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James Stafford

James Stafford

James Stafford is the Editor of Oilprice.com

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Solving the Earth's Climate Problems - An Interview with Bill McKibben

Record droughts, a melting Arctic and changing worldwide weather patterns - are these the early signs of an environment on the verge of collapse? To look at these issues and more we had a chance to speak with the well known environmentalist Bill McKibben.

Bill is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. He is the author of a dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, which is regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change. Bill is a frequent contributor to various magazines including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Orion Magazine & Huffington Post.

In the interview, Bill discusses:

•    Why the West should fund the development of renewable energy in India and China.
•    How we can help solve the Earth’s climate problems.
•    Why Obama needs to step up his game.
•    Big oil’s success at keeping climate change out of the headlines.
•    Why he fears Keystone XL will shortly be pushed through.
•    Why we have to massively deploy clean energy technology Now!
•    His views on the Canadian oil sands.
•    The economic impact of a massive transition to renewables.

Interview by. James Stafford of Oilprice.com

Oilprice.com: You have said that climate change is the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. Why do you think so little action is being taken to prevent it?

Bill McKibben: I think that so far the political and economic power of the fossil fuel industry has trumped all else.

Oilprice.com: In your opinion what strategy holds the best chance of solving our climate change problems?

Bill McKibben: Well, i think we need to go straight at the fossil fuel industry. this fall 350.org launches a divestment campaign on college campuses--we're calling it 'do the math,' based on an article i wrote for rolling stone this summer that went wickedly viral. i'm not certain it will work, but i know that these are the guys (not the politicians) calling the shots, so we need to reach them.

Oilprice.com: What is your message to the oil company’s? They obviously make incredible profits from their business – how are you looking to persuade them to cut back on production? Also the oil companies are controlled by shareholders – most of these pension funds, etc… Surely you also need to approach the shareholders?

Bill McKibben: I don't think the fossil fuel industry will listen, not until we build up a lot of pressure. I do think we can persuade some shareholders that they don't want to be involved in this enterprise.

Oilprice.com: Would you be able to share any of the arguments you will use?

Bill McKibben: Profiting from companies that are overloading the atmosphere with carbon and changing the atmosphere is wrong.

To view more discussions with other experts visit our new interview section

Oilprice.com: In a perfect world alternative energy technologies would be able to compete with fossil fuels – but this is far from being the case. Massive investment and many years of R&D need to go into alternatives before they are even close to being competitive. What are we supposed to do in the meantime as energy is essential for economic growth?

Bill McKibben: Actually, this is less and less true. Wind and sun are more and more competitive--and if fossil fuel had to pay for the damage it did to the environment, they'd be far cheaper.

Oilprice.com: But we can’t just turn off the taps and although alternatives are becoming more competitive – they just aren’t there yet. Take a look at Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power (one they are regretting now) – this decision has led to a massive increase in coal generated electricity and will continue to do so. How would the world make up for the shortfall in energy production if fossil fuel usage were to drop?

Bill McKibben: "Can't" is one of those interesting terms. You could just as easily say--and with far more merit--"you can't just melt the Arctic ice cap." It won't be easy, of course, but clearly we know how to deploy clean energy technology. On something like a wartime footing we could do it fast. Fast enough? The science is pretty dark.

Oilprice.com: The southern part of the Keystone XL pipeline has been developed, all that is missing is permission from the White House to complete the final part. This has led many to believe that the Keystone XL will be built, what is your opinion? Do you fear that there is too much money to be made and too many “interests” for it to be permanently blocked?

Bill McKibben: I share that fear. Mitt Romney has promised to build it, and Obama hasn't promised not to, so the odds are far from stellar.

Oilprice.com: The fact that the Arctic is being opened up for oil exploration and production surely demonstrates the grip that the fossil fuel industry has on the government. Do you fear for the environment as long as government remains under the thrall of big oil?

Bill McKibben: I do. The Arctic is the most ironic example, since it's only opening up for oil drilling because we've melted it.

To view more discussions with other experts visit our new interview section

Oilprice.com: You have stated that the Canadian Tar Sands represent ‘Game Over’ for any ambitions to battle climate change. A lot of money stands to be made from their development, and Canada’s economy will receive huge benefits. Do you truly believe that the Canadian government could be persuaded to forfeit this massive resource?

Bill McKibben: The Canadian people will decide. It's a great test for a country that traditionally has helped solve world problems, not cause them.

