Editor’s note—This Bill McKibben piece is an interview is presented as a chapter of Train Wreck Earth, (2017), a book by Dave Harman and Dr. Harvard Ayers in which McKibben presents a dramatized lecture to a fictional college class on climate change. The reader will see the reactions of the professor, Dr. Oswalt, and students of the class added to Bill McKibben’s words.
All the students were in the classroom waiting and talking and texting in low-grade chaos as students are prone to do, when Ian and Nigel and Bill McKibben suddenly walked into the room together. Nigel and Ian had also invited some special friends to be in the class because they would get to meet Bill and hear his remarks in the intimate setting of a small classroom. So the room was packed.
Nigel began. “Ok … Ok, let’s go … quiet down, please. So, today it is our pleasure to introduce you to our very special guest speaker, Bill McKibben. “(from his website) Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.
“The Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was the 2013 winner of the Gandhi Prize and the Thomas Merton Prize, and holds honorary degrees from 18 colleges and universities. Foreign Policy named him to their inaugural list of the world’s 100 most important global thinkers, and the Boston Globe said he was ‘probably America’s most important environmentalist.’
“A former staff writer for the New Yorker, he writes frequently for a wide variety of publications around the world, including the New York Review of Books, National Geographic, and Rolling Stone. He lives in the mountains above Lake Champlain with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, where he spends as much time as possible outdoors. In 2014, biologists honored him by naming a new species of … woodland … gnat—Megophthalmidia mckibbeni— did I say that right?” said Nigel, as he laughed,”—in his honor.
“So, please welcome Bill McKibben. (Polite applause.)
“Thank you, Dr. Oswalt. Yes, you did better than most on that binomial nomenclature. A woodland gnat. Who knew?”
“So, Bill, to start, would you be willing to just talk a little bit about when you first got interested in environmental issues and what made you decide to become an activist?”
“Sure. Well, those are two different questions in a way. I am a writer by trade and the first stage of my career, when I left college, I went to work at The New Yorker magazine in New York City writing mostly the Talk of the Town column—very urban and very focused on mainly social issues around homelessness and issues like that. I ran a homeless shelter in the basement of my church, but I have always been interested in the out-of-doors too. My father grew up on the west coast, you know, a hiker, an early member of the Sierra Club when it was mostly a hiking club—things like that.
While I was there at The New Yorker in the early 1980’s I wrote a piece in it about where everything in my apartment came from, and I spent a year doing it—I followed all the supply lines. So I was down in the Brazilian jungle looking around, and ConAg was buying low sulfur oil from Petronas; and I was up in the Arctic, and they were getting electricity from the huge hydro project in Hudson Bay; I was out on the New York harbor where they were dumping the garbage, and dumping the sewage, on and on. It gave me a very strong sense of the physicality of the planet we inhabit and in fact even in a place like Manhattan, which seems to be able to mint money and ideas out of thin air.
It is exquisitely dependent on the physical operations on the planet to have it work. And I think that probably set me up for reading the early climate science that was emerging in the late 1980’s and having kind of an early sense that it was fundamentally important, probably the biggest story on the planet because of that vulnerability and that fragility of systems. And at the same time I was starting to read Wendell Berry, Ed Abbey, Gary Snyder, and some other people who were opening my eyes in different ways.
“That all culminated in a book in 1989 called The End of Nature that was the first book for a general audience about climate change, and that sort of set me on my career. Now for a while I thought that what we did was write books and have speeches and symposiums and things like that, which we do need to do, but it eventually became clear that this was not working because we were not really having an argument. We were having a fight. We’d won the argument. Science was very clear what was going on with climate change, we were losing the fight because the people on the other side, the fossil fuel industry, had a lot of money and a lot of power and that’s what fights turn out to be about.
“So, the activism part came more recently in the past 10 or 12 years, as we sort of consciously started to figure out how we could assemble enough power to begin to stand up to them. If it wasn’t going to be with money, it was going to be with movements—with the kind of currency of movements—passion, spirit, creativity. And that is what we began assembling and we have some more of it now, and not enough to win all the time, but enough to win some of the time. And so I guess the job is to keep building it bigger until we have enough to win more often and hope that we can do that in time to catch up to the physics of climate change, which is by no means a given.”
