Bill McKibben On Climate Crisis, Climate Grief, Climate Action, & US Climate Policy — CleanTechnica Interview

In this episode of CleanTech Talk, renowned climate author and social movement leader Bill McKibben and I talk about the climate change crisis we’re quickly rolling into, climate grief and how to deal with it, US climate policy, rampant conspiracy theories, the great energy transition, and more. Listen to this first part of a two-part interview via the embedded SoundCloud player below or on your favorite podcast platform (links below).

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We quickly jumped into the core issue society is facing in the 21st century: even though we are quickly deploying and adopting cleantech solutions (solar energy, wind energy, electric cars, electric buses, etc.), we consistently remain a little behind what’s needed in order to stop our growing climate crisis. In fact, at times, it seems like we’re falling further and further behind in our challenge rather than catching up. Unfortunately, one thing we’ve discovered in recent years is that as scary and “alarmist” as climate scientists’ messages were a decade ago, those scientists were largely underestimating the risk and destruction. The situation looks worse today than it did then. The following tweet thread from climate scientist Peter Gleick was not covered in our discussion, as Gleick just published it last night and McKibben and I had recorded the podcast long before that, but it captures the point well:

McKibben, who wrote the first book about climate change for a general audience back in 1989, noted in his introduction of himself that he now spends much of his time “volunteering at the task of failing to save the world.” In response, I said, “Yeah … we’re making so much progress, but it always feels like we’re a sizable distance behind what we need to do to solve the climate challenge.” McKibben’s framing in response was superb: “That’s exactly right, and the reason it’s right and the thing that’s the hardest to get across always to people is this one’s a timed test. And we’re just not used to timed tests in our public life.”

My first question for McKibben came from one of our top writers, Steve Hanley (who McKibben seemed to be a fan of). Steve’s question was about climate grief. He wanted to know McKibben’s take on climate grief, and on how climate grief could be leveraged to create political change. With his characteristic straight honesty, McKibben noted that he’s been feeling more climate grief lately due to all that has been going on this year — extreme flooding in some regions (like Europe and China), extreme wildfires in others (most notably Greece and the US West, which created so much smoke that it actually blew over in large volume to the East Coast). I think many of us have felt the same this year — even, as he noted, with decades of understanding that this was coming.

“In my experience, the only way to deal with that emotional toll — and it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a partial one — is to be as active — as activist — as possible,” he said. “And I think that there are times when the only antidote in my life for that sadness that works is anger, and anger particularly at the forces in our society — the fossil fuel industry above all — that have systematically lied about this for decades and put us in the position where we are.” A Zen master might have said something else, but I think many people can relate to this, especially many CleanTechnica readers and listeners. McKibben did then add, “I’m not sure that that anger is any emotionally healthier than the grief, but it’s probably more productive in terms of getting stuff done, because we’re still at a place where breaking the political power of the fossil fuel industry is crucial to working at the pace where we now need to go.”

Continuing on the topic of climate politics, I brought up Senator Joe Manchin and the fact that he is a huge blockade to climate progress in Congress. Democrats have a slim majority in both the House and Senate and a rare chance to initiate strong climate legislation, but Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema have been blocking progress on this for months. The former, Manchin, has received more campaign funding from fossil fuel industries than any other US senator (Republican or Democrat), and the latter has completely swerved from being a member of the Arizona Green Party to being the opposite of a Green.

“I gotta say, it feels to me like the Biden administration is doing what they can right now […] — not everything, and there’s plenty that I wish they were doing that they could, like stopping big fossil fuel projects and things — but on this front of getting legislation passed, you know, it now looks like we’ve got this bipartisan infrastructure bill, which isn’t particularly good on climate — it includes a lot of stupid giveaways to the fossil fuel industry — but it’s something, and it was the price for getting this other reconciliation $3½ trillion thing that we’re going to be fighting over for the next couple of months, and that really seems to represent the one big chance that America will take a big cut at the climate crisis in this decade. So, I think it’s incumbent on all of us to think how we can help make that happen. It is incredibly frustrating that Prime Minister Manchin gets to sign off on everything that happens, but that’s where we are! It’s a reminder that it would be good to win a few more senate seats next time around, so we weren’t in quite the same hamstrung position.

“But, look, our political machine is clearly geared to prevent change, not to accelerate it. It’s an antiquated system in every way, from the filibuster and the Electoral College on down. Right now, in an era when we need incredibly urgent action, that’s particularly frustrating. But, that said — what a difference a year has made! At least the country is no longer run, for the moment, by absolute jackasses. The fact that we came into 2020 with a president of the United States who believed that climate change was a hoax invented by the Chinese — I mean, if you were sitting on a bus next to someone who was muttering that, you’d get up and change seats, but this was the guy who was running our country.”

I took the opportunity to point out that the first article I wrote about Donald Trump running for president was “Could The US Really Elect A Conspiracy Theorist?” Unfortunately, the country’s propensity for dangerous, idiotic conspiracy theories was even much greater than I anticipated.

I also asked McKibben if he thought the extreme weather events we’ve been seeing lately have been bringing more people into the climate action cause and could make the difference we need. To hear McKibben answer this question and talk more about the positive trends of the past few years, listen to the whole podcast chat. Of course, we also talked more about the urgency of the matter and the challenges we’re facing. Part two will be coming soon too, so stay tuned to CleanTechnica. I will preview that it covers significantly more complicated and nuanced matters within the US and global climate solutions community.


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