Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. In this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I’m pleased to welcome Bill McKibben. He is the founder of step it up, dot step it up, which became three fifty.org. He’s also the founder of third act.org. He is also a prolific author, Bill, welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Bill McKibben 0:26
Good to be with you. And I started start us off with a weather report from Texas because the rest of the country has been reading about what’s going on down there. It’s warm here.
Robert Bryce 0:35
It’s gets hot in Texas. But yeah, the fortunately the grid ERCOT grid is standing up to it. As I mentioned, we had a little technical difficulty, therefore no mic and no earphones today, but yes, it’s hot. And it’s going to be hot for a while because it’s only June. But let me jump in here. Bill, I want you guests on this podcast introduce themselves. So if you don’t mind, imagine you’ve arrived somewhere and you don’t know anyone. And you have about a minute to introduce yourself, please introduce yourself.
Bill McKibben 1:04
Sure. I’m a writer. That’s what I’ve mostly done with my life. And it’s how I’ve earned my keep. And I wrote the first book about what we now call climate change what we then called the greenhouse effect back in 1989, when I was in my 20s. And working in New Yorker, and I’ve written a bunch of books since but also a volunteer as activist working on climate issues.
Robert Bryce 1:37
And you’re the author of 20 books, you said we were talking before, offline so and the latest is called the flag, the cross and the station wagon, a graying American looks back at his suburban boyhood and wonders what the hell happened. So we had a little technical difficulties, and we restarted but I’ll ask you this question again, been writing a long time. I have an audience in mind when I write for whom do you write? Is there a person or a certain group of people that you think about when you’re writing?
Bill McKibben 2:07
There’s not a particular person? I don’t think, but my goal is always as a writer, this is a good question, to try and answer the questions that are arising in a reader’s mind close to the moment when they arise. I really prize clarity in writing, above all, and I think that’s really what clarity means that if you can figure out what question is going to be coming up in someone’s head, and then try to be answering it.
Robert Bryce 2:42
And so you wrote a memoir that says, I’ve been reading it. And and you open the book, the flag that crossing the station wagon, you wrote about a demonstration against the Vietnam War in your hometown of Lexington, Massachusetts, that was in 1971. That, obviously, was a formative experience for you. I thought it was interesting. It made me think of a guy, a friend of mine, Robert Apodaca, who’s a housing activist in California. And he and I’ve talked about these issues. And in fact, we he’s in a documentary that we’re making now on the grid and electricity. And he said that, for today’s generation, the younger generation today today, climate change, is their Vietnam. Does that ring true to you?
Bill McKibben 3:28
I don’t think I think for me, it feels less like that. Then maybe a continuation of the work that started at the same time with the first Earth Day and and also is somehow connected to the civil rights movement, my great colleague, and dear friend, Reverend Lennox Yearwood always says, Oh, these are the lunch counter moments of our time on the planet while we’re taking on, you know, pipelines and things like that. And I think that may that have even more resonance for me than then some of the Vietnam stuff.
Robert Bryce 4:19
So climate changes the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Bill McKibben 4:24
I don’t think it’s exactly equivalent. But I think that there are things that are the that that overlap, especially the sense of injustice, it’s always struck me that climate change is not only the biggest practical problem we’ve ever faced as a species, but it might be the most unfair thing we’ve ever done. The iron law of global warming, it seems to me is that the less you did to cause it, the sooner and the harder you get hit by it. And I mean, we see that all the time. Yeah, I was thinking of it, particularly last year, when those you remember those incredible floods hit Pakistan. You know, the biggest floods since Noah just started raining and didn’t stop and event eventually there were 33 million people affected, something like that. But Pakistan’s put well less than 1% of all the carbon into the atmosphere. So that that kind of level of just completely on unfairness that seems to me to connect it to a lot of other things in, in our history, some some of the sad parts of our history. Uh huh.
Robert Bryce 5:50
Well, let me go back to your the beginning part of your book, you said, you begin at large and in the very first section, you say, What the hell happened. And kind of go from an America where that kind of modest paradise you were talking about the house that you grew up in, destined to spread to more and more of the country to the doubtful nation. We inhabit 50 years later, a society strained by bleak racial and economic inequality, where life expectancy was falling, even before a pandemic that deepened our divisions on a heating planet whose physical future is dangerously in question. And you put a question mark at that. So how do you answer that question?
Bill McKibben 6:32
What happened? Well, I mean, that’s really what the book is about. And it’s not really it means it’s close to a memoir is all ever right? But it’s not very much one. It’s more of an argument, really. And the argument was that the 1970s, my period of adolescence, and I think yours, too, was really turns out to have been a critical decade in a lot of ways. If I had to explain it, I’d say, we entered that decade, still embarked on the notion of America as a group project, where we, you know, as we had in the New Deal and the Second World War, we were still engaged in trying to make the country a better place. Sometimes very contentiously, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, whatever, but all of that seeming to add up to people’s hopes that they could figure out how to make this place better. But it ran into in the course of that decade, a highly highly individualized view of the world where you just the idea of a kind of group project became a kind of anathema. And I think by decades end, we’d sort of made the decision. The first, the first true watershed might have been proposition 13, in California, and that antipathy towards paying the taxes for things like public education that mark a group project, and then 1980, and the election of Ronald Reagan, who was convinced that markets would solve all problems, that our job was to get rich as individuals, it was his pal, Maggie Thatcher, who memorably said, There is no such thing as society, there are only individual men and women. And I think we’ve pretty much then under the spell of that for the 40 years since. And I think it’s turned out not to be true. markets didn’t solve all our problems, if they had, then the Poles would not be melting. And we wouldn’t live in a society of almost cartoonish inequality, where, you know, individual Americans have as much wealth as the bottom third of the population. So I
Robert Bryce 9:11
think there was a collective more of a collective spirit that after in the post war years and ended it in the 70s is that
Bill McKibben 9:18
it’s my that’s my thought, yes, that we became a more hyper individualized I mean, America has always been a place of, oh places a high premium on individualism and should, but somehow it got out of balance dramatically out of balance. And and I think that’s really explains an awful lot about the, to me, quite, quite, often quite painful world that we’re inhabiting at the moment. Straight out of it. Yeah.
