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Interview: Bill McKibben on Divestment From Fossil Fuels

The popular notion is that Americans are addicted to fossil fuels but I find that's not true," says Bill McKibben. "The addicts are the big fossil fuel companies that are just fatally addicted to the level of profit they are able to deduce."
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With, Bill McKibben is roaming the nation's campuses in their "Do The Math" tour, promoting an anti-apartheid style divestment campaign targeting fossil fuel companies. Exploring this decision, McKibben consulted with Desmond Tutu and other South Africans steeped in the divestment movement; however, in the end, the big decider for him he told me, was: "Divestment made sense to me because of how outspoken colleges were becoming about their desire to go green!"

Of course campuses. They serve the population that's going to inherit the earth. And campuses are where the divestment campaign against South Africa's apartheid regime succeeded in the 1980s and '90s.

McKibben's new quest stems from the fact that actions to reduce emissions conducted by individuals, cities and states are simply not enough; the fight has to be taken directly to the fossil fuel industries. This faction has power to turn around our political paralysis by ceasing the climate disinformation campaigns aimed at voters, legislators and consumers, by diversifying their revenues streams to include renewable and efficient energy modes, and by lobbying Congress for a meaningful climate bill such as a carbon tax.

At this time some fossil fuel companies seem to be entering a shift of view; on the one hand believing what they want about the severity of the climate crisis and preaching that adaptation is the ticket, as Rex Tillerson of Exxon has said this year, and on the other hand, speaking up for a revenue neutral carbon tax, as the same Rex Tillerson has done this month. With such a wide breadth of public statements out there, the industry allows itself to be all things to all people while simultaneously being nothing. Meanwhile it is is steadily keeping its boot on the neck of the planet's future and reaping astonishing riches.

McKibben's answer: hit to them where they understand, which is in the wallet. Hence, divestment.

I spoke with him by phone for a few questions:

AB: How are you doing on this tour?

BM: Quite astonishing frankly! We didn't know what to expect; the environmental movement has not done anything remotely like this in a long time. After our 13th straight sold out show in huge venues, people are very eager to know how they can be involved in this climate fight. We have seeded 110 strong divestment campaigns on campuses plus cities following suit. The mayor of Seattle is meeting with his treasurer to see about divesting. One of the electric moments of the trip was Unity College announcing that the Board of Trustees had voted to divest entirely. And the Harvard undergraduates voted three to one to divest from fossil fuels.

AB: I peeked into the history of divestment. On South Africa, Harvard played two sides of it saying they could do better working with the U.S. government and voting their proxies and then conversely they did purge their holdings after 10 years of student protest.

BM: Harvard was recalcitrant and it was embarrassing! It was a wonderful movement among students but the college never did get behind it. One thing that's different this time is that now colleges are boasting about their sustainability; they're on record thinking this is the most important thing there could be. So logically if you're going to green your campus why wouldn't you green your portfolio?

AB: You were just in California. Did you focus on the colleges or also talk to the people at the California State pension system? That investment body has so much weight and the state is so committed.

BM: We went to Berkeley and Palo Alto and did a big thing at UCLA. We didn't yet speak to the people at CALPERS but there are people organizing not only CALPERS but also CALSTERs the California State Teachers Retirement System. That's a goal to get right on these. It would be a very good thing to be doing.

AB: About the tactic to get big funds to divest from fossil fuels, is it to decapitalize them so they cannot pump out their reserves?

BM: The idea is more to get people to understand that they're a kind of rogue force, and to say that we don't want to cooperate with them anymore. We think that will have a powerful effect on their ability to manipulate our political system. Stigmatization is key. This is the tobacco industry of our day.

AB: In big, recent news, Swiss Re, Unilever and some huge companies including a few oil companies are calling for a carbon tax. How would that affect your advice about divestment from such companies?

BM: What matters is whether it's a carbon tax big enough to make any difference.

AB: I was thrilled to see Grover Norquist say that a carbon tax need not be off the table.

BM: And unfortunately the next day he took it back.

AB: Perhaps he was "gotten to." If this big a guy can be gotten to, it reinforces the importance of what you're doing.

BM: Our criteria is that it's okay to invest in companies so long as they stop lobbying in Washington, stop exploring for new hydrocarbons, and sit down with every one else to plan to keep 80 percent of the reserves in the ground. We just need to change the power balance. They're making so much money. The popular notion is that Americans are addicted to fossil fuels but I find that's not true; most people would be happy to power their lives with anything else. The addicts are the big fossil fuel companies that are just fatally addicted to the level of profit they are able to deduce. They can't help themselves you know -- so we're going to have help them.

AB: By hitting them where they can feel it, which is the income. If divestment really gets rolling, it could be calamitous because they need capital to do what they're doing.

BM: That would be good, they need something to think about!

AB: There is a very deep vein of action that is happening in many countries -- not aimed at climate but at the local impacts of coal mining and power plants. In India and Bangladesh more than 13 protestors were killed in 30 local struggles against coal power and many more have been injured or tortured. Is bringing support to indigenous actions that are happening around the world?

BM: Absolutely! We just ran, week before last, a huge India Quit Coal Day. Hundreds of actions across the country exactly on this, and an office in Delhi with some young people. (See here and here for more info.)

AB: An organization of such reach, how do you manage it?

BM: Almost all of us like me are volunteers. We work in 191 countries with only paid 38 staffers, all underpaid. I am the only one above 30 years old. I'm weary but it's incredibly satisfying. It feels like there's a new surge of climate activism now, we better make sure that this one really counts 'cause we are seriously running out of time.

AB: Last question -- have you every met with President Obama? I am still tickled by this synchronicity that while you're doing this, Obama started his activist life by promoting divestment at Occidental College, where I saw him.

BM: Never have met the president; but that's okay. There are plenty of people to meet with President Obama; our job is to make sure he knows there's a big grass roots movement that wants action. I think I'm more effective at getting arrested outside the White House than going to lunch inside of it.

AB: It's good to know what you're good at.

BM: That's it.

Note for Coloradans: The "Do the Math" show at CU Boulder's Glenn Miller Ballroom for December 2nd is already sold out. However locally is adding another venue for live streaming of the event. Those interested in the overflow venue, please sign up on a form at to get updates.

This post was originally published on the Daily Camera.