Past Event

A Conversation with Bill McKibben

Climate Change, Global Transformation, and Youth Activism

5:30 - 7:30 PM EDT

“[The climate crisis] is the most daunting problem human beings have ever faced,” said Bill McKibben Tuesday at an American Progress event. McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, has been a leading voice on climate change since the 1989 publication of his book The End of Nature. Andrew Light, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, joined McKibben for a discussion on climate change and related issues.

Climate change is not only a daunting problem, but also becoming more so as further evidence comes to light. “Every time we thought we understood something about climate, the truth has turned out to be worse than we thought,” said McKibben, who noted that in the past 18 months the necessity of achieving an agreement on climate change has become incredibly pressing. This panic, however, might provide the political fuel to tackle the issue in a substantial way as we approach the December 2009 date of the next U. N. climate change meeting where a successor to the Kyoto Protocol must be finalized.

After many years of inaction on global warming the United States appears ready to do something. “Finally this year it looks like there will be a serious effort by Congress to put a cap on the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere,” said McKibben. A cap is a crucial step toward addressing climate change, argued McKibben, but it is only the first of many measures we must immediately implement to make winning the fight against global warming a remote possibility. “What we do this year in Congress is not going to be the thing that saves the planet,” McKibben warned. “We’re going to have to have thorough transformation of this country’s and this world’s energy system away from fossil fuel.”

McKibben considers it his responsibility as a climate activist to mobilize a grassroots movement that will give Congress the space they need to pass legislation. McKibben made the leap from writer to organizer through his involvement with Middlebury students—in 2006 he organized a climate rally with students in Vermont that drew over 1,000 people. “The next day the paper reported that this 1,000 people may have been the biggest climate rally in the U.S,” said McKibben. “It got me thinking about the climate activist groups on the Middlebury campus and how to bring that to a national scale.” This led McKibben, along with six Middlebury students, to create the Step It Up campaign, which organized over 1,400 climate demonstrations across the country in April 2007.

“Work in the field, direct activism, and civil disobedience can sometimes be the pressure that’s needed at critical moments of legislative decision making,” remarked Light. McKibben’s latest grassroots venture,, is hoping to apply this same pressure at the international level. The campaign is using the Internet to organize people across the globe to take a stance for climate change on October 24, and it hopes to make an impact on the December U.N. meeting. The group also wants to encourage the Unites States to take responsibility for the role it has played in carbon emissions by leading the way to a new international agreement.

“If there was a reason that we invented the Internet, we’re now discovering that it was for,” said McKibben. As the Obama campaign has demonstrated, the Internet is an incredibly powerful organizing tool and a large focus of is to find new and creative ways to use the web for climate activism.

With regard to energy efficiency, McKibben pointed out that cities who are taking steps to be more energy efficient look nothing like those in America. In Copenhagen, for example, 40 percent of people commute on bikes. And a survey of Japanese college students found that 50 percent of them have no desire to own a car in their lifetimes while the average European uses half the energy of their American counterpart. A sea change in American attitudes about transportation, infrastructure, and even wealth is needed to eventually equal these results.

It is clear that the United States must undergo a change in attitude about climate change, and activist movements will be an important catalyst in bringing this about. But the road ahead is steep. McKibben pointed out that “a recent poll revealed that only 13 percent of Republicans in Congress believe that climate change is real.” As McKibben concluded, “we’re not going to win this one light bulb at a time.” There must be sweeping change, and it has to happen now.

Featured Speaker:
Bill McKibben, Scholar-in-Residence, Middlebury College

Moderated by:
Andrew Light, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress