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Truthout Interview With Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben, author and founder of, gives an opening speech in Washington DC for those who are risking arrest against the tar sand pipe line with him. (Photo: Amy Dewan / tarsandaction)

Given all the letdowns in this administration on preventing climate change, why have you and other activists decided to commit to two weeks of civil disobedience to try and persuade the Obama administration to prohibit the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Bill McKibben: Because it's incredibly important. This pipeline will go to the second largest pool of carbon on earth, which if we heavily exploit will mean it's “essentially game over” for the climate, according to NASA's Jim Hansen, our greatest climatologist.And, Barack Obama can make this call all by himself, without Congress in the way. So, it seemed like we should make our voices heard.

How does this action on the tar sands project relate to the initiative? How is the initiative different from past activist efforts to deal with the climate crisis?

This isn't's action, it's a loose group called 350 is what I mainly do, and it's the first real global climate campaign. We try to foster deep solidarity around the globe, since this is the first truly global problem. We've done a reasonable job of that with 15,000 rallies in every country but North Korea, over the last couple of years, what CNN called, “the most widespread… political action in the planet's history.”

What is your role with

Well, I helped found it, and now I'm chair of the board. I've always been a volunteer; I'd say my main role is writing and speaking. I'm pretty much in constant motion, which means I have a hideous carbon footprint. Hopefully we're doing enough good at least to counteract that.

In the title of your most recent book, “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet,” you obviously were making a statement by adding an “a” to earth. What does that symbolize to you?

That the planet has already shifted enough to need a new name. There's still the same number of continents, and gravity still applies, but its a degree warmer, the Arctic is melting, the ocean is 30% more acid, and the atmosphere is 4% wetter, leading to big floods and droughts. Not the same place we were born on.

Publishers Weekly wrote in its review of “Eaarth”: “The world as we know it has ended forever: that's the melancholy message of this nonetheless cautiously optimistic assessment of the planet's future by McKibben, whose 'The End of Nature' first warned of global warming's inevitable impact 20 years ago.” It's been 20 years since your first warning about climate change, how do you remain 'cautiously optimistic' given the dumbing down of America on this issue?

Oh hell, I don't know how optimistic I am. I've actually pretty much stopped trying to figure out if I'm optimistic or pessimistic. I just get up in the morning and try to figure out how to change the odds a little on this wager we've undertaken as a civilization. But if anything makes me optimistic, it's the huge response to – just go there and look at the pictures from around the world and you'll see what i mean.

Saving the environment and the earth was a cause celebre in the 70's, and although there were some dissenters, there seemed to be a national consensus. What happened? How did science come to be on the defensive against the forces of climate denial?

That's called the power of money. Exxon made more money than any company in the history of money last year. That buys a lot of denial. So we need an alternate currency to work in – these couple of weeks, in Washington, it's our bodies.

Let's get to one central issue in your book and past writings: carbon. The role of carbon in climate deterioration is often misunderstood, even by those who want to reduce global warming. What, in a nutshell, is the destructive role of too much released carbon?

The molecular structure of carbon traps the energy of the sun near the planet that would otherwise be radiated back out to space. At the moment, that amounts to about 3/4 of a watt of extra energy per square meter of the earth's surface. Which turns out to be a lot.

Given that the United States and world are in a financial downturn, governments are going to be pushing increased consumption as a way to stimulate economies. Won't this just worsen the climate crisis through increased sacrifice of environmental standards in order to increase employment?

It will, I think – we'd be wiser to use this time to try and make a real transformation in many ways. The easiest and most obvious is a transformation toward greener energy.

Speaking of jobs, what is your view on how much employment could be created by “going green” economically?

Quite a bit, I think. We need to insulate homes and put solar panels on them, and since no one is going to ship their house to China to get that done, there's a lot of work for people who know how to swing hammers and turn wrenches.

Finally, given that climate change deniers are having an increasing influence on public opinion, and that every presidential candidate of the Republican Party, for example, denies human-caused climate change, how do you recommend moving public opinion back to the scientific facts and environmental policy remedies?

Well, organizing I guess, and steady truth-telling. Mother Nature, unfortunately, is going to provide a lot of teachable moments in the years ahead. Sooner or later we'll figure it out – but sooner or later is the question

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