What We’ve Learned About Climate Change in the Last 30 Years | Bill McKibben

This keynote talk was given at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.

Bill McKibben explores: What lessons can we draw from three decades of struggles to address the existential threat of climate disruption? What do our failures reveal about the flaws of our political system and the economic nihilism of the fossil fuel industry? What strategies are most likely to lead to greater success to save our species from itself?

Bill McKibben, our nation’s most significant environmental activist, is also a leading journalist, author and academic. A Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, Bill’s The End of Nature (1989) was the first book for a general audience about climate change. A founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, he has won slews of prestigious awards, including the Right Livelihood Award and the Gandhi Prize and Thomas Merton prizes.

To learn more about Bill MicKibben, visit his website.

Read the full verbatim transcript of this keynote talk below.


Introduction by Kenny Ausubel, Bioneers CEO and founder.


1989 marked a hinge historical moment. Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, the landmark book that broke the ice on global warming by reaching a national popular audience. Just months earlier, NASA climatologist James Hansen had given his first urgent testimony before Congress as the Paul Revere of global warming. He implored the nation’s political leaders to seize the decade of the ‘90s to start winding down our fossil fuel accounts to avoid runaway climate change.

In 1989, instead of its usual person-of-the-year edition, Time magazine made endangered Earth its planet of the year. There was a national awakening to the escalating hotlist of global environmental crises – freshwater scarcity, toxics, biodiversity crash, public health threats, archaic infrastructures, environmental justice, wealth extremes, and on and on. A focus on solutions began to arise from every corner of the country. Civil society surged with a renaissance of burgeoning social movements, NGOs, and citizen action. Bioneers was born amidst that ferment in 1990.

Jim Hansen had hoped to provoke a national mobilization. He did, but it came from above all, from Exxon and the fossil fuel industry, which spent the next 30 years sowing doubt and delay. It was the biggest and most expensive disinformation campaign in history. It was a catastrophic success.

Simultaneously NAFTA unleashed corporate economic globalization, triggering the insatiable plunder of every corner of the planet. Then as now, it’s the same old song. It’s the corporations, stupid. Just 100 companies called carbon majors account for 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And half those emissions have occurred since 1990, well after the industry knew full well what the consequences would be. Then as now, it’s social movements and civil society that have risen to challenge the destruction.

As a renowned and influential journalist and author, Bill McKibben dared to cross the bright red line separating journalism from activism. He understood that climate disruption is so existentially threatening that remaining a dispassionate observer was fundamentally immoral. While still penning a stream of influential books and articles, and managing an impressive academic career, in 2007, Bill launched Step It Up, a series of climate actions including calls for green jobs, which was a precursor to the Green New Deal.

The following year, he co-founded 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate movement. Its creative mobilization strategies have generated the most viral activist campaigns in history. It’s helped mobilize effective resistance to Keystone and many other oil pipelines. It helped launched the mushrooming fossil fuel divestment movement and produced the immense global Climate March.

Equally important, Bill has helped pave the way for the Gretas and the Xiuhtezcatl Martinezes, and the countless other young people who are the emerging global climate leaders who have come together as a generation in ways and at scales never seen before.

Bill is an improbable activist. His temperament is not that of a rabble rouser or an agitator. He’s the classically reasonable New England professor in the town square, a brilliant but rigorous restrained and acutely precise speaker and thinker, which is exactly why he’s so effective. He’s too honest, too earnest, too compassionate, too respectful, and way too knowledgeable to peddle simple ideologies or 50 simple ways to solve the climate crisis.

Bill first spoke here at Bioneers in 1996, and he’s returned many times since. It’s been an honor and joy to know him, and to witness and share his remarkable trajectory. He’s authentically modest, and probably uncomfortable with the attention and praise. A solitary stroll through his beloved Vermont woods is likely far more appealing, but Bill has a mission, and it’s our blessing that he does. Please join me in welcoming one of our living treasures who’s changing the political climate to create a very different kind of global warming, Bill McKibben. [APPLAUSE]


Kenny, Nina, thank you for keeping this family going and growing for 30 years. This is the 30th birthday of Bioneers. That’s amazing.

