Kai Wright: This is The United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
William Brangham: Global temperatures will rise. The extremes we're now experiencing, fires, floods, droughts, and storms will only intensify.
Renée Lertzman: Once you're exposed to that kind of information, things are not normal anymore.
Dr. Ed Maibach: Fear-based messaging only gets you so far.
Reporter: How can we fight climate change, if we can't even face it without feeling demoralized or hopeless?
Crowd: What do we want? Climate action. When do we want it? Now!
Greta Thunberg: We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is the money and fairy tales of eternal economic growths. How dare you?
Alejandro Alba: Approximately 67% of Americans have some level of anxiety, when it comes to the impact of climate change on the future of our planet.
Dr. Susan Clayton: Anxiety is useful. It tells us that there's something that we need to be paying attention to.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. The name of this show has rarely felt as appropriate as it does when talking right now about climate change. It has been a year of stark anxiety provoking reminders of the consequences of a warming planet. The storms and floods and heatwaves and fires, it's been unrelenting, and it can legit feel like in times. Then other times I'm like, "Okay, Kai. Calm down. Overstating the problem makes it harder to deal with. We're all going to survive." Frankly, mostly, it's just too much to even meaningfully process the seemingly inevitable and very-near end of human life as we know it.
United Nation's Secretary General said on Friday that, "The world is on a catastrophic pathway." That was in advance of the UN General Assembly this week in New York. In reaction to new science and a UN report released Friday saying basically, we've got till 2030 to do something big. Less than a decade, folks, and then it's all but too late. I truly don't know what to do with that with all of our failure to act over the years honestly.
Tonight, we've invited someone who has spent decades trying to get us all to avoid this very moment in history. Bill McKibben wrote what is-- I believe the first book for a popular audience warning us of climate change. That book, The End of Nature was published in 1989. Since then, he's been not only writing as a journalist but also organizing and agitating in movements. We're going to spend the whole show with him tonight, reflecting on that work, and asking the obvious question. What now? Bill, thanks for joining us.
Bill McKibben: Kai, what a pleasure? I will just add, at least up here in Vermont, it's been an absolutely Halcyon fall day, incredible, beautiful blue sky, the leaves starting to turn. A good reminder that we have a beautiful world left to do what we can to protect.
Kai Wright: There is something too, and here in New York City, anybody here can tell you. It has been a gorgeous day. This is one of those days you live for as a New Yorker, so let's try to keep them. Bill, when did this journey start for you? I assume you had an aha moment on climate change that made you say, "This will be my life's work," urging humanity to respond to this crisis. What was that for you?
Bill McKibben: Well, Kai, it's actually a New York story for me. My first job out of college was writing for The New Yorker in the 1980s. Wrote a lot of talk of the town and the first one piece I wrote for The New Yorker was a piece about where everything in my apartment, a sublet at the corner of Bleecker and Broadway came from. I followed all Con Ed's oil purchases down to the jungles of Brazil and went up to the Arctic to look at their hydro in the hydro plants that were providing power for the city, and the uranium mines of the Grand Canyon and out along the water system.
By the time I was done a year later, and a long piece later, I had a new appreciation of the physicalness of the world we live in. That even a place like Manhattan where it seems like you can just mint money and power out of [inaudible 00:04:18] here is exquisitely dependent on, and therefore vulnerable to the continued smooth operation of the physical world. I grew up in the suburbs. The suburbs are a machine for hiding the operations of the planet from prying eyes. No one knows where the water comes from, or where the garbage goes, or anything else.
That set me up for reading the very earliest climate science in the mid to late 1980s as the first real stuff was emerging in journals and things. I think I understood more than I otherwise would have the fragility that not to be taken for granted physical nature of the planet. That led to writing The End of Nature in 1989 when I was 28, I guess. It was published. That was the first book for a general audience about climate change. It came out shortly after Jim Hansen's landmark testimony in Congress, another New Yorker. The original unimportant science about climate change was all carried out at about 110th and Broadway, four stories up in that building above the diner from Seinfeld.
