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Bill McKibben to Obama: Say No to Big Oil

Bill McKibben to Obama: Say No to Big Oil

Part of the Series

Environmentalist Bill McKibben. (Photo: Moyers & Company)Environmentalist Bill McKibben. (Photo: Moyers & Company)After the State Department issued a long-awaited environmental impact statement on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline last week, environmentalists and those opposed to the 1,179-mile pipeline have intensified their push for the Obama administration to reject the project.

This week, Bill Moyers talks with Bill McKibben, an activist who has dedicated his life to saving the planet from environmental collapse, about his hopes that Americans will collectively pressure Obama to stand up to big oil.

“Most people understand that we’re in a serious fix,” McKibben tells Moyers, “There’s nothing you can do as individuals that will really slow down this juggernaut … You can say the same thing about the challenges faced by people in the civil rights or the abolition movement, or the gay rights movement or the women’s movement. In each case, a movement arose; if we can build a movement, then we have a chance.”


BILL MOYERS: Welcome. In our last broadcast I promised you more of David Simon, and I’ll keep that promise down the road, but right now, because of the news, my guest is a journalist turned activist who is often asked, how can you remain so optimistic and so energized when you’ve taken on nothing less than the threat of global catastrophe? It’s a question he’s even heard from me, and more than once, because I’ve known him for years now as both colleague and friend. After all this time, Bill McKibben’s stamina and soulfulness continue to amaze me.

We met over a decade ago on a canoe trip together for the making of my series America’s First River, about the history of the Hudson and the struggle to save it from industrial pollution.

BILL MCKIBBEN: in America’s First River: In the fall, and the winter, and the spring, it’s pretty lonely, beautiful place.

BILL MOYERS: I had read his classic work on our environmental crisis, he called it The End of Nature, a prophetic summons for a profound philosophical shift in order to save the earth from suicide. It established McKibben at the forefront of efforts to cope with the potential cataclysm of climate change.

I asked him to join the board of the Schumann foundation — I was the president of it — which promoted environmental and independent journalism. But as he continued to publish books and articles he grew impatient with the pace of public awareness and change. So in the tradition of muckrakers of old, he resigned from the board to combine his writing with activism. With the foundation’s support he became the Schumann distinguished professor in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. Soon after, he founded the grassroots climate campaign,

STEPHEN COLBERT in The Colbert Report: And my guest, BILL MCKIBBEN:

BILL MOYERS: You’ve probably seen him in the news since then. Maybe at one of the 15,000 rallies the group has coordinated in 189 countries, or on a nationwide bus tour to campuses across America, or in this demonstration last year when McKibben and others were arrested after chaining themselves to the White House fence to protest of the Keystone XL pipeline.

That pipeline would carry vast amounts of tar sands oil, over 800,000 barrels every day, from Canada down through the American heartland to refineries on the Gulf Coast, which opponents say would release dangerous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and accelerate the warming of the earth.

Last week the State Department released a review of the pipeline’s impact that both opponents and supporters say helps their side. And that brought BILL MCKIBBEN: to New York City for yet another rally calling on the Obama administration to say no to the pipeline once and for all.

BILL MCKIBBEN: We need people like Barack Obama to start standing up finally.

BILL MOYERS: BILL MCKIBBEN: joins me now, welcome.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Good to be with you.

BILL MOYERS: So what does it mean that the State Department said last week that there’s no evidence that there’ll be an environmental impact from the pipeline. And the White House has said indirectly that, well, the oil will get out one way or the other with or without this pipeline?

BILL MCKIBBEN: The White House and the State Department especially I think would like to approve it because big oil really wants it. They’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars. But their story is unraveling. The idea that it would make no difference is crazy. It’s a pipeline that would carry 800,000 barrels of oil. In the last two weeks, the head of TransCanada itself has said, if we can’t build this pipeline, then the expansion of the tar sands is called into question.

Yeah, they’ll be able to get some oil out of there, but they’ve only gotten 3 percent out so far. This is one of these places where we can put the brakes on if we act now. If we did that, then there’s a chance that these international negotiations that ran aground at Copenhagen in 2009 might be able to be resuscitated. That we might be able to get back on some kind of track. But somebody’s got to take the first step.

Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 saying, in my administration, the rise of the oceans will begin to slow. He said it’s time to end the tyranny of the oil industry. A lot of people believed him when he said those things. And now they’re going to find out whether or not they were right to believe or not.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve said on other occasions that one of your objectives was to try to help the president do the right thing. And that’s why you were arrested and others were arrested. Do you have any indication from, sources in the White House, friends of yours in the movement that he’s heard you?

BILL MCKIBBEN: I’m the last person to ask for inside information in the White House, I fear. I don’t think I’ve been there since the tour in sixth grade. I was arrested locked to the gate outside, but that doesn’t give me any inside information. What we’ve been able to do is build a movement, okay, from the outside. It started with indigenous people in Canada and the U.S.

Groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network. It expanded to include ranchers and farmers along the pipeline route. Groups like the Bold Nebraska. And then it grew to include this climate community, people all over the country who understand and are scared about rapid effects of climate change that we can talk about.

They came together for the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years in this country about anything. And that was enough at least to make Keystone an issue. Without it, it would long since have been built without any peep from the Obama administration.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a marvelous story in Maclean’s magazine about a Republican rancher in Nebraska who actually triggered the first opposition because he was concerned about his water.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Concerned about his land that this, you know, pipeline was going to cross. And it crosses the Ogallala Aquifer. It’s interesting. Many of those ranchers and farmers didn’t care at all about climate change three or four years ago. But now when I go out to Nebraska, they say, you know, now we understand a good deal more. We watched our drought, record drought in 2012 across the Midwest.

It made, you know, difficult to grow food in the richest farmland on the planet. And we understand now why that’s happening. So this is how movements grow. The only question is whether it can grow quickly enough. We’re up against a time-limited problem with climate change. If we don’t solve it soon, we will not solve it. So far, we’ve raised the temperature of the Earth 1 degree Celsius.

That’s been enough to melt the Arctic, it’s been enough to trigger crazy weather already, that drought across the Midwest, now a drought that’s gone to California where there’s no rain at all. The scientists said that this may be the deepest drought since 1500’s anyway in California. And in the 1500’s, there weren’t 38 million people living in California. The news came that 2013 was the 37th straight year above-average temperatures.

That means that if you’re below the age of 38, you’ve never seen a year that’s cooler than average. You’ve never seen a year like the world that we grew up in, you and I, and like the world that all human beings grew up in, in the 10,000 years of the Holocene. We’ve moved out of that now. And the question is, how far out of it we’re going to move.

We raised the temperature one degree. That’s made, well, it’s made the oceans 30 percent more acidic. But the same scientists who told us that would happen tell us that we’re going to raise it four or five degrees before the century is out if we keep on our current trajectory.

BILL MOYERS: So when you and Sue came to town Monday and the weather was chilled and the snow was falling and the ice was forming, you didn’t think nature was taunting your predictions—


BILL MOYERS: —about global warming?

BILL MCKIBBEN: No, at this point, I appreciate so much whenever we have a snowstorm or a winter because I know not to take it for granted. And I know that at the same time that it was cold down in the middle of the United States, they were seeing absolute record warmth breaking every record up in Alaska.

We know that California’s in record drought and we know in the U.K., they just came through the wettest month they’ve ever recorded with flooding so bad that it’s causing every kind of problem. All around the world we see this climate chaos taking hold. And as I say, that’s in the early stages of this fight, of this change. That’s why we’ve got to get a hold of it now. If we do, it’s not that we can stop global warming. It’s already warmed 1 degree and it’s going to warm some more. But maybe we can keep it from getting entirely out of control.

BILL MOYERS: You’re up against time as a factor, but you’re also up against an enormous financial and political colossus. I mean, I have read that if we stored, if we listened to the scientists and stored 80 percent of the carbon in the ground, we would have to write off assets worth 20 trillion dollars.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Certainly companies would be hurt. But you know, the future on the other side of fossil fuel for normal people is bright. Once you’ve got a solar panel on your house, what do you know, your electricity comes for free. I mean, nobody can meter the sun. That’s what’s so scary to the Exxons of the world.

They’ve got a great deal now. They’ve got, well, they’re the richest companies on Earth. Exxon made more money each of the last four years than any company in the history of money, you know? And it’s because they do not have to pay for the damage that their carbon does in the atmosphere.

They, unlike any other company, get to throw out their waste for free, you know? If they didn’t, if they had to account for it any way, we’d already have moved to sun and wind. And the things that everybody knows are the energy sources of the future, the only question is, will we let Exxon and Chevron and Peabody Coal keep making those record profits for the five or ten more years that would break the back of the planet’s climate system?

BILL MOYERS: Let’s face it, the way we finance fossil fuel is the heart and soul of much of our political system. You don’t have a lot of support in the political world.

BILL MCKIBBEN: This is the richest industry on Earth. That means it’s the most politically powerful industry. That’s why the U.S. has stood aside, Barack Obama who theoretically is a good environmentalist, stood aside and, in fact, opened up the Arctic to drilling. Opened up huge swaths of offshore America to more oil drilling.

Opened up the Powder River Basin for more coal mining. You know, this is, these are tough guys to cross. The American Petroleum Institute told the president two years ago, you do what we say on Keystone or there’ll be political trouble. We’ll find out how scared he was.

