Sketching The Fight: Bill McKibben On How To Save The Planet


In the “dark shadow of what’s happened in the Great Barrier Reef,” prominent climate activist Bill McKibben has urged Australians to join in plans to shut down the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle this May. Thom Mitchell reports.

Rounding off a speaking tour at Sydney’ Paddington Town Hall on Thursday, McKibben was blunt: “If we don’t win soon, we don’t win. We’re pretty far behind. The best science indicates that we have a narrow window left in order to keep things from getting absolutely, completely out of control. And it is closing fast.”

The Vermont-based writer is a co-founder of, a global climate movement formed in 2008. In May, the organisation will lead a coordinated campaign across 12 different countries to shut down the dirtiest and most polluting fossil fuel projects.

The idea is to attack polluting extractive industries which profit from climate change directly in the seat of their power. It’s a tactic the climate movement has increasingly resorted to, as governments sit on their hands while the crisis worsens.

“I spent a lot of years getting it wrong,” says McKibben, a former columnist for the New Yorker and Harvard Alumnus. He concedes that since his influential first book, The End of Nature, there’s been a “tremendous element of failure” in environmentalists’ efforts to force a reduction in carbon emissions.

One of his key mistakes, he says, was “I thought we were engaged in an argument”. While for a long time he focused on facts and logic alone, the fossil fuel lobby was fighting dirty. “We waited far to long to realise what a fight it was, and that there was an adversary on the other side,” he says.

IMAGE: Thom Mitchell.
IMAGE: Thom Mitchell.

“When you’re engaged in an argument you continue to pile more data; write more articles and more books. You build more symposiums, and have more talks. Eventually you win the argument, and your leaders go to work and do what needs to be done,” McKibben says.

“We wasted a number of years doing that: It turns out we were not in an argument at all.

We’d won the argument in 1990. The science was crystal clear on what was going on. We were not in an argument, we were in a fight, and the fight – as fights always are – was about money and power.

“There was another side to this fight, and it was the richest industry on earth. That industry was willing to break the planet if it meant it could keep doing what it was doing for another few years.”

Australia: A Crucial Battleground

As McKibben points out, one of that industry’s key strongholds is Australia. We are now the world’s largest exporter of coal, which Mckibbon says is “Australia’s sin”. He argues plans to dig up and export massive untapped deposits, like the Galilee Basin in Queensland, mean this small nation of 23 million is a key battleground in the “fossil fuel resistance movement”.

At a gathering of the faithful before the talk, McKibben praised the successes of Australian campaigners, saying it’s one of the hardest places to get results. He told New Matilda that by approving the Carmichael Mine, the role of Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt had descended into farce, “a parody of what an Environment Minister would be doing”.

“I saw [him]in Paris going on and on about his great, deep personal commitment to all of this, and how this was his most pressing personal thing you could ever imagine,” McKibben says. And then Hunt signed off on Adani’s Carmichael Mine, which would be the biggest mine in the Galilee Basin, and the entire Southern Hemisphere.

As far as McKibben’s concerned, “You don’t get to do both of those things.”

new matilda, greg hunt
IMAGE: Thom Mitchell. Greg Hunt at the Paris climate talks.

He takes a similarly dim view of the Queensland Labor Government: “It is appalling to see, on the same day the scientists are saying what’s happening in the Great Barrier Reef, the government of Queensland announce approval for the Carmichael Mine.”

It’s clear that troubling news of the Reef’s ill-health has affected him.

Climate change runs to a hard and fast scientific deadline, and McKibben knows better than most it’s badly out of step with the schedules set by bureaucrats and governments. But revelations that 93 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached white by warming seas has animated the threat of climate change, even for one of the world’s foremost campaigners.

“If there’s anybody who’s been keeping their powder dry – waiting for the right moment – for Australians, the near-death experience of the Great Barrier Reef should be enough of a trigger to get everyone engaged in this crisis,” he says.

IMAGE: Thom Mitchell. Protestors in Paris, December 2015.
IMAGE: Thom Mitchell. Protestors in Paris, December 2015.

Politicians Are Pawns: How Activists Are Going After The Companies

In response to these increasingly portentous signs, McKibben is clear on who activists must confront: He says the faceless executives on fossil fuel boards are the root driver of continued coal exports, not the politicians.

“I think I’d rather go after the real bosses in the back of the store, rather than engage in endless fights with the cashiers in the front of the store,” he tells New Matilda.

Coal, oil and gas companies are the ones fighting for their very survival, McKibben says, even if it comes at the expense of the planet. At the Paddington Town Hall, he offered a wry example:

“Last summer, Shell Oil had big plans to go drill for oil in the Arctic. To be the first ones into the Arctic – open up the newly melted sea.

Think about that for a minute: They watched the Arctic melt as we raised the temperature and instead of saying ‘perhaps this is a signal that we should back off’… they said, ‘Well this’ll make it easier to drill for more of this stuff.’”

