Bill McKibben: The Planet’s Future Depends On Distributed Systems

July 7, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Plugged in earth image via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission.

To environmental activist Bill McKibben, it’s all about math. The planet has warmed 1 degree Celsius over the past few decades and is on track to rise another 4 to 5 before the end of the century. An increase of this magnitude is simply too much for the ecosystems we depend on to adapt to that quickly.

Much of the observed warming is due to the fossil hydrocarbons humans burn for energy and industry. McKibben predicts, whether by foresight or necessity, new sustainable energy and agricultural systems will emerge that will drastically reduce the greenhouse impact our modern lifestyle is having on the planet. These will be revolutionary not just for their "greenness", but also because they will be distributed — disrupting the monolithic control of the current large energy and food producers.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Bill McKibben (31m:48s)


Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity Podcast, I am your host, Chris Martenson. May 2015, was the wettest on record for Texas and Oklahoma. That’s on record. California is experiencing the worst draught in 1,200 years. And it’s so hot in India that the roads are melting. And of course, the world has always experienced strange weather events. But today it seems that new records for weather related anomalies are piling up faster than ever, exactly as climate change scientists have warned would happen.

Okay, so perhaps we adaptable humans can find ways to cope with these new strange weather events, but how does one cope with a 40% loss of oceanic phytoplankton over the past 50 years? Or the increasing ocean acidification that is already corroding larval oyster shells—and who knows what else—and is predicted to become so acidic that many forms of ocean life, may not be able to survive at all in the coming decades? Is there any way to out clever these facts and trends? Our longest running thread at Peak Prosperity, by far, is the one on climate change, moderated by Mark Cochran. Its longevity, rigor, depth, and civility show that this is an important topic that we can discuss like rational, prudent adults. But perhaps we’re an odd lot that way.

Speaking with us today is a man who has been at the front lines of the battle to raise awareness and spur action on the topic of climate change for many, many years. Both leading and participating in increasingly direct actions is Bill McKibben, noted author, environmentalist, and activist. In 1988, he wrote The End of Nature, the first book for a common audience about global warming. He is Co-founder of and Senior Advisor at, an international climate campaign that works in 188 countries around the world. He is very much a leading figure in the climate change movement. Bill, thank you so much for joining us today.

Bill McKibben: Chris, what a pleasure.

Chris Martenson: Let’s start with the data. What are a few of the major pieces of supporting data that stand out for you that we have on climate change today that we did not have in 1988?

Bill McKibben: Well look, in the late 80’s when I wrote the first book about all of this, we knew trouble was coming. Basic science is not that difficult. The molecular structure of CO2 traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. What we didn’t know was how fast that trouble was coming, or really on what scale. Unfortunately, in the quarter century since, what we’ve learned is that this is pinching harder and faster than we would have thought. So, to answer your question, 25 years ago no scientist would have thought that at this point we would have melted most of the summer sea ice in the Arctic; they would have said that’s still 50 or 75 years off. No one would have even bothered to be really measuring the PH of the oceans, because we didn’t think we could substantially alter something that vast. Certainly, no one would have worried that as we learned about a year ago, the West Antarctic ice sheet seems now to be fundamentally destabilized and beginning its slide into the southern ocean. And I think no one would have guessed the degree to which we’ve seen perturbations of the hydrological cycle, the way that water moves around the planet.

Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, arid areas tend to get more droughts since the water vapor wants it to evaporate into the atmosphere when it resides there on average about seven days. We also get way more precipitation, often in the form of downpour. So drought-flood cycles are much more pronounced. These are what happens in the early stages of climate change. So far, we’ve raised the temperature one degree Celsius. The same scientists who predicted what would happen so far, tell us we’re now on track for range of four or five degrees before the century is out. If that’s true, if we let that happen, if we don’t divert course quickly, that’s far more temperature rise than we can cope with. There is no reason to think we can have civilizations that resemble the ones were used to at those temperatures. Among other things, growing food becomes a very difficult proposition.