BILL MOYERS: You said a moment ago that theoretically, Obama cast himself as an environmentalist, and certainly during the 2008 and the 2012 campaign, he was right out front his pronouncements. But then he made a speech during the 2012 campaign, in Oklahoma, where the pipeline connects with the southern leg of that line and runs all the way out of the Gulf Coast. Listen to this excerpt from the speech President Obama gave in 2012.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. Over the, that’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.

BILL MOYERS: If that’s not drill baby, drill, what is it?

BILL MCKIBBEN: That was a shameful speech. And it came with shameful action. The president said, well, we’ll delay and study some more of this northern leg of the Keystone pipeline, but I’m instructing my administration to expedite approval for this southern leg, from Oklahoma down to Texas. We’ll get the permits in record time. And indeed, they have. As of last month, there was oil flowing through that southern leg of that pipeline.

That’s why people don’t trust him on this issue. He’s done some good things, but his record is mixed at best. And he will be remembered at the moment, as the president who produced more carbon than anybody thought possible, unless he begins to act now with real power.

BILL MOYERS: Do you concede that the White House may have a legitimate different view from you on this? They say the real villain in global warming is carbon emissions from coal-fired plants. And that the E.P.A., the Environmental Protection Agency, is already closing down these polluters, closing them down. The pipeline, they say, is not as important—


BILL MOYERS: —as McKibben says.

BILL MCKIBBEN: This is an important, coal-fired power plants are very important. And the environmental movement, including has worked very hard. The reason that the Obama administration has put forward these regulations on coal in the last year is because the environmental movement did a wonderful job, led by the Sierra Club, of taking 100, plans for 150 coal-fired power plants and fighting every single one of them. And most of them will never be built.

And it’s good that the Obama administration is pounding the nails now into the coffin that the environmental movement prepared. That’s good. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to work on oil and natural gas and everything else. We need to get off fossil fuel. And we need to do it with lightning speed. And there’s no sign of that. Just the opposite. In fact, even with coal, the Obama administration is burning less in this country, but U.S. coal exports have hit all-time highs.

BILL MOYERS: Knowing that you read Rolling Stone where you wrote your article 18 months ago that went viral, here’s the latest by Tim Dickinson, How the U.S. Exports Global Warming, “The greening of American energy is both real and profound.” But, “Even as our nation is pivoting toward a more sustainable energy future, America’s oil and coal corporations are racing to position the country as the planet’s dirty-energy dealer, supplying the developing world with cut-rate, high-polluting, climate-damaging fuels. Much like [the] tobacco companies did in the 1990s,” when they couldn’t go any further in this country.

BILL MCKIBBEN: And in this case, there’s no question about second-hand smoke. Carbon dioxide, wherever you emit it, Beijing or Boston, has exactly the same effect on the planet’s temperature. So shipping this stuff overseas is exactly the same as burning it here at home. We’re doing the same thing with natural gas. They’re trying to build L.N.G. export facilities along the—


BILL MCKIBBEN: Liquefied natural gas. Along the Pacific Coast, people are doing a magnificent job of fighting these proposals for coal ports. But so far, the Obama administration’s been no help in trying to head off those developments. They’ve given into the fossil fuel industry by and large. And as a result, America is digging up more carbon than it’s ever dug up before.

BILL MOYERS: What do you see as the consequence of the positions and the actions and the decisions he has already made?

BILL MCKIBBEN: He’s laid the infrastructure to keep the fossil fuel boom going for another 40 or 50 years. The crucial 40 or 50 years as far as physics and chemistry are concerned. If we keep building out coal and oil and gas the way that the Obama administration has so far encouraged, then his good efforts around coal-fired power plants and automobile mileage won’t mean anything in the long run. He wants to have it both ways, mostly the fossil fuel way. And we need him to actually stand up for to the environment.

BILL MOYERS: You mentioned Copenhagen, the Conference of nations that came together to try to come up with an agenda to confront global warming. You saw the report about the National Security Agency—


BILL MOYERS: —it turns out, thanks to Edward Snowden that the N.S.A. was bugging—


BILL MOYERS: —everyone.

BILL MCKIBBEN: No, look, this was the great foreign policy failure of the first Obama administration. When the Copenhagen Summit collapsed, the headlines and newspapers in Europe next day were calling it the Munich of our time and, you know, just the greatest diplomatic failure ever.

At the time we didn’t really understand just how crummy the whole thing was. It was when Snowden revealed that the State Department had, or the N.S.A. had bugged everybody there and was giving their work product, as they call it, to the State Department. Then we started to understand as the Danes said, the Danes were hosting the meeting.

And on behalf of the E.U. they put forward at the last minute a rescue plan for this conference designed to bring people together around in agreement. And the Danes said, it was as if the Americans new beforehand what we were going to propose and just sat back and did nothing.