And of course, as Kenny says, for me that’s a very resonant number because it was 30 years ago this month that I published The End of Nature, the first book about climate change. I was a young man at the time – 28. I’m an old man now. There are days when I feel old beyond my years.

One of the things that old people do is try and sort of keep a tally of how things went, try and sum up. I try not to do that. I try not to keep score. I try not to wake up in the morning and decide whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic, because I don’t see the point of it. It’s enough to get up in the morning and figure out how much trouble you can cause. [APPLAUSE] Still… Still, there are moments when some tallying is in order, and I’m going to do a little bit with you today, and it’ll be a little hard at first, and a little easier after that.

It’s hard not to keep score with climate change because the numbers are right there. We have a day-by-day account of how much carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere from the monitors on the side of Mauna Loa. And we have a month-by-month account of how much the temperature is going up. The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are now higher than they’ve been for tens of millions of years. The temperature is higher than it’s ever been in human history. July was the hottest month ever recorded on planet Earth. Okay?

And the speed with which this has happened in remarkable. Thirty years ago, we were still issuing warnings about what was going to happen if we didn’t take action. Since we didn’t take action, we’re now issuing bulletins from the frontline every day. People here need no reminder of that. In Northern California, we literally shut down the power to millions of people last week in a kind of frantic effort to somehow keep large swathes of one of the richest places on Earth from catching fire.

Let me show you a couple pictures from a trip I organized last year up to Greenland, which of course is a stunningly beautiful place, the great storehouse of ice in our hemisphere, a place of just unmatched splendor. The ice sheet in many places is a couple of miles deep. It covers the biggest island on Earth. And of course it’s melting, and melting fast, and that’s hard to look at, hard to see. I don’t know whether you can make out that image or not. It’s a boat that sort of organized for the expedition, I’ll tell you about in a minute. As you can see out the front, there’s open water all around. I was standing behind the pilot and I was looking up at his electronic chart, and you perhaps can see the cursor that represents where the boat is is a couple of miles inland on solid land. I pointed this out with mild trepidation to the captain [LAUGHTER] and he laughed and said, “Oh, don’t worry, the chart’s five years old. Everything around here was frozen as far as you could see.” Five years ago. Okay? Not frozen anymore.

I was there because I had wanted to organize a way to get these two women up onto that ice sheet. The one on the left, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, I think has been here in the past, and is a remarkable poet. One of the great poets in the world. She hails from the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, one of the places that is literally…I mean, the highest point in the Archipelago is a meter above sea level, which is not a good place to be on a rapidly warming planet. She recruited the woman in black, Aka Niviana, a Greenland native, and together they performed this poem up on the ice that’s been seen by lots of millions of people up on YouTube.

I wanted them there because I wanted Kathy standing on the ice that when it melted would drown her home. And I wanted to try and drive home that, and she did a beautiful job. The poem is full of rage, as one would expect, but also of generosity and of an understanding that all the rest of us are following along this same trajectory.

Even for me, who spent as long as I have thinking about all this, it’s hard sometimes to imagine how fast it’s happening. [VIDEO PLAYING] I’m going to just show you a picture that I shot with my cellphone from the front of a helicopter as we were…as we were changing the batteries on one of these instruments that science has used to record the rescission of the glacier. It’ll take a minute to get to the good part as we kind of go over the fjords. Let me just use that time to say what we need always to remember is that climate change is by far the biggest thing that humans have ever done. It is our single biggest achievement, if that’s the word you want to use, as a species, to have fundamentally altered the chemistry of the atmosphere and with it the temperature of the planet, and with that the…with that to have altered every square meter of the Earth’s surface.

We’ve now lost 50% of the summer sea ice in the Arctic, in the last 30 years, in the time that we’ve been coming to Bioneers. Okay? The world, if you look at it from a satellite, looks entirely different than it did 30 years ago. People are supposed to get old over 30 years, but planets are not supposed to get old over 30 years, to change in that kind of way.

