Harper government is ‘wholly owned subsidiary’ of fossil fuel industry: Bill McKibben

The climate crusader and 350.org founder speaks out on pipelines, the upcoming Paris UN summit and the need to move fast
Photo: Stephen Melkisethian

Bill McKibben is one of the most recognizable faces of the global climate justice movement. A prolific writer, activist and a founder of the formidable 350.org, McKibben is travelling widely in the months leading up to UN climate talks set for December 2015. Ricochet editor Ethan Cox recently caught up with him during a visit to Montreal.

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One of the arguments that comes up is that limiting carbon emissions in a country like Canada is useless, because the bulk of emissions are in developing countries. How much of the problem, in terms of global warming, is based in Canada?

The tar sands are one of the biggest carbon deposits on earth. There are other huge carbon deposits, the Galilee Basin coal mine in Australia, the Powder River Basin coal mine in the U.S., big deposits in China and one in Eastern Europe. We need to work to keep all of them in the ground, and we are working on all of them. Canada's is one of the furthest along of these huge carbon bombs in terms of being developed. Arctic oil is another one; we're all working hard on that.

It's a very strange position. The world is used to Canada being a helpful nation that solves problems. But there's really no one who is missing their targets by wider margins, pulling out of treaties in the same way right now. The Harper government has become a sort of wholly owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry.

I've heard it said that at this point Canada is the single biggest obstacle to a deal on climate in Paris in December. Do you think that's fair?

Canada and Australia certainly are. Canada and Australia are kind of mirror images of each other at the opposite ends of the planet. Reactionary governments, dominated by the fossil fuel industry, which are managing to screw their own economies by a wholehearted devotion to doing one thing. It's particularly obnoxious because Canada and Australia are countries which don't have to do this. If Canada wasn't full of educated people who could think of lots of other ways to make a living, then maybe it would be one thing. But it is a highly educated, sophisticated society, whose leaders have decided to go for the cheapest possible, dirtiest possible buck. It's painful.

The good news is I don't think that represents most Canadians. The polling is clear; most Canadians aren't happy with the Harper regime, but they haven't figured out how to get rid of it yet. It is incredibly inspiring to see the organizing going on here. Much of the work about extractive economies around the world got its start from Canadians, especially First Nations people, working on the tar sands, and I can't think of any better organizers in the whole world.

Five or ten years ago if you said "stop all pipelines" you would have been branded as crazy, but now that's becoming a more respectable position. So do you feel the tide is finally turning, that we're finally turning a corner on climate change?

We're turning one corner. Every responsible person in the world is now in agreement that we have to do something about climate change. It's moved up the political agenda, and the release of the Pope's encyclical will only attract more attention. The question now is, how fast are we going to do anything? Respectable opinion, rich people, the fossil fuel industry would like us to move very slowly, in order to let them extract every last bit of profit they can from the old way of doing things. So the job now of the climate movement is to push for fast change. Fast, thorough, deep change. That's harder, you know. Because they can take some of the pressure off, saying "okay, we agree with you, it's time to shift" and then not much happens.

How do we make sure that politicians are not only making clear commitments on climate, but also then living up to those promises once elected?

There's no substitute for having strong, active movements. That's the only way. I wrote a piece for the New York Times a few weeks ago which argued that Barack Obama is a climate denier. He accepts the climate science, says all the right things, but then he grants Shell a permit to go drill in the Arctic. That's a denial of the need to take dramatic, quick action.

In Canada, both the Liberals and NDP have thus far refused to take a clear position on the proposed Energy East pipeline. Now the Bloc Québécois, who were something of a spent force, have a new leader and a clear position against the pipeline, and they could take votes from either party in Quebec on this issue. What do you make of Canada’s political landscape with a fall election approaching?

It's time for the NDP to just step up. We have them [oil companies] blocked to the south, I don't think they're going to build Keystone, and people did a great job on the west coast, blocking Northern Gateway. If you're worried about the effect of the tar sands on the climate, the only vehicle you have to express it that means much at this point is to make sure that Energy East doesn't get built.

If you build Energy East, you are saying, "It's okay to dig up a hell of a lot more of Alberta and put it into the atmosphere."

We have been talking a lot in Quebec about pipelines, especially Energy East. But there's relatively little awareness in this province about the upcoming UN climate summit in Paris. Can you tell us a little more about what to expect from that meeting?

