategy in many ways.