Kai Wright: What was it about that science, Bill? You said you were poised to get it in. Was there something about that early science that grabbed you, that made you say, "Oh, wait"?
Bill McKibben: Here was the thing. Suddenly, people were saying, "There's now enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that it is raising the temperature, and it's clear that this is going to go on unless we stop burning coal and gas and oil." What was invigorating and fascinating about it, what made me think it was going to be the biggest story of our time and indeed of all time, was precisely that it was so simple.
We had to get off the thing that powered the modern economy, fossil fuel, and replace it with something else and we had to do it really fast, and we had to do it in the face of the enormous power of the fossil fuel industry. Of course, we haven't done those things. Now, the warnings that we issued 30 years ago are the front-page stories almost every day in almost every newspaper and on the planet. We said 30 years ago, "Watch out. Someday soon, there's going to be enormous forest fires, way more hurricanes, the sea level is going to be rising, and we're going to see rainstorms like we've never seen before."
That doesn't make it any easy. I was in New York City, what? Almost three weeks ago now when the remnants of Hurricane Ida came through, biggest rainstorm in New York history breaking the record set 11 days earlier. It doesn't make it easier to watch people drown in their basement apartments, but it is worth knowing that this is stuff that has been obvious to those who would pay attention for more than three decades now.
Kai Wright: I have to say, my own aha moment was reading you, actually in Mother Jones magazine. I am very much the same to say that that was 2008, which is way too late. I'd been an active participant and writer in progressive politics for well over a decade by that point and yet I had not been able to connect with this conversation. If I'm totally honest, it felt like white people stuff. I considered the environment as it were less urgent of a problem than what I saw as the more immediate life-and-death issues that were facing Black and queer communities, which I cared about.
Then I read this essay you wrote that for whatever reason just left me shook. I re-read it this morning and I think it was your use of the past tense in that essay. It was about how science had discovered that we were already past the carbon tipping point. Again, this was 2008. I think about that anew this morning and think like, "What about now?" The UN says 2030 is the latest tipping point. Is this as dire as it seems ,if 2008 you were telling me we were at the tipping point?
Bill McKibben: Oh, yes. We were at the tipping point and we've done a lot of tipping. So far, we've raised the temperature of the earth 1°C, so 1.8°F call it 2° in the way we're used to thinking about. That doesn't necessarily sound like that much. If it was 65° when you walked into the studio today and it's 63° when you walk out after this show, your body may not be able to tell the difference but the planet can tell the difference in a huge way. In fact, think of it in other units that might make it more obvious.
The amount of extra heat that we trap every day on this earth because of the coal and oil and gas that we burned, is the heat equivalent of about 400,000 Hiroshima-sized explosions. That makes it easier to understand how we've done things. Say, melt most of the sea ice in the summer Arctic, take this meters-old continent-sized millennia-old meters-thick sheet of ice and reduce it to slush, and in turn manage to screw up the operation of the jet stream and the Gulf Stream, because both of them are now off kilter because of the melt of the Arctic. It helps explain how we've managed to drive up dramatically the rates of evaporation around the planet, because warm air holds more water vapor than cold, and that leads to the droughts and forest fires that bedevil us and once that water's up in the air, it comes down leading to the floods. That's with one degree, the scary part of this story, the scariest part of this story is that that 1° on current trajectories will become about 3°C, 5°F, 6°F before the century is out.
Even if we keep the promises that we made at Paris, and if anything like that happens, we're not going to have civilizations like the ones we're used to having. The UN, 50 blocks from where you are, the UN experts estimate that we'll see as many as a billion climate refugees this century with unchecked climate change. Try to imagine, if a million refugees in Europe or America or enough to utterly discombobulate the politics of both continents, imagine what happens with a billion of them.
Well, stopping global warming is not on the list of options. Our only task at this point is to stop climate change somehow short of the place where it cuts civilizations off at the knees. That means in numerical terms, holding the temperature which is already gone up 1°C to 1.5°C or 2°C, not 3°C. That's going to take everything humans have. It'll be the biggest challenge that our species has ever engaged in, and it's not certain that we can do it but we have a few things going for us as we enter this crucial seven or eight years before 2030.
