Bill McKibben 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. He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. Time Magazine called him ‘the planet’s best green journalist’ and the Boston Globe said in 2010 that he was ‘probably the country’s most important environmentalist.’ Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, he holds honorary degrees from a dozen colleges, including the Universities of Massachusetts and Maine, the State University of New York, and Whittier and Colgate Colleges. In 2011 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Date of interview: 20/07/2013

Interviewer: John Wiseman, Deputy Director, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This interview with Bill McKibben was conducted following his recent speaking tour of Australia. For more information on action being taken on Australian divestment initiatives see http://gofossilfree.org/australia/

John Wiseman: Could you begin with a brief summary of the case for divestment in fossil fuel industries? Why do you believe this is such a high priority for people and movements aiming to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change?

Bill McKibben: We need to weaken the power of the fossil fuel industry and this is one way to do it. Not the only way, but one important way, as we saw in the days of apartheid. It’s a way for all of us to make a moral and practical statement.

JW: How would you summarise the state of play in relation to the ‘Do the Math’ fossil fuel divestment campaign in the United States – and in other parts of the world? What do you believe have been the key achievements and lessons so far from this campaign?

BM: It’s been progressing far faster than we dared hope. 380 college campuses now have divestment campaigns. Fifteen big cities—Seattle, Portland, Providence, etc—have divested. Last week the oldest Christian denomination in the U.S., the United Church of Christ, followed suit. What we’ve learned is that people understand the math and its implications.

JW: More broadly, how would you describe the state of play in relation to global climate change trends and politics as of July 2013? What do you see as the highest priorities and biggest challenges for the global climate movement in the next twelve months?

BM: Well, the science is bad—watching the Arctic melt scares even me, and after 25 years of this I don’t scare easily. And I don’t know that the next twelve months will turn it around, though I do think President Obama’s decision on the Keystone pipeline could be hugely important. If he says no, then he’s the first world leader to turn down something big on climate grounds—and that’s a good way to restart the international talks.

JW: What do you see as the highest priorities for the US climate movement once the Keystone decision becomes clear?

BM: The ultimate goal is a serious price on carbon. That waits on the weakening of the fossil fuel industry.

JW: What were your key reflections from your recent Australian tour about the state of climate politics in this country? I’d be particularly interested in your reflections on the similarities and differences between the way in which the fossil fuel lobby and its media allies operate in Australia and the United States.

BM: I was struck by the seriousness of the ABC broadcasters, and the silliness of a lot of the print press. It tends to be the opposite over here, with the papers at least marginally better. I did think that key leaders were far more conversant with the state of the climate debate than their American counterparts, but was sorry to note the rise of what appears to be a really Tea Party strain in your politics.

JW: In campaigning for divestment in fossil fuel industries, how important is it to be able to identify alternative, more desirable investment priorities including in renewable energy and energy efficiency?

BM: It’s useful—but even if you just put the money into candy bar makers or bowling alley stocks, it will do much good just to divest. One point of the campaign is simply to say: these are now rogue industries. We don’t want to be associated with them.

JW: How do you respond to the argument that divestment from fossil fuels industries will harm the economic and employment opportunities of the poorest people in Africa, Asia or Latin America?

BM: The leaders of those places are calling for the strongest reductions in emissions. If you want to put a lot of people to work and provide them power in the developing world, help them leapfrog fossil fuels and go straight to renewable.

JW: To what extent do you believe that greenhouse gas emission reductions at the required scale and speed are possible without significant changes in the dominant economic policy paradigm of maximising growth in the production and consumption of energy and resources?

BM: I think job one is a big price on carbon, and when we’ve got it we’ll start to see what changes in technology and in habits it produces. My guess is they’ll be both large and subtle.

JW: What is your response to those who say that action at the scale and speed necessary to prevent runaway climate change is simply not possible – that it is ‘too late’ or that the vested interests working too prevent de-carbonisation are too powerful?

BM: Too late to stop global warming—we’ve already raised the temp a degree and are clearly heading for two. But we can still hold it there if we do everything right—if we don’t, the temp rises 4 or 5 degrees and civilization gets difficult I fear.

JW: I’d like to invite you to put on your most optimistic hat and imagine a 2030 world in which the journey to a post carbon future – in which there is real chance of preventing runaway climate change – has successfully begun. How did that transformation occur? What were the key turning points? What were the greatest obstacles and how were they overcome?

BM: I think that breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry is going to be the real key. Once they’re not blocking every change, I suspect we’ll see interesting and unexpected change.

JW: If you had the opportunity to communicate one ‘cut through’ message to the most influential decision makers in the world about the necessity and possibility of rapid and decisive action to address climate change and related ecological risks and challenges– what would this message be?

BM: The Arctic melted last summer. We’ve taken one of the five or six biggest physical features on earth and broken it. In fifty years the only thing anyone will remember about your tenure in office is that it coincided with the onset of this crisis—so do something that will make us remember you as actual leaders.