Bill McKibben to Jerry Brown: We Must Keep the Oil in the Soil, Limiting Emissions Is Not Enough

Governors, mayors and policy makers from around the world are gathering this week for the Global Climate Action Summit. The conference was organized by California Governor Jerry Brown. The conference begins today just days after Brown signed a new law to shift California to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. While Brown is hailed as a climate hero, he has been widely criticized by many climate justice activists who are planning to protest outside the opening of today’s conference. We speak to Bill McKibben, the co-founder of 350.org. His latest piece for the Nation is titled “Jerry Brown’s Climate Legacy Is Still Being Decided.”

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Rise: From One Island to Another, poetry by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner of the Marshall Islands and Aka Niviâna of Greenland. It’s part of a project that our guest, Bill McKibben, was part of. This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We are broadcasting from San Francisco, where California’s Governor Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit officially begins today, the conference occurring just days after Brown signed a new law to shift California to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: There’s no understating the importance of this measure. SB 100 is sending a message to California and to the world that we are going to meet the Paris Agreement and we’re going to continue down that path to transition our economy to zero emission, zero carbon omission, and to have the resiliency and the sustainability that science tells us we must achieve. California is committed to doing whatever is necessary to meet the existential threat of climate change. And yes, it is an existential threat. No matter what the naysayers may say, it is a real present danger to California and to the people of the world. This bill and others I’m going to sign this week help us go in this direction. But have no illusions; California and the rest of the world have miles to go before we achieve zero carbon emissions.

AMY GOODMAN: While Governor Jerry Brown has often been hailed a climate hero, he has also been widely criticized by many climate justice activists who are planning to protest outside the opening of today’s summit, for example. During Saturday’s Rise for Climate, Jobs, & Justice March, I spoke with Doria Robinson, the executive director of Urban Tilth and a member of the Our Power, Richmond coalition, criticizing the governor’s embrace of cap and trade.

DORIA ROBINSON: Because of some recent rules, we can’t put a cap on how much pollution that is, because of what Jerry Brown and everyone in the state government here did. And so that means that people can buy the right to basically pollute and injure our health, right? Like, we are sacrificed for their gain. We don’t get anything for it. They build their wealth and their empires.

AMY GOODMAN: That is just one of the criticisms. Still with us, Bill McKibben, the co-founder of 350.org. His latest piece for The Nation magazine is headlinedJerry Brown’s Climate Legacy Is Still Being Decided.” Bill McKibben’s 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first book for a general audience about climate change, his forthcoming book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?.

Bill, it’s great to have you with us. We’re speaking right before a protest outside the climate summit. Now, many in the country and the world see Governor Brown as the green opposition to President Trump, but the tens of thousands of people that marched on Saturday, there was a massive amount of criticism of him, calling him a climate fraud.

BILL MCKIBBEN: The answer lies somewhere in between. On the demand side of the climate equation, on the question of reducing the amount of energy we use and supplying it renewably, Brown has been good. There’s no question that along with a few other world leaders, California, under Governor Schwarzenegger, under Governor Brown, has taken really strong steps and for obvious reason—it is the heart of where new technological innovation is coming from, and it’s got lots and lots and lots of sunlight.

The criticisms are coming in large measure from what he hasn’t done, which is do anything at all about the other side of the energy equation, the supply side. California, as you know, is a big oil and gas state, though given the size of California’s economy, it is a negligible part of the GDP. But it is not a negligible part of life for people who live next to—literally next to—oil wells. Homes, schools, hospitals.

A coalition of 800 community groups asked Brown to stop granting new permits and to take away those wells that are right next to where people—obviously people of color, low income people—tend to live. So far, Brown has been unresponsive to that “keep it in the ground” demand. In fact, you will recall last year when one protester raised the question of keeping it in the ground, he turned to him with the pithy response: “Let’s put you in the ground.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go to that moment, because Democracy Now! had just flown into Bonn. We went to one of these mass protests outside, and many Native Americans were coming up to me and they were describing this. Governor Brown was speaking and he was disrupted by a group of Native Americans who were protesting fracking, and they were shouting “Keep it in the ground.” Brown defending—so I got to Governor Brown later that day, and I said to him, when they said “Keep it in the ground” and he said, “Keep you in the ground,” if he would apologize to the Native Americans. This is what he said.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: Come on. You know that in California we have the strongest Native American policy of any state in the country, and we have the most environmental and we have the toughest rules on oil. I don’t think we should shut down oil in California and then take it from Venezuela or take it from places where the rules are even worse. We have to stop the cars. We have to get electric. We have to get public transportation. We need better land use. We’ve got to solve the problem.