Chris Martenson: Well Bill, I’ve heard some people say that growing food just moves north, and it’s that simple. What is the alternative view of that?

Bill McKibben: Well the alternative view looks at things like soil. Yes, it’s true that at a certain point, the temperature regime that’s been in Iowa is now in Siberia. That doesn’t help you much if you’ve got tundra and muskeg that you’re trying to grow your corn on. So, that kind of glib thinking kind of marks some of the early discussions twenty years ago or so of climate change. There would be winners and losers and things like that. At this point I think the scientific view is pretty clear that we are all – the biggest losers of course are those that have done the least to contribute to this problem, but live in those place in the developing world that are most exquisitely vulnerable to these changes. And they are already seeing that on a gross level. In May, we had the second deadliest heat wave in Indian history, and in June we had the deadliest heat wave in Pakistani history, these are just the kinds of things happening now at some place in the world every day.

Chris Martenson: So Bill, I called this a climate change movement in the opening piece, is that really the right word?As I listen to you talk, it’s clear that the scope and the scale of what’s happening is truly global. The West Larson ice sheet going down is many gigatons of ice in movement. And yet we find that places like India are saying that it’s their turn at developing and they need to burn coal to get electrification to their people, that’s what they’re going to do. Is "movement" the right word or what is it that we’re really needing to do and what are we facing here?

Bill McKibben: Well the first thing I’d say is differentiate between governments and people. There is a strong movement in India to keep them from digging up their coal and burning it, and it’s coming from Indians. And there’s a strong move to push them in the direction of going quickly to renewable energy. It seems to be maybe starting to work. Earlier this month, Adani, the great billionaire coal entrepreneur of India began to hint that they were going to scrap their plans for building the largest coalmine on earth in Queensland, in Australia, primarily for export to India. So things are starting to shift even there. That exemplifies I think, the kind of movement that has emerged around the world. It’s a global fossil fuel resistance I think you might say, active everywhere.

So climate scientists in the US and elsewhere have brought to light, say, the danger posed by that huge coal mine in the Gallery Basin in Australia. We’ve worked with people around the world to make sure that no banks agree to finance that plan. Most of the world’s big banks have announced they won’t. Meanwhile, out of the crew from the Pacific Islands that are threatened by the rise of the oceans launched canoes from 12 nations last fall and took them to New Castle in Australia, they have the biggest court in the world and blockaded the coal ships for a day. That’s right before the Queensland election that turned out that conservative government was backing this coalmine plan.

Meanwhile our friends in India are hard at work drawing attention not only to climate change, but to the fact that fossil fuel combustion is killing millions of people every year through what’s now the worst air pollution in the world. So we get some sense of how this sprawling fossil fuel resistance works, and it is good that it works that way because the fossil fuel industry itself is spread out in the same kind of sprawling manner.

Chris Martenson: Excellent, and this gets right to what I consider the heart of the matter. We study energy quite a lot at Peak Prosperity, and particularly the role of energy in feeding us and giving us the lifestyles that people think we deserve and are accustomed to, and you are familiar with this data as well. Anywhere from ten to maybe nineteen calories of fossil fuels are sort of embedded and subsidized in a single calorie of food. So we are literally eating fossil fuels in one respect.

What I’m wondering is, if I could get your comments on a quote I have here. Maybe you’re familiar with it, it is from Terry Leahy in an article titled “Checkmate, why Capitalism Cannot Survive Global Warming.” And the quote is “There is nothing about the switch to green energy that remotely resembles—” and I have to paraphrase here, “—the rise of increasing productivity and economies of scale that followed globalization. It’s all about substituting cheap ways of producing useful energy with more expensive ways of producing the same energy. It is a retooling to a lower level of productivity, and to a permanent cap on energy production. It is this simple fact that explains why the capitalist class is dragging its heels on this issue in a way that threatens our future survival.” And so what I want to get at here is, is there a fundamental disconnect between capitalism, or what we call capitalism, and the mandates of responding to climate change?

