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Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben spoke with students at Hilltop Montessori School in Brattleboro on Jan. 15.

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A race against time

Climate activist Bill McKibben urges Hilltop Montessori students to keep up their urgent fight for a livable planet

BRATTLEBORO—Vermont author and climate activist Bill McKibben believes humanity is in a race it cannot afford to lose.

“It’s not that we’re going to eventually have wind and solar energy. By the time you’re my age, we will because it’s cheaper,” the 59-year-old author, scholar, and activist told Hilltop Montessori School’s middle school students.

“That’s not the problem,” he said. “The problem is, will we do it fast enough?”

McKibben, the co-founder of the global environmental advocacy group 350.org, was in Brattleboro on Jan. 15 to give an evening talk and a reading from his latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, at Centre Congregational Church. Before he spoke to the standing room audience there, he stopped at the school to talk with the students, who are in the thick of the climate crisis.

With so much of the movement’s energy coming from young people, McKibben warned adults to not get complacent and not to “take the biggest problem in the world and offload it onto the shoulders of high school students.”

The transition away from coal, natural gas, and oil to generate electricity and to power our transportation is happening, but happening so slowly that in 50 years, “the world that will run on sun and wind by [that time] will be a broken world.”

Thus, he said, the only way the transition can be sped up is by putting pressure on the people who hold the political and financial power.

He used the environmental movement of the 1970s as an example.

This April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the first mass movement that called attention to rampant air and water pollution and to the urgent need to protect and preserve our environment.

On that first Earth Day in 1970, McKibben said, 20 million Americans — or about 10 percent of the U.S. population at the time — turned out for vigils and marches across the nation. The size of those events prompted Congress to pass sweeping legislation to protect air and water quality and helped to create the federal Environmental Protection Agency that same year.

The nation’s air and water is cleaner than it was in the 1970s, thanks to the activism and consciousness raising that convinced those in power to support policies that protected the environment, said McKibben.

An even greater effort is needed to convince those in power that the climate crisis must be dealt with now, he said.

McKibben said the movement that began several years ago to get colleges and public-pension funds to divest fossil fuel stocks from their investment funds has had an impact. He now believes it is time for the next step: targeting the banks that invest in coal, crude oil, and natural gas.

This spring, McKibben said, the four largest U.S. banks — Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, and Chase Bank — will be the focus of a campaign — Stop the Money Pipeline (stopthemoneypipeline.com) — to get the banks to stop lending to fossil fuel companies.

Time is the only problem, McKibben said.

“That’s the scariest thing about climate change — how fast it is happening and how little time we have to change the basic direction of things,” he said.

It’s too late to stop global warming, he said, but it’s not too late to “stop it short of the point where it is impossible to have civilizations like what we are used to.”

If the world had 50 years to solve the problem, McKibben said, he would be talking about making individual lifestyle changes that could help the planet. “They’re all super important but, given the time we have and the magnitude of change we have to make, we cannot solve this one Tesla at time, one vegan dinner at a time.”

When one student asked him to identify the best course of action for people too young to vote and too young to be politicians, McKibben was quick to point out actions that started in August 2018 with then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg’s lone vigil in front of the Swedish Parliament. That single student’s protest has since grown into a global movement of young people protesting inaction toward the climate crisis.

“That has been the most effective stuff that can be done,” he said. “The work that Greta started was a big deal, and it really helped.”

And when politicians see millions of young people marching in the streets, he said, that will make a powerful impression on them, as the first Earth Day marches did to an earlier group of politicians two generations ago.

While the Hilltop students can’t vote now, McKibben said that “every politician is well aware that you are going to be able to vote soon.”

“You can’t take out a credit card right now, but Chase Bank is pretty clear that they’re going to want you to take one out in a few years,” he added. “If they see thousands of young people using giant pairs of scissors to cut giant Chase cards, that’s going to freak them out.”

While there is a need to act quickly on climate change, the reality that political change doesn’t happen quickly, particularly in Washington, is tempered by the reality that things change quickly on the financial level.

When Blackrock, the largest investment firm in the world with nearly $7 trillion in assets under its management, announced on Jan. 14 that it was going to prioritize the effects of climate change in its strategic planning, McKibben said the markets responded quickly around the globe.

McKibben said there is no guarantee that Blackrock, which is one of the world’s biggest investors in fossil fuel stock, will keep its word.

But it was pressure by environmental activists that pushed the firm in that direction, he said.

Making ‘the bad guys’ uncomfortable

McKibben sees himself as a reluctant activist.

“I’m a writer, and we’re the opposite of activists. We’re all introverts,” he said. “What I really like to do is sit in my room and type.”

He wrote the first best-selling book on climate change, The End of Nature, in 1989 and has written numerous books and articles about climate change since then.

But he said he came to realize that all of his writing “wasn’t going to move the needle” because it was not “an argument about facts and data and evidence.”

“We’ve won that argument,” he said. “We just lost the fight because the fight was about what fights are usually about — money and power.”

And building movements is the most effective way to fight money and power, said McKibben, responding to a student question about the best way to channel the anger, frustration, and fear that many young people are experiencing today.

“Don’t let it overwhelm you,” he said. “I try to take some of that fear and sadness and turn it into being pissed off. ”

“I find that to be a more productive emotion,” he continued. “The very least we can do is make life uncomfortable for the bad guys. These guys have been willing to wreck the world in order to try to make a little more money. They knew what they were doing.”

The good news, he said, is more than two-thirds of Americans agree with the nearly unanimous conclusion of climate scientists that climate change is real, is caused by human activity, and poses an immediate threat that must be addressed now.

“That’s a lot,” he said. “It’s hard at this point to get two-thirds of Americans to agree about anything.”

The problem: of that two-thirds who are concerned about climate change, “only a small percentage are actively doing anything about it,” he said.

However, he said that social science research finds that if any movement can get a sufficient number of people — 4 to 5 percent of the population — active and engaged on a political issue, the tide can be turned.

“Apathy cuts both ways,” he said. “It’s annoying that people are apathetic and don’t get engaged and just go on with their lives, but it’s helpful because it’s not like they are going to get engaged on the other side.”

His advice to the Hilltop students was to continue the outreach they’ve been doing — through social media, through their class projects, through showing up at vigils and rallies, and through participation in actions like those planned for April against the big banks.

McKibben got an early start on the action against the banks when he got arrested earlier this month during a sit-in at a Chase Bank branch office in Washington, D.C.

The protest got a fair amount of press coverage, but, he acknowledged, that was due to the participation of actors Jane Fonda and Joaquin Phoenix.

“In a rational world, it doesn’t make sense for people to have to get arrested in order to get leaders to pay attention to science,” said McKibben. “But there’s so much money in the fossil fuel system, what choice do we really have?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #545 (Wednesday, January 22, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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