Lind Initiative Recap: Bill McKibben on the Grassroots Fight for Climate Action

The fifth and final speaker of this year’s Lind Initiative speaker series was Bill McKibben. A renowed author best known for his 1989 book The End of Nature, which was widely considered the first book on climate change intended for a general audience, Bill McKibben is one of the world’s most active voices in the area of climate activism. He is the founder of 350.org, an environmental NGO which focuses on campaigning to reduce global carbon levels from the current ppm of 400 to 350.

With this year’s theme being ‘America and the Climate Crisis,’ the previous speakers have all delivered insightful perspectives on environmental issues, from social impacts to ecological destruction to environmental injustice. For McKibben, he spoke mostly of his experience leading 350.org, and also provided advice to students looking to go further into climate activism in the future. However, his most meaningful comments came when he was later joined by Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party of Canada for the Q&A session.

Showing footage he took of a 12-storey tall slab of ice disintegrating while he was in Greenland, McKibben opened his keynote with a message of emergency, stating that we have fundamentally unbalanced the planet’s system over the past decades and it has hit the point of no return. But luckily, says McKibben, even though politicians have continued to look away in the fight for climate action, the world’s greatest scientific minds have not. New green technologies are emerging at a faster rate while existing innovations have become much cheaper.

However, while the scientific argument was won, the fight was always about money and power. And the opposition came in the form of one of the world’s most lucrative industries. By the 1980s, knowledge that the world was rapidly warming was well-known among most oil firms. But instead of using their wealth to warn the rest of the world, they spent their resources on climate change mitigation on themselves, as well as on interest groups and governments arguing that fossil fuels were still sustainable form of fuel.

Like many others who could not fight the elite wealth of the fossil fuel sector, McKibben turned to grassroots movements. Inspired by the first climate march he organized in his home state of Vermont in the 1980s, McKibben then founded 350.org. He then recounted stories of how the organization grew into a worldwide movement, and the progresses 350.org has made in climate action, such as encouraging endowments and portfolios divesting away from fossil fuel sectors. He also spoke of other grassroots organizations that sprung off, some which were truly sobering stories. One of them was the Pacific Climate Warriors, a group that has been rallying climate action as their very lives depend on it, as their home islands in Oceania will be completely wiped off the map due to rising sea levels. He also pointed to protesters in Seattle who blocked a Shell drilling rig from being transported into the Arctic, and the continued pressure eventually led to the project being shut down.

In one of his closing comments, McKibben asked those who are committed to the fight for climate action to continue to work outside their comfort zone, as so far it has proved insufficient for global actors to respond. And because that the planet is also currently working outside its comfort zone.

In the discussion with Elizabeth May, McKibben surmised that climate change is such a difficult issue to address in politics because most modern political systems have been centralized on compromising. However, there is no middle ground in climate change, as it is a debate between human beings and physics, which cannot be changed. A real solution to the warming earth is to phase out fossil fuels, but we continue to compromise on behalf of these corporations. They lamented on how the environment was not a polarized issue in the past. Conservative leaders in the past have taken up the mantle on climate change. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney led the first climate conference. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States was set up by President George HW Bush, who also said that he was going to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” But ever since, the movement to protect the environment has gradually waned, backed by efficient and well-funded corporate lies.

The discussion then transitioned in to the New Deal, in which both speakers addressed the manner it has been attacked by conservative circles within the US, regarding why should a proposal on climate change also involve universal healthcare, expanded social welfare, and job guarantees? McKibben explains that the reason climate action has been politically stonewalled by the elite is that decarbonization essentially ends all forms of future corporate influence. In the path to carbon neutrality, governments must protect individuals who will lose their jobs, which not only would mean new socialized programs through heavy corporate taxation, but also increased government intervention to keep inequality in check. Concurrently, a carbon-neutral society would mean the death of the fossil fuel industry’s business model, since nobody owns the sun and wind. Furthermore, since renewable energy is available everywhere, localized economies would thrive and would also hinder the expansion of international corporations.

Despite the scale of the problems at hand, May argued that there is still nothing to despair. The resources and technology are available, there is just a lack of political will and time. And right now climate activists must become more demanding. If the people who understand the problem despair, then it is just as bad as apathy. As their conversation wrapped up, May summed up that the fight for climate action has essentially gone down to a struggle of life versus money.

The discussion between Bill McKibben and Elizabeth May echoed several talking points made by previous speakers in this year’s series. They reflected that in order to fix the climate crisis, social inequality must be addressed as well, which was pointed out in the keynotes by both Robert Bullard and Winona LaDuke. But unlike the previous speakers, the purpose of their presentation was a call to action. It was simple, direct, and a clear signal for the general populace to speak truth to power in greater numbers.


The Phil Lind Initiative is an annual speaker series led by the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Funded by Rogers Vice-Chair Philip Lind, the series focuses on a new policy theme each year, and invites academics and professionals across interdisciplinary fields. To find out more, visit the official website.

This post has also been published on The Pub, the online magazine authored by Master students at the UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs (SPPGA).

Photos courtesy of the SPPGA.

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