McKibben reported on climate discussion from Paris

On December 2, Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Fellow Bill McKibben addressed members of the Colby and Middlebury College communities via a Skype session organized by the two schools’ respective Environmental Studies departments. McKibben, who called from the Paris Climate Conference, reported on the ongoing negotiations and discussions that are currently being held in the city.

McKibben is an active American environmentalist, author, and journalist whose career has largely been spent combatting global climate change. In addition to his writing, McKibben has founded and spearheaded a number of campaigns, including the global fossil fuel divestment movement and the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline.

McKibben’s report Wednesday afternoon provided insight into the on goings of the conference as well as his expectations for the conference’s outcomes. Thus far, McKibben said, “Events in Paris for the opening weekend were more muted than they would have been.” Due to the ISIS attacks in late November, McKibben explained that “Paris remains on edge” and, as a result, large-scale demonstrations that were planned had been replaced with quieter protests.

“There would have been a march on the scale of the one in New York last fall,” he said, “but that was canceled and instead there was a human chain of people through many blocks in the center of town. And then there was a very moving display of people putting out shoes, a kind of silent march, including a pair of shoes from the pope. And that was very moving.”

Despite the lingering effects of the ISIS attacks, McKibben noted the increased organization of the conference in contrast to the Copenhagen Summit in 2009. That being said, McKibben was not surprised by the event thus far. He said, “The first two days of this conference were the kind of pomp and circumstance part, with world leaders just one after another saying their piece. Mostly it was about what people expected.”

Though McKibben noted the eloquence of President Obama’s address, the actual substance of the conference, would come during negotiations in the days following. Those negotiations will be over a universal and legally binding agreement from participating countries on global climate control.

McKibben said, however, that the likelihood of that happening was not high: “There’s not going to be a binding treaty. It’s worth remembering as Americans that this is our fault. No one around the rest of the world is under any illusions that the U.S. senate, owned by the fossil fuel industry, would ever approve a meaningful climate treaty.”

Much of McKibben’s report alluded to the power of the fossil fuel industry and the challenges of combatting its influence. McKibben, somewhat pessimistically, said that “there will never be 66 votes in the forseeable future for that. So the rest of the world has had to construct these sort of artificial and jury-rigged methods of coming up with an agreement of some kind.”

While the conference is not likely to agree on any binding targets, McKibben said that participating countries would be agreeing upon mechanisms for which to limit and hopefully reduce the increase in the global temperature. These strategies are called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), and will determine whether or not the conference is able to decide upon a path toward protecting against further climate change.

Though the goals of these negotiations appear noble, McKibben provided perhaps a more realistic view of the conference’s likely outcomes. He said, “The UN is going to try to say by the end of the conference that if you add up all these pledges and actually keep these pledges then the world will be on a path for about a 2.7 degree Celsius increase in temperature. In fact that’s much overstated.”

Instead, McKibben said that the world will actually come out of these talks with an estimated temperature increase closer to 3.5 degrees Celsius. He said, “That’s obviously not good news given that one degree has already proven more than the world can handle.”

McKibben also noted that these estimates are better than what they once were. With regards to that, he addressed the students in attendance: “The main reason that has allowed that to happen is due to the stuff that you guys are responsible for; the rise of a real movement over the years since Copenhagen.”

McKibben that this movement has made politicians more accountable: “I think the way to think about it is Barrack Obama and Hilary Clinton could come back six years ago empty handed from Copenhagen, as they did, and pay no real political price for it,” he said. “That couldn’t happen today,” he continued, “There’s now enough of a movement holding people responsible that they need to come up with something.”

Financial needs have also been a point of contention during the talks. One of the major concerns of the conference, according to McKibben, has been the future carbon usage of developing nations. In terms of reducing the global carbon footprint, the most efficient ways of going about it would be by investing heavily in the infrastructures of poorer nations who are trying to develop. Unfortunately, McKibben said, the amount of money required to do that is not something that is likely to be raised: “We’ve gotten from governments most of what they’re able to give at this point.”

Though much of McKibben’s report was an honest, if not pessimistic, outlook on the conference, he did have some encouraging takeaways. In terms of the divestment movement, he said, “Our new total for endowments and portfolios that have divested which stood at 2.6 trillion dollars 8 weeks ago, is now at about 3.4 trillion dollars and continuing to grow.”

In terms of going forward, McKibben called for a push on the powerful fossil fuel companies that have so heavily influenced international governments. This point was made particularly relevant in light of recent allegations that ExxonMobil has historically funded climate science denier groups. Because of these actions, McKibben said that the nearly 25 years spent proving the existence of climate change were wasted. He explained that “our problem’s never been a lack of good solutions. We knew 25 years ago the things we were supposed to do and they remain exactly the things we should be doing today, including putting a price on carbon.” He continued, “The problem now is we’ve waited so long to do something effective that the price on carbon’s going to be uncomfortably high.”

Overall, McKibben’s perspective on the conference provided insight into the reality of what it means for the rest of the world: “Think about Paris less as the game than the scoreboard. There’s not much happening here except that it’s a good reflection of what has happened over the last five years.”

He acknowledged the predictability of it all, describing the “sort of groundhog day quality” to the conference. However, McKibben also applauded the large-scale global awareness movement that has arisen in recent years. Looking towards the future, he said, “We need to be able to push where the real power is located; on the fossil fuel companies that own these governments. And push hard there.”