Bill McKibben on Climate Change and the Keystone Pipeline

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We caught up with writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben this afternoon via phone to ask him about the 24-hour campaign that his organization, 350.org, and over 40 other environmental and progressive groups are working on today. They’re asking people opposed to the Keystone XL oil pipeline to sign a petition and email their senators to tell them that they are against the pipeline.

Theresa Riley: What do people need to know about the Keystone Pipeline?

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben: The Keystone Pipeline would connect the tar sands of Alberta with the Gulf of Mexico so that oil can be exported off the continent. Those tar sands are the second largest pool of carbon on the planet besides the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. It was burning the oil fields of Saudi Arabia — more than anything else — that raised the temperature of the planet a degree already. If we go to the second Saudi Arabia and do the same thing, then we’re not behaving wisely.

Jim Hansen at NASA, who is the most important climatologist in the world, last year said that if we tap those tar sands heavily, it would be “game over” for the planet, which is why people in America are fighting the Keystone Pipeline and people in Canada are fighting just as hard to block another proposed pipeline that would go west to the Pacific.

Riley: There’s a lot of conflicting information about what the pipeline might bring in terms of jobs and other benefits. What’s the truth?

McKibben: There’s been endless misinformation put out by the fossil fuel industry because this is one of the rare times they’ve had even a temporary loss — and they haven’t reacted well. Probably the biggest single lie that they have promulgated over and over again is that this would create, depending on whom you asked, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Riley: One study, done by Cornell University, estimated that the pipeline would generate only between 2,500 to 4,650 jobs temporary construction jobs

McKibben: [That’s] the only study not funded by TransCanada. It went on to say the pipeline would [ultimately] destroy more jobs than it would create.

Riley: What is going on this week on Capitol Hill?

McKibben: The president denied the permit for the pipeline and now the oil industry harem in Congress is doing its best to get it approved without the president. It introduced legislation that would mandate an automatic approval of the pipeline.

So we’re having to organize again. In the last year, we’ve gone to jail. We’ve surrounded the White House with people. This week, we’re working with pixels and keystrokes. We’ve launched today an email blitz. It’s the most concentrated burst of environmental advocacy this millennia. In the first 4 hours [this morning], over 350,000 people have already written their senators. We hope that before the 24 hours that we are doing this is over, we will have busted through the half-million mark.

A 350.org protest against the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011.
2011 protest against the Keystone XL pipeline organized by 350.org. Courtesy of 350.org.

We need the Senate, particularly the Democratic leadership in the Senate to back up the president. He showed courage in denying this pipeline permit because Big Oil promised that they would make him pay. The head of the American Petroleum Institute said we will exact “huge political consequences.” That’s a threat they have the money to carry out. We don’t have the money to match them. We have Americans who care, and so we’re working just as hard as we can to make that clear to the Democrats in the Senate.

I think this may turn out to be one of the biggest days of electronic organizing, certainly in the environmental movement’s history, there’s no question of that, but one of the biggest days ever. Every environmental group has pulled together on this, which is not something that’s happened in the past. The unity is very impressive. From the corporate friendly Environmental Defense Fund to the corporate unfriendly Rainforest Action Network, every environmental group is pulling together along with many other parts of the progressive movement. Occupy Wall Street has gone to its list of supporters — so has MoveOn, Change.org and Democracy for America and many, many other faith-based and labor groups. What Wisconsin was to the labor movement, this Keystone fight has become to environmentalists. It’s the most important environmental issue in a very long time.

Riley: So your aim this week is to get the legislation voted down —

McKibben: That’s right. We want to make sure the Democratic leadership doesn’t even let this legislation come to a vote, in the transportation bill or any other bill. We’re doing our best to drive a stake through the heart of this zombie pipeline that keeps lurching back to life because the fossil fuel industry has so much money.

Riley: And if you’re successful with that — then what?

McKibben: We’ll keep working on this, but I think the next step is to go on the offensive, too. We’re going to be talking a lot in the next couple months about the subsidies that the Congress gives the fossil fuel industry. They are paying them billions of dollars a year at a time when we have many other needs for that money. They have no need for it because they are the most profitable industry in the history of the planet. It’s pure political pay off. They give small presents to legislators who then give them big presents with our money.

Riley: A lot of the Republican presidential candidates have been talking about the pipeline on the campaign trail, and I’m wondering if you think that this is the most important energy issue of this election?

McKibben: Of course the Republican presidential candidates are talking about it because they’re all on record as saying that climate change isn’t real. Of course it doesn’t bother them. And they don’t seem overly worried about the prospect of spilling oil across the heartland or ripping up Alberta or anything else. They might as well be employees of the fossil fuel industry; that’s where their money comes from. They might as well wear uniforms like the guys used to at the gas station and ask you if you’d like your windshield cleaned with your fill-up.

We realize that in any battle of money, we’re going to lose. So we have to find other currencies to work in and those are our spirit and passion and creativity, and our numbers, our bodies, so we’re increasingly willing to lay them on the line — to go to jail, to go out in the streets and to spend days hunched over keyboards emailing away.

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