An interview with Bill McKibben

The longtime climate advocate, writer, and co-founder of 350 takes stock of this moment in climate accountability.

To anyone new here, welcome to EXXONKNEWS, where we follow the fight to hold Big Oil accountable for their ongoing role in the climate crisis. If you haven’t subscribed for free weekly updates yet, you can do so below.

Following the very first anniversary of EXXONKNEWS, it seems like a good time to evaluate the progress and potential of the movement to make fossil fuel polluters pay. After the election, I spoke with the legendary Bill McKibben from his home in Middlebury, Vermont, where I’m very happy to report he’s recovering well from his surgery (be careful out there, bike riders!). Our conversation was a two-part series, actually: McKibben interviewed me about EXXONKNEWS and the work we’re all doing for his column in the New Yorker this week. 

Bill McKibben is one of the world’s leading climate activists, authors, and movement builders. McKibben led the original campaigns to oppose oil pipeline projects and divest from fossil fuels, and in 2008 he co-founded, the first global grassroots climate campaign, with the goal of building a global climate movement. 

Without further ado, here’s our interview, edited for length. 

McKibben at the Exxon station in downtown Burlington, 2015.

Since the first internal industry documents proving that Exxon knew their products would lead to catastrophic climate change were made public five years ago, major climate groups (including 350, of which you’re a co-founder) have made accountability a large part of their work. Can you speak to the importance of this evolution for the climate movement? 

The impact of those revelations, from InsideClimate News, the LA Times, Columbia Journalism School, just can’t be overstated. This story stuck and stuck in a big way. Now most people who know anything about this area of climate change understand that the oil companies were venal, thirty and forty years ago, and that makes it that much easier for them to understand just how venal they are now. There were a certain number of people at the beginning who were like “yeah, what did you expect, what did you think they were gonna do?” But it’s such a gift to Exxon if you’re cynical about this. The correct response is to say “these guys knew they were destroying the world and went ahead, and on the list of sins that corporations have ever committed that’s gotta be pretty much at the top.”

So I was very glad that people got angry and that’s helped take us to a place where everybody understands that in order to deal with climate change, we have to be able to hold these guys accountable, shut them down or change them into something completely different. 

In 2015, did you ever think there would be this many accountability lawsuits, with more than a dozen municipalities and six attorneys general suing Exxon by the end of the decade?

I’m not a lawyer, I’m not even close to a lawyer, but it was pretty clear that suddenly the logic of the case all fit together. It wasn’t that these guys were just inadvertently doing damage in the course of doing business — they knew precisely what they were doing. I guess for those of us whose legal education consists of watching “Law and Order,” this took it from manslaughter to murder 1 just like that.

What are some other developments that have given you hope that the industry will be held accountable? 

There’s two sides to it: one is this enormous movement building around divestment, around #ExxonKnew, around Fridays for Future and the climate strikes, the Green New Deal, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion — everybody saying that you have to reign in the power of these guys. You can see the final fruition of that movement building when Joe Biden in the last debate says “yeah, you know what, we have to transition off the oil industry.” And he paid no price for it — he won Pennsylvania anyway, won Colorado, won New Mexico — that was a truly important moment. 

And economically, it’s not an industry that makes sense anymore. And you can tell that that’s going on because their stock prices are in the toilet and because Exxon, who for decades was the biggest company on earth, is now not even the biggest energy company on earth. So now the fossil fuel industry is not only selling a product that wrecks the planet, so that they’re obviously going to continue to come under extreme regulatory pressure and legal pressure, but there’s also someone else [renewable energy companies] who’s figured out how to sell a better version of the same product for less. Those are the kind of changes that historians look back on when they’re writing the story and say “yeah, okay, I see now how this all fits together.”

What are your hopes for a Biden presidency, especially when it comes to reigning in fossil fuels? 

I think it’s gonna be hard, frankly, to get done the huge legislative wins that we’d all been so longing for without the Senate. But a Biden administration may make it easier to pressure Wall Street and through it the fossil fuel industry — to force companies to assess climate risks, make them account for it in real ways, make it harder for banks to keep lending our money off to the oil industry, on and on. That kind of pressure will be really important, as will continued pressure to make it harder to do the infrastructure expansion they want to do. Great, great news today from Michigan, Governor Whitmer is going to shut down Line 5, the Enbridge pipeline, and that’s a reminder of just the kind of regulatory changes that can come from all levels of government that will really make it hard for these guys to keep doing their thing. We may have to focus on those kinds of defensive things instead of the things that let us play offense, which may have to wait — although everyone will try as hard as they can to push those through. 

Biden directing his Department of Justice to support these lawsuits will also be really key. These guys are vulnerable as hell. At some level, they’ve gotta be wanting to look for some kind of way out. I think four more years of Trump and they would’ve figured out ways to shield themselves from liability, but that’s not gonna happen. 

What do you see as the biggest remaining roadblocks for the movement to hold Big Oil accountable?

We’re just constantly having to battle against the overwhelming political power of the fossil fuel industry. But that power is reduced with every blow that that industry takes — every lawsuit, every divestment, every new regulation. I think keeping pressure on every point is precisely what we need to do. That requires big broad coalitions, and it’s been really wonderful to see for the last ten years or so that the Indigenous communities and frontline communities have really been in the lead in this work, and that scientists and faith communities are rallying to that kind of cry. We need everybody engaged because this is a battle of weight — of who can bring the most pressure to bear. 

Is there anything else you’d like my readers to know?

I’m going on emeritus status at 350 at the end of the year, and one of the things I’m happiest about is that when I started this work, there really wasn’t a climate movement like we know it now. And now, thanks to literally millions of people, there’s an enormous climate movement. And that makes me feel, if nothing else, way less lonely. There was a time back when I was a young man and had just written “The End of Nature”, you know, it was like the way it sometimes is in a nightmare, your words won’t come out, or no one will turn around and look at the monster. And that was a very impotent and scary feeling. And though the world is very scary now, at least there are a lot of people who understand that and are working on it. And for that, every single day, I’m so grateful. 

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Until next week — have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!