Climate Chat: A Green Life Interview with Bill McKibben, Founder of 350.org
Journalist and environmentalist Bill McKibben authored the first general-audience book about climate change 20 years ago; since then he’s done much to expose and help combat the problem. He’s written articles for many magazines, including Sierra. Now he’s founded 350.org, an international climate campaign, and is traveling globally to promote its mission. Here, the recent Colbert Report survivor relates inspiring news from this summer’s travels and why we all should be focusing on one three-digit number.
Q: You've been traveling the world spreading the gospel of a number: 350. For those not yet in the know, what makes 350 the most important number in the world?
A: We finally know where the red line for climate really is. After the rapid melt of arctic ice in the summer of 2007, our best scientists, led by NASA's Jim Hansen, went back to work and produced a series of papers showing that with more than 350 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we couldn't have a planet "similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted." That's strong language, especially considering we're already well past 350. The air outside today holds 390 ppm -- that's why the Arctic is melting. In other words, stop thinking about global warming as a future threat and understand it instead as a present emergency, one that requires a far stronger policy response than we'd imagined.
Q: On 350.org's blog, you described meeting enthusiasm around the world for curbing emissions -- often in smaller, still-developing countries that are not seriously contributing to the problem. Can we learn anything here in the states from that sense of global citizenship and responsibility?
A: What amazes me is that people in the rest of the world aren't angrier at us. They're a little angry -- we've caused most of this problem, after all -- but they're still willing to work with us to right it. I can't tell you how moving it is to open my email and see a picture of 1,500 Buddhist monks and nuns in the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh forming a human 350 against the backdrop of the melting glaciers. This is not their fault, and yet they're stepping up to be part of the solution. Do we have any choice but to join them?
Q: 350.org is coordinating an International Day of Climate Action to push for strong legislation at this December's climate conference in Copenhagen. What are 350.org's goals for that day of action? What can we expect the day to look like?
A: It's like a big potluck supper. We've set the date and the theme -- 350! -- but we're not an organization, we're a campaign. So people all over, some of them in groups like the Sierra Club and some of them novice activists, have taken over, figuring out how to get that number across on Oct. 24. There will be the world's largest underwater political demonstration, led by the president of the Maldive Islands, Mohammed Nasheed; thousands of churches will ring their bells 350 times; there will be some of the world's greatest mountain climbers up high in all the world's ranges with banners and signs. Big cities will see big demonstrations -- and crucially, there will be at least as many across the global south as the developed world. For the first time we're all in this as a planet.
Q: It seems that the campaign's efforts culminate in Copenhagen. In an ideal world, what would come from that conference? What can we realistically expect?
A: At the least, an acknowledgment that whatever agreement is conceived there is not a solution but at best a start, and that we've got to keep the work going and the pressure on. We think we can move the negotiations in the direction of the science, but we have no illusions we'll triumph completely -- the opposition is powerful. I mean, Exxon made more money last year than any company in the history of money. We're not going to match their dollars, so we have to top their enthusiasm.
Q: In organizing for 350.org, you've been traveling the world and presumably using a lot of fuel. How do you grapple with the large carbon footprint created by promoting the cause globally?
A: I'm the one moving part in this thing -- we've organized it so that we'll have thousands of distributed actions, not a few big march-on-Washington things. We think it's a better model politically and environmentally. But I've been on airplanes all year, and though I offset the flights, I can't justify them except by saying it's an emergency. The world is on fire, and I'm doing my best to help steer the firetruck. I hope it's worth it -- to a large extent it depends on how many people respond. So far the signs are good -- we've organized more than 1,500 events in more than half the countries on earth.
Q: Along those lines, the 350 campaign has chosen a web and technology-based platform. It's a medium for change that's not carbon-neutral. What role do you see the internet playing in the future of the environmental movement?
A: All things considered, the internet seems fairly environmentally benign to me. The last stats I saw showed you could do 1,000 Google searches for the gas it took to drive six-tenths of a mile. But the internet can't substitute for real connection and community. We use the web to help people organize in the flesh, and then we take the images of those events and put them back on the web to make them add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Q: Since we're talking for the Green Life, can you help readers envision what a 350-friendly lifestyle will look like? Are there a few especially effective personal changes we can make to help achieve that number?
A: Oh, you know the changes we need to make at home. But the truth is, we're past the point where we're going to solve this one light bulb at a time. So screw in a compact fluorescent, but then screw in a new global policy. The most effective and practical action you can take at home is to organize your community for Oct. 24.
--Interview by Jamie Hansen