Robert Bryce 9:57
So tie that to climate then what was The thing then that Well, are you arguing if we had a more collective government today, then we wouldn’t use as many hydrocarbons?
Bill McKibben 10:08
I think, no, I don’t know about that. But I think we clearly would have made a more determined response. Remember, two things. Remember, first, scientists gave us a good fair warning about what was going on. By 19, really, by 1988 89, when I was writing that book, and when Jimmy Hansen was testifying before Congress and whatever, we basically knew everything we know now about climate change. You know, it was it was there from the get go. And we haven’t responded, not not very powerfully not in our government and, and in many other places around the world that we’re following our lead. And I think that the that our denigration of government was one of the reasons for that, you know, Barack Obama, in one of his exit interviews, was asked why he’d really gotten so little done even when he had 60 Democratic senators to work with. And he said, we were still in the kind of hangover from the Reagan years, the idea that government was bad was still dominating our, our worldview. In the, in the immediate, sort of tastes of Raiden. And Carter, one of the things I learned during that book that was interesting to me, was the depth of Carter’s planning for solar power and its deployment. I mean, I’d known that he put solar panels on the White House, roof and tanks, but I did not know that his budget proposed budget for the year, it would have gone into effect, or he would have tried to put into effect how he won that election in 1980. would have put America on a path to try and get 20% of its power from solar energy by the year 2000. had we gotten anywhere close to that, then the climate story would have turned out differently, I think than it did, we wouldn’t have solved it by now. But we, we would have done the work in the 1980s that we ended up doing in the 2010s to dramatically reduce the costs of renewable energy and things and we’d probably be a lot closer. Who knows what else would have happened? You know, with Carter there, too?
Robert Bryce 12:22
Yeah. Well, let’s come back to that, because I want to talk more broadly about international issues and climate. And but so I’m looking at the new statistical review of world energy. But I want to put this to you because we are about the same age. We’re both born in 1960. Raised in different parts of the country. You raised in Massachusetts, I was raised in Oklahoma. We both have our critics, and we’ve debated before. And I think it’s fair to say we have some different views on energy and power, which I’ll get into but I also wanted to see what where do we agree? Aye. Aye. I’ll put my card on the table. I believe in the United States. I’m a big believer in the future of the US. I’m bullish on the US for a lot of reasons. Demographics, our geography our Constitution. I interviewed an economist Peter St. Onge who’s going to be on the recorded the podcast he called the Constitution our our superpower, so absolutely bullish on the United States. I’m a lover of nature. I’m an avid birdwatcher. So I wanted to just see where what are the things on which you and I agree, because I’m gonna wanted to get to some parts where I think we’re going to disagree. That’s probably strenuously.
Bill McKibben 13:36
Well, I, you know, I grew up in Lexington, as you know, and my job for many years, my high school job was giving tours of the battle green and Lexington to tourists who would drop by I had my tricorn hat. And I would tell over and over and over the story of the, in some ways of the first day of America, and I am, and I remain patriotic. I’m grateful for that early exposure, because I think one of the things it let me understand was that there was no dissonance between patriotism, and dissent. Those, you know, minute, man, we’re early dissenters. And I’m also really cognizant, more all the time of the weaknesses and sadnesses and flaws in our country. You know, I when I was doing that book, one of the things one of the real revelations was I went back and was rereading Paul Revere his diaries his account of his Famous ride, which was the one that Longfellow was working from when he wrote the famous poem. And at one point in that in that account, revere says he was talking about encountering a couple of British officers and having to evade them. And he said it happened in Charlestown common, right under the place where Mark hangs. It’s like, what is that about? And it took some research to figure it out no more. I don’t think anyone Richard written about it before. Turns out that there was a slave in Massachusetts named Mark. And he had a particularly cruel master, who he made his sister poisoned. And they I think they burned alive his sister after the trial, that him name drawn and quartered. And then they hung in what they called the gibbet an iron cage. And they kept it up there for that was 20 years before the revolution. And it was still up there 20 years after the revolution, and it was such a landmark that revere could count on everybody in New England, knowing what he meant when he made a passing reference to it. And, um, it was a good reminder that, you know, Liberty meant something a little bit different to the people who were fighting on that green, and hopefully it means to us today. So, I do have great hopes for this country. I think we’re engaged in a remarkable task. Anon. John Dyess, said in a book a couple of years ago said, America is trying very hard to do something that hasn’t happened ever before, which is to become the first truly multiracial multi ethnic democracy on the planet where there is no majority anything and demographics will get us, you know, there. But the question is whether what kind of what kind of country will be as we get there? I think some of the strains of that are showing, I think that some of the, you know, the ugliness around Donald Trump and things are signs of that strain. But I have hope that if we work hard, we can figure out how to do it. And it’s one of the reasons why it third act, we work hard, both on climate and on democracy and racial justice.