Kai Wright: Listeners, we are talking with author and activist, Bill McKibben. I welcome your questions about anything to do with the science of climate change and, or our response to it. We'll be with him all hour and we'll take your call 646-435-7280, and let's start with Robert. Robert, welcome to the show.
Robert: Hey, how are you? Great conversation tonight. I wanted to ask about cars that sit idling either in a parking space, or in a parking lot. Number one, is it having a significant impact on the carbon footprint, and if so, why are municipal local governments not addressing the issue with simple notices on all those parking meters where they could remind people, "Don't idle your car."?
Kai Wright: Thanks for that Robert. Bill, something simple and straightforward as that, what about idling our cars?
Bill McKibben: Well, obviously idling your cars is a dumb idea and it doesn't help, but this lets us have an important discussion about how we make change on this scale we need to make change in what the scientists have now given us, deadline of 2030. If we're going to cut emissions in half by 2030, which is what they're talking about, we're no longer really at a point where individual action is the most important thing. There's no excuse for idling your car or for flying idly off to someplace, just because it's a little warmer or whatever. At this point you can't make the math work, one vegan dinner at a time, one Tesla at a time.
The most important thing an individual can do is be a little bit less of an individual, and join together with others in movements large enough to change the basic political and economic ground rules here. We've seen some of that happening.
Take New York City, groups like New York Communities for Change or 350 New York City managed to push the city to adopt an absolutely ground breaking new law, Local Law 97 that would force the big buildings in New York City to retrofit for energy efficiency over the next decade, and if they did that, it would cut emissions, not a little, but a lot out of New York City and it would provide extraordinary learning curve for doing this work in many other places. Landlords are pushing back against it.
There's been a little bit of wavering perhaps from the Mayor-Elect Mr. Adams, but that's precisely the kind of really big change that we need, and the only way to get it is if people come together in movements that force it to happen.
Kai Wright: I'm talking with climate author and activist, Bill McKibben about his decades of work ringing an alarm about what can happen now. All these too many years after he and others first began urging us to act, stay with us.
Welcome back, this is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright and I am talking with climate activist and writer, Bill McKibben about his decades of work and about what we can do now. Bill, along those lines, you're starting another chapter of your life and work. You're launching an organization called Third Act directed toward your own generation, people over 60, baby boomers. Tell me about that focus and why.
Bill McKibben: Well, young people are doing a tremendous job around climate now, and I got to play some role in that. I started 15 years ago 350.org, which was the first iteration of a global climate movement, and I began it with 7 college students here at Middlebury College in Vermont, where I hang out. It was wonderful and it's led also to the work of many other one wonderful people, especially young people.
We've seen the Sunrise Movement with the Green New Deal. We've seen the remarkable rise of junior high school and high school climate activism exemplified by people like, Greta Thunberg or Xiye Bastida or Alexandria Villaseñor in New York, or on and on and on. You know what? They can't do it alone. Those of us over the age of 60, the boomers, the silent generation ahead of us, we vote in such large numbers and we control fairly or not such a huge proportion of the planet's assets that we're going to have to back up those demands of young people.
For instance, young people are getting ready to really push the fight against the banks, many of them headquartered in New York, like, Chase that are bankrolling the fossil fuel industry. They're going to be announcing, I think in the next few days plans for big activism over the autumn leading to demonstrations outside those branches and things around Halloween. It'll be great to have 19-year-olds out there in the lead doing that work. My guess is that bank managers will also pay attention, if they see some 69-year-olds out there knowing full well that those are the people whose money sits in their vaults.
I think actually those of us that age, our first act was actually interesting. We were around for some pretty profound political transformations and cultural ones, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the anti-war movement. Second act, maybe a little more emphasis on being consumers than citizens, but now we emerge with a lot of resources and skills and with some grandkids often too. We actually don't want to be the first people on the planet to leave it in a much worse shape than we found it, which is going to be our legacy, unless we get our act together, that that's why we're doing this third-act stuff.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Heather in Mount Kisco. Heather, welcome to the show.