Bill McKibben: I don’t know, I mean I don’t really know exactly what one means. It’s clear to me that we’re going to have markets going on into the future, and it’s clear to me that the kind of alternatives that people have advanced in the past are kind of like collective planning that you saw in the Soviet Union or something weren’t very good models for dealing with where we are. It is also true that this kind of laissez faire capitalism is not doing the job. The temperature is going up and up and up. So my guess is that we’re going to see a rise of distributed energy—solar and wind being the best examples. But that is going to have interesting effects in all kinds of ways, one of which is a more democratic economy than the one we have now, because it won’t be as dependent as those people in those places who happen to sit on top of coal, and oil and gas. It is a different world when we can meet most of our needs for energy close to home.

You can see some of the same things starting to happen with food as the rise of the local food movement in the last 20 years gets underway. You know, the energy future we’re hoping for, I think, is a kind of farmer’s market in electrons—millions of solar rooftops connected to each other in a grid, for instance. For that, we have that right here on the internet that we’re using to talk to each other. Thirty years ago the information system looked a lot like the energy system does now. A few big providers pushing stuff out at us who just had to kind of take it. The same way that a few big power plants now. But that’s not how our information system works anymore, we’re all both producers and consumers. And it shouldn’t be how our energy system works either.

Chris Martenson: Now leaving aside transportation fuels, which is a whole topic, I’m very interested in the role that alternative energies can play, and here is my view on this, Bill: I have solar thermal on my roof. It was one of the first things I put in, because it’s just a no brainer. The sun heats stuff up beautifully. And so getting hot water from the sun—that is something that, whenever I travel, I look to see who else is doing it. Because in the United States, it’s pretty rare; far less than 1% of the rooftops. But you go to some countries and they’re everywhere. It just makes good sense. So what I’m getting at here is, for me, solar thermal technology—it’s not sexy, it’s 1970’s, it’s a bunch of pipes and an empty black box on your roof with fluid running through it, and a little circulating pump, that’s it. It makes economic sense. If you care about not burning fossil fuels to heat water, it makes sense on that environmental front. It makes sense if you like local jobs. It makes sense on every front I can find, and we still don’t do it. Isn’t that really at the heart of this battle is that there are things we could do, but we’re not for some reason. And I’m wondering what your views are on why not.

Bill McKibben: Sure, I’ve been writing about solar thermal for a long time, I agree with you, it’s an obvious choice. We need to get in place, and I think we’re finally starting to, some of the things like the financing and the coordination and stuff to make these things easier for people to do. That’s what’s happening in these countries that have taken full advantage of them. I remember interviewing the Rong Wen, who runs the biggest – the Chinese solar thermal companies, became a billionaire several times over. And he was a good engineer, but as he said, the real innovation they had was the kind of marketing of these things. Figuring out how to get them up on people’s houses for no money down and so on and so forth. We are beginning to see those models start to emerge finally in this country. The leasing models for solar PV seem to be having a real impact in terms of spreading _____[00:16:19] at a different amplitude than we’ve seen before. But it’s those what they call the soft costs that are at least as difficult to deal with as the engineering.

Chris Martenson: And if we had those financing models I agree, that would be part of it. To me it’s almost like we need a new narrative first. So people don’t do it, primarily because other people aren’t doing it yet, or something, or there’s a narrative that’s been running since probably February 2013—I’ve been watching this narrative I think put out by the American Petroleum institute that the United States has 100’s of years of natural gas and we’re the new Saudi Arabia and all of that. So that, to me, serves to blunt any people’s sense of urgency or need to do something different.

I’d like to turn now to maybe what are we up against here, and who really is – who has a dog in this fight. Because I’ll tell you, I’m sure you know this way better than me, but the people who want to see that we continue to frack and drill our way to something, some sort of future, have been running a very, very well-funded campaign, at least as far as I’ve noticed.