Robert Bryce 17:32
Well, let me follow up on that, because I think, you know, there are parts of that that I agree with, but I think what I see in the US has concerns me greatly as the class divide, right that we have developed an underclass in the United States, that has a little hope and little prospect of few prospects. But I want to follow on that, because it’s kind of a natural transition really to share who’s also been on the podcast, who is you know, as a Democratic strategist, on his substack, he wrote a piece recently called the working class is down with the green transition. I’m gonna quote from what he said in a new Monmouth poll, just 1% of the working class, non college voters in an open ended question identified, climate change is the biggest concern facing their family. You know, society University Chicago Energy Policy Institute pulled down with AP NORC said, quote, in terms of costs, Americans would be willing, in terms of costs, Americans would be willing to absorb to flight fight climate change, survey finds that just 38% of Americans would be willing to pay even $1 Extra on their monthly household energy expenses to combat climate change. So the lowest figure since AP NORC, started asking this question in 2016. It’s down 14 points since 2021. And an amazing 19 points since its high point in 2018. And quote, the I believe the poll are and if so, why are so few people willing to pay more for action on climate change?
Bill McKibben 18:56
Well, I think you’re right, that there is an extraordinary class divides in this country. And that we’ve done a poor job of well, of First of all, leveling them out some, just by doing what other countries, other industrialized countries have done, which is, you know, offer a decent floor for people so that they’re not in such want and need. And I imagined that at the moment, if the if one was trying to figure out why right now it’s high, it’s because inflation has been rough on everyone. And so I think that that’s, I think that’s doubtless Correct. Um, of course, the thing is, that if we let climate change, get any more out of control, the cost of that to everybody but especially to the poorest and most vulnerable people, is going to be numbers that are so large, we hardly have the calculators to put them up. I mean, the last figure I saw for, and I would not put too much stock in its specificity. But for total damages on this planet from unchecked climate change, were 551 trillion by the end of the century, which I believe is more money than currently exists on the planet. So if what we’re worried about is the cost of living, and you shouldn’t be for all kinds of people. And what we’re worried about is our ability to make economic progress, then I think we better figure out a way to get climate stuff under control, and fast.
Robert Bryce 20:46
So let me let me say, to share again, and from that same piece on his substack, he said, I just don’t see how you get the working class to support a clean energy transition, unless it becomes more of a crusade for abundant, cheap, reliable energy, and less about the cultural commitment of college educated Democrats, to an economy built around wind, solar and electric vehicles, no matter the cost. The working class is not on board with the ladder. As I said, I spent a lot of time in rural America, I spent a lot of time with people who you know, turn wrenches those are the people that I love and hope to write for speak for. But this again, goes back to the class issue is this is this a disconnect within the Democratic Left about who they say they are often represent themselves as the working, you know, representative, the working class, but I’ve said this before is why and why? And I’ve asked this question, well, so why is it then why is to share as point, why isn’t why aren’t more working class people, as he says, down with the with the energy transition?
Bill McKibben 21:51
Well, I’ve spent my almost my whole life in rural America, where I live and, and some of it in kind of blue state, rural America, in Vermont, and much of it here, where I am now in red state, rural America, in upstate New York, Elise Stefanik. District. And truthfully, I find all kinds of people across political persuasions really interested in renewable energy, solar panels in particular. And I think that the reasons vary from depending on kind of political orientation, I have a lot of conservative friends who are really into solar power. Because once you get your panels up on your roof, maybe then you don’t have to depend on anyone else. Your home really is your castle. And I have a lot of more liberal friends, especially in Vermont, who liked the idea of everybody united by the, you know, groovy power of the sun. And that’s all cool. Those differences, one can work across. My guess is that over the long run, and I think that the numbers are starting to bear this out, it’s going to be more economical for people to be doing this, especially if we begin to get some incentive to help at the start. And some of that’s finally starting to flow through the federal government. So we’re seeing dramatic increases uptake in people who want solar power. And I think that’s a helpful and hopeful thing.
