Activist Bill McKibben Calls for Extreme Action to Curb Climate Change and Save Mankind

Thirty years ago, Bill McKibben made global warming a national issue. Now he’s calling for extreme action not only to mitigate climate change but also to save mankind.
Thirty years ago, Bill McKibben made global warming a national issue. Now he’s calling for extreme action not only to mitigate climate change but also to save mankind. Here, McKibben speaks on Capitol Hill in support of a bill to phase out fossil fuels.Eman Mohammed/ Zuma Wire


BILL MCKIBBEN SHOWS up soaking wet. A hard January rain has been falling all morning, knocking out the power and phone lines, and turning the snowpack at Middlebury College’s nordic ski center, in Vermont, into white quicksand. But McKibben, a writer and an environmental activist, decided to hit the trails anyway, and is the last skier to return to the lodge. “I can confirm it’s somewhat moist,” he reports. Along with wet ski gear, he’s sporting his trademark half-rim glasses and close-cropped gray hair. Skiing is his “great vice,” he says. “It’s a guaranteed escape from the things that I worry about the rest of the time—the only problem is that it’s probably the single human activity most immediately susceptible to climate change.

After changing into dry layers, McKibben, 58, folds his tall frame into an armchair near the lodge’s wood stove. The spot is his informal second office here at Middlebury, where he teaches writing and environmental activism. (He lives nearby with his wife, the writer Susan Halpern.) “I’ve spent my life working on climate change in part because it’s just so incredibly annoying,” he tells me. “We know what to do, we know how to do it—we’re just not.” His annoyance is understandable. Thirty years ago, McKibben’s 1989 classic, The End of Nature, was among the first books on global warming written for the general public and helped to move the issue beyond academic circles.

Bill Mckibben Book
Courtesy Image

In the years since, McKibben has become one of the most influential figures in combating climate change, perhaps best known not for his writing but for his activism. As the co-founder of the nonprofit 350.org, he has helped to organize some of the world’s largest protests against fossil-fuel interests. His work has won him a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Sierra Club’s John Muir Award, and made him a hero to other activists—and a target of right-wing stalkers, along with the FBI. “Bill is this rare combination of an intellectual and a grassroots activist,” says Erich Pica, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “He’s been capable of putting some really important concepts out in the public by showing, in a compelling way, how and why we should get involved in fighting climate change.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank, has accused him of “global warming alarmism,” and The National Review has condemned his “stunningly radical economic views” for pushing fossil-fuel divestment, as well as called him an “environmental killjoy” who pretends this is the worst time to live on Earth.

A Pennsylvania pipeline
A Pennsylvania pipeline Charles Mostoller/ Bloomberg

But McKibben is unwavering in his views or approach. His 18th book, Falter, out in April, offers an alarming picture of the world in decline, as drought, rising sea levels, and wildfires shrink the habitable earth. As a result, McKibben argues, life as we know it is on the verge of playing itself out, threatened by human-caused climate change but also A.I. and robotics, which he believes erode human dignity. What most sets the book apart from his earlier work is its call for mass civil disobedience and collective action. “My house is covered with solar panels, and I drive an electric vehicle,” McKibben tells me. “But [that’s not] how we’re going to win at this point.” With Falter, he hopes to inspire readers to join movements, block pipelines, and help shutter oil refineries. “We’ve kicked off changes that are so large that even if we do everything right from this point on,” he says, “it’s going to take a certain amount of luck to get out of this.”

DESPITE FALTER’S BLEAK thesis, McKibben seems content and relaxed in person; for years, he taught Sunday school, and he looks the part. He grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and worked as a reporter in New York City after graduating from Harvard. He took an interest in climate change while researching a story on the origins of everything in his apartment, which made him realize the extent to which the urban world depends on the natural. He became convinced of climate-change science and set out to win over others in his writing, culminating with The End of Nature. A decade after its release, many people had started to believe in climate change, but little had been done to stop it.

Mckibben is arrested for blocking a gas facility
Mckibben is arrested for blocking a gas facility Courtesy of We Are Seneca Lake

“We were losing because the fight had nothing to do with data,” McKibben says. “The fight had to do with money and power.”

With that in mind, McKibben and a handful of Middlebury students co-founded 350.org in 2008, in hopes of countering the fossil-fuel industry’s efforts to influence policy and block clean-energy initiatives. The organization worked with ranchers and Native American activists to protest the Keystone Pipeline; in 2015, it helped persuade the Obama administration to kill the project. (President Trump later reversed the decision.) Then, in 2016, 350.org organized a peaceful, 30,000-plus-person worldwide protest of fossil-fuel projects, one of the largest-ever acts of civil disobedience focused on climate change.

A 350.org protest
A 350.org protest Courtesy of Laura Mordas-Schenkein

The success of these demonstrations earned McKibben no shortage of foes. In 2018, The Guardian unearthed files showing that the FBI had surveilled 350.org and McKibben on suspicions of domestic terrorism. “That didn’t surprise me, given the history of the FBI,” McKibben says. The feds, in fact, are far less a concern to him than the climate-change deniers who have photographed him and his family sitting in church, grocery shopping, and waiting at the airport, posting the images online afterward. Death threats are also frequent. Message-board commenters have suggested that he be shot, and have posted his address. McKibben deletes most of the threatening emails he gets but has shared alarming ones with the police.

EVEN IF WE DO EVERYTHING RIGHT FROM THIS POINT ON, IT’S GOING TO TAKE LUCK TO GET OUT OF THIS.

Still, McKibben has faith in humanity. “It doesn’t seem OK to give up on human beings,” he says. He has recently shifted into an advisory role at 350.org, which today has a staff of hundreds, and is banking on young activists to help mitigate climate change. “Bill has educated so many people who share his vision, and these leaders are leading now,” says the activist and author Naomi Klein. “I think that’s all he really wanted. He didn’t want to be a climate star; he’s happiest when he’s skiing or canoeing.”

With the lodge shutting down for the day, McKibben decides not to dawdle any longer. He’ll ski again soon anyway: In a few weeks, he’s heading to Minnesota to protest a pipeline, by skiing part of the proposed route. He knows the road ahead of him and other environmentalists is daunting, but he tries to keep the issue in perspective. “My grandparents’ generation had to go kill people and get killed to stop fascism in Europe,” he says. “You don’t have to do that to stop climate change. You can join some demonstrations, and maybe at worst you have to go to jail for a few days.” Jail isn’t fun, but it’s not the end of the world: “The end of the world is the end of the world—that’s why we do it.”

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