The writer and reluctant activist tells RTCC greens must challenge the financial might of fossil fuel companies
By Megan Darby
“I am not a born orator or activist or movement builder. Like most writers, I am an introvert. I would rather be at home typing.”
Bill McKibben is addressing students at the London School of Economics. He has come from subverting a Shell-sponsored conference and is heading to India next, to take part in the coal vs solar debate.
The environmentalist and author may be a reluctant rabble-rouser, but he’s working hard at it. Reasoned arguments for climate action “did not win the day”, he tells a packed hall: it is time for a more confrontational approach.
RTCC snatches 15 minutes with McKibben in the green room before he takes the lectern. LSE’s hospitality stretches to two bottles of wine, white and red. He sticks to apple juice.
Organisers change his mic, bring him sandwiches and – bizarrely – show him a papier mache severed head discovered in the toilet (this is a few days after Halloween).
Amid the bustle, McKibben exudes a calm focus. His answers to questions are unhurried and economical.
In McKibben’s native United States, the Democrats are about to get slaughtered in the midterm elections.
A Republican victory “won’t make things any easier,” he says, but “it is not as if Congress has been busy doing remarkable things for the last six years”.
And he was not expecting federal lawmakers to do much on climate change in the next few years in any case.
“Our job is to build a big movement that changes the zeitgeist enough to make politicians of whatever stripe feel the need to do the right thing.”
He takes a similarly dim view of UN climate negotiations – and his country’s part in them.
“There is going to have to be some kind of international framework and architecture so we can keep track of what is happening,” says McKibben.
But the idea that UN talks have the answer “was laid to rest in Copenhagen” – the 2009 summit that was almost universally seen as a failure.
“The US has been doing its best to hamper and wreck the process for many years now.”
Climate diplomats have welcomed a renewed engagement by US president Barack Obama with the issue, but McKibben is less easily impressed.
“President Obama presided over the fiasco in Copenhagen,” he says, although he concedes: “The US is in a hard place, because everyone knows they can’t really get the Senate onside.”
McKibben places blame for the world’s slow response to climate change squarely with the energy lobby.
“The financial might of the fossil fuel companies has been enough so far to let them win almost every round,” he says.
“Our job is to match that financial might with other kinds of power. Power that comes from movements. I think we are making some progress finally in that direction.”
The movement of the moment is divestment: cutting off finance to fossil fuel companies.
LSE is one of several universities around the UK with a divestment campaign. Glasgow last month became the first to make the leap to a fossil-free portfolio.
It is part of a steady trickle of commitments worldwide, from the World Council of Churches to the Rockefeller Foundation.
McKibben is particularly pleased with the latter. With a fortune built on oil, the Rockefellers are “the first family of fossil fuel,” he says.
“They are grown wary of this stuff and I think it is only a matter of time before other people do too.”
The millions of dollars these organisations withhold will not make much of a financial dent in the multi-trillion dollar energy sector. McKibben readily accepts this.
“The idea is to rob the legitimacy of these companies, that gives them the social licence, the ability to damage our politics.
“We need as many forces in society as possible to say: these companies are rogue companies.”
The divestment campaign highlights a conflict that most politicians are reluctant to address.
If the world is to avoid catastrophic global warming, most known fossil fuel resources need to stay in the ground.
Yet energy companies not only plan to extract and sell their existing reserves but are exploring ever more sensitive territory to find new ones.
And governments facilitate this on the one hand, while talking up their low carbon aspirations on the other.
Fired up from his run-in with Shell earlier in the day, McKibben takes aim at their drilling activities in the Arctic.
“When the history of this time is written, Shell will get more than a footnote,” he tells the students.
“They were the company that, when it emerged the Arctic had melted, thanks to our actions, didn’t say: ‘Let’s stop doing what we are doing.’ They said: ‘Oh, this will make it easier to drill for more oil.’”
Talking to RTCC, he praises a Greenpeace campaign targeting the oil company’s deal with toymaker Lego. The NGO persuaded Lego to drop the link.
“Shell were in bed with Lego to try and convince the youth of tomorrow that they badly needed Shell oil for their future.
“I doubt many young people are convinced. I think most of them are excited about the prospect of a world that runs on new energy.”
Divestment is the latest focus of the grassroots movement 350.org, which McKibben founded in 2008.
The number, in parts per million, is what NASA climatologist James Hansen judges to be the “safe” concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, it is a level that had already been breached by the time 350.org formed. Last year, concentrations of 400ppm were recorded for the first time.
They wanted a name that would transcend language barriers, explains McKibben.
His talk features photos of demonstrations around the world that explode the myth environmentalism is an elite concern for rich, white people.
From burkha-clad women in the Yemen to children on tropical islands, activists from all over spell out the numerals 3-5-0 with their bodies.
“I love these pictures,” he says. But these expressions of solidarity are not enough.
“We don’t have 50 years, that is the problem. We have about minus 20 years. We have to not just educate, we have to do some confronting.
“That is why it is really good to watch this movement growing and blossoming and getting tougher.”