Kousha Navidar: When we talk about climate change, we get a lot of audience responses.
Jordy: Hi, this is Jordy from the South village, also a baby boomer.
Jeff: Hi, my name is Jeff. I'm actually an environmental lawyer.
Jordy: I just want to say that the solutions that were mentioned on and discussed on the program were all about what government and industry and banking could do.
Jeff: What do you do with the excess volume of water and the flooding? What does that say about adaptation generally?
Jordy: Every individual can make a difference. You don't have to lobby your government. Individually, you can make a difference.
Jeff: Obviously, the younger generation and millennials' commitment to climate change as a core issue, give me some confidence that the future will be brighter.
Unidentified Caller: It was a wonderful show with Bill McKibben, who is a hero of mine. He's just a brilliant person and so humble and wonderful.
Kousha Navidar: We are revisiting that conversation with Bill McKibben.
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?
Protestor: Why do we want?
Protestors: More to action.
Protestor: When do we want it?
Greta Thunberg: We're in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is the money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. 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 over planning.
Dr. Susan Clayton: Anxiety is useful. It tells us that there's something that we need to be paying attention to.
Kousha Navidar: Welcome to the show. I'm Kousha Navidar, senior digital producer. This week, we're playing an Encore of an episode that struck really hard. Back in September, we invited climate activist and author, Bill McKibben, to come on the show and help us answer questions, your questions, our questions, about what's practically even possible to improve the climate crisis.
The result was a pretty electric show, mostly because of you sitting at home and the responses you sent us. After the show, those responses kept coming. Voicemails, tweets, emails, you name it. Well, we read all of them, and as we look ahead to the rest of the year, we want to make sure we don't forget them in what has become, for this show, such an important conversation.
In this episode, we're revisiting that conversation with Bill McKibben and highlighting your questions. If this conversation stirs something in you, tell us what that is. Email us with a message, a voice memo, a video recording, whatever you like. You can send it to email@example.com. Again, that's firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks. Now, here's Kai.
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's 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 end 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," but frankly, mostly it's just too much to even meaningfully process this seemingly inevitable and very near end of human life as we know it.
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.
Kai Wright: 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. I wrote a lot of talk of the town. The first long 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 ConEd's oil purchases down to the jungles of Brazil and went up to the Arctic to look at the hydro plants that were providing power for this 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 you seems like you can just mint money and power out of air 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 kind of fragility, the 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, 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 and important science about climate change was all carried out at about 110th in Broadway, four stories up in that building above the diner from Seinfeld.
Kai Wright: What was it about that science, Bill, that you said you were poised to get it in. Was there something about that early science that grabbed you that made you say, "Well, 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. 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.
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 three years ago, "Watch out. Some days soon, there's going to be enormous forest fires, way more hurricanes, the sea level's going to be rising and we're going to see rainstorms like we've never seen before."
That doesn't make it any easier. I was in New York City when the remnants of Hurricane Ida came through. The 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 ashamed 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's 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 reread 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, "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 degree Celcius, so 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, call it 2 degrees, in the way we're used to thinking about it. That doesn't necessarily sound like that much. If it was 65 degrees 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've burned is the heat equivalent of about 400,000 Hiroshima-sized explosions. That makes it easier to understand how we've done things like, say, melt most of the sea ice in the summer Arctic. Take these meters old continent-sized millennial 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. 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. That leads to the droughts and forest fires that bedevil us and once that water is up in the air, it comes down leading to the floods. That's with 1 degree. The scariest part of this story is that that one degree on current trajectories will become about three degrees Celsius, five, six degrees Fahrenheit before the century is out, even if we keep the promises that we made at Paris.
If anything like that happens, we're not going to have civilizations like the ones we're used to having. 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 were enough to utterly discombobulate the politics of both continents, imagine what happens with a billion of them.
The only thing-- 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 has already gone up 1 degree Celsius to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, not 3. That's going to take everything humans have. It'll be the biggest challenge that our species has ever engaged in. 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 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 climate, the carbon footprint? 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 the scale we need to make change in. What the scientists have now given us, it's a 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 flying idly off to someplace just because it's a little warmer or whatever, but, 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 350NYC managed to push the city to adopt an absolutely groundbreaking new law, Local Law 97, that would force the big buildings in New York City to retrofit for energy efficiency over the next decade. If they did that, it would cut emissions, not a little, but a lot out of New York City, and it would provide an 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 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 and about what can happen now, all these too many years after he and others first began urging us to act. Stay with us.
