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Bill McKibben: How to Get Obama and Congress to Do the Right Thing on Climate Change

Author/activist Bill McKibben talks how to create a massive movement for change.

Author Bill McKibben first warned about global warming and its implications for the planet in his 1989 book, The End of Nature. But in the last few years, it has become the focus of his work as an organizer of 350.org, an advocacy organization promoting global action to tackle climate change.

In an interview with Roger Cohn, McKibben described why he is working fulltime on the issue, why he thinks a citizens movement is essential for giving President Obama the "political space" necessary to address climate change, why a "cap-and-dividend" system might offer the most potential, and why he believes the jury is still out on whether the most serious impacts of climate change can be avoided. "For the moment, I am not spending my time being either optimistic or pessimistic," he said. "I am just working."

Roger Cohn: Until relatively recently you were well-known primarily through your writing on environmental issues, but in the last few years you've become equally well-known as an activist on the issue of climate change and raising public awareness of it. How did this come about, and why have you been doing this?

Bill McKibben: At a certain point, I just decided that after 16 or 17 years of speaking and writing, that we weren't getting anything done, that I needed to do more. I told the story the other day at the [Yale] Divinity School of coming back from Bangladesh -- where I had dengue fever and watched lots and lots and lots of people die of dengue and climate-caused disease spreading rapidly through Dhaka for the first time when I was there -- and I just felt like I wanted and needed to do more.

And looking around, I was struck by the fact that we never really had a movement about climate. We had all the superstructure of a movement. We had great, inspirational leaders like Al Gore, and we had economists, and engineers, and policy people, and scientists, obviously. But the part of the movement we didn't have was the movement part. And we started trying to build that in a small way with this sort of impulsive walk we did across Vermont, which turned out to be highly successful.

RC: And when was that?

BM: It was the fall of 2006. Labor Day, 2006. We walked for five days, across much of Vermont. We got to Burlington, about a thousand of us marching by the time we got there. People sleeping in fields. And we got all the candidates for Congress and the Senate in Vermont, including the conservative Republicans, to sign onto this pledge that they would support cutting carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 if they were elected. It was extremely successful. Quite, quite powerful. And it made us wonder why there wasn't more of this going on.

So we tried to see if we could figure out how to do it on a larger scale. And when I say we, I mean, me and six undergraduates at Middlebury College. We launched a website in January of 2007. We had no real money, and certainly no organization or anything. We started sending out emails to people asking them to help, and people in organizations all across the country said they would. And, in April of 2007, three months later, we posted 1,400 simultaneous demonstrations across the country, in all 50 states. Some people called it the biggest day of grassroots environmental action since the first Earth Day.

Within days, both [Hillary] Clinton and Obama had endorsed our position of 80 percent cuts by 2050, and Obama and congressional legislation now take that as one of their often-repeated targets. That was a number that was far too radical for anyone to talk about publicly in D.C. just two years ago.

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