Bill McKibben's Battle Plan for the Planet's Climate Crisis - Rolling Stone
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The New Battle Plan for the Planet’s Climate Crisis

One of the country’s leading activists on Trump’s Cabinet of climate deniers, and how to resist their fossil-fuel-loving agenda

Climate Crisis: A New Battle PlanClimate Crisis: A New Battle Plan

"Politicians need to be reminded, even as they do the bidding of the industry, that the rest of us are watching," writes Bill McKibben.

Benjamin Lowy/Getty

Calling the Trump energy and environment squad “climate deniers” is like pointing out that your local crew of meth heads has bad teeth. It’s true, and it also confuses symptom with disease.

Let’s be clear. 2016 was the warmest year ever measured, smashing records set in 2015 and 2014. Global warming is no longer a worry for the future – we’re in the midst of the greatest crisis humans have yet faced. So despite the acknowledgment among some Trump nominees during confirmation hearings that “climate is changing” and “man has had an influence,” when Scott Pruitt, designated to head the EPA, said last year “scientists continue to disagree” about climate change, he was telling a big and consequential lie: Science clearly understands that burning coal and gas and oil is rapidly warming the planet. When Energy Secretary pick Rick Perry insisted that climate change is a “contrived, phony mess,” and speculated that the Earth has begun to cool, he was nuts – there are tens of thousands of scientists across the globe who have spent decades narrowing the error bars of their predictions, even as thawing glaciers and rapidly acidifying oceans make it clear they’re correct. When Interior designee Ryan Zinke blamed “rising ocean temperatures” for climate change, he wasn’t even being coherent: Why would the oceans suddenly be getting hotter all by themselves? Walruses peeing?

But it’s not as if Dr. Pruitt called up Dr. Zinke one day to say, “My reading of the paleoclimatic record makes me think that previous interglacial temperature increases led, not lagged, carbon growth.” And then they didn’t page Dr. Perry on the set of Dancing With the Stars to share their conclusions.

No, something else came before climate denial, and that something is: Fossil Fuel Infatuation. These guys know nothing about science, but they love coal and oil and gas – they come from big carbon states like Oklahoma and Texas, and their careers have been lubed and greased with oil money. Rex Tillerson, slated to be our secretary of state, has literally never worked for any other cause – he got his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas in 1975 and immediately went to work for Exxon as a “production engineer.” When he goes to work for the U.S. government, it will be the second employer he’s ever had.

These men are the fossil-fuel industry – there’s no boundary. Pruitt once wrote a letter to the EPA he now will head, lambasting it (entirely incorrectly, as the facts would later show) for overestimating the air pollution that gas drilling was producing in Oklahoma. Actually, he sent the letter, but he didn’t write it – that was the work of Devon Energy, a local leader in fracking. The company gave him $5,000 for his attorney-general campaign in 2014, part of the $114,000 he collected from energy interests alone. Nothing has dented his crush, including the fact that Oklahoma, until very recently a seismically uninteresting corner of the continent, has become America’s earthquake capital, as fracking wastewater is injected into geological faults. Their clinical infatuation runs as deep as the drill bit on the Deepwater Horizon: Cutting oil production is “not acceptable for humanity,” Tillerson has told Exxon shareholders. “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee member Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., points to a chart as he questions Environmental Protection Agency Administrator-designate, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, during Pruitt's confirmation hearing before the committee

The moral case for fossil fuels has its roots in the idea that coal, and then oil and gas, transformed civilization. Which is true: When we learned, early in the 18th century, to burn coal, it gave each of us in the Western world the equivalent of an entourage of slaves. A barrel of oil, by some calculations, is equal to 23,000 hours of muscle-powered work. Suddenly we could move ourselves great distances, and most of us could abandon the farm. One could argue whether these were changes for the better; some of our sense of rootlessness and disconnection comes with this freedom. But it was transformational – that part of the argument is undeniable.

For Trump’s crew, however, the past is forever prologue. If fossil fuel was good in the 18th century, it must be good in the 21st. They can’t imagine, for example, that the rest of the world might develop without coal and gas and oil. “There are still hundreds of millions, billions of people living in abject poverty around the world,” Tillerson told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2012. “They’d love to burn fossil fuels because their quality of life would rise immeasurably, and their quality of health and the health of their children and their future would rise immeasurably.”

This happy picture depends on ignoring the side effects of fossil-fuel burning. The biggest study to date shows that 100 million people in developing countries will die from fossil-fuel combustion between now and 2030 – some from the effects of global warming, but more from breathing smoke. Beijing closed its schools in mid-December because the smog was too bad to go outside; in New Delhi, an estimated half of the city’s 4.4 million children now have irreversible lung damage. That’s why China and India are trying desperately to move away from fossil fuels: China’s coal consumption has begun to slide, and India has announced a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. Oklahoma may still be enamored with fossil fuels, but the rest of the planet is moving on.

And lucky for them, they have an alternative, which is the other thing the Denier-in-Chief and his Cabinet want desperately to ignore: renewable energy, primarily sun and wind. All of a sudden clean power is not just available, it’s cheap. A spate of headlines in mid-December declared that solar was now in fact the cheapest energy on Earth. The headlines were based on new research by Bloomberg, which showed that for new power from Chile to India to South Africa, “renewables are robustly entering the era of undercutting” fossil-fuel prices.