Heather: Hi. I wanted to say I'm in my third act. I started teaching public school in the Bronx about seven years ago. I would love to know what you think or how you think educators can both organize and also, if model you know curriculums or examples in the country that are happening now of teachers who are bringing climate education into their classrooms.
Kai Wright: Thanks for that Heather. Bill, before you answer, we have another educator I think also on the phone, so I want to grab them too. James in Upper West Side, James, welcome to the show.
James: Yes. I called to stress the fact that I'm of the belief now that the climate crisis similar to the pandemic is an education crisis. If you expect the citizens in a mass democracy to make the right political decisions about this existential threat, you're going to have to raise the level of basic literacy and scientific literacy. Just in order to be able to read Mr. McKibben's books they're written at a level of literacy and scientific literacy, which the general population in my experience doesn't seem to have, and the pandemic has sadly kind of confirmed that. Huge numbers of people, millions of people are unable to understand how a long history of immunization is innocent and life-affirming and intended to help them, and they're risking their own lives. It's a path similar with the science of the atmosphere changing because of human activity. You have to understand how our civilization is interacting with the natural world, and that's a complex ecological line of thinking, which I don't think most people are able to get. Not in my immediate circle.
Bill McKibben: James, I take your point, but I'm not quite as pessimistic here as you are. The polling data shows that we're now at a point where about 70% of Americans really understand that we're in big hot water on climate change. That's a lot. In our country to get 70% of people agreeing on anything is something. Partly that's because we've done all this work of movement building. Partly it's because Mother Nature is one hell of an educator. 80% of Americans live in counties that have had federal climate emergency disasters sometime in the last couple of years. At a certain point, it's who you're going to believe, Fox News or your own lying eyes?
This goes though to the point that the caller from the Bronx was raising about education. I think that she's really right to question how to talk about this, because the biggest problem is I think what we might call agency. People feeling very small in the face of something very big. When I talk with young people, the thing I try to get across is that there really are people working hard to make change, and they can join in. Some of these people are engineers. They've dropped the price of solar power and wind power, 90% in the last decade. That's an extraordinary gift. It means that the technological and financial obstacles to change are not there the way they were awhile ago.
The obstacles that remain are obstacles around invested interest in inertia, but we can perhaps overcome those with enough organizing and young people are in the forefront. September 2019, right before the pandemic hit, young people around the world had this massive climate strike. I was down on the battery that day, and there were 250,000 young people happily cutting school from across New York City to come say, "We need action on climate. It's no use us preparing ourselves for the future if our leaders aren't bothering to prepare the future for us."
That kind of activism, I think even more than kind of scientific education is what gives young people a sense that they have some real possibilities here. It's the best antidote to the existential despair that otherwise really does start to overtake us.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Carol in Manhattan. Carol, welcome to the show.
Carol: Okay. I was active 30 years ago when we had 30 years to do something about this, but we didn't. Now, I think we're at the point, where we have to get the carbon dioxide out of the air to turn it around. I was wondering, if you knew of any scientists who are working on trying to do this?
Kai Wright: Thank you, Carol.
Bill McKibben: Absolutely. There are people working on trying to figure out how we can get carbon dioxide out of the air, because you're right. We're already well past the point where we should be, and there are ways to do this. At the moment, they're extraordinarily expensive, and we don't know if the price will ever fall to the point where it's really feasible.
It's clear that the most important thing right now, is to deploy the technologies that we do have, and that are inexpensive to keep the amount of carbon in the atmosphere from going up any faster, or any higher than it needs to. That means that the vaccine against global warming at this point is solar panels and wind turbines. They're now so cheap that we could put them up at a very rapid rate and interrupt the endless growth of CO2 in the atmosphere. That's going to be an extraordinary technical challenge.
We get the first chance to really push that process fast with President Biden's $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. If it passes in anything like its current form, the way that people like Bernie have put it together, then it'll be the really, the first action that the federal government has taken on climate change in the 30 years that we've known about it. In any real sense, we've done zero, not a zilch in the Congress for those three decades. This bill would be a huge, huge landmark. It wouldn't solve the problem, but it would get us some of these technological changes jump-started as it were, and get us moving much, much faster.