That sheet of ice at the snout of this glacier is 120 feet high, so a 12-story building. And just keep an eye—Just as we happen to be going over, this 12-story building just started letting loose. And those waves are 50, 60, 70 feet high. The pilot was a little trepidatious, but I encouraged him to circle once just to kind of…I wanted to…I wanted to watch this because it has a sinister beauty to it, like all things that happen on our planet, and because it is a reminder of what is going on every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day on planet Earth, and every time that happens, the height of the ocean rises some tiny fraction of a millimeter and we’re a little closer into the New World that we are building with such stunning speed.

The Earth’s temperature has gone up about one degree Celsius. That’s been enough to cause an almost amazing change, a set of consequences. The oceans are 30% more acidic than they used to be. The world’s hydrological cycles are completely akimbo already. We’re seeing record drought [VIDEO ENDS] evaporation and drought, and hence setting the conditions for massive fires. Once that water is evaporated up into the atmosphere, it comes down, and so we see record flood. All the time, every day now, some place we’re setting new records and all of them grim.

The last year we recorded the highest reliably recorded temperatures on planet Earth. It got to 129 degrees Fahrenheit in a series of cities across the Asian subcontinent and the Middle East – 129 degrees. You can survive for a few hours, but after that, your body just can’t cool itself off. We’ve raised the temperature one degree so far. We’re on a trajectory at the moment to raise the temperature three degrees Celsius, five, six degrees Fahrenheit. If we do that, the scientists are very clear, it’s not hard to calculate, that that 129-degree temperatures will be common for weeks a year, across vast swathes of this country, much of India, the North China plain, on and on and on. Billions of people will not be able to live where they live. The UN estimates that if we allow this to happen, we can expect a billion climate refugees in the course of this century.

Look, a million refugees was enough to utterly discombobulate the politics of our country. Multiply it by a thousand and try to imagine the planet on which we’re living. Our job, the only job, for our time is to make sure that that does not happen, that the temperature does not go up any more than it has to go up.

There are some things that let us think it might be possible. The engineers have done their job as well as the politicians have done theirs badly. In the last 10 years, we’ve watched the price of a solar panel and a wind turbine just plummet. They cost a tenth of what they did a decade ago. And thanks to that gift, if we wanted to go to work, if we wanted to move at speed, we could. We’re in a position now to really move.

And we have a movement to help make that happen. A lot of that movement’s been born here in this place with people who have—I’ve been—just arrived and I’ve only been here a half an hour but I already saw Eriel Deranger and Clayton Thomas-Muller and Tom Goldtooth, and all sorts of people who built so much of this movement at the beginning. [APPLAUSE] I saw great prophetic voices like Terry Tempest Williams and Brooke already this morning, just people who have allowed us to understand the world.

When that movement began, it was small. It was indigenous people, it was climate scientists, it was faith communities, it was the sort of hardcore Bioneers people like that, but it has grown fast. We’re at the 10th anniversary this month of the first big day of global climate action when 350.org organized 5200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries. That was great [APPLAUSE] but those demonstrations were small. There were 500 people here, and a thousand people there, and 10,000 people here. Now the demonstrations that we all organize are big. September 20th, this climate strike, saw seven million people in the streets around the world. [APPLAUSE] And so much credit to the young people who are sparking it, who are making it happen. [APPLAUSE] There is—

It’s been great fun to hang out with Greta Thunberg in the last month, but I’ve got to tell you, there are a thousand, 10,000 Gretas all over the planet, and they’re doing amazing work. [APPLAUSE] So that’s good. That’s good, but there is something mildly undignified about taking the biggest problem the world ever faced and assigning it to junior high school students to solve. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE] So time for everybody else to step up their game.

So we have a crisis. We have a solution of sorts. There are many solutions, all the things that—But let’s use wind and sun as a kind of stand-in for all the thousands. We have solution. We have a crisis, we have a solution, we have a movement, and we have a foe. And let’s be very clear about that. We’ve learned a lot about—over the last 30 years, about what happens in this world when money and greed keep us from moving as we need to move. As Kenny said, we’ve learned from great investigative reporting that the big fossil fuel companies knew everything that there was to know about climate change in the 1980s, before I did. They knew everything. Exxon was the biggest company on Earth. It had a great staff of scientists. Its product was carbon. Of course it knew. We found now the documents in archives that demonstrate with uncanny accuracy that its scientists were predicting exactly what the temperature would be in 2019, and what the atmospheric concentration of CO2 would be, and they were spot on. Not only that, they were believed by the executives at Exxon. Every drilling rig that the company built they built higher to compensate for the rise in sea level they knew was coming.

