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Q&A On Climate Leadership With Activist Pioneer Bill McKibben

Sherrell Dorsey headshotWords by Sherrell Dorsey

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For over three decades, environmentalist and author Bill McKibben has poured himself into the work of fighting on behalf of the planet's health. Through his climate campaign organizing platform, 350.org, McKibben lead rallies and international crusades, spearheaded Keystone Pipeline resistance and national fossil fuel divestment, and forced politicians to move on the most important environmental challenges of our time.

Next month, he’ll join presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) as part of his platform committee at the Democratic National Convention to further the message to Keep the Oil in the Soil. As the nation prepares to head to the polls in November, climate change policies remain a point of contention and one neither presumptive candidate has fully expressed as a hot-button issue to be considered for future advancement.

We caught up with McKibben to talk about what challenges lie ahead in the climate change battle, the evolution of his career and why he believes environmentalism is a leaderless movement.

TriplePundit: You've had a very remarkable and impactful career fighting for environmental policy change and calling the masses to evaluate the total impact of climate change. What set you out on this path, and how has it evolved from your role as a writer and entrepreneur?

Bill McKibben: I wrote the first book about climate change, and part way through it I realized I wasn't totally 'objective,' in that I didn't want the planet to overheat. But it took me a long time -- too long -- to figure out that we'd need more than books and articles and speeches; that we'd need a movement to counterbalance the financial and political power of the fossil fuel industry. I wish I'd caught on to the realities earlier; I suffered from the delusion that if we simply kept explaining the scale of the problem, our leaders would eventually lead.

I guess I thought we were having an argument -- but in fact, we'd won the argument. We were having, instead, a fight -- a fight about money and power, which is what fights are usually about. And that we were losing.

3p: Based on your experiences and extensive work, research and advocacy on climate change, do you feel that as a nation and as global citizens we're doing enough to address the challenges we face ahead?

BM: I'm certain we're not. And it's based not on experience, but on observation. Arctic ice, for example, is melting at a record pace this summer. We're seeing daily flooding records around the world, and temperatures hitting record marks in place after place. Our adversary is ultimately physics, and physics is kicking our butt.

3p: We've recently come out of the Paris climate talks, and it appears that the U.S. has made some pretty bold commitments. What will it take for us as a nation and individual cities to ensure we meet the metrics?

BM: I'd say the commitments are too small to catch up with physics -- but meeting even those will require breaking the political power of the fossil fuel industry, which has fought for decades to keep change from happening. The story of that fight is clearer now, as great reporting has demonstrated Exxon's role, in particular, in sowing confusion despite its own clarity.

Politically, climate change continues to be a point of ongoing contention. What is important for the general public and people in this space to understand as they consider their vote in November: The GOP is a fully-owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry, and that if many Democrats aren't owned, they're often scared into silence.

3p: What does it mean for you to be a thought leader in this space? Where do you draw additional information and insight to continue to forward the work?

BM: I'm not a leader really -- this is a leaderless movement in a lot of ways: the first open-source people's campaign. But I do have 30 years of working on this issue, and so I have a good sense what tactics and approaches may or may not work (often because I've managed to try them and fail before!).

3p: Why is 350.org significant in moving the needle?

BM: It's not a traditional organization. It's more a potluck supper: a way for people all over the world to bring their best to a common cause.

3p: How can the technology and innovation industry add to this conversation? What changes are still ahead that both businesses and consumers need to be wary of?

BM: We need technological change, of course, but we have the core technologies that are required to replace fossil fuel. What's key now is figuring out how to deploy them at scale and with enormous speed. For instance: The cost of a solar panel is no longer the biggest part of getting one on your roof. Now it's the 'soft costs' of installation, finance, etc. -- where there's enormous room for innovation.

Photo credit: Nancie Battaglia, used with permission

Sherrell Dorsey headshotSherrell Dorsey

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

Read more stories by Sherrell Dorsey