Kai Wright: I want to come back a little later in the show to talk about that bill and some of the stuff in DC in a little more detail, but I also want to loop back to our teacher in the Bronx, Heather's question. I also heard her asking about resources for teachers and educators to do the things that you're talking about doing. What is out there in that regard?
Bill McKibben: There's lots of stuff that young people are putting together themselves. You know about Greta Thunberg, who's wonderful. I adore her and I love working with her, but the best news is that there are 10,000 Greta Thunbergs around the world and they have 10 million followers. If you want to get good resources for that generation, go check out online the Fridays For the Future coalition, which is what all that climate strike work is coalesced into. There were wonderful sources there in many other places, but I think you'll find that it's not hard to get kids up-to-speed on this.
The real truth about climate science is it's not complicated. You burn coal and gas and oil, and the temperature goes up. You replace it with sun and wind, and that inexorable rise begins to slow.
Kai Wright: It's so interesting. It's one of those things that on the front end, it does sound super complicated. There's science words and there's been this debate, and what are the details, and what's the tipping point, but then ultimately it is that simple. I wonder about that. [crosstalk]
Bill McKibben: Here's another way to see it even more simply, Kai. Our challenge now is to stop burning things on planet earth, coal, gas, oil, wood, whatever, and rely on the fact that the good Lord put a large ball of burning flame, 93 million miles away. Our engineers and scientists have figured out how we can capture that power through solar panels and wind turbines in order to provide the energy that we need. That's not all the things we have to do. There's a lot of stuff around agriculture.
There's a lot of stuff around difficult-to-deal-with materials, like concrete, or how we deal with jet travel or whatever, but at the most basic level, no more energy from beneath. No more energy from "hell look towards heaven". That's the plan.
Kai Wright: Wow. Speaking of agriculture, I had planned, I have this series of problem statements I want to throw at you, because I've grasped for the opportunity to be like, "This is the problem. That's the problem." We got tons of calls, so I'm going to save my questions for another time, but one, since you bring up agriculture is, I just think about the fact that, "Well, the problem is that we learned how to process our food, we learned how to feed ourselves, and that's saved billions of people's lives. It's also destroyed the planet." I guess I just throw that out to you, and want to hear your reaction to it.
Bill McKibben: Sure. Food systems are important here. We think about 18% of emissions come from food systems, and there are things we can do perhaps to make agriculture a lot less destructive. People are working hard on what's called regenerative agriculture, figuring out how to get soils to soak up carbon. It's not going to happen immediately, because if for no other reason, there are a billion farmers on earth, and changing their practices takes some time. One of the real advantages to taking on the fossil fuel industry is, these companies are unbelievably powerful and are able to game our political system, but at least it's a manageable target set.
We've run this massive divestment campaign that's become the largest anti-corporate campaign in history, where $15 trillion in endowments and portfolios that have divested from fossil fuel, including the New York City Pension Fund, thank you, Scott Stringer. It's really beginning to tell on the corporations that are responsible for 70% of our emissions.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Amy in Manhattan. Amy, welcome to the show.
Amy: Hi, two things. One is about the communication. I think a lot of it is, it's not that simple. A lot of people seem to want to think that it is simple. It's not like in movies. It's a threat and it's booming, and then one man steps in at the last minute, takes bold and stops it in its tracks. [chuckles] It cannot be stopped in its tracks. It can be limited and it can be kept from being as bad as it could be, but you can't just stop it in its tracks.
Kai Wright: Thank you, Amy.
Bill McKibben: It's a good point. We're not going to stop it in its tracks. It's too late for that. It's not easy. The work we have to do, it is in some ways, relatively simple, because it's all about breaking the political power of the fossil fuel industry. Look, great investigative reporting, Kai, from our colleagues at places like the LA Times and the Columbia Journalism School over the last five years made it abundantly clear that the fossil fuel industry knew everything there was to know about climate change back in the 1980s, when I was writing that first book. Exxon archives have yielded a forecast for the temperature in 2020 that were uncannily accurate.
