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

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 350.org, 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 350.org

Wong: There’s a lot of Fortune 1000 companies that have the money to do something -- and they have sustainability departments. What's the best way for them to be engaging with governments and the grassroots?

McKibben: Companies are deeply politically involved all the time. If they’re a member of the Chamber of Commerce, then they’ve joined the movement to do nothing for climate change. So maybe a good first step would be quitting. But internally within their businesses, it’s very easy to do figure out how to do things like setting an internal carbon price and quickly make fossil fuel reduction a priority. And these things are starting to happen at your better-managed companies now. And they’re important and good, but they’re also not a substitute for political engagement.

Wong: What companies do you think are doing a good job in this area, and who needs to improve?

McKibben: I don’t track individual companies. But I know there have been some interesting focused efforts at some of the chemical companies – DuPont, I think, has done an interesting job of energy use reduction. Sometimes, one’s a little sad that the same handful of companies are being held up again and again – Interface, for example -- because it sort of implies others aren’t moving as fast as one might want.

Wong: What are some strategies to get businesses to change -- whether it’s from within or from the outside?

McKibben: Consumers and others are increasingly putting pressure on businesses and trying to hold them accountable. In extreme cases of the fossil fuel industry, we’re now having a huge divestment movement break out across the entire country. It’s at over 300 college campuses now, and it’s moving to cities and religious denominations and things like that. People are cutting their ties with this industry.

But it doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones needing to change. Consumers are paying attention as well as activists and citizens. Climate change by far is the biggest problem that human beings have ever faced. So what companies do and don’t do will be long remembered. 

Wong: Are there particular influencers that you think might have a snowball effect? For example, a company that can have an effect on its peers and unlock change?

McKibben: Yes. There’s companies that are starting to do -- we all know what companies people really pay attention to as examples of good management and innovation and things. 

In the tech sector, it’s Apple and Google. And both of them have done some progressive things in energy. And I believe that Apple anyway has severed its relations with the Chamber of Commerce, and I believe Microsoft, at least, has stepped down from its board. And there are sector leaders in almost every place that it would be good to see doing this.

One of the things that makes it more difficult is that there’s a constant ongoing desire too among many environmentalists and activists, including myself, to see a somewhat more decentralized, spread out and diverse business sector than we have at the moment. There’s a great interest for environmental reasons to have people moving towards more localized business opportunities too. So companies that figure out how to get in front of that trend and help it instead of hinder it, I think, will also be useful. 

Wong: I know you’re fighting the Keystone XL pipeline right now. What are the next steps for you and 350.org?

McKibben: We’ll see what kind of decision comes down [on the pipeline] and whether our effort needs to be going to jail in Nebraska -- we’ll find out. That’s a big and important paddle.

What we’re doing at 350.org is trying to take it all around the world. We’re convening a huge summit of 500 young people from pretty much every country on earth. We have about 5,000 applications we’re weeding through at the moment. It will be in Istanbul in June, and the purpose is to produce as many fired up and confident organizers to take this divestment campaign and spread it everywhere. We have to put the fossil fuel industry on the run, and fast. 

Wong: What are some of the critiques and praises about how climate change has been covered by the media?

McKibben: The media has not done itself any great credit in the fight over climate change. It’s treated it as a 'He said, she said' thing. And in the case of Keystone, it hasn’t even done a very good job getting down what’s actually the facts of the situation. There has been a ton of lazy reporting. That’s starting to change because it’s becoming so obvious to everyone in this country that the climate is changing fast, so I think there are a lot of reporters starting to play catch up now.

I do think there are a few examples of people who have done strong powerful work on climate reporting over the years and have helped a lot. Elizabeth Kolbert at The New Yorker would be a good example. 

Wong: Later this month, you'll be speaking at the CleanMED conference focused on sustainability in health care. You’re talking to an industry that has already made a lot of progress in greening their industry. What’s the message you’ll be bringing them?

McKibben: Since many parts of that industry come from the nonprofit sector, I'll be bringing people up to date on this work we’re doing on endowments and portfolios around divestment from fossil fuel companies. In general, I'll be reminding them that the rest of the business community needs to really sharpen their game on dealing with climate because they’ve tended to leave it as an issue to the fossil fuel industry, whose great desire is to have nothing happen at any time.