And I understand, because we deal with protests all the time. But California, we are cutting our oil consumption, we’re cutting our greenhouse gases. That’s what we have to do. Not just a slogan or a march-around or talk-talk. I’m talking about reality, and California has the strongest oil reduction rules in America. We are ones—we’re the leader. If someone wants to say, “Oh, get rid of oil,” you mean get rid of our cars. If you got rid of cars, you would have a revolution and there would be shooting in the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Governor Brown, who is leading this climate action summit today, with people massively protesting outside this morning.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Yeah. One wants very much to be able to say to Jerry Brown, “Thank you, and well done,” as he leaves office. But he is in a unique position to take leadership here, precisely because he is leaving office. He never has to run again. He doesn’t need the millions of dollars in contributions from the fossil fuel industry that he has taken in the past. He really could be the guy, now like Emmanuel Macron in France or Prime Minister Ardern in New Zealand, to simply say, “We’re not going to take more oil out of the ground. We don’t need it. We are moving in a different direction.” If he did that, his climate legacy on both fronts would be cemented.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk specifically about what you would like to see coming out of this Global Climate Action Summit. And for people who don’t even understand what has happened—it has been coming together for a few months. We know the U.N. climate summits all over the world every year that take place in November and December. This is something new.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Right. The theory here is that after Donald Trump withdrew America from the Paris Accords, one of the truly shameful pieces of diplomatic action that America has ever taken, that other people needed to show that they were still engaged on this issue of climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Under the banner, “We Are Still In.”

BILL MCKIBBEN: Some of them using that banner. And so they are assembling now representatives of state and local governments to say, “Here are the steps we’re going to take.” And that’s a very good thing to be doing. We do need to try and reassemble the momentum we had after Paris. But remember that the goal here is not to be Paris-compliant. The goal here is to deal with the physics and chemistry of climate change. And one big part of doing that is stopping the supply of these fossil fuels, at least not expanding their operation. So all anybody asked was that he stop granting new permits and start taking out those wells that are right next to people’s houses. So far, no real response on that.

The other of course thing to realize, and that people are working on hard here at the summit, is around the question of money supply. Money is the oxygen on which the fire that is global warming burns, and we’re working hard to try and staunch that supply. The good news, the best news I’ve heard all week, is that the new totals for the fossil fuel divestment campaign reached $6 trillion in endowments and portfolios.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, now explain this again, when you think about divestment.

BILL MCKIBBEN: We have asked, for the last five years, for institutions to sell their holdings in coal and oil and gas. This was modeled on the divestment campaign after the—in the midst of South African apartheid. But it is now much larger than that campaign, because as of August, entire countries, Ireland in this case, were announcing that they were divesting from fossil fuel. New York City, London—their mayors put out a challenge on Monday to mayors of all of the other big cities in the world. They said, “We are divesting from fossil fuel. Time for everyone to take this step.”

AMY GOODMAN: What about here in San Francisco?

BILL MCKIBBEN: San Francisco has not done it yet, surprisingly. California, as I say, remains in the grip, often, of coal and oil and gas interests, but one assumes that San Francisco will eventually take this step. The problem is the “eventually.” We don’t have a hell of a lot of time left to deal with the crisis that we’re in. You were showing those pictures from Greenland a minute ago. I was up there helping them film, and I’ve got to say it is sobering, even for someone who has worked as long on this as I have, to stand there and almost literally in real time watch those glaciers disappear into the sea. It is a reminder that doing anything less than all we can do is not OK at this point. So that means we need Governor Brown to step up, and if he won’t do it, we need Governor Newsom after him to step up, and the same all over the world.

I will say that another piece of good news came late last week when the senator from Oregon, Mr. Merkley, introduced a bill in the Senate that would divest the federal government’s pension funds from fossil fuel. It obviously is not going to pass right away, but it is a marker now laid down in this fight.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel encouraged by the movements that have drawn strength from what President Trump has done, this climate-change-denying President, among other things?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Well, look. One of the problems with Trump is that he has done so many bad things that we have to work on so many things at once, standing up for immigrants maybe most crucially. But climate change is the thing that we will never, ever get another crack at. The years that we waste here are years that are tipping us into a kind of permanent climate chaos. We should stop acting surprised when bad things happen as a result.

It is horrifying to think of people having to somehow flee this Hurricane Florence, which looks like it may kind of stagger along the coast for two, three days, pouring record amounts of water, probably amounts of water nothing like we’ve ever seen before. Someplace around the world now, we use the phrase every day—”like something we have never seen before.”

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, your new book will be called Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Thirty years ago, you write the climate change defining book, The End of Nature where you talked about the two paths, the “defiant reflex” and the “more humble” way of living. Talk about what gives you hope now and what this book is about.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Well, the book is dark, it must be said, because there is an awful lot we haven’t done and because our politics are so messed up. The fruit of a libertarian every-man-for-himself world—one of them turns out to be that the temperature goes up a few degrees.

What gives me hope is the movement that has arisen. There were tens of thousands on the street here in San Francisco on Saturday, but there were also people in huge demonstrations at 900 or 1,000 other places around the world, some of them massive—50,000 people in Paris—and some of them incredibly beautiful and in places that your audience might not expect. Thirty-five thousand people turned out in Kampala, Uganda, where they are feeling the effects so powerfully.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you be outside at the protests today?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Yes, that’s where I am headed from the studio here.

AMY GOODMAN: And then inside as well?

BILL MCKIBBEN: No, they haven’t given me a badge to go inside.

AMY GOODMAN: [laugh]

BILL MCKIBBEN: I think I may have criticized the governor just a little too harshly.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bill McKibben, I want to thank you for being with us, co-founder of 350.org. We will link to his piece in The Nation,Jerry Brown’s Climate Legacy Is Still Being Decided.” And that does it for today’s show. I will be speaking in Boulder, Colorado, on Saturday night—that is September 15th. Check it out at Democracynow.org.