Bill McKibben on Why Exxon Is the Next Big Climate Fight

"They helped waste what may turn out to be the most critical quarter century in human history," McKibben says of Exxon's alleged climate lies

Environmental activist Bill McKibben spent the last four years locked in an almost single-minded fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. But on Friday, only a few hours after President Obama finally announced his administration had rejected the request of a Canadian oil company to build the pipeline, he was already moving on to his next big battle: making sure Exxon Mobil is held accountable for allegedly being aware, as early as the 1970s, of the effect its products had on climate change, while publicly keeping mum and even promoting a message of climate change denial.

On Thursday, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman subpoenaed Exxon as part of an investigation into whether the company lied to its shareholders about climate risks.

Rolling Stone reached McKibben on Friday to talk about how last week could represent a turning point in the fight against climate change. 

Huge news this week: first Exxon, and now Keystone. Where were you when you heard President Obama would finally deliver his decision on the Keystone XL pipeline?
I woke this morning in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where as usual I was giving a speech about climate change. It'd been a remarkable day yesterday because of this remarkable news that the New York state attorney general had subpoenaed the richest, most powerful oil company on Earth. And then when this news came today, they really sort of combined in my mind to really make it feel viscerally as if the tide is starting to turn, and things beginning to shift, and the fossil fuel industry is just not going to have its way every time from now on like they have for so long.

What did you think about what Obama had to say about Keystone today?
I thought he struck just a very good tone. I think that the fact that he talked a lot about climate change was the most important thing. For a long time people would say, "This is a fight about pipeline safety" or whatever, and there were all of those elements in it, but, at its heart, this was the first battle over the planet's new reality, which is that we have far more carbon than we can afford to burn. And this was the first place where push really came to shove about that.

You'll recall that the way that it became a big fight was when Jim Hansen at NASA said, "If you dig up all the oil in the tar sands and burn it, it will be game over for the climate." That was the first time that for me, and I think for most people, there was this sudden realization that there were profound limits to business as usual, and we had run into them. And that's the message that, in the end, carried the day. From Jim Hansen's lips to President Obama's ears — though it took four very long and difficult and magnificent years to get there.

When did you start to see the first indications that Obama would reject the pipeline?
Look, to be absolutely truthful, I've thought for a long time that if we could ever get this thing looked at on the merits, finally, we would win. That's really what the fight was about all that time.

The fossil fuel industry just wins automatically every time because they are big and powerful, but we were able to slow it down so people had able to look at it, had to pay attention to it.

I'm not good on the daily ins and out of Washington. I mean, the last time I was inside the White House was a tour when I was in sixth grade, and the closest I've gotten since is being chained to the fence outside, so I'm not really privy to the inner secrets of how they make decisions there. But we've always said from the beginning, when we started the protest: What we want is for President Obama to live up to the words that he's spoken about climate change, the words he spoke in the 2008 campaign. And in this case he did.

Do you think this decision will be a big part of his legacy on climate?
I do. I think it's a huge part, because everything else, most of it, is sort of promises and pledges for the future that other people have to achieve. He's the first world leader to stop a big project because of its effect on the climate — that's a real legacy, and one that will reverberate all over the world. I think this is a really important moment, not just for Keystone, but in a much larger sense. And I think the proof of that is, in the wake of this battle over Keystone, every fossil fuel project around the world now is facing the same kind of resistance. As one industry executive said this year, there's been a Keystone-ization of every other pipeline, coal mine and fracking well — and that's a very good thing.

You said recently that this new fight against Exxon Mobil reminds you of the early days of the Keystone fight. How so?
The day that we knew there really was going to be a Keystone fight in the biggest, broadest sense was the day I got out of jail with a couple of other people. This was the very first wave of arrests. We spent three days in jail. When we got out, Gus Speth, the founder of the National Resources Defense Council, and I wrote a letter to the heads of all of the big environmental groups asking them if they would join together in telling the White House to stop the pipeline. And they all did, even the more corporate and conservative ones. It was a remarkable show of unity, and I really had not see unity like that on a difficult question again until last week when the heads of every big environmental group joined together in this letter to the Department of Justice saying, "You've got to investigate Exxon." To me, that was a signal that this had risen to the same kind of level — that everyone was feeling the same kind of visceral revulsion at the deceit that Exxon had practiced. 