BILL MOYERS: So how would they have used it? To create a blueprint for the U.S.’s own agenda there? For how it would react to these proposals—

BILL MCKIBBEN: Sure, we didn’t want to have any kind of binding agreements there. The Obama administration had decided that it was going to work on healthcare, not on climate change. And it was downplaying international action. There’s a long history of the U.S. stalling the international efforts. I mean, we never signed the Kyoto Treaty, you know, time and time again.

And this was one more of them. And the fact that we went ahead and bugged everybody there, I mean, it’s pretty much a demonstration that these were not, you got to have, if you’re going to negotiate something this hard for everyone, you’ve got to do it in good faith. Think about the Indians or the Chinese coming there. They use far less energy per capita than we do, you know?

For them, dealing with climate change is much harder than it is for us, because they have to figure out how they’re going pull people outta dire poverty without it. Now, they can do it, and they’re starting to. The Chinese put in more solar power last year than any country any time in any year, okay? But you know, this is hard for them. We weren’t even willing to play fair.

BILL MOYERS: Why are you now urging students and meeting students and organizing students to ask their universities and colleges to disinvest in the stocks they own?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Because we’re tired of only playing defense against the fossil fuel industry. It’s important to stop pipelines and coal export facilities and all those things. But it’s like the little Dutch boy trying to stick his, we’re running out of fingers and there are too many holes, okay? We also need to play offense. And divestment is a powerful way to do that. It’s worked one time, really in a big sense. And that was around South Africa 25 years ago when lots of colleges and cities and churches and foundations sold their shares in companies doing business with the apartheid regime.

When Nelson Mandela got out of prison, one of the first places he came was California to thank students in the UC system who forced the sale of about $3 billion worth of apartheid-tainted stock. Well, it was Mandela’s great accomplice, Desmond Tutu, who helped launch this new divestment effort. He said in this great video, he said, if you could see what climate change is doing to Africa, the famine, the drought, you’d know why we’d ask you to pick up this tool again.

Africa is suffering unbelievable damage. Africa burns less than one percent of the planet’s fossil fuel. Even if they turned off every engine and every light bulb and every other thing in Africa, it wouldn’t make any difference. We need to take responsibility. And the people at institutions like universities, they need to provide some leadership. Those are the places where we’ve learned about, you know, the danger that we’re in.

BILL MOYERS: You’re up against a wall of apathy, hostile opposition, money, power, and time, as you say.

BILL MCKIBBEN: I find as I travel around, that most people understand that we’re in a serious fix. Eighty percent of American counties have had some kind of climate disaster in the last two or three years.

Two years ago, the New York City subway system filled with salt system, you know? Sandy was the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras. How many warnings do we want?

The world is changing. Things are possible now that weren’t before because we’re changing the climate.

I mean, it feels like God’s doing his level best to tell us the fix that we’re in, one crazy episode of weather after another. These are the alarms from a system that’s beginning to swing out of control. We’re supposed to be Homo sapiens. Intelligence is supposed to be our mark. We’ve been given the warning by our scientists who have done a terrific job at reaching consensus on a different problem in physics and chemistry. They’ve told us that we’re in deep trouble. They’ve told us what we need to do, get off fossil fuel. The question now is whether we’re actually going to respond to that.

And it’s like a sort of, well, it’s like a kind of final exam for the question, was the big brain a good adaptation or not, you know? We’re going find out in short order. And each of these things that comes up like the Keystone pipeline is a kind of pop quiz along the way. And so far we’re failing more of them than we’re passing.

BILL MOYERS: Should more people get arrested?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Civil disobedience is one tool in the activist toolbox. You don’t want to use it all the time because like any tool, it gets dull. But there are moments when you have to underline the moral urgency of the problem that we’re in. The wonderful thing here is no one needs me to tell them. This isn’t the kind of movement that we used to have where we had a great leader at the center of things or whatever.

The movement we’re trying to build looks more like we want the energy system to look like. Millions of solar panels on millions of roofs, all interconnected and tied together in the same way. That’s what this political, this kind of fossil fuel resistance spread out around the world, almost as sprawling as the fossil fuel industry itself.

And for many, many sides and in many, many ways, through money, through political pressure, through sometimes civil disobedience. We’ve got to come at these guys. And people are figuring that out. Not because I’m telling them what to do, because it becomes clearer all the time as people get engaged.

BILL MOYERS: BILL MCKIBBEN:, thank you for joining me.

BILL MCKIBBEN: What a pleasure.

BILL MOYERS: At our website, there’s much more on climate change and the Keystone pipeline debate. There’s a public comment period going on right now — it’s important that you tell the government what you think about the pipeline before President Obama makes his final decision. We’ll show you how.

That’s all at I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.

Producer: Candace White. Segment Producer: Robert Booth. Interview Editor: Rob Kuhns. Intro Editor: Sikay Tang.

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