All of which is to say: If you’re a utility in the developing world, you’re probably building a big solar farm. And if you’re in a hut somewhere that’s never been reached by fossil fuel, you’re almost certainly better off buying a cheap solar panel than you are waiting for the central government to build the wires and poles to your house. The “moral argument” for fossil fuels has collapsed.

View of Xinyi photo-voltaic power station on August 21, 2016 in Songxi, China.

But renewables denial has not collapsed. it’s now at least as ugly and insidious as its twin sister, Climate Denial. The same men who insist that the physicists are wrong about global warming also insist that sun and wind can’t supply our energy needs anytime soon. This argument comes in many forms, all of them being outpaced by technology. There’s the classic “the sun goes down at night” argument, which ignores the fact that battery storage has begun to fall as steeply in price as solar panels themselves. There’s “we need liquid fuels to drive our cars,” which ignores the advent of, say, Tesla. And there’s the idea that renewable technologies are some kind of faddish toys. Exxon won’t invest heavily in renewable energy, Tillerson told his shareholders in 2015, because “we choose not to lose money on purpose.” In fact, fossil fuel has been among the worst-performing sectors of the stock market for several years; investors are now piling more money into renewables, because that’s clearly where growth will come.

In the long run, Renewables Denial will give way to economics. You can tell it’s a scam because they’re using the same language and arguments they used a decade ago, even as the price of a solar panel has dropped 80 percent. But that’s where Climate Denial becomes such a dangerous companion. The rapidly deteriorating climate means that there is no “long run,” only the urgent need to change much faster than economics will push the transition by itself. We have to retire fossil-fueled power plants before their economic lifetime is over – that’s what Obama’s Clean Power Plan does. And we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground to spur the speedier transition to renewables – that’s why blocking the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines were such crucial accomplishments. They served notice to investors that there was a lot less easy money left to be made in fossil fuel. (Trump moved to revive both pipelines this week.)

And that is why the Koch brothers and the American Petroleum Institute and other arms of the fossil-fuel industry have played the political game so fiercely. They know all about the long run – hell, as good investigative reporting over the past 18 months has demonstrated, Exxon knew about climate change before almost anyone else. But the company also knows there are trillions to be made if it can postpone that action for a few more decades, even at the cost of wrecking the planet. Every year Exxon issues a new energy forecast, and every year it shows fossil fuels still providing most of the planet’s power by midcentury, never mind the skyrocketing temperature or the plummeting cost of solar. Now, Exxon’s accounting will be the nation’s – replacing the mathematics laid out in the Paris Agreement a year ago. Trump may not be able to kill it outright, but he can certainly make sure that we don’t keep our pledges, tempting the rest of the world to backslide.

Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson addresses a keynote speech during the World Gas Conference in Paris on June 2, 2015.

Which means that the opposition will need to be savvy and dynamic, focused constantly on keeping the momentum of the energy transition growing, not slowing. Everything depends on pace – only if we can keep renewable power galloping ahead do we have a chance of catching up with climate change. So first things first: Mark April 29th on your calendar, because the climate movement will convene in D.C. to show that the election didn’t cancel physics. Politicians need to be reminded, even as they do the bidding of the industry, that the rest of us are watching. That march will mark 100 days of the Trump administration; his early surge can’t be avoided, but it can be slowed.

But many of the most consequential battles won’t be in D.C. at all. Instead, look for powerful action around the nation from:

The divestment movement. It’s already the largest anti-corporate campaign of its kind in history, and it will need to grow larger, depriving the industry of both capital and social license. When protesters took the Standing Rock fight to the lobbies of Wells Fargo and TD Bank branches, they served notice that it’s not just the politicians who need to pay attention – it’s also the money guys.

The Keep It in the Ground campaign. Every piece of fossil-fuel infrastructure will have to be contested. Since the Keystone fight launched this phase of the battle, campaigners have grown adept at using courts and local governments to block and slow pipelines and coal ports, frack wells and natural-gas terminals. Every month of delay adds new costs; every layer of uncertainty makes it harder for investors to justify. Frontline communities have been remarkable at running these fights – the nonviolent discipline of the Standing Rock Sioux has written a dramatic new chapter in the history of political resistance. The rest of us can follow their example.

State and local governments. They can lead this energy transition even if Washington won’t. California may emerge as the crucial focus – with the world’s sixth-largest economy, it’s big enough that it can innovate even as D.C. stagnates. New York is in a similar position – between them, the two giant states stand a chance of actually making America great, not with Trumpish nostalgia but with innovation. California Gov. Jerry Brown has even talked about putting up climate satellites to replace the ones that NASA may be shutting down. But even the best governors and mayors will need constant pushes from activists – for instance, the Oregon campaigners who last fall turned Portland into the first major U.S. city to ban new fossil-fuel infrastructure.

We won’t win many battles in the White House and on Capitol Hill – in fact, the early months of the new administration will come with many painful defeats as the fossil-fuel industry wish list is adopted. Expect federal land to be leased for drilling willy-nilly; expect frack wells to be freed from even minimal regulation. We need to fight every one of these changes, and with Bernie Sanders-level passion. That’s because, over time, both Climate and Renewables Denial will take their toll on Trump’s standing. People aren’t stupid – with Mother Nature and the electric bill constantly conspiring to spread reality, the backward-looking greed of this wrecking crew will eventually be seen for what it is.

The question, of course, is whether “eventually” will take too long for the planet. We can’t know the answer – only the certainty that the harder we work, the better the odds.

Watch Donald Trump sign an executive order to revive the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipeline.


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