“Nature, we believe, takes forever,” wrote Bill McKibben at the start of The End of Nature, his landmark treatise on industrial man’s devastating impact. “It moves with infinite slowness through the many periods of its history.” But the slowness was an illusion, McKibben argued. Nature can also change in a century, a decade, an instant: especially when humans and their technology get involved. In 1988, the year in which McKibben was writing, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had just hit 350 parts per million—the upper limit, credible scientists believe, for life on earth to persist as we know it. An ozone hole had opened over the South Pole. We had already “stepped over the threshold” of change and were “at the end of nature.”
In the nearly three decades since he wrote these words, McKibben has emerged as one of the world’s foremost environmental activists, authors and persuaders. He has written more than a dozen other books, taught environmental science at Middlebury College in Vermont and encouraged activism through his nonprofits, 350.org and Step It Up. If he was not optimistic about the future of the climate movement in the wake of the jarring U.S. presidential election, neither was he particularly sanguine before. “We’ve been in a very hard place for a very long time,” he told me in a phone interview. “But no one is giving up.”
Capital & Main: As we speak, the North Pole is 36 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year. The ice at both poles is retreating at a pace beyond all expectation. Last March, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit 400 parts per million. And after several years of maybe what one would call incremental progress, the U.S. now seems poised to slam into reverse on climate policy. How much did this election matter to the fate of the earth?
Bill McKibben: I fear that it matters a lot. But, you know, it’s not as if stopping climate change was one of the options in this election. All trouble is relative. The fight now is whether we can stop anything short of cataclysmic climate change or not. And even that is a difficult proposition. Things are changing very fast. The pessimistic part of me thinks that our last real opportunity to get ahold of things may be slipping through our fingers.
The Obama administration did try to take some action. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency instituted the Clean Power Plan, for instance, to set rules for states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector. Did that make any difference?
If President Obama turns out to be the high-water mark of American engagement on climate policy, it won’t have been that high a mark, and it wouldn’t have been nearly enough to change the curve.
Basically what Obama did was substitute [natural] gas for coal. As a result, our carbon-dioxide emissions have gone down, and that’s what people normally measure. But our methane emissions have gone way up. [Methane is a shorter-lived greenhouse gas than carbon-dioxide, but a much more powerful one.] It looks like it’s pretty close to a wash, actually, for these eight years in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Clean Power Plan’s obviously now going to be scrapped, along with a lot of other things. There’s a lot of new fossil-fuel infrastructure that’s likely to be built. So whatever momentum was beginning to really build around renewable energy—and that momentum was real, because the price has come down so much—that momentum has hit, at the very least a pothole. More likely a ditch, and quite possibly a crevasse.
In the big picture, things have changed a lot in the last 10 or 15 years. They’ll change a lot more in the next 10 or 15 years, we’ll get better at doing renewable energy, the price will keep going down, and on and on and on. Our problem is that there’s a time test, and we’re already way behind. What we desperately need is to ramp up the trajectory, the pace, of our response. And that’s clearly not going to be happening.
The New York Times recently ran a story about how 365 companies and investors have implored Trump to not renege on the Paris climate agreement, saying it would endanger the U.S. economy. Also, Trump says he wants to invest heavily in U.S. infrastructure. Is there any hope of riding herd on his administration to make some of that infrastructure clean-energy infrastructure? Can he be persuaded to act on climate for the sake of the economy, or at least preserve what we’ve got?
Well, there’s always hope, and I think people will try hard to work with him. But so far his cabinet appointments lean very far in the direction of the fossil-fuel industry, of climate deniers, of people who would be unlikely to support any of this.
I suppose if you were searching for hope, you’d say clearly Trump himself knows nothing, literally nothing, about climate change, so maybe if someone manages to educate him about it, he will change his mind. But I don’t quite know who would be doing the educating and how they’re going to be getting to him.
So what’s the strategy for activists going forward?
There’ll be a great deal of activism and an attempt to hold on to what victories we’ve won. Truthfully, I think there’ll also be a fair number of people, at least in the next little while, coming together to support other parts of this broad progressive coalition. People will be doing their best to defend immigrants against deportation in the next few months, for example.
When I put out a call to my Facebook friends asking if anyone had questions for you, a lot of them expressed concern for your well-being. How hard has this hit you, and how are you coping?
I’m enough of a patriot that it makes me sad for my country. I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and gave tours of the battleground. It was my summer job. I literally told people hundreds if not thousands of times the story of the beginning of the American experiment. And if Trump is not the end of it, he’s certainly the nadir so far. One hopes that, as it has in the past, our democracy will self-correct eventually.
But the problem for climate change is that eventually doesn’t help very much. By the time we get things straightened out, if we do, there’s going to be an awful lot less ice at the poles, and the ocean’s going to get an awful lot higher.
It wasn’t very long ago that just about every energy expert you talked to, no matter how progressive, insisted that renewable energy wouldn’t be enough to meet the nation’s energy needs. In your August New Republic essay about staging a war on climate, you cited so many experts who now think that the opposite is true. Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson shows that we could get up to 85 percent of our energy from clean sources by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050.
The irony of this election is that the president taking over in January is the first president taking office with the advantage of cheap renewable energy. Which, if they were inclined to use it would allow them to make swift and really dramatic progress.
California is a case in point. California’s going to keep changing, and doing remarkable things [to rein in greenhouse gas emissions]. They’re the same things that could be going on in a lot of other places, and I worry that California’s going to be in many ways disconnected.
But there’s going to be a lot of effort to regionalize some of the progress in California—getting other states to enter into the carbon-pricing scheme that California has, and so on and so forth. It may be that people will be able to cobble together something fairly robust with that. I just think it’s going to be hard to do it on the level that we seem to require right now.
Always one of the important pieces of this is public opinion. The polls are all over place. Some say people believe the climate is changing and that humans are causing it, but only 17 percent of those polled say they’re alarmed by it. How can we inject some urgency into this message?
Keep doing the same things you’re doing. It’s making real progress. Understanding is changing, if not fast enough. And one of the things that’s not static here is that mother nature will continue to play a role in this debate. There will continue to be a series of teachable moments.
It’s worth remembering that the downfall of the Bush administration really began with Katrina. Nature will continue to concentrate our minds. We’ll see how quickly it works.
Tomorrow: A talk with Robert Reich.