At that pause, Ian jumped in and asked Bill what he would like to tell this group of smart students about the climate change challenge as they consider life after college.
“Sure. I love speaking to groups like this, because in the most literal way, these students are our future. And I’ll start by saying there is no use in my sort of skipping lightly over the hard parts. Because unless we understand the pace and the scale of the problem we confront, then we do not understand the pace or the scale of the solutions that we need to deal with it.
“ … If you had told scientists 25, 26 years ago that by now we would have lost half the summer sea ice in the Arctic, and we are on a record melt pace again this year (update this), they would have said, ‘no, that is 50 or 75 or 100 years out in the future’. If you told them that the world’s oceans were going to be 30% more acidic because the carbon in the atmosphere was changing the chemical composition of sea water, they would have looked astonished at you because it would have not occurred to anyone to measure the pH of the oceans. The oceans were too big for us to materially change. But they were not.
“2014 was the hottest year ever measured on this planet until 2015. Then 2015 crushed that record, and now it looks like 2016 is going to smash every record in the book. We just came through the June that was the hottest month we ever had in this nation and with the heat wave forecast for most of the country, July 2016 may turn out to be the hottest single month in American history (update all this). In July 2016 there was a day when it was 91 degrees in Key West Florida, which makes sense. But it was 96 degrees in Fairbanks Alaska on the same day. We set the new all-time temperature record on one day that same month for the hottest temperature ever recorded within 50 miles of the shore of the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, and then we broke the record on the very next day.
“In the spring of 2016, I was in the South Pacific working with our crew there, and saw the pain of those people and those places watching half of the coral reefs that fringe those islands dying in a few weeks as a great wave of warm water swept across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. And these are countries that are probably going to be under water before the century is out, but long before that they are at great risk—great risk because those reefs form so much of their natural protection and because that is where they get their food.
“We have seen in the last two years the highest wind speeds recorded in the Western hemisphere and Southern hemisphere—great hurricanes that, of course, draw their power from the heat in the first few meters of the sea’s surface. We’ve seen staggering drought because one of the things that happens when you warm the planet is that warm air holds more water vapor than cold and you get more evaporation in arid areas. So, yes, California suffers tremendously, but California is rich and can sort of deal with it. There were reports earlier this year from parts of southern Africa that is locked in a tremendous drought, and their people were literally eating their seed corn because they had nothing else to eat, and that is about as desperate as it gets.
“Up across our hemisphere beginning last year we have seen the spread of this Zika virus on the wings of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that has colonized so much of this warmer wetter world that we have created. And we have seen the health ministers of five nations tell women not to become pregnant. Think about that for a minute. That’s like something out of a science fiction story. It is hard to imagine, hard to imagine, and the dangerous part is that it is still near the beginnings of this story. We have raised the temperature of the planet one degree Celsius so far. If we indeed follow the promises that all the countries of the world made in the Paris climate accords in December of 2015, we are headed for a world that is something like three and a half degrees Celsius warmer.
“That is, we are headed for a planet that literally will not work and cannot support the kind of civilizations that we are used to, cannot grow the food, will not have the weather. Well, this is the biggest thing humans have ever done. The most important that happened in the lifetime of everyone in this room was that we left behind the Holocene, the 10,000 year period of benign climatic stability that coincided, but coincidentally, with the rise of human civilization. We are out of it now and we are into some new and a much warmer world and do not really have a name for it (although some are calling it the Anthropocene). The question, and the only question, is how far into that world are we going to go. It is the most frightening question that humans have ever faced and is the most important task we have ever had to try and slow it down.
“See, the scientists and engineers have done their job. The scientists have given us ample warning, the engineers have now provided us with the technology that we need. The price of a solar panel has dropped 80% in the last seven or eight years. They have done their job. What we need to realize now is that the battle is mostly political, and that means whatever else one is doing with their career, it must surround sustainability. Whatever else that one’s basic job is to be, what we really need from people, is to be good citizens of their university, of their community, of their nation, of their world. That means a lot of work after hours and on weekends, that’s the part about marching, about organizing, about going to jail sometimes, about fund-raising.