They knew that, and they were believed within the company. Exxon started building all the drilling rigs. They built higher to compensate for the rise in sea level they knew was in the offing, but what they didn't do was tell any of the rest of us. Instead across the industry, they built this massive architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that kept us locked for 30 years in a completely sterile debate about whether or not global warming was real, a debate that both sides knew the answer to at the beginning. It's just one of them was willing to lie.
Kai Wright: Bill, what about accountability for that because one of our-- We have a tweet from someone Alexander T. Lane who asks exactly this question. He says, "Is there any hope that Exxon or any of the other fossil fuel companies will be held liable for these lies?"
Bill McKibben: Well, let's hope, Bill de Blasio to his credit sued the big oil companies, and there are a number of other people litigating this. Tish James has been at the forefront of that work, the New York Attorney General. Look, our current Supreme court, you might say is corporate-friendly, so who knows whether or not, but some of this we can sue under state constitutions too, because these guys have been telling lies.
The real point is, we need people pushing back extraordinarily hard so that their continuing political influence isn't enough to defeat the things we need to do. These are the guys who were trying to torpedo Biden's climate plans, and we can beat them. We watched in New York State, an enormous coalition of activists arise to get fracking banned in New York State. We've just finally had the denouement of this ten-year-old battle to beat the Keystone pipeline.
If we work together in sufficient numbers, then we have possibilities of beating them, but there's no shortcut. Activism's always hard work. We shouldn't have to do it. There's times when I find myself in handcuffs or sitting in a jail cell and I think, "This is absurd. Why do we have to do this in order to get our leaders to pay attention to the most obvious basic science?" but we don't live in an entirely rational world. We live in a world where vested interest is important. We need activists and thank God we've got a lot of them.
Kai Wright: We have to take a short break and we will be back with more from climate activist and author, Bill McKibben. We will talk more about solutions on the table right now in Washington. Are they enough? We'll take more of your calls, stay with us.
Gabrielle: Hi, my name is Gabrielle. I am in Texas. I was responding to the prompt about how our engagement with politics has shifted. I graduated college last May. I would work for campaigns. I was studying government and political communications. I don't want to say it's almost the complete opposite now, but it's close. Graduating and really taking a look at the world I was graduating into didn't give me a lot of hope.
It's like, "What can I actually do to make change when these systems have been in place for so long?" We know what's wrong, and yet the same things keep happening with the racial justice, with the environment, with COVID. It just feels a little bit hopeless. I've been trying to engage at more of a local level, and I think that's been helpful because it's a little bit easier to identify things that you can change and your vote means a little bit more. I hope this is helpful. I really appreciate the perspectives and the guests that you guys bring on. Thank you so much for what you do.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright and I'm talking with climate activist and writer, Bill McKibben, who has just launched a new effort in his decades-long career of campaigning for urgent action on climate change. He wants baby boomers like himself to dedicate the third act of your lives to fixing climate change. We're taking your call 646-435-7280. I know the lines are full. You can also tweet us @USofAnxiety using the #USofAnxiety that is. Bill, along those lines we have a question from Alan Zoellner, who says, "Can you say a few words about geoengineering given the slow progress of humanity's response. It seems to me that people are likely to take their chances with geoengineering." I'll be honest. I don't even know what that is.
Bill McKibben: It's a really interesting question and a really interesting and sad idea. We filled the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and that's raising the temperature. There are people who say, "Okay, let's also add a huge amount of software to the atmosphere and that will block some of the incoming sunlight and lower the temperature some.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, my colleague at the New Yorker wrote a wonderful-- A book about this called Under a White Sky. The title derives from the fact that one effect of this will be to take our normal blue sky and turn it a little Milky. There also are all kinds of other side effects. This is a break-the-glass solution. It's the thing we do not want to do, if we have any possible way of avoiding it. We do have at least for now a possible way of avoiding it.
