McKibben on Keystone XL, the Obama problem, and fossil fuel divestment


It would be great if the Obama administration would follow Bill McKibben and in standing up to corporate power — and if more environmental group leaders had McKibben’s skill as a public intellectual and’s action-oriented creativity. Check out McKibben’s latest post on the Obama problem and the battle over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and his speech, on accepting an environmental award in Oslo, calling on Norway to divest its sovereign wealth fund (from Norway’s offshore oil riches) from fossil fuel investments.

McKibben at Huffington Post (and TomDispatch) — Will Obama Block the Keystone Pipeline or Just Keep Bending? (excerpt, but read the full post) —

As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on — and it’s now well over two years old — it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. …

Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency has [proposed to] put in place some new power plant regulations, and cars are getting better mileage. But the president has also boasted again and again about his “all of the above” energy policy for “increasing domestic oil production and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” It has, in fact, worked so well that the United States will overtake Russia this year as the biggest combined oil and natural gas producer on the planet and is expected to pass Saudi Arabia as the number one oil producer by 2017.

His administration has okayed oil drilling in the dangerous waters of the Arctic and has emerged as the biggest backer of fracking.  Even though he boasts about marginal U.S. cuts in carbon emissions, his green light to fracking means that he’s probably given more of a boost to releases of methane — another dangerous greenhouse gas — than any man in history. And it’s not just the environment.  At this point, given what we know about everything from drone warfare to NSA surveillance, the dream of a progressive Obama has, like so many dreams, faded away.

Amen to that.

[T]he thought of those 900,000 extra barrels a day of especially nasty oil coming out of the ground and, via that pipeline, into refineries still makes the fight worthwhile. Oh, and the possibility that, in deciding to block Keystone, the president would finally signal a shift in policy that matters, finally acknowledge that we have to keep most of the carbon that’s still in the ground in that ground if we want our children and grandchildren to live on a planet worth inhabiting. …

But that cascade of “ifs” depends on Obama showing that he can actually stand up to the oil industry. To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement, Keystone looks like a last chance.

[November 1 update: Check out this superb post by Joe Romm at Climate Progress, Which defends McKibben’s piece against a wrong-headed critique, while laying out a good perspective on strategy, tactics, and the climate movement.]

From Bill’s speech at the Sophie Prize award ceremony in Oslo (excerpt, but again, read the full text) —

It doesn’t much matter how virtuously you live if you insist on investing in companies that plan to keep searching for more hydrocarbons long past the point where the climate can be salvaged. 18 months ago I wrote a piece for Rolling Stone magazine that became one of their most-viewed articles ever—it laid out the case for considering the fossil fuel industry a rogue industry. It has … announced plans to investors, banks and governments to burn 3 to 5 times the carbon necessary to take us past a temperature rise of two degrees, the red line set by international negotiators for many years. Once you know those numbers, then you know that the end of this story has already been written. There is no drama—if the business plans of these companies are followed, the planet will tank. So, we need to rewrite the script.

One way to do that is to divest from these corporations, as a way of pressuring them and of signaling to others that they are no longer to be considered ‘normal’ industries, but rather dangerous forces. We can’t bankrupt Exxon, that is, but we can begin to politically and morally bankrupt them, and their kin, so they don’t exert such powerful control over our political bodies. And here Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, as the largest single investor on the planet, has a crucial role to play. It is time for Norway to end its investments in fossil fuel. Yes, that wealth was built on oil, mostly in a time when we didn’t understand its peril. But now it needs to be invested in the future, not the past.

Morality demands no less. If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from the wreckage. And if Norway takes this step, it will … send a powerful message, just as it did a generation ago when many institutions and governments divested their holdings in companies doing business with South Africa’s apartheid regime. When Nelson Mandela was finally freed from prison and visited America, his first stop was not the White House: it was California, so he could thank students at the university system who had forced the divestment of $3 billion in stock. We liberated ourselves, he said, but we couldn’t have done it without you. It was Mandela’s great accomplice, Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, who helped issue the call for fossil fuel divestment.

Bill McKibben, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math — Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe – and that make clear who the real enemy is, Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012

I haven’t yet read Bill’s new book Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist and am looking forward to that. There’s a very good review article in the New York Review of Books (by subscription).

I first met Bill at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007, at the premiere of Everything’s Cool, a documentary about ‘global warming messengers’ and the political and corporate impediments to action, in which we appeared. The movie captures a particular time during the Bush administration, and one of its features is coverage of Bill’s first climate change demonstration, a fairly small-scale action in Vermont — before and its instigation of global warming demonstrations worldwide, before there was a ‘climate movement’ in the U.S., before civil disobedience at the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, before the Forward on Climate rally that drew tens of thousands to the National Mall earlier this year, and before the fossil fuel divestment campaign that has spread to campuses across the country (and, via Bill, to Oslo). The movie is available at Amazon and on Netflix.

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