Paris is one more stop along this road. People should not make the mistake they made around Copenhagen, of thinking it's a be-all and end-all and it'll solve all our problems. It's not. So it doesn't bother me at all if people don't pay that much attention to Paris. It'll get its share of news coverage when the time comes, but the real fights are what goes on here. If we stand up to the fossil fuel industry hard at home, then our leaders when they go to Paris will have some ability to stand up to them there.

Tell me a little about the logic of keeping these deposits in the ground. Even if we block Energy East, it's just one pipeline, in one direction. Can you explain a little more about the overall strategy?

The fossil fuel industry is getting it from both sides now. We're busy trying to keep them from expanding, and if we can do that for a few more years, they're completely sunk, because the cost of a solar panel keeps falling. It falls another couple of percent every month. The logic of fossil fuel is eroding on a daily basis. These guys know that, and that's why they're desperate to get infrastructure built now. If they can do it in the next few years, then that infrastructure will last 40 or 50 years, and there will be some sort of economic argument for extracting the oil.

If they can't, if they don't get these pipelines built in the next few years, people in 20 years will look at the tar sands and say, "What the fuck were we thinking? This clearly makes no sense at all." So it's a big deal.

You mentioned that your organization, 350.org, is organizing a series of climate-related events in July. They've been billed as a convergence between labour, Indigenous and environmental activists. Can you tell us more about what you have planned?

It's going to be great. I can't wait. We had some experience of this last fall in New York [at the People’s Climate March]. We had a big, broad coalition and it was fantastic. We had 400,000 people in the street and the first 20 blocks were all Indigenous people, that's who was in the lead, frontline communities. There was also a big labour contingent.

On July 4 there will be actions all across Canada, decentralized actions, the closest to here being in Hudson and Oka, in an effort to slow down the Energy East pipeline spree. Then July 5 in Toronto there will be a big climate march, led by labour, led by First Nations people, scientists, all the people you could want. It's going to be a big deal, because Canada's a big deal. It's got way more than its share of the world's carbon, and if it keeps insisting on digging it all up, then the planet is in serious trouble.

One of the myths of all this has been that labour and environmentalists are opposed, but for the most part that's not true. The labour movement understands more with each passing month that you need to have a working planet for working people. They also understand, and this keeps getting truer in the U.S., that our enemies are the same. The biggest leaseholders in the tar sands in Canada are the Koch brothers, who are also the most virulently anti-union force on the whole planet. So there's a lot of room for convergence.

What do you say to people who make the argument that acting swiftly, with the speed you're talking about on climate, will harm the economy?

My guess is that it's the opposite. First of all, every serious analysis of the cost of rapid climate change is so dire, and the amount of money it takes to deal with it is so enormous, that anything we can do to head that off is great. Second thing is, it's pretty clear there's going to be a big advantage for the early movers in this fight. The Germans have already gotten a big jump on everybody. For a country that's at 45 degrees northern latitude they somehow own the solar industry for the whole planet, for the moment. But there's plenty of room for other early movers, and that's what Canada is so perfectly positioned to do. You guys have lots of smart people, and lots of wind and lots of tide and lots of geothermal, and you've got a small enough population that you could quite easily handle its needs with renewable energy.

The only people who are going to get hurt in this are the big leaseholders in the tar sands, and they deserve to get hurt because their business plan requires wrecking the only planet that we've got. Why one should feel any sympathy for them, I don't know. I'm not a good enough person to have developed the kind of sympathy required to feel bad for Suncor or whatever.

It's very exciting to watch Canada shifting, and it's so clear now that B.C. has shifted. They are not interested in being the oil industry's playground. Simply not willing to do it. Amazing to watch Alberta start to wise up to the fact they've been sold a bill of goods and turned into a resource extraction province.

So now it's exciting to see eastern Canada begin to understand the same set of things. I think, instinctively, eastern Canada has always known that none of this helps them much. If anything, just the opposite, the over-focus of the Canadian economy on tar sands oil has been ruinous for anyone who wants to do anything else.

Now to see that instinctive understanding really start to sink in, that's a really nice thing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Click here for more on 350.org’s WE > TAR SANDS campaign and the March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate in Toronto on July 5th.
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