“Well, that is what everybody’s job is and in some sense it shouldn’t have to be that way. You know, sitting here with a classroom full of students, the logical thing would be to say, since the scientists have given us the warning and the engineers have given us the tools, obviously the people who run the government will now take advantage of this and now go do the work. But that turns out to be not how it works. It is not a rational system. It is a system based on power and so our job is to exercise some power. It is foolish that anyone should ever have to go to jail about climate change, because we have been told what the problem is, it is straightforward, but if we are not willing to, then we will lose. History suggested that the currency we were going to have to work in was the currency of movements—the passion, spirit, creativity and willingness to once in a while spend your body and go to jail….”
“Bill, you talk about organizing and sometimes being willing to go to jail. Maybe this would be a good time to give these students the background to 350.org. We have a chapter here called 350Boone, and we started with the first announced action back in 2009. One of 350’s staff, Jenny Marino, has been here and she is a really good ambassador for the movement. Nigel and I went to a training session two or three years ago in Asheville that she organized. Would you talk about 350 a bit,” asked Ian.
“Sure. So, 350 is an odd thing, I mean we started it ten years ago almost, with myself and seven college students, so it was very small. But it was the first attempt at global organizing around climate change. And because there was kind of an unfilled ecological niche in a way it grew very, very fast. Now it is still the only real global grass roots campaign around climate change that’s everywhere.
“We’ve organized maybe 20,000 demonstrations in every country on earth except North Korea, but we haven’t actually organized them. There is no way a group as small as this could do that. It is the first example of what you might call open source organizing, or you know in a Methodist sense it is sort of like a pot luck supper. We have kind of said when we do big days of action around the world, here is the date and here is the theme. You guys figure out what to do. In Nepal and in Burundi and in Peru and wherever else, they figured out what to do.
“The first day we did an around-the-globe action, we had 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. So, seven people did not organize that, and in a sense it organized itself. That’s now possible to do in the connected world in which we live—not easy to do—but possible to do. So that is why it has been so much fun. It has been sort of the opposite of a traditional organization. It is people everywhere trying to figure out how to work in their local areas but also then how to come together and be working hard with people in the South Pacific or people in the Himalayas. I really like it. We have the first truly global problem so it is appropriate and nice that we have the first kind of truly global movement to try to do something about it.”
Ian jumped in to ask, “So how can students get involved with this movement?”
“Well, there are chapters all over the place and if there isn’t one where you students are from, then you just take it over and do what you are going to do yourself. We have the opposite of intellectual property. Whatever we have, take it. Take the logo, take the idea, whatever.
“It has an odd name. 350 is a scientific data point. It is the most carbon measured in parts per million that you can safely have in the atmosphere, and it is a number we are already way north of. We measured 400 parts per million in 2015, and are going up about 3 parts per million per year. That’s why the Arctic is melting and everything is catching on fire and we are having floods left and right and so on. So, it is kind of a weird name, but we chose it (a) because we like honesty and reality, and (b) more to the point, because we wanted to organize around the world, and Arabic numerals work better than English words in helping people around the world reach the same spot. 350 means the same thing whether you are in North Carolina or North Vietnam. I mean it is the same thing.
“On that point, students and young people have been leading this fight all over the world, and there are lots of things going on at any given moment. You know there are divestment campaigns to get colleges and universities to sell their shares of stock in fossil fuel companies. At four or five hundred universities there have been big active fights and in many of them, students have won. Even when they don’t win, it is a perfect opportunity and perfect method to spread the word about climate change.
“In every state and every region there are local fights for people to get involved, North Carolina being a good example. North Carolina has an absurd set of laws that make it difficult to put solar panels on your roofs. The fact that there is a church in North Carolina literally being prosecuted for putting solar panels on its roof by a third-party provider—I mean, that’s outrageous. That is the kind of thing people should be rallying around whenever they can, and one of the things we have done a good job with in this movement is building these networks so that people are well connected. You know they can be working very hard on local things, and then when we have big national and international moments when we need everyone to come together and we can get that to happen.