McKibben says that Shell’s Arctic ambitions exemplify fossil fuel companies’ disregard for the damage their products are doing, but also how effectively militant and multi-pronged tactics can work.

Among other things, Greenpeace activists suspended themselves from bridges, and used kayaks to block drill rigs destined for the Arctic using kayaks. In September last year, the company shelved plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska.

“They said, officially, that they hadn’t found enough oil to make it worth their while, but as we’ve now learned from leak after leak inside the company, what they really found was way more trouble than they bargained for,” McKibben says.

IMAGE: Flickr, Backbone Campaign.
IMAGE: Flickr, Backbone Campaign.

It’s one win in a growing list of victories for the increasingly militant climate movement. McKibben says bold actions – often civil disobedience activism, which he sees as simply commensurate with the scale of the climate crisis – have been been fundamental to that success.

He himself spent three days in a Washington jail, after being arrested for peacefully protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. Arrested alongside McKibben was the world’s most prominent climate scientist, James Hansen. Together, they say the dirty Canadian tar sands oil the pipeline was destined to transport would have  pushed the climate over the edge.

After being confronted with this wave of civil disobedience and other campaigning, the project was eventually rejected by the Obama administration. McKibben says it’s an example of how things have “gone somewhat better” since climate activists realised they were in a ‘fight’ and not an ‘argument’.

In the last three years, to name but a few victories, the climate movement has won bans on fracking; blocked key projects; run a campaign that’s seen funds representing $3.4 trillion pull out of fossil fuels; and driven governments to a historic global accord, which was signed at the Paris climate conference last year.

McKibben and have been involved in an impressive number of the climate movement’s wins. He says increased militancy – activism commensurate with the scale of the climate crisis – has been been fundamental to that success.

IMAGE: Thom Mitchell. Activists were tear-gassed in Paris for defying a ban on political assemblies.
IMAGE: Thom Mitchell. Activists were tear-gassed in Paris for defying a ban on political assemblies.

The Real Radicals Work In Big Coal, Oil And Gas

But McKibben is honest: “There’s absolutely no guarantee we’re going to win this fight.”

On the one hand, the momentum of climate change is terrifying, and making itself known through coral bleaching, fierce storms, raging fires, and record heat. Last March was the hottest ever, and so were February, January, and December before it.

As McKibben puts it, “Mother nature with each passing month provides more persuasion.”

And on the other hand, the carbon emissions continue to climb, even as governments issue new permits to explore for fossil fuels we know we can’t afford to burn.

For McKibben, the fight for the climate has so far been fixed. It’s the “little and many” versus the “big and few”. Activists are facing the power and influence of companies worth more than countries, but McKibben believes the people can still win.

“We live in an age when it’s hard to find as many political heroes as we would like – too many of our politicians are fairly craven, and they bend toward power,” McKibben says. “That’s bad, but the good thing about it is that if you build some power of your own, then they’ll often bend that direction.”

IMAGE: Thom Mitchell.
IMAGE: Thom Mitchell.

One example of how the climate debate is at last being fundamentally reshaped is the American justice systems’ pursuit of Exxon Mobil. The company is under investigation by 12 US state Attorneys General, after journalists exposed it has known about the ruin its business was wreaking on the planet since 1978.

Instead of informing the public, the company is alleged to have suppressed internal climate science. Through various front groups, McKibben has written, Exxon “helped organise the most consequential lie in human history”. In short, it funded a denialist campaign of deceit. But in doing so, Exxon provided bittersweet succour to McKibben’s most fundamental argument.

“There is nothing radical about what we are asking for,” he says. “It is the furthest thing from radical. We want a world that looks a little bit like the Holocene, the world that all humans of whom we have any historical record, written record, [have]lived in.”

IMAGE: Tar Sand Action, Flickr. Bill McKibben is arrested.
IMAGE: Tar Sand Action, Flickr. Bill McKibben is arrested.

For McKibben, “the radicals work at oil companies and coal companies”

He says “if you are willing to make your great fortune by getting up in the morning and changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere, after scientists have told you what will happen if you do, [and]after you’ve watched it begin to happen; if you’re willing, after watching the Great Barrier Reef die, to stand up the next day and say ‘let’s build a huge new coal mine’; If you’re willing to do that, then you are a radical on a scale we have not encountered on this planet before.”

“It is the job of the rest of us,” he says, “to exercise the common sense necessary to check that radicalism before it wrecks every last beautiful sweet thing on this Earth.

“It makes no sense that we have to go to jail simply to get people to pay attention to chemistry and physics, but we do…”

As part of a global wave of actions to be staged in the first half of May, the famed activist plans to be arrested in Colorado. “And if I’m out of jail in time, Los Angeles the next day”. In Australia, activists will move to shut down the world’s largest coal port, in Newcastle, and McKibben is urging all who can to join in.

“There is a fight underway, and it is the great fight of our time,” he says. “The arc of the physical universe is short, and it bends towards heat. If we don’t win soon, we do not win. So that’s why the urgency is so deep. That’s why people are doing things that no-one should have to do.”

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.