Robert Bryce 23:43
I have eight and a half kilowatts of solar on the roof of my house. Why did I do it? Because I got three different subsidies. Right. So I’m one of the fortunate people that can have solar. Let’s come back to solar. So a lot of your work is focused on the United States. But I spent a lot of time looking at the statistical review, I mentioned that it just came out in the last few days, co2 emissions continue to rise, they went up 321 Giga tons last year, biggest numerical increases were in India and Indonesia by 131, and 172 Giga tons, respectively. Indonesia’s coal use last year jumped by 1.5x joules. As I look at this, I’ll just put it out there. And then I’ll ask you the question, it seems to me the US matters less and less, we’ve cut about 1000 Giga tons on an absolute basis from our emissions with last 2004. But developing countries, particularly in southern Asia are their emissions are skyrocketing. So the question I wrote down, so what’s your position on climate action in countries like India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, where they’re building coal plants, and their emissions are soaring? Oh, you think that should not be allowed? Do you think
Bill McKibben 24:53
the whole world matters a lot here. That’s why when we set up 350 dot org, we’ve worked in every country in the world, we’ve not quite we’ve organized actions in every country on planet Earth, except North Korea, which take a braver soul than me to figure out how to organize. But we have wonderful partners and colleagues in all those places. In fact, if I can take a minute to say it, I hope people will, one of our colleagues, completely wonderful woman, Quan Han, in Vietnam, was put in jail by their government a few weeks ago, doing trying to do just what you’re talking about taking on their coal power. And if people could write their congressman, or the State Department, or both, it would be good to try and put what pressure we can to get hung out of jail. She’s a tremendous, tremendous soul. She weighs I think about 90 pounds, and she’s about four foot 10 or something. But she is toughen and great person as I know, and I do not like the thought of her languishing in that jail at any rate, those places Yes, people have to take them on. And the good news is that when we do that work as best we can, in those places, starts to help. You know, when we started three fifty.org, we organized 200 demonstrations at our first big day of action in China. And, you know,
Robert Bryce 26:38
I take what you’re saying, but why are these countries building along with well,
Bill McKibben 26:41
in along with a lot of other, you know, people pushing, some of them are starting to make real progress, I was just looking at the new numbers today from China would show them on course, to meet their renewable energy targets five years ahead of schedule, their solar capacity is reached more than the rest of the world combined. And they’re making huge strides in wind. And I think that some of that starting to spread to other parts of South Asia, you know that they’ve just passed these. I’m putting began to put into effect these. I forget the acronym, it’s like jet P agreements are just transition protocol agreements with several of these countries to get some global funding for doing a lot of this work, and hopefully it will begin to tell because you’re right, it’s really important to get everybody on board. It is worth remembering as Americans.
Robert Bryce 27:44
Let me interrupt but so why are these countries building coal plants? I mean, this is the part that, as I see it,
Bill McKibben 27:50
I mean, my Vietnam
Robert Bryce 27:53
just announced I wrote about it on my substack. They just announced they’re increasing their coal mining in Vietnam by 15%. Their
Bill McKibben 27:59
their use of energy in general is obviously going way, way up there at the same point in the energy curve that China was a while ago. And the hope is that they’ll use a lot less coal than they otherwise would have, as they go through that, for my money. India’s going to be the key question here. And India really is the first huge country that has a chance of making a serious big scale energy transition without being mostly reliant on fossil fuel. And that’s because the price has dropped so sharply, that it really makes sense. You can now build a new solar farm in India because it has terrific Sun resource for less money, then you can simply to operate an existing coal fired power plant, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen easily or immediately. Look, Prime Minister Modi ran for office traveling on the corporate jet of the biggest coal company in India. Adani, one of the biggest coal companies in the world. They’ve got a big powerful energy lobby, like we do, too. So it you know, but, but the hope is that it will and I think that there are some good signs, let me just add just something I think Americans should always worth remembering. When we talk about energy policy here close to home, no one’s ever going to catch up to America, in the amount of carbon that we’ve put in the atmosphere. We’re always going to hold the championship for the most. And in per capita terms, we remain lightyears ahead of Indonesians and Indian and everybody else, and it is worth at least I try to remind myself sometimes, just how long we’ve been at it, I mean, all the carbon are flowed out of the back of the tailpipe of my family’s maroon Plymouth. Yuri in 1975, when I was getting my learner’s permit is still up in the atmosphere. They’re trapping heat. So I tried to bear that in mind when I camp.
Robert Bryce 30:12
But fair enough, but isn’t this, I’ll put it to you, as I just wrote about Vietnam. And I wrote about the US commitment to build solar panels in Angola. 60% of the people in Angola don’t have access to electricity. There are 3.7 billion people around the world who use less electricity are about the same as American refrigerator. There’s a massive amount of electricity poverty. And this is a really good point. What are you arguing? Are you arguing that they shouldn’t build coal plants? Because, as I see it, Vietnam’s building coal plants, no, I’m
Bill McKibben 30:45
arguing yes, no, I’m definitely arguing they shouldn’t. I’m definitely arguing they shouldn’t build coal plants. But I’m not really doing the arguing it’s my colleagues on the ground in, in Africa and Asia that are doing that arguing, but I have gotten to go there and spend some time, if you got if you you’ve probably gotten to do some reporting in Africa over the years,
Robert Bryce 31:06
only a little bit in India, not in Africa,
Bill McKibben 31:09
or Africa, I’ve, I’ve spent a lot of time in both. And, you know, it’s really is interesting, because your point about energy poverty is very true. You know, there, at least when I was doing this writing a few years ago, there were still more people on earth without electricity, than there were the day that Edison invented the light bulb, right, which tells you something about demographics. So most of those are in Africa, some in Asia, and the UN now, I mean, the reason they don’t have electricity is not because people weren’t building coal plants, it’s because no one ever going to run the grid out to rural Africa. The UN now estimates that 90% of those people will get their first power from renewable energy. And indeed, it’s really moving to watch it start to happen. Partly because it just reminds you of all that we take for granted. I was in Ghana, in a village out in the out in the country. And a wonderful young American, not so young American African American entrepreneur had gone there. And across much of that part of the world, she had set up these village scale solar platforms. You know, this village had maybe 70 solar panels to start and they hooked them up the day before rudimentary wiring hot to hot. Um, and so we were sitting around talking about it now it was talking with the elders. They, you know, we were sitting out in the sun and it was too hot for me, I’m not from Texas. I’m from New North, in the mountains. So I was too hot, and they kept handing me cold waters, cold bottles for water to drink. And it took me about 15 minutes grateful, though I was to realize why they were so proud of it. It was just for the reason you’d been saying until the day before, when those solar panels had gone in. There hadn’t been a refrigerator in that town. The concept of coal was really kind of sort of new.