Oilprice.com: Developing countries such as China and India are the worst polluters, yet in order for them to reduce their emissions significantly they would need to hold back on their own economic development. Is this a fair request to make of them?

Bill McKibben: We would need to help them make the transition to renewable energy, and fast. It's not just the moral thing to do, it's the practical one.

Oilprice.com: Where will the funding come from to make this transition?

Bill McKibben: From some tiny portion of the wealth the west accumulated in a hundred years of filling the atmosphere with carbon

Oilprice.com: How will the West pay for this?

Bill McKibben: I'm guessing the most efficient way would be to transfer an awful lot of technology, but also direct aid to deal with climate emergencies already underway. Hillary has already said $100 bn a year would be appropriate

Oilprice.com: The US is now producing more oil and natural gas than ever before, and whilst solar and wind projects are growing, fossil fuels still dominate. Obama is much stronger on climate issues than Bush was, yet is he strong enough?

Bill McKibben: No one is strong enough--given the magnitude of the task, everyone has to step up their game.

To view more discussions with other experts visit our new interview section

Oilprice.com: You say no-one is strong enough – what policies would you like to see put in place – what could the politicians do?

Bill McKibben: A price on carbon sufficient to keep 80% of current reserves underground, rebated directly to citizens.

Oilprice.com: What impact do you see this having on economic growth?

Bill McKibben: I imagine it would spur employment pretty dramatically. Renewable energy is far more labor-intensive than fossil fuel production. So for those of us who worry more about working people than about windfall profits for oil companies, it may net out. A better question is: what does it do to our economy if we manage to overheat the earth? This summer's drought provides a small taste.

Oilprice.com: 350.org is the first global movement against climate change. Do you think that on its own it could grow large enough to have the impact needed, or are you expecting that it will just provide an example to others and cause other similar such global movements to be created, which together could then have the necessary power to make a difference?

Bill McKibben: Unity is strength!

Oilprice.com: If you were to pick an alternative source that offers real potential in the future what would it be?

Bill McKibben: Sun and wind.

Oilprice.com: Why is climate scepticism continuing to gain momentum in the face of terrible droughts and changing weather patterns?

Bill McKibben: I don't think it is. The percentage of Americans who understand the planet is warming has grown steadily. The skeptics have lots of money, but they have a hard time fighting what is becoming to obvious to anyone who steps out the door: the planet is warming quickly and disastrously.

Oilprice.com: Bill thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Visit our homepage for the latest oil prices and energy news.

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  • JoeThePimpernel on September 10 2012 said:
    Global temperatures have been declining for 2000 years when you don't use the fraudulent data used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

    The Tree Ring Data Scandal

    New tree ring study shows 2000 years of cooling

    Extreme weather is an integral part of the Earth’s climate
  • Randy on September 11 2012 said:
    "Oilprice.com: In your opinion what strategy holds the best chance of solving our climate change problems?"

    Since when has the very, very slight increase in global temperatures since the 19th century declared to be an important "problem" which thus needs to be "solved?" When was the debate? Who came to the debate and declared it be 'a problem?' Why wasn't I invited? If you look at the post above you'll note several references to vast amounts of information located on the internet by equally esteemed scientists questioning the validity of the hypothesis. That's ignored. There's tons of other in-depth studies presented by climatoligists negating the very premise posted above. It's ignored as well. There is no more debate. The term 'climate change' is used because it's so innocuous. Every time the climate changes, wind storm, rain, cold weather, tornado's or heavy dew, it's now all due to climate change,...which is bad. Right? Crazy. I think OilPrice should get someone else to do their interviews. Someone that has an open mind.
  • Sebb on September 11 2012 said:
    Joe and Randy,
    I look forward to your Nobel Prizes! Really, actually denying man made climate change is a stretch. The 'vast source of information on the internet' - that has never actually made it into publication.

    The sources you cite have been reviewed by every National Science body on earth. And they have found them to be at best erroneous, and at worst fraudulent.

    There is no 'debate' when those understanding that the planet is heating and that we're doing it include : every national science body on earth, NSA, NAS, Exxon, Shell, BP, the last 4 Presidents, The Pentagon, CIA, FBI, IBM, Coca Cola and Johnson & Johnson. And those denying it are repeatedly exposed ex-scientists in un-related fields who used to (and some still do ) claim tobacco doesn't cause lung cancer, and some libertarian bloggers that just don't like the anticipated implications.

