Vote Hope 2008 :: 4 :: Bill McKibben

Where are the opportunities for real change in the 2008 election? To find out, we spoke to some grassroots organizers, national leaders, and elected officials who are working for change.
Photo by Nancie Battaglia
Vote Hope :: 4 of 6

Taking on the Climate Crisis

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Online-only: full interview with Bill McKibben, Step It Up '07


Sarah van Gelder: We're doing a piece on the possibilities for the election season coming up in 2008, and looking at where are there leverage points in the election process that can help us raise up things like climate change. So, can you comment on that, do you have some thoughts about that?

Bill McKibben: Sure, that's what we're working on extremely hard right now with, doing it a year before the election, almost exactly. We're asking who are going to be leaders as opposed to just more politicians on this issue, because we're past the point where expressions of concern about climate change are much use. We need real strong leadership.

I think that our greatest possibilities for real progress occur in the fairly short window before the primaries are over, which now look like it'll be roughly coincide with Epiphany—I think they've now rescheduled the New Hampshire primary for January 8. It may be all over but the shouting by then, and with it the real chance to lever these guys, and everyone will then commence to race towards the middle. This is when we've got to show them that there is a sizeable number of people who actually want to see real progress on this issue.

Sarah van Gelder: So how are you going about doing that?

Bill McKibben: We're holding rallies in all 50 states, hundreds and hundreds of rallies. And we're inviting, we're having people use the computer to issue multiple invitations to every member of Congress and every presidential candidate to come talk at these rallies and explain what they're going to do.

Sarah van Gelder: So those are rallies that'll be taking place at the beginning of November '07?

Bill McKibben: Exactly.

Sarah van Gelder: Okay. And how about for the state and local elections? That's where most of the leadership on climate change has actually been taking place so far.

Bill McKibben: It is where it's been taking place. Our analysis mostly now is that to do what we need to do in the time we have to do it, it's imperative that we take those smart lessons learned in states and city halls and get them on up to the national and then the international level. There's plenty of opportunity for good organizing in all these races going forward. We've gotta make politicians understand that climate change isn't a second- or third-tier issue, that it's of vital importance to lots and lots of people. Churches are playing an important role in that, and so is the youth movement around climate, which is growing fast.

Sarah van Gelder: In addition to the numbers of people, how do you get the attention of candidates? What is the argument that they should be paying attention to climate change?

Bill McKibben: Well, I'm afraid that they mostly pay attention to the numbers [laughing]. I mean, the argument is so clear that you can't but hardly miss it. On the one hand we have the greatest single peril that the human enterprise has yet faced, and on the other hand we have the opportunity for the greatest transformation, economic and social, for this century: the prospect of the transition to a decentralized, renewable, benign form of energy that will put millions of people to work and allow us to live very different and much more sensible lives.

Sarah van Gelder: Are you finding that there is some crossover between the sort of polarized left and right—or, I guess, Republican and Democratic—approach to this issue?

Bill McKibben: Some. John McCain being the prime example. So far the rest of the Republicans have done very little on climate change. There was a survey of all the members of Congress recently that found that 98 percent of Democrats believed global warming was real, and that 13 percent of Republicans believed it. Which to me was very dismaying. I had hoped that their opposition was mostly grounded in cynicism, but it sounds like they've been drinking their own Kool-Aid, and if so, that makes it that much harder.

Sarah van Gelder: Wow.

Bill McKibben: It was done by the National Journal. [See pdf of Congress survey]

Sarah van Gelder: And within the Democratic Party, my assumption has been that the reason that they've been slow to act is because they're concerned about losing campaign contributions from energy and mining corporations.

Bill McKibben: That's probably a good part of it. I mean, look, this is heavy lifting for politicians in every way. There are strong, vested interests, the fossil fuel industry, and there's the great fear that voters will punish them if they do anything that, for instance, changes the price of fossil fuel. So it's asking a lot. And therefore we have to show that there are a lot of people who are making that ask.

Sarah van Gelder: Are you finding you are able to collaborate effectively with people working on other, either environmental issues, or other issues affecting ordinary people?

Bill McKibben: Basically, the environmental movement has morphed into the climate change movement in the last couple years, just because the stakes are so enormously high.

Collaboration with other issues and movements is growing, there's good work with the social justice movement, particularly around this Green Jobs for All campaign. The most important emerging coalition around climate change is a group called One Sky, which is serving as an umbrella group, and one of the important components of that are people working on climate energy and social justice, maybe most prominently a guy named Van Jones at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland.

Sarah van Gelder: He's actually one of our contributing editors.

Bill McKibben: Oh good. Well, Van's the best. The collaboration with anti-war people has been, I mean, people are trying. There's a movement, a group called “No War, No Warming” that's doing some demonstrations soon, things like that. It's been more sporadic and less successful than it should in making people understand the deep connections between energy and our predicament in the Mideast, and energy and our predicament in the atmosphere.

Photo of Sarah van Gelder