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This Climate Change Doomsayer Has Some Really Easy Math for Justin Trudeau

Bill McKibben has one number for the prime minister to remember if he wants to stay within the UN's mandated climate targets.


A wave of climate protest is about to hit Vancouver Saturday. Photo via Flickr user Break Free

Bill McKibben is a guy who's made a career out of delivering bad news, and this week, he's got some for Canada's prime minister.

The author of a dozen books on climate change has an old habit of using"terrifying new math" to connect fossil fuel megaprojects to the record-breaking wildfires, Arctic ice melt, and out-of-season temperatures we experience. The latest fires in Fort McMurray are no exception.

But for Justin Trudeau, McKibben is keeping his numbers simple: zero is the only one our photogenic PM has to remember. That's how many pipelines out of Alberta he says we can build and stay within our UN-mandated climate targets. He says we've passed the point where it's helpful to debate about "better" or "less harmful" fossil fuel projects—let alone entertain the idea a pipeline could fund a "green transition."

Of course, that's going to cost us in economic growth. By one recent calculation, sticking to our (still unremarkable) climate targets could cost about $100 per tonne of carbon not emitted, bringing down average Canadian incomes about $1,800 a year until renewable sources scale up and replace fossil fuels.

McKibben's certain even financial slowdown is a lot better than climate catastrophe, which is why he's backing climate protesters headed for a Kinder Morgan terminal in Burnaby on Saturday. VICE caught up with him earlier this week to find out which of Canada's energy battles he's watching closely.

VICE: You've said that Justin Trudeau's actions on climate seem to be falling short of his words. If Canada is going to hit its climate targets—reducing emissions 30 percent by 2030—what kind of actions do you want to see from our PM?
Bill McKibben: Canada's biggest problem with meeting its climate targets is the tar sands. Much of Canadian politics was centred around that development in Alberta for the last decade, which made it impossible for Canada to be a real participant in the global fight on climate change. It really had become by the end of the Harper years a rogue nation—maybe the most prominent one in the developed world.

Rhetorically that's changed. Mr. Trudeau said in Paris it was extremely important that we solve this climate crisis. He knows as well as anyone knows the math of global warming simply doesn't allow us to keep building new pipelines, to keep expanding the tar sands, to keep digging out more and more coal and oil and gas. So we're grateful for his rhetorical commitment to fight climate change, but we're dismayed that the rhetoric seems not yet to have moved to the point of real change.

What about investment in alternative energy? How do you see Trudeau performing on that front?
I think it's still early days to get a sense how serious the commitment is going to be. We have no choice around the world but to radically ramp up the pace at which we're building out renewable energy. Look at what's happened this winter: we've had the warmest months by far ever recorded on this planet. In the far north we've had month after month of temperatures ten, 15 degrees above average leading to record Arctic ice melt. Early thaw melts across the Boreal forest mean we're now seeing horrific forest fires. In the tropics over the last few weeks we lost huge swaths of the world's coral reefs—one of the most important ecosystems on the planet.

The question about renewable energy is not: Are we going to do it? It's going to be how fast we're going to do it. Are we going to take advantage of the low price on solar panels and put them on every south-facing surface we can find? Are we going to keep building windmills at a pace that allows Canada or the US to catch up with, say, the Danes who generated half their power from wind last year.

Bill McKibben feelin' the Bern. Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore

You've described the momentum behind fossil fuel projects as "zombie-like" and said our review process is on autopilot. Can you tell me about that?
Many of these companies simply have no other impulse. They made a lot of money in the past doing this, so they want to keep trying to do it even though the world no longer needs this fossil fuel nor can it possibly afford to burn it. But there's a lot of momentum so people are still trying to build new coal ports, and new oil train terminals and things. The fossil fuel industry understands they've only got a few more years before people say, "No more. We're done." So they're doing their best to get it all in while they can.

Have you really got that signal? What are your indications the oil companies think they've only got a few years?
Heck, even the Saudis, the biggest oil guys on Earth said earlier this winter they're envisioning moving beyond oil. They're going to try to sell off some of Saudi Aramco [the country's national oil and gas company] and invest in other things so Saudi Arabia won't be dependent on oil. If the Saudis have figured it out, that's a pretty good sign.

This week you're focusing on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion here in BC, which could be approved later this year. With dozens of other projects on your radar—all at different stages—do you feel pressure to go after the really immediate, carbon-intense ones?
One wishes that we had the margin to pick easy battles and the ones that are easiest to win. Physics isn't allowing us that margin. We've got to stop the expansion of the fossil fuel industry everywhere we can. People are fighting battles all over the place. This week there have been huge demonstrations in the Philippines and Australia about coal, in Nigeria about oil. All this BreakFree action moves to the US and Canada this weekend.

People told us we'd never beat the Keystone pipeline, and people who were in favour of the Keystone pipeline told us we'll just build new pipelines to the west coast of Canada. That's not happened. Northern Gateway is dead, there's been incredible resistance to the Kinder Morgan pipelines as you know, in Vancouver. I don't think the Energy East pipeline across Ontario and Quebec is going to be built anytime soon. People have risen up and risen up everywhere. All over the world there's this wave of civil disobedience and agitation because people are understanding just what a deep hole we're in. The first rule of holes is when you're in one, stop digging. In this case that's to be taken literally.

Those three projects you mention are the big ones in Canada, but there are also lesser known energy battlegrounds in this country. Are you following those?
There are battles going on everywhere, and the good news is there's no central direction of the movement, it's more of a sprawling resistance. There's not some great central leader who's telling people what to do. People are rising up in opposition everywhere, fighting in their local places, and we need to be coordinating those actions on a national, continental and global scale. Now we have a political movement that looks the way we want the energy movement to look: not a few big centralized operations, but a million solar panels on a million roofs, all interconnected.

What about liquefied natural gas in BC specifically? It's been branded as a cleaner alternative to coal in Asia, should people be blocking that too?
If you're worried at all about global climate change, and you should be, we've come to understand that natural gas is at least as dangerous as coal, that the leakage from methane at every stage of the operation fills the atmosphere with a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. We don't need a world that runs on natural gas any more than we can manage a world that runs on coal. What we need is sun and the wind. And the engineers are doing a good job there. They've brought down the price of a solar panel 80 percent in the last decade. It's time to take advantage of that. Everyone for years has said, "Oh, it's the bridge to renewable energy," whatever. That was a much better argument before we knew as much as we know about methane chemistry now. It turns out it's just another grave fossil fuel danger.

So then, is there such thing as a good megaproject? Here in BC we have debate over a massive hydroelectric dam, also branded clean energy.
I think building big solar farms and things is defensible in some locations, but I think the place the world really wants to go is what the engineers call distributed generation—lots and lots of small facilities, rooftops, five-acre farms, so on and so forth. These have the virtue of not only providing energy, but providing it locally, allowing people to keep their money close to home, supporting their neighbours. Watching farmers grow electrons is just as useful as watching them grow calories.

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