Bill McKibben on Why Exxon Is the Next Big Climate Fight
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.