I'm sounding like a broken record, but it is worth remembering that a solar panel is a fairly magical technology. We can point a sheet of glass at the sun and out the back comes light and cold and information, and all the other hallmarks of modernity. That's Hogwarts scale magic that the end years have made available to us. If we were thinking reasonably, we would devote the next decade to spreading it as far and wide as it was possible to do.
The same with wind turbines, the breeze made visible. It's good to see that starting. It's good to see the first plans for offshore-- Our wind farms in Long Island sound. We need to amp this up by orders of magnitude, and if we do, we'll save money because this stuff is cheaper in the long run than burning fossil fuel, but we also have some chance of saving what we can of the planet that we were born onto.
Kai Wright: Michael in Brooklyn. Michael, welcome to the show.
Kai Wright: Yes, Michael, what's your question?
Michael: Bill, I've got to tell you it's a real pleasure to have a chance to speak to one of the genuine heroes of the sustainability movement. I wanted to pass along something. I teach business students at Sydney University, and one of the struggles is to try to get them to understand that business is not the problem, business can be part of the solution. I appreciate that you mentioned the role of technology and finance. I just wondered, if you could expand a bit more on that. Personally, I am entirely sympathetic with putting pressure on corporations through disinvestment and so forth, but what about the incentive side? How do we get them to align their mission with first fighting climate change and other resource issues?
Kai Wright: If I can add to that, Bill before you answer is-- You referred to the infrastructure bill or the reconciliation bill that is currently winding its way through Congress. As I understand it, this is one big part of it is, is this idea that we'll include both incentives for-- And it's the clean electricity performance program is what it's called. It's incentives as well as punishments to get at least power companies to switch over to clean energy. Can you add that to it?
Bill McKibben: There are big incentives for utilities in there, which is important, and there are also at the moment, big tax credits for a lot of others to go often build the stuff that we need. This is really important, but I do want to say that the things that politicians like to do or provide money and provide carrots for new stuff, what they're really bad at is shutting down things that are bad, because those things always involve-- And in this case, one of the most important things that the Biden administration could be doing, and may be starting to do, is using the financial regulatory powers of the federal government. The Fed, the treasury, the ACC to begin cracking down on the truly, truly, disgusting ways that our banks, asset managers, and insurance companies are bankrolling the fossil fuel industry.
Look, JPMorgan Chase alone has sent more than a quarter of a trillion dollars to the fossil fuel industry since the Paris climate accords were signed. They didn't need Donald Trump to sabotage it for them, they were happy to do it themselves. That's why we're building these big campaigns through organizations, like, Stop the Money Pipeline, to try and hold these guys really responsible.
Kai Wright: I stepped on Michael's question there, and I want to make sure we get to it too, because he was saying beyond the regulating of utility companies, which I'm asking about. Business in general, is there a role here and have you seen successes? Anything that looks like a success in that regard?
Bill McKibben: Sure. A lot of American businesses are now beginning to make promises about their own operations. We're seeing people planning to take their fleets of delivery trucks and run them on electricity and so on. That's really useful. However, there was a great story in the Washington Post just a few days ago.
All the biggest corporations in the country, including ones that have been talking a lot about their green credentials, Apple and Walmart and FedEx, and whatever are all uniting against Biden's $3.5 trillion plan, because it would raise the corporate tax rate a little bit. Their fleets of delivery vehicles are nice, but we really need their fleets of lobbyists brought outside to do good things here.
If they stop to think about it for a minute, they got to realize even in the medium term, if the planet is breaking down, you're not going to be selling whatever it is you're selling because that's not going to be what's on people's minds anymore.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Steve in Manhattan, because also Steve has a question that I think is on my mind as well. Steve, welcome to the show.
Steve: Hi, thank you so much Kai. Bill, you mentioned the prospect of having to resettle a billion climate refugees. Where do you think the cities of the future will be, and should we begin focusing less on remediating current infrastructure and more on starting to build those new cities?
Bill McKibben: It's really important question, and there's two sides at the moment to the climate fight. One is, adapting to that which we can no longer prevent. The sea level is definitely going up and probably by a lot. New York City as you know, has started trying to build a seawall that will protect at least Lower Manhattan from sea-level rise. It's expensive, but it's necessary and there's going to be much more of that that's necessary.