Robert Bryce 33:30
I’ll grant you that. And it’s a good story. Yeah, I’ll grant you that. But why would the US not finance a gas fired power plant in Angola? The Africa is rapidly urbanizing. I’ll take your point that rural areas are going to use solar it makes more sense than stringing high high voltage transmission lines
Bill McKibben 33:47
when managing it but Africa
Robert Bryce 33:50
is rapidly rapidly urbanizing. So why is the Jaya Ramachandran from breakthrough Institute calls? This is green colonialism. Why aren’t we allowing? The same thing? Why aren’t we building a gas fired power plant for Angola, which will produce far more power for Angolans than with those solar panels? What are are you opposed to that?
Bill McKibben 34:14
But our colleagues in across Africa 350 Africa and places would tell you is twofold. At least one is these are the parts of the world that face by far the largest consequences already from climate change. So the last thing they want is more anything that drives the temperature any higher. Second,
Robert Bryce 34:39
are they going to need more energy to protect themselves from climate change? And
Bill McKibben 34:43
the second reason, so let’s see let me finish out here, then go after me. Second reason is, as you know, now we’ve got finally got good data on the other problems that go with fossil fuel combustion As of last year, the big metal study showing that about 9 million people a year one death in five on this planet came from breathing, the combustion byproducts of fossil fuel those particulates that get in your lungs. That’s not mostly human or May, that’s mostly people in urban areas in the global south. So they’re very eager to get off of that, to the extent they can. And the third reason is economics. They’re in many countries, they’re very eager to be using these cost technologies that get them out of the cycle of dependence. 80% of people in this country live in countries that are net importers of fossil fuel, which means that their balance of payments and trade deficit stuff is I mean, once you hook yourself, you know, onto the fossil fuel machine, that becomes a huge driver of everything else in in your scheme. And they’re aware of the fact that the same sun hovers over North America and Southern Africa, and are eager to take some advantage of that. You know, in the same way, I was just reading in the Washington Post this morning. The discussion of the fact that solar panels are really bailing out Texas today. And as the P wave goes on, well, they’re eager for some of that, too. They don’t really want, you know, you you know, 19th or early 20th century technology, they’d like to have some 21st century technology.
Robert Bryce 36:47
Okay, so fair enough, but Angola doesn’t fit that story. And goal is a member of OPEC. Okay, Angola has massive natural gas resources. Why wouldn’t the Americans you
Bill McKibben 36:58
know more about Angola than I do? So I see. I don’t know. But I don’t know. But you would be opposed to countries I know best. The countries I know best in Africa, are Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Nigeria, and South Africa. These are the ones where I’ve traveled most study most, they’re a lot bigger than Angola and Angola may be unique and having easy access to some fossil fuel of its own. When there are countries where people have fossil fuel, as you know, there’s often a great and sad effort to use it and use it in ways that end up not rebounding very much to the benefit of those.
Robert Bryce 37:43
Those are, those are all and those are all I will accept all those points. But I’m going to press you on this. So you’re opposed to building gas fired generation in Angola, you don’t want,
Bill McKibben 37:53
as I say, you know more about Angola than me. So I’m, I’m happy to leave it to you. I don’t know. I don’t know.
Robert Bryce 38:00
Bill McKibben 38:02
I’m happy to go study. But I’ve never I’ve never, I never been there. But it’s possible. Or it’s always possible that there’s some place on Earth, where it makes some kind of sense to still be building fossil fuel stuff. But truthfully, I doubt it might
Robert Bryce 38:22
not be the case. There are so many of these countries. Well, let’s talk about China. energy monitor just reported earlier this year that last year, China permitted two new coal plants a week Those aren’t my numbers, Global Energy monitors roughly 100 gigawatts of new coal fired capacity. So why would countries like I can listen for you and Bangladesh, Indonesia, in particular, Vietnam, China, if solar and wind are cheaper, why are they building coal plants?
Bill McKibben 38:50
Well, because there’s an extraordinary amount of momentum invested interest in this system that keeps it moving forward in a lot of the ways where it’s been going. I mean, it’s not
Robert Bryce 39:01
just because they, they want reliable power, that they want reliable electricity, and they want it 20
Bill McKibben 39:07
They want reliable electricity. But as we as we know, I mean, for instance, as the Washington Post pointed out this morning, is precisely that solar that’s providing the reliable power that’s keeping Texas online today. Happily, we live in a world where you can have both clean and affordable power and reliable power. And you don’t longer need to depend on fossil fuel. The the story has shifted over the last decade in profound ways. As the price of renewable energy has come down, down, down, down, down. We’re still used to thinking of and there may be people all over the world still used to thinking of renewable energy as alternative energy as the kind of Whole Foods of energy you know, but at this point, It’s really the Sam’s Club of energy. I mean, we live on a planet where the cheapest way to produce an electron is to point a sheet of glass at the sun. So, given the extraordinary economic problems that come from climate change, we should be doing everything we can to take advantage of that. Do you also,
Robert Bryce 40:25
if I take your point and that renewables are cheaper? Why? Why is my California somebody just rapid increases in electricity prices?