“So, a good example is that everyone came together over this fight over the Keystone pipeline, partly because it was important, but more so, because we actually had a chance to win, and when we did it became the first time that the oil industry had been beaten. And as soon as that became clear that they had been beaten, everybody else started taking on every other pipeline and every other thing there was around the country.
“It was like no one could run a four-minute mile. Then Roger Bannister ran a four-minute mile and then suddenly, what do you know, there were like 30 people in the next couple of years that ran a four-minute mile. That’s how it works, people doing amazing things now. Look at the people in the Northwest stopping Shell from drilling in the Arctic or feeding these coal ports; people in Kentucky beating a pipeline; in the Northeast people stopping pipelines at LNG ports; and people along the Atlantic coast stopping offshore drilling earlier this year; on and on, and on it has been quite remarkable to see.”
“Bill, would you talk more about the Keystone Pipeline at this point? Many of us here at this university got involved with that big movement, and I, for one, went to Washington four times and to the Peoples’ Climate March in New York to join the fight, and we have taken many, many students from here with us,” interjected Ian.
“Yes, of course. … So, after four years of hard work from millions of people, this became the biggest environmental fight in a generation. President Obama finally said, ‘OK, we won’t build the thing because it would make global warming worse.’ It was a good victory because it keeps a lot of oil, the dirtiest oil in the world, from the tar sands of Canada in the ground. But more importantly is was a great victory because it showed people that the fossil fuel industry could, in fact, be beaten. And as a result there is now a fight going on at every single place someone tries to build a pipeline or a fracking well or a coal port or remove a mountain top or try to do any of the many things we should not be doing at this point in our geological history.
“The head of the Petroleum Institute said a few months ago the biggest problem the industry now faced was what he called the ‘Keystonization’ of all their plans and all their projects. And my black heart had a gleeful moment when I heard that and we win now a surprising percentage of these things. You know Shell Oil wanted to go drill on the Arctic last summer. Think about that for a minute. Having watched it melt as scientists said it would, they did not say to themselves, ‘Huh maybe we should stop looking for oil and start building solar panels.’ No. They said, “well, it has melted so that will make it easier to drill for more’. And so they assembled giant rigs in Portland and Seattle and started to send them out into the Arctic and instead they ran into a blockade of thousands of people in small crafts, and we called them ‘kayaktivists,’ and before the summer was out Shell decided it had enough.
“You know this goes on everywhere. We have pictures from around the world of places and spots that are already feeling the effects of climate change and the people are having to leave their homes and places where drought has gotten so deep or floods have gotten so bad and those are the people in Pakistan that have had the worse flood since Noah in 2010. So, there was not much rain, rain that can only fall on a warmed planet fell in the Hindu Kush, and the water came streaming down into the Indus river until a quarter of the country and 20 million people were out of their homes. And if you look at them you can tell they probably didn’t do too much to cause the problem that is wrecking their lives. On and on and on these effects are everywhere. But the resistance now is everywhere too and it is beautiful to see what the people are doing. These are the kayaktivists hard at work.
“Keystone XL won’t get built, but its purveyors, TransCanada, a Canadian pipeline company, have announced that they are suing the US for $15 billion under the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. So, three anonymous guys in a room someplace appointed arbitrators by industry who will determine whether or not we have to pay $10-15 billion for the privilege of exercising our democracy—the privilege to decide whether we want to build a huge pipeline across the middle of our country. If anything should ever demonstrate why it is a bad idea to be making these kinds of trade agreements, this is it, and it’s the reason we need to rally so hard against this so called TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
“I am proud to say that my neighbor Mr. Sanders has been leading the fight against it and has had good success, Hillary Clinton is against it too and I think in this case even Donald Trump is against it. But the powers that be are always there wanting to cut another deal and wanting to do some more of this stuff, so it takes a lot of vigilance. But TransCanada actually did us a great favor by demonstrating exactly what a bad idea these really are.
