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5 Questions for…Bill McKibben, Co-Founder, 350.org

April 17, 2015

Forty-five years after the first Earth Day in 1970, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have stalled and the planet faces the potentially devastating effects of accelerating climate change. At the same time, calls for educational and philanthropic institutions to rid themselves of investments in fossil fuel companies have gotten louder and a grassroots divestment movement has emerged from college campuses across the country.

PND asked noted environmental activist and author Bill McKibben about the impact of the fossil fuel divestment movement, the role of philanthropy in the fight against climate change, and the prospect that something meaningful will come out of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year.

Bill_mckibben_for_PhilanTopicPhilanthropy News Digest: The name of the organization you co-founded, 350.org, refers to the goal of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the current level of 400 parts per million to 350 ppm — a level, according to climatologist James Hansen and others, that is necessary to preserve conditions on Earth similar to those which prevailed as humans evolved and flourished. Where do things stand as of 2015? And do we have any chance of meeting the 350 ppm target?

Bill McKibben: Where we stand is the CO2 level in the atmosphere climbs 2 ppm annually — and the Arctic and the Antarctic are dealing with preposterous changes that even the most pessimistic scientists thought would take many decades to arrive, oceans are acidifying, and the cycle of floods and droughts is deepening. If we managed to get off fossil fuels with great haste — if we worked at the outer edge of the possible — then by 2100 forests and oceans would have sucked up enough carbon that we'd be moving back toward 350 ppm. Much damage would be done in the meantime, but perhaps not civilizational-scale damage. But that window is small, and closing.

PND: 350.org’s Fossil Free campaign aims to convince educational and religious institutions, governments, and other organizations that serve the public good to divest their investment portfolios of fossil fuel companies. One frequently heard criticism of the campaign is that it is trying to put out a fire with a garden hose. That is, getting a few dozen or hundred institutional investors to divest their portfolios of fossil fuels will have no measurable impact on the activities of large energy companies — or on other investors who may see an opportunity as those stocks are sold. What’s wrong with that argument?

BM: If it was all anyone was doing, it would not be enough, not even close. Of course, we're also fighting against new pipelines and coal mines, and for the rapid spread of renewable energy. But divestment is one of the things that knits it together — it's been the vehicle for spreading the news that these companies have four times the carbon in their reserves than any scientist thinks we can safely burn. That's why everyone, up to the president of the World Bank, has hailed divestment as a crucial part of the fight.

PND: Private foundations, including the two largest in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK-based Wellcome Trust, have been the target of divestment campaigns mounted by a group here in the U.S. called Divest-Invest Philanthropy and, in the UK, by the left-leaning Guardian newspaper. Is divestment the best way for philanthropy to support action on the climate, or should it be doing something else?

BM: It doesn't preclude them from doing other things — indeed, since fossil-free portfolios are outperforming the broader market, it will give them more resources to do those things. But it is a necessary thing for them to do. Otherwise their investments will only work against their own programs, as dozens of top scientists have tried to tell Wellcome and Gates.

PND: A handful of leading conservation organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, argue that the best way to change the behavior and practices of large energy companies is to engage and make them partners in the fight against climate change. What is your response to that argument?

BM: It's not serious. There's no sign of any of these companies abandoning their core business models as a result of engagement; they’re only interested in more greenwashing. That became clear when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund divested in September 2014. They had worked for a decade to "engage" Exxon — which is the family company — and failed completely. I don't think it's actually what TNC is doing, but if it is, it's a bad idea.

PND: 350.org is known for a distributed, grassroots organizing model in which local campaigns are run by independent, loosely affiliated organizations. Is that kind of decentralized model the right model for a movement with such large ambitions? And will we see a meaningful climate change agreement come out of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year?

BM: We’re focused on grassroots organizing because the fossil fuel industry is sprawling and protean, and we need to be as well. Call it the fossil fuel resistance — it's the fastest spreading movement on the planet, which is good, because this is the first truly global crisis.

We'll see a little more progress than we did in Copenhagen — because there is a movement now in various countries that is pushing leaders to act. But whatever happens in Paris is not going to solve the problem — it will be one small step along the way.

— Kyoko Uchida

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