    The liberals identified the problem, don't let us define the solution too. It needs conservative input.
  • Hans Nieder on September 12 2012 said:
    Sebb, we don't need no stinken Nobel prize....
    It is you, who need to present to us, a set of verifiable facts and not us, climate deniers..
  • Anderlan on September 13 2012 said:
    "BM: A price on carbon sufficient to keep 80% of current reserves underground, rebated directly to citizens."

    This is exactly what's needed. The problem is we have a huge torrent of money going from Americans' pockets toward exploration and recovery of fuel which we can't burn anyway, because we already have 5 times as much carbon on the books as we can sanely burn. But we need to fund massive R&D and deployment of renewables. A transfer of some of that huge money spigot equally toward every American's pocketbook is the free market capitalist way to change do what's needed.

    Why should it be free to dump something we've exceeded our limit of dumping? How can the free market work against pollution if pollution is free?

    (Placing the price instantly would be brutal. But there MUST be a small enough value to begin the price of fossil carbon dioxide dumping and then increase it every year.)

    "OP: What impact do you see this having on economic growth?
    BM: I imagine it would spur employment pretty dramatically..."

    I mentioned renewable R&D before. I can say unequivocally that this taking back some of this torrent of money from fossil fuel development and plowing it as broadly as possible into the rest of the economy will increase non-fossil and low-fossil energy innovation, and innovation IS NOT ZERO SUM.

    Those questioned the economic costs of this most efficient policy will be laughed at derisively in 30 years.
  • El Madster on September 17 2012 said:
    Let me say this upfront: I am a conservative who favors a robust carbon tax.

    I even started conservativesforacarbontax.com to promote a carbon tax.

    But Bill McKibben is actually part of the problem in that he does not admit to himself and his flock how badly the carbon price movement is losing.

    350.org is a silly, sophomoric response to what the eco-left calls an “existential threat” unless you think that piling rocks on the beach to spell out “350.org” constitute a serious response.

    The eco-left will eventually have to decide between being “eco” and being “left.” When they do, conservativesforacarbontax.com will be ready to talk
  • DMW on January 14 2014 said:
    There are 4 simple things we could do in the immediate future to radically turn things around:
    1. Implement a carbon tax that is graduated to increase over time (offset by reductions in income tax, not sales tax, as sales should be taxed because of the resources used to make things) No need to reinvent the wheel - Fee and Dividend is already drafted!
    2. Legalize hemp, with no restrictions (do we have restrictions on growing corn? No. Then why restrict hemp?)
    3. At the risk of sounding like Libertarians, remove all subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and any other industry, or at least after an initial three year period of a business's inception (if a business cannot make it without subsidies, they should not be in business), Fossil industries are not nascent anymore like renewable energy industries so if all subsidies were to be removed, it would grant them a level playing field, much more empowering than the current situation)
    4. Embark on a massive educational campaign to raise the awareness of the public as to the damage of fossil fuels and how to prevent waste of the dirty energies, till we make the switch to clean, abundant and guilt-free energy sources.

    We must stop compromising! We have already compromised enough by waiting this long for the industry to do something. They have proven incapable of "self determination". Now let's get going!
  • E.A. on April 14 2015 said:
    In 2003 (Orion), McKibben wrote that we need "...windmills, all the hell over the place," which is odd coming from someone who wrote a seminal book called "The End of Nature." What happened to McKibben's ideology, or what was it to begin with? He seems eager to end nature as grotesquely as possible with giant towers on mountain ridges and all over farm country, despite numerous aesthetic and noise problems.

    Modern wind turbines are extremely large, with blades sweeping well over an acre and constant bragging about which company makes the biggest. Companies like Vestas are in the vistas-destroying business. I've seen talk of 600-foot models on land and 700 feet at sea. How can that be Green in any sane context? It's massive industrialization.

    I'm also tired of global warming deniers, but people need to realize that the main reason for global warming "alarmism" is anthropocentric, not so much a concern for nature itself. Human infrastructure is the big thing that wasn't present in ancient, natural warm periods. Nature could ride out a hot spell if nothing permanent needed to be protected and animals could freely migrate. But human economies are dependent on known climate stability and entrenched cities near oceans. People are building mammoth wind turbines to save that, not nature's original appearance.

    Getting back to McKibben: Thanks, Bill. Glad to see that the world's already threatened landscapes matter to you, if they were ever part of nature in your mind. Where will you take scenic vacations when the wind carnage is fully engaged in America? Don't bother going to Scotland or Germany - they've already blown it. I can only hope that when you wrote that in 2003 you weren't quite aware what you meant.

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