Bill McKibben: Yeah, and well look, the fossil fuel industry is the richest industry on earth. You know, I just had a piece in the New Yorker last week, explaining how they’re working hard to keep solar stuff from happening, utility by utility. You know, there’s a lot of dark money flowing into trying to blunt the rise of solar. This is true. No use whining about it, what we need to do is organize. We’ll never outspend the fossil fuel industry. We have other currencies we can work in, and those are the currencies of movements: passion, spirit, creativity. So that’s what we try to do, that’s why we put people in the streets, that’s why we go to jail, that’s why we do those kinds of things.

Chris Martenson: Well let’s talk about those actions then, because I’m very interested in what it takes to create a movement and what it takes to really affect change. And I’ll let out my personal bias or cynicism in this is that the pace and the scale of the changes I see coming are overwhelming our ability to organize. That’s how I feel about it. Perhaps that’s because I’m not as tightly enmeshed in it. But that’s what I see coming, economically, on the energy front, environmentally, all of that. It’s really fast and powerful.

So how do we effectively mobilize? What do you think that the halls of power really are listening to at this point in time? And again, noting that every single change to status quo in our country’s history was brought kicking and screaming from the outside in, right? Everything, labor rights, women’s rights, civil rights, you name it. So where are we in this large story of let’s say of altering the status quo in this country? Are things easier, harder or what works?

Bill McKibben: So normally politicians listen to money, on any given day, left to its own devices, that’s what wins. But then in rare cases, people do, as you say, rise up and we see examples of it, even in the news the last couple weeks. The gay marriage movement did such a good job that now most sane politicians have gone from being against it to being for it. Not because they changed their minds about the issue, but because the political calculus changed—because there was enough of a movement that it changed the zeitgeist. What activists really work for is to change the zeitgeist, and there are lots of ways of doing that. One of the things that’s helping change the zeitgeist is the fact that the cost of renewable energy is plummeting downward, and that’s good news. All credit it to the engineers. Another thing that’s happening is that resistance to every new fossil fuel plan, from Keystone Pipeline to fracking, to coal mines, to coal export, terminals, to whatever is making _____[00:20:35]. We’re imposing with our bodies some of the carbon tax that we can’t impose legislatively because of the power of the fossil fuel industry. There is this huge fight around divestment that’s beginning to sap the ability of the fossil fuel industry to raise new capital. It’s all helping. Whether or not it will happen in time, I don’t know. Because, as you are aware, with climate change this is not a static target. It’s really the first social movement where we’ve absolutely had to get our goal accomplished in short order. And if we can’t, then it becomes moot.

Chris Martenson: Well it does become moot, and there are a number of people out there, scientists among them, who have said we’ve already lost the battle. Climate change is – I mean certainly we’ve lost the one degree, and I think two degrees is baked in the cake, but the question now I guess is, we’re fighting how much beyond that we go. Is that accurate?

Bill McKibben: Well sure it’s… We’re on track—I mean, even if we do everything right at this point, it’s going to be hard to stop the rise of temperature below two degrees, although God knows we’re going to try. But at the moment we’ll push – if you follow the business plans of the fossil fuel industry, they’ve got enough carbon in their reserves to double that, triple that. So left to their own devices, that’s what will happen. So that’s our job is to bring them to heel. And it’s not an easy one, they’ve got tons of money, we may not be able to do it. But the good news is, a movement has really arisen, and it’s in the streets more and more and more.

Chris Martenson: Well, I want to talk about where that movement begins. One of the things that we advocate very heavily at Peak Prosperity is that we have to become the change we wish to see. And for me, that means understanding, analyzing my energy use, and then figuring out how to dial it back. And it takes effort, and it’s not as easy as just turning on light switches and filling up fuel and all of that. What I’m interested in, is your views on – let’s assume that, hypothetically, tonight, the world gets complete religion on climate change and says "wow, we have to treat this with real seriousness, I don’t know what – we’re going to dedicate our entire military budgets poured over this direction." It will be like a Manhattan Project times an Apollo Project, times a number. We get serious about it. What would that really imply? What would we do if we were serious?

