The Tyee talks to the prominent activist and author about fighting on two fronts.
McKibben wrote a book about climate change in 1989: ‘I’m watching people start to understand that systems have to change in very big ways when physical reality intrudes.
A few weeks ago, this was looking like a big year for Canada’s climate movement.
After years of grassroots opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline in B.C., an eruption of rail blockades across the country in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en natural gas fight and Teck Resources shelving a major new oil sands mine for economic reasons, all the conditions seemed there to push for economy-transforming policies on the scale of the Green New Deal.
Then the coronavirus hit.
At a time when climate leaders in Canada, the U.S. and Europe imagined millions of people on the streets pressuring financial institutions to ditch fossil fuels and forcing political leaders to enact bold legislation, people are now fearful and physically alone, stuck in their homes to prevent a public health catastrophe as outside ecosystems veer towards collapse.
To help Tyee readers make sense of this new reality, we reached out to author and activist Bill McKibben, co-founder of the climate group 350 and a global authority on what must be done to fight the climate emergency. It was McKibben who wrote the book The End of Nature about climate change in 1989 that put the threat firmly on the public radar.
In a conversation that has been edited for length and clarity, he urges Canadians to pressure politicians to keep the climate emergency front and centre as we navigate this crisis, while using these terrifying and inexplicable times as a chance to reflect on the fairer and more sustainable world we must build after the crisis is over.
On the impact of coronavirus on the climate movement:
McKibben: Our family is gathered at our house in the woods and we’re all isolating together. I think the biggest effect of coronavirus has been that it kind of enforces a pause in some of the activism that’s been most of my work for the last decade or so…It’s incredibly frustrating because the climate movement was building to a new crest.
The other weird thing with coronavirus, is that the human instinct in the case of a natural disaster of any kind is to come together and exhibit solidarity and take care of each other and this is a very strange and particularly frustrating moment because the biggest thing we can do to help each other is stay apart. Which is very odd and it’s one of the reasons why it feels sad that we can’t be doing the work we should be doing around climate change.
On how this emergency is causing people to rethink society:
But there’s also an enormous amount of new thinking going on in all kinds of people’s heads and hearts and some of that new thinking is just about the fact that when the world actually demands it you have to make actual change. I’ve been saying for a very long time that you don’t get to negotiate with chemistry and physics…Coronavirus is demonstrating to a fault that you don’t get to negotiate with biology.
I’m watching people start to understand that systems have to change in very big ways when physical reality intrudes…The really stark fear of what could happen with coronavirus means people are taking that idea really seriously immediately…Most people seem to be responding with the knowledge that we’d better reorganize how we do things in a big way to deal with this illness and I think that will carry over into people’s willingness to reorganize our society to deal with other crises. It seems hard to imagine that the same power balances will still be there in quite the same way when this is over.
On the similarities between coronavirus and climate change:
There’s a sense in which something like coronavirus is like climate change except encapsulated in a few months instead of a few decades…The biggest difference is that there’s no enormous industry that gets rich off of coronavirus, so there’s not like a built-in opposition to doing what needs to be done and that’s always been one of the problems with climate change.
One thing that’s happening I think is that last year will mark the peak of fossil fuel demand. I don’t think fossil fuels will be able to recover to the point they were at before. I can’t imagine anyone deciding that what they’re going to invest their money now in is another tar sands mine. I find it hard to imagine that even the Canadian government is going to want to spend $12 billion to build its pipeline out to Burnaby. I think we’re going to be reminded that there are other more important things to spend money on.
It seems to me that probably some of the landscape of oil and gas is getting rewritten even as we watch. That is a direct testament to the power of protest and organization over this last decade and to the incredible work of people, especially Indigenous organizers, pushing this case for a very long time. And it’s gotten through. Earlier this winter, the decision of investors that they weren’t going to throw more money into the Teck Frontier mine was a kind of bell ringing and those echoes will reverberate for a long time.