Bill McKibben's lessons for business in the age of climate change

Perhaps one of the most well-known climate activists of our times, environmental writer Bill McKibben is on a mission to slow down the effect of greenhouse gases on the earth. Alongside his colleagues at the nongovernmental organization, McKibben has spearheaded a campaign calling upon communities, governments and universities all around the world to take action by divesting from fossil fuel companies.

Last summer, McKibben laid out his case for divestment in Global Warming's Terrifying New Math, an article he wrote for Rolling Stone. The piece stated that while the United Nations' Copenhagen Accord climate agreement recognizes that the earth's temperature should not rise by no more than an amount just under two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), global temperature has already risen about 0.8 degrees Celsius -- and that many scientists such as NASA's James Hansen believe that a rise of two degrees is too much. McKibben closes his case by highlighting research by the Carbon Tracker Initiative which reports that burning the total amount of coal, oil and gas reserves currently held by fossil fuel companies would release five times the amount of carbon needed to stay under the two-degree threshold.

McKibben is also reaching out to business. Later this month, he'll speak to the health care industry at the CleanMed conference in Boston (April 24-26) about what it can do to fight climate change.

GreenBiz Interim Managing Editor Kristine A. Wong recently spoke with McKibben about lessons for business in the age of climate change.

Kristine Wong: There’s only so much government has been able to do to address climate change, and business is a clear part of the answer.  What are some of the top things that business needs to do to move this process forward? 

Bill McKibben: Well, I think that there’s a lot of things that individual businesses can be doing in their own business, and we’re seeing a lot of that start to happen already. Apple announced that their entire server farm is running off of solar energy. People are making good transitions in their operations in a lot of cases.

But just in the same way that we always say to people 'It’s important to change your lightbulbs, but it’s more important to change the structures of your energy system,' the most important thing that businesses can be doing is to join in a real concerted political effort to cause change – not letting the fossil fuel industry win through letting its vehicles like the Chamber of Commerce dominate the discussion. You need to bring pressure on [the Chamber of Commerce].

There may be no more important player in Washington – I haven’t seen the latest numbers, but in the 2010 election cycle they spent more than the Republican and Democratic National Committee parties combined. And they’re stone cold climate obstructionists. They filed a brief with the EPA saying something like don’t worry about climate change – if it ever happens, humans will adapt their physiology in order to cope. They’ve been way, way, way outside the mainstream on this issue, carrying water for the fossil fuel industry, and the rest of the of the business community has let them get away with it.

Wong: Why do you think that is?

McKibben: Because it's not their main business to be focused on that. If you run a furniture company, your main thing that you spend all day thinking about is making and selling furniture. You don’t have a lot of bandwidth left to think about climate change – or at least you haven’t had a lot of it -- and the only people who have that bandwidth left is the fossil fuel industry because they understand that doing anything for climate change is a mortal threat for their industry. They’ve been there day in and day out.

It’s starting to change because renewable energy groups and things are beginning to acquire some power, but lobbying power belongs to people who’ve made money already. It represents the accumulated money and power of the last 50 years, not the next 50 years. Fifty years from now, I have no doubt that the wind industry lobby will be powerful, and perhaps obnoxious. Maybe it will be stepping on the neck of the tidal power industry, or whatever else is coming next.

But for the moment, we need everybody who’s at all concerned about climate change -- the biggest problem facing the world -- to make it their business. This, at this point, is everybody’s business. And it better be fast because the economic consequences of not doing anything about it are staggering, quite aside from the moral human consequences.

Photo of Bill McKibben (center right) marching at Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 12, 2013 courtesy

Next page: How to engage with governments and the grassroots