Bill McKibben has a message for Aspen’s billionaires

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Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Private jets in Aspen.

Bill McKibben first wrote about the changing climate more than 30 years ago, and he continues to document global warming and speak out against the largest culprits. Most recently, he was arrested while protesting Chase Bank’s ties to the fossil-fuel industry. 

McKibben will be in Aspen this weekend, learning to downhill ski and speaking as part of Aspen Skiing Company’s occasional speaker series Aspen U. Elizabeth Stewart-Severy talked on the phone with McKibben from his home in Vermont. 

Nancie Battaglia

Climate activist and writer Bill McKibben will discuss what to do about the climate crisis at an Aspen U speaker series event Saturday. He was recently arrested while protesting Chase Bank’s ties to the fossil fuel industry.

You’re coming to Aspen to talk about climate change — but also to learn to ski. Under most projections, the ski industry is looking to suffer pretty badly from climate change. Why do you want to learn to ski now? 

It must be said that I actually ski a lot. I’m a die-hard cross-country skier and just came in from a ski through our woods here in Vermont. But I am eager to get to Aspen and get up — I don’t know if I’ll be able to ski down the mountain, but I am eager to ride the chairlift up and just take a look at all the beautiful mountains from up top. 

As for skiing, it could be one of the, I guess, less important but more painful casualties of the climate-warming era. Already, the number of days on average that winter lasts is shrinking. Already, in the West there is considerably less snow on average than there used to be. We’re starting to watch a whole season that’s helped define the psychology of people at our latitude for eons; we’re watching it begin to disappear. 

The ski and outdoor industries want to move the needle on climate change and bring action on climate change. Here, locally, Aspen Skiing Company is focused on national lobbying efforts rather than emphasizing their efforts to reduce emissions from local operations. The company gets criticism for this and for hosting events like X-Games, which are taking place this weekend and have a large carbon footprint. Is that fair criticism? 

I think actually at this point, the changes that we need to make are so large that probably the best leverage does come from trying to work on national and international policies. 

I’m coming to Aspen mostly because, frankly, it’s where lots and lots of people in the financial industry come to play, and the financial industry — the biggest banks and asset managers in the world — are increasingly the focus of efforts to try and slow down climate change. 

I think perhaps Larry Fink, from BlackRock, the single biggest financial company in the world, is a sometime-Aspenite. And you probably saw the fairly remarkable news that after unrelenting pressure from activists, BlackRock is now stepping up its efforts to at least begin doing something about climate change. We need a lot more of that. 

So, for me, the fact that there are people in Aspen who need to understand the effects of their businesses on the one planet that we’ve got is the most significant draw. 

So, are you coming to Aspen hoping to reach some of the super-wealthy people who come here on vacation, or with second- and third-homes or live here?

If I’m not able to reach them, then I’ll settle for reaching the people who take them for ski lessons and give them yoga classes and hope that it all begins to trickle down somehow to these guys, because we really — we’re out of time. 

I was arrested in the lobby of a Chase Bank in Washington, D.C., the one nearest the Capitol — I wrote about it in The (New York) Times. We’re launching this big, big campaign to get players like Chase and the big insurance companies and the big asset managers — BlackRock, Vanguard, State Street, Citibank, Wells Fargo, BofA (Bank of America) — to get them to do the right thing, because right now they’re doing the wrong thing and doing it with incredible effect. Just like the fossil-fuel companies, the big financial firms are now carbon majors. Their money is driving the destruction of the planet.

Let’s talk a little bit more about finance and climate change. As you mentioned, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, just announced that it would start placing a larger focus on climate change in its investment decisions. You wrote that this was “seismic.” Can you tell us a little bit more about the potential impact of such a move? Does it give you hope that we can turn things around?

I think it’s less seismic in the short-term details of the policies they announced, which are not all that far-reaching. They’re mostly talking about coal, not gas and oil, at this point. 

The part that, when I wrote in The New Yorker, was seismic about it was simply that the institution with, by far the most money in the world, is now saying that they’re deeply unsettled about the financial future of the fossil-fuel industry. And so, as a result, everyone else will be unsettled about that future, too, and it’ll make it more expensive for these firms, these fossil-fuel companies, to raise capital, harder to find the people to back their insane ventures like new pipelines or going off to drill in the Arctic or whatever it is. And that’ll help. It’ll help. We don’t know exactly how much it will help, but it will definitely help some.

