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Bill McKibben Talks COVID-19 and Climate Change

VIDEO: This crisis can be a catalyst for shifting how we think and act, says the noted author and activist.

Tyee Staff 20 Apr

Bill McKibben sees Earth Day approaching and muses about what might have been. The movement he helps lead had planned to fill the lobbies of 2,500 Chase banks around the world with people engaging in civil disobedience against that financial giant’s massive investments in fossil fuels.

Instead, because of the pandemic, the protest — and celebration of a potential greener future — has shifted online this coming Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Search the web for “Earth Day Live,” McKibben urges. “It’s going to be pretty cool.”

Making a similar digital pivot, the Salt Spring Forum, which used to present in-person interviews before an audience on the Gulf Island it’s named for, has switched to talking with leading thinkers over the internet — in this case connecting with McKibben from his home in Vermont.

In 1989, McKibben wrote End of Nature, the first book about climate change for a general audience. He co-founded, a climate campaigning organization in 188 countries, and recently began publishing via The New Yorker a free weekly newsletter called The Climate Crisis.

On Friday, for the third Salt Spring Forum in partnership with The Tyee, McKibben video-conversed with Fraser Byers, a 17-year-old student from Salt Spring who has studied some of McKibben’s work while at UWC Mahindra College in India. Byers, now back on Salt Spring due to COVID-19, posed to McKibben questions of his own and ones submitted by Tyee readers and others, resulting in a 35-minute discussion that touched on what the pandemic is teaching about scientific realities, social possibilities, and the need to act early.

The conversation begins with Byers noting younger people, who face shrinking financial expectations due to the pandemic and costs exacted by the climate crisis, are looking to the older generations to match the sacrifices they are being asked to make.

“We do need older people to start being more responsible about the climate crisis,” McKibben agrees, while cautioning against making the fight “about generational combat.” He was excited to get to know Greta Thunberg and is “super-impressed” by the role of young people in the rising climate movement. “There turn out to be 20,000 Gretas all over the world.” Still, says McKibben, “I don’t want older people to think it’s okay to take the biggest problem that the world ever faced and just load it onto the shoulders of people in grade 10. I hope one lesson of the whole COVID thing actually is that we’re all in this together and we’ve got watch out for each other.”

McKibben and Byers segue into lessons COVID-19 is teaching. The first, McKibben notes, is that “Physical reality is real.” Accepting so basic a fact is “really hard for a lot of people in this modern world,” McKibben says, given we spend so much time in front of screens in our temperature-controlled environments. “But I’ve spent the past 30 years trying to convince people that physics and chemistry are real. You can’t spin them. They won’t compromise with you. You can’t pump all the tar sands dry because if you do it sends the CO2 concentration to 500 parts per million and then the world burns up. And people are resistant to that,” McKibben has discovered.

Then came the pandemic. “The lesson of the COVID crisis is that biology is real,” he says. “Trump can’t intimidate the COVID microbe. The fact that he calls it a hoax doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean anything.” This makes the coronavirus crisis, like the climate emergency, “different from other political issues,” says McKibben. “Most political issues really are best solved through some sort of compromise. But in this case that’s not how it works. If the COVID microbe says everybody stand six feet apart,” because that’s the distance at which it won’t be transmitted, “you don’t get to say, ‘No, I’d rather stand two feet apart.’”

The big reason, however, that people are more willing to accept the word of scientists and public health officials about the coronavirus compared to warnings about climate change, McKibben notes, is “there’s not, happily, a trillion dollar industry whose interest lies in getting us all to catch the coronavirus. There is a trillion dollar industry who interest lies in overheating the planet so they can keep pumping oil. That is a big difference.”

Another lesson of the pandemic, McKibben says, is this: “Delay is fatal. Countries like the U.S. that didn’t flatten the COVID curve early on are paying a huge price compared to ones that did, like South Korea.”

“This is exactly the same comparison — just played out over weeks instead of decades — with the carbon curve. Had we gone to work when scientists raised the alarm 30 years ago, we could have done some fairly modest things. Like putting a higher price on carbon that would have steered the economy in a profoundly different direction. But since we didn’t, since we emitted more CO2 since 1990 than all of history before, now we have to do some very disruptive things. And we’re still going to pay a huge price.”

Will citizens and their governments absorb such lessons?

Trying to restore the global economy as it was would be like “setting up pins in the bowling alley so they get knocked down again,” said McKibben. Noting the collapse in oil prices and predictions of a post-pandemic depression, he said, “You can’t go back to normal and, say, build the Keystone pipeline.” He praised the South Korean government for “explicitly” stating it was embracing a “green new deal” approach to transitioning its economy.

