Why Bill McKibben Sees Rays of Hope in a Grim Climate Picture

The world has done little to tackle global warming since Bill McKibben’s landmark book on the subject was published in 1989. In an e360 interview, McKibben talks about the critical time lost and what can be done now to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Three decades ago, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, the first book on climate change aimed at a general audience. McKibben went on to found the international environmental group, help launch the fossil fuel divestment movement, and write a dozen more non-fiction books, as well as a novel. In 2014, McKibben received the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes referred to as the “alternative Nobel,” for mobilizing popular support for “strong action to counter the threat of global climate change.”

McKibben’s latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, was published this month and debuted last week on the New York Times bestseller list. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 , McKibben talks about why the critical time for action on climate was missed, where he still finds hope, and what the world will look like three decades from now.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben Credit: Nancie Battaglia

“Thirty or 50 years out, the world’s going to run on sun and wind, because they’re free,” McKibben says. “The question is… what kind of world will it be?”

Yale Environment 360: It’s almost exactly 30 years since you published The End of Nature. One way to read that book is as a warning. How you would characterize Falter? Is it also a warning, or are we beyond that?

Bill McKibben: Look, 30 years ago this was all still prospective. You couldn’t really take a picture of climate change yet. Now, having wasted 30 years, we’re at the point where it’s a dominant fact of everyday life for hundreds of millions of people and promising to be the overwhelming fact of our time in the years ahead. It’s too late, obviously, to stop climate change. I hope that the book gets across that it may not be too late to keep it from getting absolutely out of control. It’s not a warning. It’s some combination of a report and a chronicle and a plea, I think.

e360: Over the last 30 years, you’ve been not just a chronicler of this problem and this battle, but one of the major players in it. Was there a moment when you said, “I’ve got to get out from behind this computer screen”?

McKibben: Sort of. Partly it was this dawning realization that I’d miscalculated. I was 27 when I wrote The End of Nature. My theory of change at the time was: People will read my book and then they will change. Even when I abandoned that, I continued to think that if we piled up enough data the powers-that-be would take the hint and get to work. At some point it became clear to me that we’d won the argument but we were losing the fight.

“The iron rule of climate change is the less you did to cause it, the more and the quicker you suffer.”

Also, sometime in the early aughts I went to Bangladesh on a reporting trip. And when I was there they had the first big outbreak of dengue fever, which is a disease closely tied to climate. The mosquito that spreads it is expanding its range rapidly as temperatures warm. I was spending a lot of time in the slums, so eventually I got bit by the wrong mosquito. I obviously didn’t die, but I remember looking at the lines of people lying on cots in the emergency clinics and thinking, “This is just unbelievably unfair.” There are 165 million people in Bangladesh, but they are essentially a rounding error in the world’s carbon emission tables. The iron rule of climate change is the less you did to cause it, the more and the quicker you suffer. Somehow, getting back to the States after that, back to the place that had poured more carbon into the atmosphere than any other, I did feel like it was time to do something more.

e360: Given all that has happened or, more to the point, hasn’t happened since The End of Nature, a person could be pretty down in the dumps. But in Falter you say that you are hopeful, or qualifiedly hopeful. How’s that?

McKibben: Part of it is the realization, looking back at the history, that it’s not really a failure of human beings and human nature that’s the problem here. It’s a hijacking of our political and economic system by the fossil fuel industry and a small number of like-minded people. It was our bad luck that this idea that markets solve all problems and that government should be left to wither away crested just at the moment when it could do the most damage. Against that now, we’ve spent the last 10 years building movements. We waited too long to get started, and I kick myself regularly for that.

But now that power is showing itself. Even in the last few weeks, just to watch Extinction Rebellion and [16-year-old Swedish activist] Greta Thunberg’s followers around the world shutting down schools, and the remarkable young people from the Green New Deal fanning out across this country – those things to me are signs that the fever the planet is running is producing in quantity antibodies to fight back.

Climate activists block traffic in London's Oxford Circus on April 19, part of a string of protests organized by Extinction Rebellion.

Climate activists block traffic in London's Oxford Circus on April 19, part of a string of protests organized by Extinction Rebellion. COURTESY OF VLADIMIR MOROZOV/AKX MEDIA

e360: So much of the optimism that’s out there today is techno-optimism. Some new technology is going to get us out of this. But one of the big themes of Falter is worries about our technological future.

McKibben: There’s technology and then there’s technology. You have to think about each one and decide whether it’s useful or not. I’m no Luddite. In fact, a fair part of the book is a celebration of the solar panel. I travelled to Africa for The New Yorker, to these remote villages where no one was ever going to build a grid out. Then the price of a solar panel dropped to the point where suddenly the doctor who’s been trying to deliver babies by holding a flashlight in his teeth now has a refrigerator where he can store vaccines.

When you see that, you realize what an absolutely magical thing a solar panel is. That’s to be celebrated. But the idea that that would mean all technology is to be celebrated would be a strange leap to make.

e360: One of the ideas in the book comes from an Oxford professor who says the only way we’re going to get out of this mess is to genetically engineer humans who are more altruistic. I thought that was brilliant in its own demented way. You didn’t seem to cotton to it, though.

McKibben: Just think about it practically for one minute. You genetically engineer people in embryo, and then they have to grow up. By the time these little Albert Schweitzers were running things, the temperature would be 8 degrees higher already. That does not seem like it would work. Also, it’s nuts. It’s not that people are evil.

The point is, we don’t lack the things we need to get done that need doing. We have the technology, and we have an enormous number of people who have great love and affection for the world around them and for other human beings.

e360: One of the themes of the book is accepting limits, both of a social and a geophysical character. When we were growing up, books like Limits to Growth and Small is Beautiful were mainstream works. Then, as you point out, we got Ronald Reagan and a generation of Ayn Randians, and talk of limits became, as it were, off limits in American politics. How do those politics get changed?

“The costs have changed so fast… India is now putting up more renewable energy than it is coal.”

McKibben: I think that the politics now are changing back at some level. I don’t know whether it will happen fast enough, but listen to Greta Thunberg some day. She’s a voice of reality cutting through: “What are these absurd stories you’ve been telling yourselves? Because they’re obviously not working.”

e360: The flip side, though, and one of the difficulties of discussing limits to growth, is a great part of the world says, “Well, wait. We didn’t really benefit from your growth, and now it’s our turn.”

McKibben: That’s where the news about solar panels is so good. That’s why I tried to spend a fair amount of time over the last few years in the places that represent that most fully, because they were never going to get anything out of the fossil fuel age. Now they’re getting real benefit out of renewable energy. And it’s not just remote villages. India is the most interesting country right now because, in energy terms, it’s about where China was 15 years ago. The question is whether it’s going to go through its own coal phase or make the leapfrog. I think even two or three years ago I would have said pessimistically that it was going to go through its coal phase head on. But the costs have changed so fast, the numbers have shifted pretty decisively. India is now putting up more renewable energy than it is coal.

e360: There does seem to be a lot of energy on the streets these days, especially among young people. Talk about what you see as the next step. How does this get translated into policy?

McKibben: I was just in Denver, where I spent part of the evening with a wonderful 12-year-old girl named Haven Coleman, who was one of the leaders of the U.S. climate strikes. What we were talking about, what she and Greta and everybody else from that movement have been saying, is: “Time for adults to back us up.” And it is. I think we’re going to see a call in the next few weeks for adult climate strikes come autumn. That’s necessary. It’s pretty embarrassing to be putting all the burden for solving the world’s problems on 12-year-olds.

A man uses a solar panel to charge cell phones and other electric devices in a remote village in Ivory Coast that lacks access to electricity.

A man uses a solar panel to charge cell phones and other electric devices in a remote village in Ivory Coast that lacks access to electricity. SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

e360: I have a similar question about the Green New Deal. It’s a very broad, aspirational document, and obviously it’s not getting anywhere under this administration. So what’s the next step?

McKibben: The Green New Deal completely moves people’s understanding of what needs to happen. The [climate activist group] Sunrise Movement folks have done a great job of building the first piece of legislation that’s on the same scale as the problem. That at least helps us have a serious conversation about all this. Part of the problem for me is — I’ve alluded to this earlier — I don’t want to say, “Oh, if only you’d listened to me back when.” Thirty years ago there were a lot of small things that could have been done that would have made a big difference. Thirty years ago a modest price on carbon would have reoriented us in a big way. At this point, a modest price on carbon doesn’t do very much. There’s no intellectual reason not to do it, but it doesn’t accomplish what we need in the time that physics has left us to accomplish anything in. It’s really good to have people talking realistically about what it’s going to take.

e360: One of my fears is, as the world “falters” or as prospects seem to contract, if we couldn’t deal with these problems in a time of prosperity, how are we going to do it when we are facing continual crises?

McKibben: I think you’ve isolated what may turn out to be the essential question. Many of the signs are not so good, like a million refugees, arguably climate refugees, fleeing Syria, and a million climate refugees fleeing the drought-stricken uplands of Honduras and Guatemala have been enough to discombobulate the politics of western Europe and the U.S.

As we face that, we’re going to have to make some serious decisions about whether or not we’re going to respond in a generous way, in a way that acknowledges the injustice of the world that we’ve built, or whether we’re going to try and draw up walls. Clearly Trump is a avatar for one of those approaches. If we take a Trumpian approach, it’s going to be miserable in every possible way. But it’s not the only approach. The great intellectual document of the millennium so far is Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change.

“If it takes us 50 years to get there, then the world we run on sun and wind will be a broken world.” 

e360: I know you’re trying to avoid the I-told-you-so mode, but do you see an alternative history here?

McKibben: Sure. I think the key moment was the day after Jim Hansen testified before Congress in 1988, if the CEO of Exxon had stood up and said what he knew to be the truth, that our company scientists are finding just the same things as these NASA scientists. By the way, that seems to me the least that any moral or ethical system would demand. If he had done that, no one was going to say, “The CEO of Exxon’s just a wimpy alarmist about all this.” We would have gotten to work. Climate change is a deep, difficult problem. We wouldn’t be out of the woods yet, but we’d be well on the way. That’s the place where it could have gone just the other way.

e360: Let’s look ahead 30 years. What will the world look like?

McKibben: Thirty years or 50 years out, the world’s going to run on sun and wind, because they’re free. The fossil fuel industry can’t keep its business model together more than a few more decades. I think they know that, and I think that’s all they’re playing for now. The question is, the world that runs on sun and wind, what kind of world will it be? If it takes us 50 years to get there, then the world we run on sun and wind will be a broken world. If we make it happen faster, it’s not like we’re going to stop climate change. It’s not like it’s going to be a utopia. But we may be able to avoid the worst dystopias.