One of the reasons that we’re really going after the financial community is because they could move fast. Our political systems, you may have noticed, tend to move rather slowly, and that’s partly because of the enormous influence of the fossil-fuel industry on our political systems. But the financial industry can, when pressured, move quickly. And when it moves, it moves globally, which is an asset here, too, because they don’t call it global warming for nothing.

I want to come back to individual accountability. The young face of climate activism right now, Greta Thunberg, has really taken individual accountability to a whole new level. She refuses to fly as she lobbies for action on climate change.

I know her and like her and work hard with her, (and) she said this fall that the point of what she was doing was not to tell people that they should never fly. The point of doing it was to point out how hard it is to travel sustainably in the world now, and that’s a really effective and powerful and important thing to do.

What is the role of individuals in thinking about climate?

Well, I mean, look, we all know the things that we should be doing, and I hope people are —  from eating lower in the food chain to lowering their carbon footprint in all kinds of ways. And if we had gotten started on all this when we should have, then those things might well have been enough.

I wrote the first book on climate change 31 years ago. One of the things I have to restrain myself from doing from time to time is saying, “Oh, if only you listened to me when.” Because 30 years ago, fairly modest changes would have added up over time to a real significant change at this point. 

But not only didn’t we start changing, thanks to the fossil-fuel industry and their incredible disinformation campaign, we doubled down. We accelerated precisely in the direction we were moving. We’ve emitted more carbon since that first book came out than in all of human history before.

So now we’re at the point where the only way to make this math square is with real changes in the political and economic ground rules. That’s why things like the Green New Deal are so important. That’s why getting really systemic change out of Chase Bank or BlackRock is so important. So, along with the things that individuals need to be doing in their lives, really the most important things individuals can do is be a little less individual and join together with others in movements large enough to change those ground rules. That’s why we started things like 350.org or this new coalition at stopthemoneypipeline.com. We’re going to figure out lots of ways to aggregate that pressure and perhaps have it add up to enough pressure in a short enough period of time to help us catch up with physics. 

You were recently arrested — the same day as actors Martin Sheen and Joaquin Phoenix — as you occupied a branch of Chase Bank to protest the bank’s ties to the fossil-fuel industry. Can you describe a little bit of what it’s like to be arrested for this?

Well, it’s never fun to be arrested, and that’s good. I mean, it should never be a kind of casual thing, because in a working society, one wants to do what the law says and so on. And it’s also disruptive to go into someone’s place of business and say, “We’re going to sit here for a while.” We obviously had no beef with the people working in the bank and told them so, and they were very receptive and kind to us. 

But we needed to try and send a message that it’s not all right what Chase Bank is doing. They’re the biggest lender in the world to the fossil-fuel industry by a large margin. Since the Paris Climate Accords were signed, they’ve lent 29% more to the fossil-fuel industry than any bank on the planet. They’ve lent $196 billion. 

They’re by far the biggest banker of the most-expansionary projects, all the new pipelines and deep-sea drilling and so on. Sooner or later, there has to be, I guess, a little impoliteness along the way. We tried hard not to be rude, but we stayed and, after a couple of hours, were taken away to the jail in the District of Columbia and spent eight or nine hours there and were released for trial in March.

You’ve also been arrested for protesting the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Can you explain the connection between climate change and these policies on immigration?

Yes. That’s why I wanted to join in that — I mean partly just because I was sickened by all the endless pictures of children in cages, but I think people need to understand the deep connection between climate change and immigration. 

As we make it too hot for people to farm in the places where they or their families have farmed for generation upon generation, they’re going to have no choice but to move. Some of that migration is going to be internal, but a lot of it’s going to have to be external. We think now that perhaps the biggest driver of immigration out of Honduras and Guatemala over the last few years has been a really dramatic drought there that’s made it almost impossible for small farmers to grow crops.

This is just the beginning. I mean, we’ve seen about a million people show up on our southern border, but the United Nations estimates that we could see, in the course of this century, a billion climate refugees. So we’re going to have to come up with some system other than walls and cages to deal with this, especially since the people who are becoming climate refugees, almost entirely, it’s not their fault. It’s not like anybody in Honduras or Guatemala or wherever — Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands — it’s not like they burned very much coal or gas or oil. I mean, that was us.

Aspen Journalism collaborates with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of the environment. A segment of this interview aired on APR on Jan. 23, and an excerpt ran in the Jan. 23 edition of The Aspen Times. 

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