Bill McKibben 40:35
I don’t know. Let me just finish the point I was trying to make. If you do, okay, you get some other powerful side benefits, too. We talked before about the health part of this, the fact that one death in five in this world comes from relying on on comes from breathing the combustion byproducts of fossil fuel. The other thing that we’ve been reminded of, I think, in the last year or two, is that as long as we’re dramatically dependent on energy sources that are only come from a few places, and that’s the point of fossil fuel, there’s relatively few deposits around the world, then the people who control those deposits end up with way more power than they should have. Point in case at the moment, Vladimir Putin, biggest oil baron of the north of Europe, or Asia and has taken his winnings and used it to launch a land war in Europe and the 21st century. Which is why one of the reasons anyway, that Europe is now scrambling over time to get off oil and gas as fast as they can. And building I just saw today, the number saying that investment in solar energy across Europe has tripled, not more than gone up 398% In the last 12 months, year on year.
Robert Bryce 42:04
So you made the point about the number of deaths, 9 million is number I recall you saying how many lives have been saved by hydrocarbons?
Bill McKibben 42:12
Well, I mean, as I said before, that the world we live in is defined by hydrocarbons. So you know, I guess it answers it. Self. I mean, but that’s not the destination. But
Robert Bryce 42:23
I think you’re only you’re only focusing on the negative side. And I take your point yes, as have negative side effects. And you’ve talked about solar panels, much of which are being sourced from China, some of which are being built with slave labor in Xinjiang province. Yes.
Bill McKibben 42:38
And there’s no question that we’ve got to figure out how to do lithium and not just, you know, solar panels and lithium, we got to figure to do cobalt and things as well.
Robert Bryce 42:49
So will you well, you accept that many millions, perhaps even billions of people when you count the haber bosch process, synthetic nitrogen that these in fact, hydrocarbons are sustaining life for not just a few million people. But in fact, half of the food we produce in the world today is due to haber bosch, and the fact that we use natural gas to create synthetic fertilizers. Is that a positive thing? All I’ve heard you say is I’ve seeded your points on renewables. But there’s a is there no value in hydrocarbon? So that’s what I’ve
Bill McKibben 43:22
heard. There’s, there’s endless. I mean, there’s been lots of value in hydrocarbons. I mean, think of it, think of it think of it even more deeply than hydrocarbons. I mean, for 700,000 years, human beings have made their way in the world by setting stuff on fire. And it’s been great in ways even deeper than the haber bosch process. I mean, that’s what led us, you know, cook food and gave us the big brain. That’s what led us move north and south away from the equator. That’s what a, the anthropologists think that are, you know, many of these social bonds that mark our species come from those eons of standing around the campfire, that kind of proto zoom, you know, and then in the industrial revolution comes, and, and we learn to control the combustion of coal and gas and oil, and that defines modernity, it’s everything around us. The problem is, and the potential is that now, it’s producing a huge number of drawbacks as well. And the good news is, we no longer need to rely on them. Now I’m a I’m a, you know, you can stop me here, if you want because I may be going astray. I’m a Methodist Sunday school teacher, you know. So I am, I am convicted of the fact that the good Lord was kind enough to hang a large ball of burning gas 93 million miles away, and now we have the wit to make full use of it. And we should I like the idea of energy from Heaven instead of energy from hell and I think we can make this transition, I think we’re ready to ask before about like excitement and the future of America and deed the future of the world. I think we’re in this amazing moment, when it won’t be that long before we can stop an awful lot of the large scale combustion on this planet, when our habit of setting things on fire will become smaller. Now, we’re going to be using the haber bosch process for a while I think that’s like 1%, or one and a half percent of emissions on the planet. So probably not decisive in terms of its effect on the climate. So I wouldn’t be the place where I would start.
Robert Bryce 45:37
Fair enough. So you mentioned combustion. And so far, you haven’t mentioned when you’ve mentioned solar, we can come back to Well,
Bill McKibben 45:44
I think, I think is the this is very tightly linked, because the sun, we can catch its rays on that photovoltaic panel. But then we take advantage of the fact that it differentially heats the earth, creating those burning, you know, me as a Sunday school teacher, I’m drawn to that very first paragraph in Genesis where the first thing that happens is the the spirit of the breeze blows across the earth, you know?
Robert Bryce 46:15
Well, we’ll talk I want to come back to redemption and belief, because that’s part of what I teed up here. And I have more questions probably for the hour that we’ve set aside but nevertheless, so you’re opposed to combustion, then why are you opposed? Well, that’s what I’ve heard you say you’ve said
Bill McKibben 46:34
written, I said, I said, I think we’re in a place where we’ll be able to get past, right, oil combustion before lunch. And you’ve also said,
Robert Bryce 46:40
we should stop burning things. I remember you writing that recently. So then why don’t you Why aren’t you coming out full throated? Bill Tucker wrote about this, you interviewed you a long time ago, the late Bill Tucker, about nuclear power. And he, as I recall the article, he said he met you at an event and it was a rally, I think for renewables or something. And he asked you, why aren’t you in favor of nuclear. And he quoted you as saying, as I recall, that if I endorsed nuclear would cut this movement in half. So
Bill McKibben 47:10
you have any any? That’s not true or ever?
