Bill McKibben in Ottawa: Off-the-Charts Urgency and the ‘Rocking Chair Rebellion’
Climate royalty visited Ottawa. Looked forward to skating on the Rideau Canal. Climate change had other plans. So McKibben talked about how we win, what to do next.
A crowd of about 400 people filled a lecture hall at Ottawa’s Carleton University Friday evening to hear U.S. climate author and organizer Bill McKibben talk about how we win the fight of our lifetimes on climate change, and how the “outside” game of non-violent protest is already making a massive difference.
In a talk that traced the roots of climate activism back to his own “personal heroes”—Mahatma Gandhi, his lesser-known ally Abdul Ghaffār (Basha) Khān, and U.S. civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King—McKibben stressed the importance of both “inside” and “outside” advocacy in driving action on climate change. But he credited community mobilization led by the Sunrise Movement with building the political momentum that eventually produced the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which has in turn directed billions of dollars to climate solutions and set off a global race for clean energy investment.
McKibben said 2023 turned out to be the year he was thinking about in 1989 when he wrote his environmental classic, The End of Nature, the moment when the “unravelling” brought on by fossil fuel burning and the global warming it produces “became so apparent”. At one point last year, an oceanographer friend advised McKibben to pay attention to off-the-charts sea surface temperatures, with waters off the Florida Keys measuring 101°F/38.3°C—the setting you might choose for a hot tub.
The year ended, he said, with temperature records that were “not just off the charts, but off the walls the charts were tacked to,” with scientists declaring the warmest days on Earth in 125,000 years.
Local Paradise Lost
McKibben had been invited to Canada’s capital to mark Gandhi Memorial Day, at an event hosted by the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Council of Ottawa. The back story was that he’d also been looking forward to skating on the storied Rideau Canal while he was here. For readers who aren’t familiar with The Energy Mix’s home town, the 7.8-kilometre Rideau Canal Skateway (as our local tourism industry has branded it) is the world’s longest skating rink when it freezes, and a designated World Heritage Site.
It's hard to overstate the joy of skating on the canal, the outpouring of local grief when it failed to open last year, or the relief when the barriers briefly came down along one stretch of ice earlier this month, before a ridiculously warm January turned the surface to mush and made the skateway unsafe. As recently as 2005 or 2006, I can recall our then-managing editor arriving at the office most winter mornings relaxed and energized after taking a bus to Confederation Square, just below Parliament Hill, snapping blades onto her very nifty, convertible winter boots, then skating the rest of the way to work.
But as McKibben pointed out, that immediate, local snapshot of climate change in action is just the tiniest shadow of what people are experiencing around the world—his horrific example was record flooding in Libya last September that burst two dams, producing a wall of water that swept whole towns out to sea and drowned up to 10,000 people in an hour. That massive tragedy unfolded on the continent that accounts for just 3% of the global climate pollution warming the atmosphere. The United States, by contrast, is responsible for 25%, and Canada has produced even more than the U.S. on a per capita basis.
“Obviously, this has been building for a long time, and Canadians have had a front row seat, watching the rapid melt of the Arctic” and seeing the early loss of snow cover combine with spiking temperatures to produce “almost unbelievable fires that wracked the boreal forest,” he told participants. “Those were tremendous tragedies in every possible way, among other things putting about twice as much carbon into the atmosphere” as Canadians produced by all other means last year.
McKibben recalled attending a sit-in in Washington, DC at the height of the fires and not being able to see the White House less than 100 metres away.
“The consolation for me was that the fires sent an enormous cloud of smoke down south, into the power corridor from New York to Washington, where so many decisions that have put is in this place have been made,” he said. “It was good, for at least a few days, for the people living in those powerful places to have some sense of what too many people in this world breathe every single day of their lives….It’s important once in a while that the powerful feel what the powerless deal with all the time.”
The ‘Rocking Chair Rebellion’
Citing climate change as “the greatest challenge human beings have ever faced,” McKibben pointed to a factor that makes it particularly hard to address. “This is a time test, and humans are not used to time tests,” he said. “Most of our political questions occur over and over and over again. We make some progress, and we backslide a little, and we continue on, and the next generation takes them over.”
But “this one is not like that,” with scarcely 5½ years remaining in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2030 deadline for cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by half. “That leaves not much time to do the most important task that humans have ever tried to undertake,” he said.
“Once the Arctic has melted, nobody has a plan for how you freeze it back up again.”
McKibben said he helped launch the Third Act seniors’ climate campaign, setting off what the New York Times called a “rocking chair rebellion”, after hearing too many people in his (our) age group saying it’ll be up to the younger generation to solve the crisis we’ve handed them.
“We don’t have time for them to grow up and become CEOs and premiers,” he said. “We have to make this change now.” That means mobilizing the tens of millions of people aged 60 and over “with hairlines like mine” who hold the lion’s share of the financial assets and have the power to make a difference.
“I’ve been saying that if you have hair growing out of your ears, you probably have structural power coming out of your ears, too,” he declared.
As a snapshot of how front-line action is driving change, McKibben recalled how 350.org grew from a grassroot effort that he and seven college students launched in 2008 into a global, student-led movement demanding fossil fuel divestment. When those students graduated, many of them gravitated to the Sunrise Movement, whose insistent calls for a Green New Deal in the United States eventually morphed into the IRA, the ”biggest shot of money the renewable energy economy has ever gotten”.
