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Bill McKibben: The ‘Debate’ Over Global Warming Was Always Phony

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Bill McKibben was one of the first people to warn of the dangers of global warming 30 years ago with his book The End of Nature. After that he founded the environmental organization and then he wrote 15 books and hundreds of articles and essays, many of them for The New Yorker, some for The Nation. He’s also been teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he’s the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies. Now he has published a new book: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? This interview has been edited and condensed.

Listen to Bill McKibben on the “Start Making Sense” podcast.

Jon Wiener: You wrote your first book 30 years ago on pretty much the same topic as your new one, Falter. I guess this one could’ve been called I Told You So. But you decided not to take that course. It is striking that for 30 years we knew that climate change was coming, and a lot of people will tell you ‘we did nothing.’ I’d like to look a little more closely at the “we” in that sentence. There’s you and me, and then there’s the people who ran Exxon.

Bill McKibben: Yes. If you asked me 30 years ago, one of the things I would not have expected is how slow we would be to react as civilizations. And for a while, that really perplexed me. But it’s come into focus much more clearly in recent years. Great investigative reporting at places like the LA Times and the Pulitzer Prize-winning website Inside Climate News and the Columbia Journalism School, revealed over the last few years that the fossil fuel industry knew everything there was to know about climate change back in the 1980s. And they believed what their scientists were telling them. Exxon started building all its drilling rigs to compensate for the rise in sea level it knew was coming.

But of course the thing they didn’t do was tell any of the rest of us. Just the opposite. They’ve spent billions of dollars building the architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that has spread with relentless efficiency the lie that science was unsure about climate change. And you can measure the results of that lie by the fact that the man in the White House right now believes that climate change is a hoax manufactured by the Chinese. That’s a view so delusional that if someone started muttering it to you seated on a public bus you’d get up and change seats.

So that’s where we are. We’ve had a 30-year completely phony debate about whether global warming was real, a debate that both sides knew the answer to when it began. It’s just that one of them was content to lie about it, in an effort to preserve its business model.

JW: Your new book Falter says things are looking pretty bad for humans right now. But of course there’s an opposing school of thought, which you can find in a dozen books and a hundred TED Talks, that says things are getting better. There’s less infant mortality today, people are living longer, more people are literate now than have ever before. Of the 55 million people who died around the world in 2012, only 120,000 of them died in wars. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says people like you (and me) nevertheless just seem to “bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch.” He’s optimistic about our future, he says, because “so far, humanity has made a lot of progress solving what seemed like intractable problems.” What do you say to Steven Pinker?

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