Bill McKibben: Well, we’d treat it the way we did during World War II, we would mobilize the world’s industrial might to get it done. We’d take every tool we could—like a serious and rising price on carbon—to make that happen. The tools really are less in question than the motivation to get there. I mean every economist for 25 years has said we need a price on carbon. We know how to do it. People talked a lot about the fee and dividend plans and things like that. But all of this is, you know, just talk, until there’s the political will to make it happen, that’s what we’ve got to, I think that’s job one. That’s why we organize the way we do.

My house is covered with solar panels, and I drove the first hybrid electric Ford in Vermont and on and on and on. I try not to fool myself with that’s how we’re going to win this fight. Global warming is a structural and systemic issue, that’s where it comes from, the structures and systems. So changing those is what’s key. As individuals, we’re relatively powerless against climate change. That’s why the most important thing an individual can do is not be an individual, which means joining with other people in this battle.

Chris Martenson: All right, and in this joining, are you thinking of a movement where we’re trying to affect political change and more importantly I guess is that, political change follows the social change. So where are we on that front? What have you found that really works to help sway people towards this new future that we’d like to have?

Bill McKibben: People move for different reasons and in different ways. The rise of the solar panel as a workable technology is a good thing because everyone likes solar panels, left, right, and center. There is a big coalition emerging in this country of Tea Party activists and Sierra Club members working together to make it easy for people to put solar on their roof. Other people understand—and increasingly this is true of faith groups and things—understand the social justice dimensions of this work, and they’re motivated by a desire to help people out of the single most impoverishing thing probably ever done which is change the climate in which their daily stability depends.

Other people really are motivated by thinking about the future. This is the first truly intergenerational problem we’ve run up against and so it’s causing new ways of ethical reasoning and consideration. There’s so many kind of routes into this work. Others just think "hey, this is the next great economic tool we’ve got; I want the jobs that come from putting solar panels on the roof of everything that faces south in the United States."

Chris Martenson: When I look at the data, grossly speaking here, about a quarter of our energy use is for electricity. We can solve that in many of the ways with the alternative energies that you’re talking about. About a quarter is moving ourselves around; it goes into our gas tanks. And about half is actually in buildings themselves and their heating and cooling costs over time. And so when I look at that, I note that still the houses that are sort of being slapped up around my neighborhood are, for the most part, being done with what I’ll call "old school." Some of them have maybe two by six construction, but they’re still not doing our 40/60 kind of construction. And it seems to me like, when we talk about the jobs and the opportunities, there’s going to be a huge set of opportunities if we get serious—when we get serious—about this, just in doing the simple things like reinsulating or when we do build, building with much higher degrees of air tightness and insulating quality and all of that.

Bill McKibben: This is the point of this piece I had in the New Yorker at the end of June. You’re absolutely right, I mean the housing stock of this country is mostly older and it needs to be fixed. And that’s good news, because no one’s going to put their house on a boat and send it to China to get it insulated. That’s work that has to be done here close to home, and it’s good work and we can do it. The question is whether we’ll involve the series of kind of institutions and practices to really make it possible. I think those have more to do with financing than anything else. And it should be possible. Look, you can estimate pretty well how much money someone’s going to save from putting in good insulation and good windows and whatever else. That should provide the capital flow to make it possible to do this sort of work, and increasingly people are getting more sophisticated about how to bundle those projects in ways that make them easier to attract financing and so forth.

Chris Martenson: You know it’s interesting, I nose around in real estate all the time, just looking. I don’t remember running across a real estate website that among all the things that it will list, your cost of ownership, seeing a line in there that says here’s your monthly heating and cooling cost. I mean you can ask for and get that information I guess, but it’s not yet front and center. Like when somebody’s deciding, "hey I’m going to buy something I might own for 30 years, tell me what it’s going to run me," and you can run through the usual stuff, what’s your taxes and your insurance and things like that. But the heating and cooling costs, it turns out for commercial buildings, can be upwards of 70% of their total lifespan cost, and still I don’t really see that being that front and center.