Of course, most of the people in this field have been working in the field for decades, and we're the ones who have had fight this faux, pretend, phony debate that Exxon could have ended at any moment by saying, "You know what? The science is right."

The letter you're referring to, signed by the heads of a slew of environmental groups, calls for an inquiry by the Department of Justice. That's separate from the investigation the New York AG is conducting into whether shareholders were deceived, right?
I think that's at least one of the things they're looking at, because that's where they have some jurisdiction and there's the hope that the Department of Justice will open a probe on any number of grounds. There's hope that other attorneys general will join in with New York's, and really what I think the biggest hope is, is that as these men and women go about their work, they will finally be able to uncover the truth about the last 25 years. With their access to documents and things, we'll really finally be able to break through this wall of denial. It's a very, very, very important moment, and it really drives home the fact that this is the tobacco industry all over again — just doing damage on a scale ten times larger.

What kind of charges would you like to see brought?
I'm not sure what the legality of all this is; what I am sure of, having seen the great reporting work in the L.A. Times and Inside Climate News, is that Exxon is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, morally and practically culpable for failing to speak up when they should have done so and could have saved the world a wasted quarter century. They helped waste what may turn out to be the most critical quarter century in human history, and one assumes that there is something illegal about that, but, even if there isn't, there is something so grossly horrifying about it that I really can hardly think of the words to describe it.

There was a point, about a month ago, when you said you were a little concerned that these revelations about Exxon were going to disappear. How did they catch on?
People did their best! I was worried enough that I went off and got arrested, and that did its part, and I wrote an enormous amount. Other people did the same. Just telling people, everyone we could: Pay attention to this. This isn't just like other shocking stories that tomorrow you'll forget about because you saw a video of a cat on Justin Bieber's head, or something. This is a truly shocking story that redefines our sense of critical history and that message, I think, has gotten through, and now the scandal is spreading everywhere. I was amazed to see today that there were senators standing up in the Australian Senate, demanding that the DOJ investigate, and talking about the damage that this had done to their country.

On that note, how do you think the Keystone decision and these revelations about Exxon will affect the upcoming climate talks in Paris? Will they?
They help, but the climate talks in Paris are not an end in themselves. The way to think about those talks is: They are not the game, they are the scoreboard. They just demonstrate how much pressure we've put on the system over the last five years, and how much we still have to put on. The things that happened yesterday and today with Exxon and Keystone are really more important because they are the game, not the scoreboard. They are places where real power is being exerted now. So I think they represent a pretty clear indication that the tide is fundamentally turning now. The power of the fossil fuel industry is still enormous, but they are taking hits like they've never taken before, and all of a sudden it's becoming clearer that they are not the future at all. They are in a desperate, defensive battle to stave off change for as long as they can, but they are beginning to lose that battle. Think about this fall: They no longer have permission to go drill in the Arctic, they can't build the pipeline out of the tar sands, in Australia activists have blocked plans for the largest coal mine on Earth. Now Exxon's in the dock in New York state. There are some big signs that there is a shift underway. Whether that shift comes in time is a different question. This is the hottest year we've ever experienced. As we speak, there is the second big hurricane in a week in the Arabian Sea. It's going to hit Yemen again — a country that had never been hit by a hurricane before, now twice in a week. Look, it's possible that we're so far behind that we're never going to catch up, but it's clear now that at least there is going to be one hell of a fight.

Clearly, there is a still a lot work to do. Are you able to take some time celebrate this victory, four years in the making, tonight?
I'm planning to have a very good night's sleep. I am worn out. Maybe a little worn out from four years of fighting, and certainly worn out from the drama of the last few days.