At that point, Mary Ellen raised her hand and said, “Mr. McKibben, my name is Mary Ellen, and my major is Sustainable Development. I’m just wondering what would give you reason to feel optimistic about climate change today?”
“Well, Mary Ellen, I’m certainly happy to see you and other smart young people studying this constellation of problems we face. And I understand your question. But, I have to say that scientifically there is no reason to feel optimistic. The physics is really bad and getting worse every day, and each new edition of Science or Nature makes it that much worse.
“But if you wanted to be optimistic, the engineers have done a very good job, and you now have access to cheap renewable energy that would allow us to make very rapid progress if we decided to. And we now have something of a movement of human beings, which we did not have four or five years ago, because there was no movement four or five years ago when the world came together in Copenhagen for its first big climate concave there. It completely failed. Nothing happened because there was no consequence. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could go home and pay no price.
“But by the time they got to Paris last year that was not true. There were millions of people in the streets and they had to do something. What they did was a small start on what needs to happen, but at least there is now kind of a framework from which to work and those are the two things that make me optimistic. We are obviously not going to stop global warming—that is no longer one of the options on the menu. The planet has already warmed a lot and it is going to warm some more.
“What we are playing for now is slowing things down enough that we don’t have a kind of civilization-destroying level of climate change. It is an open question as to whether we are still in a position from which to do that or not. You know as we sit here this summer the polar ice in the Arctic is melting at what probably will be a record rate (update this). It may break even the incredible record set in 2012. We have routinely had temperatures in the Arctic for much of last winter in many places that averaged 18 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. These things seem impossible. They are not off the chart—they are off the wall the chart is pinned to. You know, it is crazy.
“There is no guarantee at this point that we are going to win this fight. But there is a guarantee that we are going to fight, which is something we didn’t know ten years ago, and that makes me happy. It would be a great shame to go out without a fight anyway. And you know, who knows? If we do everything we can, maybe we will catch a break from physics some place along the way. I am a Methodist Sunday school teacher, right? So part of the condition of having faith in a way is thinking that if you do all of the things that you can and are supposed to do, that the world might meet you half way. And so that is what we hope for. But, you know, one shouldn’t understate the predicament we are in, because it is very real.
Nigel had maintained his rapt attention as Bill did what Bill does, and that’s to make difficult topics crystal clear. And one of Nigel’s lifetime goals is to fight for social justice, starting with Native American issues and including the African American community. He saw an opportunity to get Bill to discuss those areas in regard to Keystone XL and pipelines in general.
“So, Bill, I have a couple of questions. If the students in this class were so motivated, is there anything they can do about the KXL now, or has this sort of gone beyond our organizing, and would you kindly speak about all this in the context of social justice issues?”
“Sure. So for Keystone, cross it off the list for the time being. But, one of the things that is important to realize is that in any of these climate fights, it is not like it is by itself. The people that we work with are people who are fighting the good fight in other ways too.
“Who are the communities that get hit hardest by fossil fuel development? Well, as you know, nobody puts refineries in white suburbs. It is always poor black/Hispanic neighborhoods, which happen to be exactly the same neighborhoods that are targeted by racial profiling by the police. So it is no accident that the climate movement and the anti-police brutality movement and people working on income inequality, and so on and so forth, end up working together. There is a big broad movement of people who led the Keystone fight, but more than anything else the most important players probably were indigenous communities on both sides of the border. They are doing an amazing job on this and a thousand other things, so we may have beaten Keystone, but there are a thousand other energy projects around at any given moment. North Carolina is full of coal-fired power plants, and huge landfills filled with coal ash that are routinely located right over the neighborhoods where poor people live, and so on and so forth. It is not like there is a lack of important targets of opportunity for organizing and for non-violent resistance.”
Nigel followed up, “So, I guess you would say that it is not just happenstance that it happens to be a black church that is trying to do solar now and the state government is seeing it as an easy target?”
“Not happenstance. It is probably more important to talk about climate justice now than anything else, and justice is an expansive and inclusive idea and it has to expand and include a lot of things, and the right to have some control over your energy is definitely one of them.”