Bill McKibben: It should be, but that number, that 70% number is a good reminder of just how much money there’s going to be to be saved. And the money that we can save on energy is what will finance this revolution, right?

Chris Martenson: Uh-huh. So fantastic. What I love is there’s lots of things that can be done, and what I’m interested in then is—so what would you suggest listeners to this, what should they be doing right now?

Bill McKibben: Well I mean, working close to home, that’s a good thing to be doing, on your own home, but in your community. We’re all sort of responsible for that. But you’ve got to save some energy to work at the national and global level too, because it’s the structures and systems in which we’re embedded that make the choices so much more constrained close to home. So, hook up with an outfit like or the Sierra Club or whoever it is that is working hard—NRDC, Greenpeace—that is working on a national/international level to try and take on the roots of this problem as well. And those things coexist rather nicely I think. It’s why we set up the way we have, as a kind of loose, sprawling coalition of people all over the world. And we work in every country except North Korea, and we can tell you, that issues overlap around the planet.

Chris Martenson: And how many people would you guess are involved in that?

Bill McKibben: I have no good idea.

Chris Martenson: All right.

Bill McKibben: Millions and millions upon millions.

Chris Martenson: Great, so it’s a good, big organization. I want to thank you so much for your time today. I’m wondering if you could please tell our listeners about any important events coming up they should know about or writings of yours, where they would find those, and your website.

Bill McKibben: Oh well you can find my books in the library, and there’s a list of them at But the real place to go is, and once you sign up, just give them your name and they’ll keep you well posted on everything that’s going on in your community, in your nation, and on this particular planet where we happen to live as we’re dealing with this biggest crisis that we’ve ever had.

Chris Martenson: And it’s a big crisis with lots of things that we can and should be doing that make all kinds of sense, we just have to change how we approach things, right?

Bill McKibben: Yes, that’s true, but we also have to work hard on human solidarity in ways that we haven’t in the past, because we have a great obligation and debt to the rest of the planet who we put in peril with our couple of centuries of burning fossil fuel. So you’ve got to think about others too, you know. Self-interest is a good motivator, but I was awfully glad to see the Pope raise the most important stakes in all of this, earlier this spring.

Chris Martenson: Oh wasn’t that fantastic, his encyclical was just wonderful. I am not religious and I’m not Catholic but this Pope has really caught my attention, I really admire him tremendously at this stage.

Bill McKibben: That makes two of us.

Chris Martenson: Again, thank you so much for your time today and all the best and we will certainly be doing our part to figure out what this new narrative is. Because it is time for a new story. Humans have clearly outlived the past story, which was we are going to grow into every crevice of the planet. Great. Did it. The question is: Now what? Thank you so much for your work in helping to answer that question.

Bill McKibben: Back at you. You guys do great work and we’re really grateful for it. Take care, man.

Chris Martenson: Thank you. Bye-bye.

Bill McKibben: Bye.

Chris Martenson

Chris Martenson, PhD (Duke), MBA (Cornell) is an economic researcher and futurist specializing in energy and resource depletion, and co-founder of (along with Adam Taggart). As one of the early econobloggers who forecasted the housing market collapse and stock market correction years in advance, Chris rose to prominence with the launch of his seminal video seminar: The Crash Course which has also been published in book form (Wiley, March 2011). It's a popular and extremely well-regarded distillation of the interconnected forces in the Economy, Energy and the Environment (the "Three Es" as Chris calls them) that are shaping the future, one that will be defined by increasing challenges to growth as we have known it. In addition to the analysis and commentary he writes for his site, Chris' insights are in high demand by the media as well as academic, civic and private organizations around the world, including institutions such as the UN, the UK House of Commons and US State Legislatures.

Tags: climate change, climate movement