An Interview With Bill McKibben: ‘We Need To Go Straight At The Fossil Fuel Industry’

Below is an excerpt of an interview at between James Stafford and climate activist Bill McKibben. You have said that climate change is the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. Why do you think so little action is being taken to prevent it?

Bill McKibben: I think that so far the political and economic power of the fossil fuel industry has trumped all else.

OP: In your opinion what strategy holds the best chance of solving our climate change problems?

BM: Well, I think we need to go straight at the fossil fuel industry. This fall launches a divestment campaign on college campuses — we’re calling it ‘do the math,’ based on an article I wrote for Rolling Stone this summer that went wickedly viral. I’m not certain it will work, but I know that these are the guys (not the politicians) calling the shots, so we need to reach them.


OP: What is your message to the oil companies? They obviously make incredible profits from their business — how are you looking to persuade them to cut back on production? Also the oil companies are controlled by shareholders — most of these pension funds, etc…. Surely you also need to approach the shareholders?

BM: I don’t think the fossil fuel industry will listen, not until we build up a lot of pressure. I do think we can persuade some shareholders that they don’t want to be involved in this enterprise.

OP: Would you be able to share any of the arguments you will use?

BM: Profiting from companies that are overloading the atmosphere with carbon and changing the atmosphere is wrong.

OP: The southern part of the Keystone XL pipeline has been developed — all that is missing is permission from the White House to complete the final part. This has led many to believe that the Keystone XL will be built. What is your opinion? Do you fear that there is too much money to be made and too many ‘interests’ for it to be permanently blocked?


BM: I share that fear. Mitt Romney has promised to build it, and Obama hasn’t promised not to, so the odds are far from stellar.

OP: You have stated that the Canadian Tar Sands represent ‘Game Over’ for any ambitions to battle climate change. A lot of money stands to be made from their development, and Canada’s economy will receive huge benefits. Do you truly believe that the Canadian government could be persuaded to forfeit this massive resource?

BM: The Canadian people will decide. It’s a great test for a country that traditionally has helped solve world problems, not cause them.

OP: Developing countries such as China and India are the worst polluters, yet in order for them to reduce their emissions significantly they would need to hold back on their own economic development. Is this a fair request to make of them?

BM: We would need to help them make the transition to renewable energy, and fast. It’s not just the moral thing to do, it’s the practical one.

OP: Where will the funding come from to make this transition?

BM: From some tiny portion of the wealth the west accumulated in a hundred years of filling the atmosphere with carbon.

OP: How will the West pay for this?

BM: I’m guessing the most efficient way would be to transfer an awful lot of technology, but also direct aid to deal with climate emergencies already underway. Hillary has already said $100 billion a year would be appropriate.


OP: The U.S. is now producing more oil and natural gas than ever before, and whilst solar and wind projects are growing, fossil fuels still dominate. Obama is much stronger on climate issues than Bush was, yet is he strong enough?

BM: No one is strong enough — given the magnitude of the task, everyone has to step up their game.

OP: You say no one is strong enough. What policies would you like to see put in place — what could the politicians do?

BM: A price on carbon sufficient to keep 80% of current reserves underground, rebated directly to citizens.

OP: What impact do you see this having on economic growth?

BM: I imagine it would spur employment pretty dramatically. Renewable energy is far more labor-intensive than fossil fuel production. So for those of us who worry more about working people than about windfall profits for oil companies, it may net out. A better question is: what does it do to our economy if we manage to overheat the earth? This summer’s drought provides a small taste.

OP: Why is climate skepticism continuing to gain momentum in the face of terrible droughts and changing weather patterns?

BM: I don’t think it is. The percentage of Americans who understand the planet is warming has grown steadily. The skeptics have lots of money, but they have a hard time fighting what is becoming to obvious to anyone who steps out the door: the planet is warming quickly and disastrously.

James Stafford is the Editor of This interview was first published at and was reprinted with permission.