Regina: Hi, everyone. I'm Regina, a producer with the United States of Anxiety. A couple of weeks ago, we got an email that I'd love to share. It reads, "Hi. I don't know how to do a voice memo so I'm hoping an old-fashioned email will work. Your episode with Bill McKibben on climate change was very nice. It's admirable that McKibben still has energy and optimism for climate activism considering our dismal failure to act so far. It would be great if you could drill down further on the climate change problem versus our economic systems. It would be great if you could pick the brains of some bright thinkers on what a truly sustainable economy could look like.
Yes, the climate change problem has many elements. Agriculture is a sector contributing greatly. The absurd agriculture policies would be worth an episode on their own as is transportation, ditto, but McKibben is right. It is way past the point where little individual actions could save the day. I could not idle my car, use efficient light bulbs and bring my own shopping bags, and it's not going to cut it. I want to know how can we organize economies to truly live sustainably and to be equitable as well." She ends with, "Poverty is environmentally unsustainable. Thanks for reading this."
Thanks, Susan, and thanks to everyone who sent us messages. If you have something to say, please send us an email or voice memo to email@example.com, that's firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you.
Kai Wright: 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. I got to play some role in that. I started 15 years ago, 350.0rg, which was the first iteration of a global climate movement. I began it with seven college students here at Middlebury College in Vermont, where I hang out. It was wonderful and it led also to the work of many other 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 Xia Bastida, or Alexandra Villaseñor in New York, or on and on and on, but 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 but 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.
Kai Wright: Right.
Bill McKibben: I think actually, those of us that age, our first act was actually kind of 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'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 you know model 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, and, Bill, before you answer, we have another educator, I think, also on the phone. 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.
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 that's 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, and 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 line 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 sort of 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 tried 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 a while ago. The obstacles that remain are obstacles around vested interest and 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 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: 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 and 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 and 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.
Kai Wright: I also want to look back to our teacher in the Bronx, Heather's question because 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: Well, 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 Friday's for the Future Coalition, which is what all that climate strike work has coalesced into.
There were wonderful resources there and 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: So interesting. I wonder if-- because 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? You submit that ultimately, it is that simple, and I wonder about that.
Bill McKibben: [crosstalk] 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 and 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. 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, so 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 this is the problem. That's the problem. We got tons of calls, so I'm going to save my questions for another time. 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. 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 take 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. It'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, and one is about the communication. I think a lot of it's not that simple. A lot of people seem to want to think that it is simple, you can do, it's not like a movie. If you can't, it's a threat and it's looming, and one man steps in at the last minute and takes full action and stops it in its tracks. This cannot be stopped in its tracks. It can be limited, and it comes 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 forecasts 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. 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 and that lie--
Kai Wright: Bill, what about accountability for that. I mean, because one of our we have a tweet from someone Alexander T. Lane, who asked 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: Let's hope. Bill DeBlasio, 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. 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 are 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 10-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 is 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, so we need an activist, 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? Stay with us.
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. 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: Well, so 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 sulfur 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 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. I mean, 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 kind of Hogwarts scale magic that the 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, and it's good to see that starting, it's good to see the first plans for offshore wind farms in Long Island Sound, we need to amp this up by orders of magnitude. If we do, we'll save money because this stuff is cheaper in the long run than burning fossil fuel. 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 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 City 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, am entirely sympathetic with putting pressure on corporations through disinvestment, and so forth, but what about the incentives side? How do we get them to align their mission with fighting climate change, and other resources?
Kai Wright: It's incentives, as well as punishments to get at least power companies to switch over to clean energy.
Bill McKibben: That's right. This is really important, but I do want to say that the things that politicians like to do are 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-- 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 SEC, 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 him, 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 is beyond the regulating of utility companies, which I'm asking about, business, in general, is there a role here? 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, 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 stopped 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, guys. Bill, you mentioned the prospect of having to resettle a billion climate refugees. Where do you think the cities of the future will be? Shouldn't we begin focusing less on remediating current infrastructure, and more on starting to build those new cities?
Bill McKibben: Well, it's a really important question. 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, or 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 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, and 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 though, 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 boom in engineering, and we've seen this great boom in 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. I 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. 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 activated. Whatever you call it active. I'm a bicyclist. I'm over 60. I'm going to ride a bicycle from Manhattan to Northern Ontario, Canada, for my mother's 90th birthday, so it began before I get into an airplane. I'd like to talk about that, talk about transportation alternatives, bike routes, rail trails, commuting to work, and alternate ways.
Secondly, I'm an architect. 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 a 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 as close to zero emissions as possible. The technology is there affordable, usable. The real challenge, sadly, is that we already have 100 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 is 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 an 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. 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. His 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: Indeed.
Kai Wright: 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, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright or shoot 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 at 6:00 PM Eastern, stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves.
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