Nigel wanted these students to hear more about this issue. “Climate change itself in affecting the poorest and the least empowered already, and I guess that trend promises to continue.”
“Absolutely. Climate change is the perfect example. It is the most unfair thing you can think of and it hits first and hardest on the people who did the least to cause it. And we see that in this country, but we see it globally in astonishing ways. I was in the South Pacific with our 350.org cruise this spring (update wording based on dates), and these guys don’t burn any fossil fuel to speak of and their nations are going to disappear in the course of the century. While I was there, the coral reefs—the atolls that surround these islands and protect them—most of the coral died in the course of like three weeks as this huge wave of warm water moved across the Pacific and into the Indian Ocean. It is just doing unbelievable damage. I mean it is outrageous. Bless their hearts. They are fighting as hard as they can and the slogan of all the guys, the Pacific Island Warriors, their slogan is ‘we are not drowning—we are fighting’. And they are fighting really creatively and powerfully and in beautiful ways. They are down there this month (update this) doing underwater demonstrations on these reefs and are going to rename a bunch of them for Exxon and Chevron—for the people that killed them off—and so on. But it is tragic.”
At this point, Sharon raised her hand, and Bill acknowledged her and said, “Over here. What’s your name, and do you have a question?”
“Thank you Mr. McKibben. My name is Sharon and I am an SD major, but I have taken quite a bit of political science, which I guess is the basis of my question. A while back I did some math on how many Republicans are in the Senate and how many Republicans are in the House, and if you add those two together it comes out almost exactly to 300 out of 535 voting members of Congress. Would it be an overstatement to say that 300 individuals are blocking the world’s largest economy and the only superpower from taking meaningful actions in the fight against climate change?”
“Well … in one sense it wouldn’t be an overstatement, but I think you’d sort of miss the point. Because it is not like there are 300 individuals and if we could just sit down with them and change their minds all would be well. There are 300 people who are employees of the fossil fuel industry. That’s what blocking our progress. This is the richest industry in the world and it has enormous power and influence and it is not just power and influence over Republicans. Look, it is not as if the Democrats have been eager to have any kind of revolution on any of this either. They are better, they have recognized that science is actually real and that is a start, but they haven’t at all followed through. I mean Barack Obama is overseeing the ongoing fracking of the nation in what is going to turn out to be a really bad set of ideas.”
At that point, one of Nigel’s friends and colleagues, Jeff, asked, “So how do we deal with conservatives on the other side of the climate change issue?”
“That’s a very good question on how you deal with the other side in a sense in this. Part of it is just to realize what isn’t going to happen, okay? There’s a certain number of people whose views are not going to change because they are not resting on science. They are resting on either ideology, or in the case of members of Congress, on their paycheck as it were—you know, they have been put where they are by the fossil fuel industry. They might as well just dress the way that the filling station guy dressed. What did they say about Texaco—the man with the Texaco star—these guys may as well have decals on their blazers for the companies that have paid for them.
“On the other hand there are lots of conservative Americans who can be reached in several ways. There has been a lot of work done in the last ten years around organizing people of faith including evangelical Christians around these issues. People who take seriously the idea that they are supposed to steward the planet, or people who take seriously the gospel idea that they are supposed to love their neighbors, they are open to these ideas. But, that’s not what we are doing at the moment. So there has been some progress there.
“Now conservatives like liberals love solar power. When you do the polling it is pretty much identical. Everybody likes it sometimes for slightly different reasons. Conservatives often are very keen on the idea that they are going to have power up on their roof and that they are not going to have to depend on anybody else and they are independent of big utilities, independent of Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon is increasingly up in arms about climate change. Last year they asked the head of US forces in the Pacific what is the greatest threat they face, and this is the guy who has to deal with Korea, has to deal with cyber-terrorism, has to deal with all this sort of stuff. He said the biggest problem we face is climate change because we know what happens when the climate changes is that people go on the move. They start having to migrate out of where they are, out of Syria because they had a horrible drought, out of Bangladesh because the temperature is rising and the water is rising, and the most destabilizing thing in the world is people on the move. That’s what causes wars, conflicts, just like we see going on in Europe now.