Along with adapting to that which we can no longer prevent, we desperately have to prevent that to which there is no real adaptation. If the sea level goes up, not one meter, but four, five, six, seven meters, then you don't get to have New York City or indeed most of the other cities of the world anymore, because our cities tend to be built along the coastline.
It's worth almost anything to try and arrest the rise in temperature before that kind of dislocation becomes mandatory. That's why as I say, job one between now and 2030 is to replace as much carbon generation as we can with clean energy. Then we'll be able to take better stock of where we are, and what sacrifices those who come after us are going to have to make.
Our job right now is to limit the scale of that by making that transition as fast as possible. Speed is the question here. This is the first real-time limited problem that we've ever faced, and winning slowly is just another form of losing.
Kai Wright: That's just a terrifying prospect, Bill because we haven't even won slowly for decades now.
Bill McKibben: Absolutely. That's why it's a good thing that over the last 10 years we've seen this great, booming engineering, and we've seen this great, booming activism. If those two things can unite, then they have a chance of changing the political equation fast enough to let us make some progress.
There's not any guarantee that's going to happen. We don't know what the outcome is, but it's desperately, desperately that's why people are going to jail. That's why people are spending their lives trying to get this shift to happen.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Richard in Manhattan. Richard, welcome to the show.
Richard: Thank you very much. I've two questions for Bill. First of all, I'd like to thank you very much for everything you're doing, because it's about time somebody shook us up and got us activate-- Active whatever you call it, active. I'm a bicyclist. I'm over 60 and I'm going to ride a bicycle from Manhattan to Northern Ontario, Canada for my mother's 90th birthday-
Bill McKibben: Wow.
Richard: -so I'll be damned if I'll get into an airplane, and I'd like you to talk about that. Talk about transportation alternatives, bike routes, rail trails, commuting to work in alternate ways.
Secondly, I'm an architect, and I'm really interested in Passive Solar Design, which is an international organization that's training architects, engineers builders, manufacturers of building products, in designing net-zero high-rise buildings and houses so that we generate zero carbon footprint in each of these houses. I'd like to hear what you have to say about each of those, sir.
Bill McKibben: Let's talk first about houses. As we build new ones, there's no excuse for producing housing and construction of any kind anymore that doesn't get us close to zero emissions as possible. The technology is there, affordable, usable. The real challenge sadly, is that we already have a hundred million buildings in this country, and we're going to have to retrofit those. That's why that Local Law 97 is so crucial.
On transportation, Richard's exactly right. We need to make all of our cities much more amenable to people who want to get around on the power of their muscles, or on e-bike, or whatever it is. Some parts of the world really used the pandemic to do that. All of a sudden Paris is one of the most bike-friendly cities on the planet.
New York seems to be struggling with the concept of how fast you can build out bike lanes and stuff. We don't have time for this to take decades while we go adjudicate every single block of the city one by one. We really need some vision here, in getting things to happen at speed. It's why it's good that there are groups like Transportation Alternatives.
I follow Doug Gordon there in the city, whose bike advocacy has been terrific. This is not stuff that's beyond our abilities. It just means-- Really in this case, it just means standing up to the cars and saying, "In New York City and other cities, we're going to let other people have some priority for once."
Kai Wright: Journalist and Activist, Bill McKibben's new organization is called Third Act, targeting people over 60. Bill, thank you so much for this conversation.
Bill McKibben: What a pleasure Kai, and very good to have you back in the studio, man.
Kai Wright: [chuckles] Indeed. Thanks to everybody who called and tweeted at us. If you didn't get a chance to speak, send us a voice memo at email@example.com. The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios, mixing by Jared Paul. Kevin Bristow and Milton Ruiz were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes, Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann and Kousha Navidar.
Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Veralyn Williams is our Executive Producer, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter, @kai_wright, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Love to get voice memos there.
As always, I hope you'll join us for the live version of the show next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern. Stream it at wnyc.org, or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Till then, thanks for listening and take care of yourselves.
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