Robert Bryce 47:13
Fair enough. I have leading climate scientists, and they’re just
Bill McKibben 47:20
telling you, I’ve been saying now for many years that I think we should keep the nuclear plants open that we have open as long as we can do so safely. I’ve said that on the cover of Time Magazine, and I’ve said it and left wing magazines like the nation, and I’ve said it in intellectual journals, like the New York Review books, and on and on and on, I don’t think it’s likely to be the way we work ourselves out of this problem for a couple of reasons. One, it’s slow. And time is not something we have a lot of to. It’s expensive. I think the best data on this I’ve seen comes from this huge Oxford study that came out last year that I wrote a lot about in the New Yorker. And they were the first that I’ve seen that tried to compare very directly how much it would cost to put up renewables versus our current system. And it turns out that if you go rapidly to renewables, you save. And this was a Texan, by the way, who was doing the key part of this work? Who said that you’d save something like $30 trillion over the next few decades by going quickly to renewables, just because you’d have to pay so much less for coal and gas and oil. That’s the reason I imagined that this is not a happy prospect for the exons of the world. But then they directly compared it to what if you put nuclear in the mix, too. And they said, that makes it much, much more expensive. It may be they will get my friend Jim Hanson, who I think is the greatest climate scientist that ever lived, has assured me that we will reach a point where we have cheap, small nuclear reactors that eat the waste, and, and will be, you know, far better than the enormous ones we have at the moment that seem to produce mostly cost overruns. And if we get there, then then the whole landscape may change. But I think in the time that we have right now that physics has given us to deal with climate change, it’s pretty clear that the least cost option straight ahead is sun and wind and happily, the batteries to store them because the sun goes down and the wind drops, happily. So does the price of batteries. And it’s plummeting. It’s not just plummeting. The innovation in it is so amazing. And that was the real point of this Oxford study about renewables. It’s that there are technologies that get on learning curves and technologies that don’t fossil fuels don’t fossil fuels have, you know, the price of
Robert Bryce 49:58
the shale revolution disproves that I mean that that I think is a red herring. Let’s,
Bill McKibben 50:02
let’s try some oil was pretty much what it was, you know? Let’s come back let’s go with renewables just keeps plummeting. And now he’s
Robert Bryce 50:12
many friction points on Nuke on renewables. And we’ll get to that I’ll grant your points on nuclear. Hansen has said, and I think I’m quoting him directly here, he said, believing that we can solve the problem with renewables is akin to believing in the tooth fairy or the Easter Bunny. You just find him as, as the world’s leading climate scientists. He has we think he’s the world. If this is an existent thing,
Bill McKibben 50:32
he said that I think he said a number of years ago, and he said price dropped by roughly 90%.
Robert Bryce 50:39
I haven’t heard him say that renewables are the way to go. If he haven’t either. I haven’t talked
Bill McKibben 50:43
to them. I take my points I take seriously what he says. And I’m not at all. I mean, I’m glad that there’s some money for into IRA, for instance, for research on new forms nuclear, we’ll see what
Robert Bryce 50:56
happens. And there’s an end there’s a tax credit under the production tax credit, see what
Bill McKibben 51:00
happens. But my guess is
Robert Bryce 51:03
that here’s, here’s the part bill, where we part company, and I, you know, see where we agree and where we disagree, and this is one that we strongly disagree. You repeatedly say climate change is the most important threat that we face that this is the existential threat, then why given your platform, given your influence, I’ve identified you as the most famous environmental or climate activist in America. If this is such an important issue to you, why wouldn’t you be beating the drum like hell for nuclear? Because we have all these European countries that are constrained on land use? You have the Chinese are building nuclear faster than any other country in the world? If this if climate is such the issue and your issue? Why would you be promoting nuclear power, you have a powerful pipe,
Bill McKibben 51:49
because I just explained, I think that it’s that it spends way more money than it takes to do renewable energy. And I think money is in short supply.
Robert Bryce 52:03
But those plants will last a century and the solar panels and wind turbines will have to be replaced after a couple of
Bill McKibben 52:08
decades, believe it or not, the economist to go to work on these things actually factor in that when they’re figuring out the costs. And you know, and then they actually give nuclear break, because they don’t factor in the fact that we don’t know what to do with the waste and on and on. But I’m willing to concede that my guess is that given 10,000 years, humans will figure out something to do with nuclear waste. I worry less about the risk of that than I do about the mean, if
Robert Bryce 52:34
you operate, if you’re saying the waste is your biggest concern. No, I
Bill McKibben 52:38
just said the opposite. You weren’t you weren’t listening, I said, I’m willing to grant that we’ll probably figure out some way to deal with it at some point. A nuclear plant, something has to go wrong for it to wreck the planet. A gas plant just has to operate according to spec for it to destroy the Earth. The the real reason at the moment, though, is that the economics mean we can make this transition happen at scale and on pace with renewable energy. And I don’t think that that’s probably true around nuclear power. Okay.
Robert Bryce 53:15
There are a lot of friction points around nuclear. And I’ve talked about them and I saw it and went to Fukushima Daiichi. I was there. I saw the damage that can be done. But so let’s talk about renewables. Simple question. You’ve lived in Vermont many years. I understand you’re in New York. Now, why aren’t there any wind turbines being built in Vermont?
Bill McKibben 53:32
Well, because there’s a de facto moratorium on them because people don’t want to look handsome.
Robert Bryce 53:38
So then if that’s the case, then why are you hitching your wagon to process renewable?