“So, there are ways to reach people who think about God, who think about independence, who think about their country. In a rational world conservatives should be first in line on this. All environmentalists are asking for is a world that works somewhat how the world worked for the last 10,000 years. This period called the Holocene is all we know about an era we have now left behind. To say that you want the world to stay somewhat like that is a powerfully conservative doctrine that is almost the definition of not too much change. To say let’s just change the atmospheric chemistry of the planet and see what happens—that is about as radical of an idea as you can get.
“That makes anything anybody in the 1960’s came up with seem absolutely pedestrian by comparison. Guys who work at oil companies are real radicals. They are changing the atmospheric chemistry after scientists have told them what would happen and after they have watched the scientists’ predictions come true and yet they still want to do it. That’s a bizarrely radical platform on which to be running.
“I see that my time is running short. I’ll close with this thought. I can tell you the truth the best I can, and the truth is that we are not 100% certain that we can win this fight. It is not like the other fights for human liberation that we have come through in the last century. You know Dr. King would always say at the end of talks, ‘The arch of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.’ Translated I think it means, ‘this may take a while but we are going to win’. And indeed it is still ongoing, the fight for racial justice. We see it every day around us but we make progress, and that is good.
“The climate fight is unlike that, because if we do not win it fast, we never will win it, because the world will go past tipping points that will make it impossible. And we are near or past some of those tipping points. And it is a bad sign when huge physical features that you can see from outer space, like the ice caps, begin to disappear. The arch of the physical universe is short and it bends toward heat. So, there is no guarantee that we are going to win, but there is—and I can say this with assurance because I have spent the last years travelling the world and meeting the people fighting this fight—there is a guarantee that at least we are going to fight, and that is a very good thing, something we did not know for sure a decade ago.
“And the fight is all the more meaningful because we do not know how it is going to come out. It demands from us a certain kind of faith in our species and in our nature and in our abilities. I don’t know if we are going to win. I do know that we are going to fight. I do know that it is always an honor to be with the people doing that fighting.”
At that point, Nigel stood up to say, “Our time is pretty much up, but is there anything in particular you would like to add that we have not asked you for this class?”
“No, you have asked very good questions. North Carolina is an important place to think about these questions. The eastern part of the state is at great peril from rising sea level, and I think there is no question that the Outer Banks are probably not going to be there 100 years in. It will be a very changed place. And the mountains are at peril too having more or less survived to some degree or another acid rain and now subjected to a change in temperature regime that will make them a very different place. With each new increment of temperature comes new invasive species and new threats.
“So North Carolina is on one hand very vulnerable and on the other hand it is (a) such a hotbed of technology and innovation and (b) a place with ample resources in terms of wind and sun that should be one of the places that leads us out of this predicament. That it is not playing more of that role at the moment has an awful lot to do with the political power of Duke Energy that prevents change from happening at the pace it needs to happen and it has a lot to do with people who are causing all kinds of other problems. People like Art Pope and other people like that are damaging your political system and making it hard to make progress on all kinds of fronts.
“So, the beautiful things like Moral Mondays and what Dr. Barber and other people are doing are an inspiration to the rest of the country and people need to be behind that work. Not to overstress it, but I think you can’t overstress it—solidarity between environmentalists and people worried about the future, and between poor people and people who are taking it on the chin right now from what’s happening here that’s essential going forward. That’s the coalition of people who are going to have to be the ones to stand up to concentrations of wealth and power. It is doable. I mean everyone told us when we started the Keystone fight that we had no chance, but it is doable. It is just not doable easily, you know. It requires a lot of work which everyone is cable of. There are great organizers here.”
Nigel then said, “Let’s give Bill a round of applause. (polite applause). Thank you for your candid and clear take on all this. I know for me, it gives me confidence to keep fighting—to know that our victories will be hard, but one by one, we can change the energy paradigm in the world. … Students, you know that next class, we will be discussing ?? and you have your reading assignments. Good bye.”