What they did not do was tell the rest of us. Instead they invested billions of dollars in building this architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation. So that’s why it’s good that so many people have stood up, that so many people have gotten in the way of pipelines and frack wells and coal mines. We don’t win all those battles, but we win a lot of them. And even when we lose them, we slow down this onslaught. And every month that we slow it down is a month that the engineers drop the price of a solar panel another percent or two.

It’s very good news that people have tried to get in the way of their finances. The divestment campaign that so many people helped with. [APPLAUSE] We celebrated last month the moment when we went past the $11 trillion mark in endowments and portfolios that have divested from fossil fuel. [APPLAUSE] That was a good moment, but the really good moment was reading Shell’s annual report this year where they said that divestment had become a material risk to their business. Okay? [APPLAUSE] So…

So let me just, in the couple of minutes I’ve got left, just give you the shortest preview of what comes next. Okay?

There are two big centers of power in the world of politics and money. People are doing a great job trying to take on Washington. The young people at the Sunrise movement, many of them veterans of that divestment campaign who have formed the Green New Deal platform and are pushing hard for it, are doing enormous good work, and they need all of us behind them in what’s obviously going to be an election…with…forget it. [LAUGHTER] We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do in the next year, and there is no question about it, so we will do what we can.

The other center of power in this world is the financial world. We started down that path with divestment, but we are broadening that path. There are people like Eriel and Clay and others who’ve been working on the big banks for decades. Okay? But we’re all going to start working on them I hope now.

I had a piece in the New Yorker six weeks ago about the way the money they provide is the oxygen on which the fires of global warming burn. Okay? Chase bank, the biggest of them all, has lent $196 billion to the fossil fuel industry – these good numbers from Rainforest Action Network – over the last three years. They’re lending went up after the Paris Climate Accords. Every bad project you’ve ever heard of, they and CitiBank and Bank of America and Wells Fargo, all deep involved in. So that’s bad.

The good is we can fight them. Not everybody’s got a pipeline or a coal mine in their backyard to go fight, but you know what? Chase has conveniently located 5,000 branches across America in the highest traffic locations imaginable. Keep your eyes open for the signal about the day that we need you to be there. [APPLAUSE] Chase…Chase has passed out tens of millions of credit cards around the country. Probably there’s lots of people in this room who have one in their wallet. Everybody who has a Chase card also somewhere in their home has a pair of scissors and [LAUGHTER] we’re going to ask you to use them. [APPLAUSE]

We’re going to go figure out the ways to go at the absolute heart of global capital. It’s going to be a hell of a tough fight. It may be one of the kind of ultimate fights in this ongoing effort to salvage the planet. Stay tuned. [APPLAUSE]

I’ve given you the setup. I’ve given you the setup. I’m not going to tell you what the outcome of all this fight’s going to be. And the reason I’m not going to tell you is I do not know. This is a fight different from the fights that humans have been in before because it is a time test. If we do not win soon, we do not win.

Dr. King used to close speeches by saying, The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. This may take a while, but we’re going to win. The arc of the physical universe is short, and it bends toward heat, and if we do not win soon, then we do not win. And by soon, I mean soon. There’s not going to be another 30 years before we know whether we did what we needed to do or not. In a much shorter time than that, in a time when everybody in this room is—with any luck will still be alive, we’re going to know whether or not we did what we needed to do when faced with the greatest challenge that human beings have ever been faced with.

I’m not going to tell you how it comes out, because I don’t know. I am going to tell you, because I’ve seen it for 30 years now in every corner of the planet and no place more than this corner, I am going to tell you that there is going to be a fight, and that fight is our fight, and it is such a privilege to just get to do it shoulder to shoulder with y’all. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE] Thank you. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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