As recently as last week, with U.S. campaigners calling attention to liquefied natural gas exports as the “biggest fossil fuel expansion project on Planet Earth”, the rocking chairs had been reserved for a week of sit-ins in Washington. “Until a week ago today when Joe Biden, bless his heart, said we’re pausing all new permits for these LNG export facilities”, citing the call for a transition out of fossil fuels that countries wrung out of a “farcical” UN climate summit in Dubai late last year.
Now, McKibben said, it’s time for Canada to get serious—not just about building more green energy, but about a transition out of fossil fuels.
One On One with Bill McKibben
McKibben and I met up for a half-hour Zoom call the day before he arrived in Ottawa. Here’s some of the ground we covered.
The Energy Mix: The Biden administration is going to apply a climate test to new LNG export terminals. How big a win is this?
McKibben: It’s a very big deal for a couple of reasons, and one is the scale of it. It’s just enormous in terms of what the industry wants to do. If they get their way, within five or 10 years U.S. LNG exports will be creating more greenhouse gas emissions than everything that happens in Europe: every car, factory, and home from Athens to Helsinki will do less damage to the climate than just exporting LNG from the U.S. This is a huge attempt by the industry to lock in their business model, even as the world is clearly poised to go a different direction.
It's also a profound signal to the rest of the world. In December, the U.S. joined every other country in the world in pledging that it would transition away from fossil fuels. The moment it did that, this plan to build out an enormous, ongoing expansion of fossil fuels became completely intellectually indefensible. That didn’t mean [the industry] wouldn’t keep doing it. They’ve behaved like that before….
They’ll do their best to exact revenge during an election year, which makes this all the braver and more interesting. But Biden can now say credibly that he’s done more than any U.S. president on clean energy, with the Inflation Reduction Act, and more to check dirty energy. Granted, that’s a low bar. But you’ve still got to cross it.
The Mix: Are you surprised that the COP28 declaration is making its way into policy so fast?
McKibben: Not completely, because we’ve been waging this fight and we may well have won it anyway. The combination of concerns about local effects on the ground in the Gulf [of Mexico], which has just been turned into a shameless sacrifice zone, and the local effects, made for a strong argument. The new data showing that LNG exports are even worse than coal added to the whole picture.
But for me, Dubai tipped the balance. The whole COP process is at some level deeply farcical…but [that one sentence] was something that activists can use, and we did, and to good effect. I think it may turn out to be as important as the inclusion of 1.5°C in the Paris declaration, which was added at the last minute as a sop to small island nations and developing countries. I don’t think any of the negotiators understood that it would become the most important part of that declaration.
At some level, there had to be some reaction from the world to the fact that we have the hottest temperatures in 125,000 years. There’s just a certain point where the facts are going to change and the brute reality of what’s not transpiring on the ground becomes overwhelming.
The Mix: There’s been speculation that a climate test for LNG in the United States will open up global markets for other possible exporters, like British Columbia. What are you hearing?
McKibben: I don’t know, but I tend to doubt it. The real blow is to the idea that we’re just going to use LNG around the world for the next 40 years. Countries are saying we’d better figure out how to use much cheaper, cleaner, smarter renewable energy that’s now available, because it’s just increasingly problematic—increasingly suicidal—to ship fossil fuels around the world. It’s nuts. It’s not like the pressures that produced 2023 are going to go away.
So plenty of people will try to take advantage [of the Biden administration pause], and doubtless some of them will be in Canada, but one hopes that leaders in Ottawa will look at Biden and say, we’ve got some cover now. If the United States, where the political system is not exactly noted for its functionality, can bring itself to take this common sense stance, surely Canada is capable of something like it.
The Mix: Well, Canada’s political climate isn’t exactly very functional right now, either. You’re saying that Biden’s action signals our current federal government to double down on climate action?
McKibben: Biden is making a gamble that doing the right thing will pay off politically. There’s clear evidence in the U.S. that 70% of the country wants action on climate change. In 2020, the number one voting issue for Democrats was climate change. So it’s a serious part of the political conversation that he’s now bolstered considerably. At a certain point, reality just has to have some weight, and it’s not like we have many more electoral terms to waste. We’re really right down to the precipice now.
The Mix: What are the most important pressure points to get the fast shifts and deep emission cuts we need?
McKibben: The thing that’s hopeful, and the most important part of this on some level, is that clean energy is now considerably cheaper than dirty energy. So the fossil fuel industry is keeping itself alive in the face of economic reality as well as scientific reality. It depends on political gamesmanship to survive, and that goes in all kinds of directions, including the financial industry. The Royal Bank of Canada is catching up with the Big Four American banks in the global fossil fuel funding sweepstakes, and that’s a bad sign.
But the argument is changing. For several decades, the fossil fuel industry would say, yeah, but what else are you going to do? And now, the ‘what else’ is obvious. You don’t need to burn stuff on our planet because the sun is burning merrily away, 93 million miles away. We know how to catch its rays, and we know how to take advantage of the fact that it differentially heats the Earth to create the winds that turn those turbines. And now we have batteries to store the power when the sun goes down and the wind drops.
So combustion on our planet is now an entirely voluntary event, and the sooner we stop it, the better. Not only because we’ll wreck our climate system, but because nine million people die each year from burning the byproducts of fossil fuels.
And when you depend on stuff that is available in only a few places, the people who control it end up with more power than they deserve, from Vladimir Putin, to the Koch brothers in the U.S., and perhaps the leaders of Alberta. Alberta is one of my favourite places, and it does not need to remain dependent on the biggest single physical scar on the planet.
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he and the rest of the Energy Mix team scan 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix, The Energy Mix Weekender, and our weekly feature digests, Cities & Communities and Heat & Power.
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