Byers relays the question: what can citizens do to make that transition?

“You could be continuing to make clear to everybody in Ottawa and your provincial capitals that we don’t want to go back. The worst response is to figure out how you are somehow going to get the price of oil back up. If you build the future on what is failing you now, it is probably going to fail you again. So bring strongly the message we need to build in a different way.”

Was climate change a big factor in the arrival of COVID-19? “Probably not,” responds McKibben, while noting “human disruption of ecosystems clearly brings humans and animals in closer contact,” and from such contact likely arose the coronavirus. However, “there are zillions of diseases directly linked to a warming climate,” McKibben says, citing Dengue fever, the Zika virus and others.

But the pandemic does feel like a “rehearsal,” McKibben says, for “dealing with crisis and disruption,” predicting with near certainty that climate change is going to bring more crises. Which brings McKibben to another lesson taught by COVID-19: “Social solidarity. The places doing best are where people have a pretty high level of social trust.” He does not place his own country on that list. “In the U.S., we’ve spent the last 40 years telling each other markets solve all problems, you should just go and be an individual, read some more Ayn Rand novels.”

Ronald Reagan, the president who moved the U.S. sharply to the right in the 1980s, “famously said, ‘The nine scariest words in the English language are I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’ Well it turns out those aren’t the scariest words. They are ‘We’ve run out of ventilators’ or ‘The hillside behind your house is now on fire.’ Those are really scary and those require having strong governments, strong societies in order to deal with them.”

One person wanted to know: Does McKibben think that a green economy can match the growth of the current capitalism? Or is growth and defeating climate change irreconcilable?

“This crisis is reminding us that the continued pursuit of economic growth may not be what we want,” answers McKibben. “It’s had all kinds of results, a lot of them good. Our lives are easy. But we’re seeing the downsides now. Temperatures up, oceans acidifying, the Arctic melting.”

“What we want going forward is an economy that places a lot more emphasis on stability, resilience, hardiness — not so much on growth.” McKibben invites the comparison of a “race horse and a draft horse. One is just strong and tough and squat and powerful. The other is fleet,” but unsuited to the task at hand now.

Will the slowdown of the global economy lower the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and Earth’s temperatures? No, says McKibben. The bigger impact has been on our imaginations.

“In cities around world, people are experiencing clean air,” some of them filling their lungs with it for the first time, McKibben notes. People need to be reminded that “we know how to organize things so this can be like this all the time. We actually have most of the technology we need to make that more resilient world.”

McKibben cites the steeply dropped price of wind and solar power. In India, for example, which is revving its economy at the moment renewable energy is becoming more affordable, there is an opportunity to avoid China’s fossil-fuel intensive build-up and skip directly to greener energy sources, he says. He notes that half the children of Delhi, some 2.5 million of them, suffer from lung damage due to air pollution. “We are terrified of getting lung damage from COVID-19, as well we should be. But remember there are hundreds of millions of people around the world with lung damage from air pollution.”

Given the double whammy of COVID-19 and climate change, what is the future for travel and tourism?

“It probably has something to do with more locally-based tourism. It makes complete sense for people in B.C. to go to Salt Spring Island,” says McKibben, who says he has fond memories of time spent there. “But it makes less sense to crisscross the planet.” Last year he gave around 400 talks by Skype. Once the pandemic has subsided, says McKibben, it still would be a good idea for people to conduct sales conferences and other business online instead of traveling for face-to-face meetings.

Byers poses: Will the pandemic have a positive or negative impact on climate action?

“That depends on how well we organize and how much we get people to think,” responds McKibben. “The simple fact that people are now conversant with the concept that delay is dangerous probably will have a salutary effect,” he muses. More of us “will understand that acting early is better.”

McKibben shifts his focus to his own nation. “The most important day of the year probably for the whole world will be Nov. 3.” That is when U.S. voters choose their next president and government. “If we re-elect Trump in this country it is very, very hard to see how we’re going to be making, as a world, the progress on climate change that we need to.” Donald Trump, says McKibben, is an “enormous speed bump on the road to where we need to go.”

Scientists conclude “there is a ten-year window in which we still have real leverage over this problem,” McKibben says to Fraser Byers and his generation. “If we don’t deal with it soon, then the rest of your lives will be dominated by the emergencies that arise.”

The emergency that is COVID-19 is “showing how unfun it is to deal with a real, huge crisis,” says McKibben. He finds another lesson in that fact. If we aren’t much liking this crisis, he advises, everyone should do whatever it takes to avoid more of them.

What “key message” does Bill McKibben have for young people working to combat climate change? “The key message is keep it up. Young people have done a really great job.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Coronavirus, Environment

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