Bill McKibben 53:43
Because I’m hopeful that we can. I’m hopeful we can. I’m hopeful we can persuade people, that there’s something beautiful about them. And in many parts of the country, people have been willing to make that case. I think that they’re, I think they’re gorgeous. I’ve worked hard to get
Robert Bryce 54:01
your neighborhood there.
Bill McKibben 54:02
And I’ve worked hard to get them built here in upstate New York. few miles from where I live. I’ll send you the piece I wrote for The New York Times in I think 2004. So early on, arguing that they should be built here. And I’ve obviously worked hard to get them built in Vermont, and advocated for building them at the mountain at the end of my top of my valley on Middlebury gap.
Robert Bryce 54:31
Is there no irony bill in this net for years? I mean, this is where again, we park company, environmental ism and you and I are the exact same age I remember that was in fourth grade and Mrs. Jacques waste class and it was Earth Day and we wouldn’t walk around the block and it’s Earth Day. Okay, great. And the environmental ethic for all of our lifetime effectively has been smallest beautiful. Let’s have small footprint so that we do you know, energy sprawl, is it sprawl of any kind, urban sprawl? Any kind of sprawl is the wrong Way to go. And yet you’re promoting this is the part where as a birdwatcher, in particular, that wind energy business. And I’ve talked to, as you know, and you’ve, you’ve written about me in the New Yorker and criticize the fact that I keep track of the number of rejections. But there are people all across the country who are saying, We don’t want these projects in our neighborhood. We don’t want the visual blight. We don’t want this noise pollution. So
Bill McKibben 55:25
so what I my responses when people tell me that is, well, I understand that, you know, and in the best of all possible worlds, we’d have some magic thing to make our energy that doesn’t cause any trouble at all. But we’re not in the best of all possible worlds. And I have traveled the world in which we do live. So I know who pays the price for America’s energy habits now. I’ve been in Bangladesh, I’ve been in Africa, I’ve been in India, I’ve seen what it means in those places. So I’m willing to pay some price. Myself, and I think we all should be I think we have some debt to work off. My, my backyard is dominated by big stock with some solar panels on it. Is it beautiful? No, not really. Does it in a certain to use the extend the metaphor in a certain light? Does it look beautiful to me? Yes, the the light of understanding that it means we’re taking responsibility closer to home for the things that we use. And that extends to I don’t know whether you can hear the birds around me as we’re talking today. I’m a bird lover too. And I know that by far, the gravest danger that avian life and all other forms of life on this planet face is the very, very rapid heating of this earth. It’s orders of magnitude more dangerous to birds and everything else than building more wind turbines. And if we don’t get enough control, we’re going to have I mean, the scientists are absolutely clear that we’re on the edge of the sixth great mass extinction on this planet. So yeah, I, you know, I like looking at renewable energy. I think that it’s a reflection of what’s best about us. In
Robert Bryce 57:22
covering state size provinces of the United States. You were in the Mother Jones recently, with an article about this very thing saying we should build more and Jesse Jenkins had a piece in that same issue in which he laid out that we would have to cover I think it was for wind turbines, a land area of Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, something I do
Bill McKibben 57:43
not think that’s correct, or incorrect, or promising. Numbers are incorrect. The numbers I’ve seen indicate that it takes up less space than the current space we devote to oil and gas drilling. At any rate, it’s
Robert Bryce 57:57
just not true bill. That is simply not responsible. Well, looking at the work that David Keith and Lee Lee Miller did at Harvard, they estimated and Sviatoslav smells numbers are almost the same. That to generate an existing electricity demand, not electrify everything with wind turbines would cover a land area the size of two, California’s I have kilometers, this
Bill McKibben 58:23
feeling that we’re talking apples and oranges here, because the data I’ve seen on wind turbines, I doesn’t indicate that at all. It indicates that you have to build wind turbines, but it’s you’re able to continue to do agriculture around those wind.
Robert Bryce 58:41
I’ve heard this claim as well. But that’s not the case. The reason there, and what’s happening in New York, where you live is local community saying we don’t want 600 foot high wind turbines in our neighborhoods, because they ruin our view shifts. They’re bad for property values. There are numerous studies that have shown this. So I guess I just might just I
Bill McKibben 59:00
guess, I guess we’re you know, I think we’re at the point where, as I said, this goes back to the discussion we were having at the very beginning. There was a moment when Americans decided that property values were more important than other things. And I think that that was a mistake. I think that’s what led to this world of hyper individualism in which we live. And I know that we have to stop because we’ve been going an hour, but but I hope that this is one of the ways that we get out of this, that we begin to realize that we can cooperate to do things in our communities and localities to provide the energy that we need more of the food that we need more of everything that we need.
Robert Bryce 59:52
So the last couple of quick questions and because I know you want to stop and I don’t I understand why cuz, you know, I’m just getting warmed
Bill McKibben 1:00:00
up, but we spent I think we said an hour. So we’ve been going back that’s
Robert Bryce 1:00:06
support condemnation of private property then for solar and wind projects. I mean, the because in New York they aren’t they have a rule that will allow the state to Bigfoot local communities in terms of wind. And so I don’t
Bill McKibben 1:00:18
know at the moment I’m what I’m hopeful is that we can find enough property owners who are happy to have their property used for that, and that they’re allowed to do it more
Robert Bryce 1:00:29
and more personally. So you attacked me in the pages of the New Yorker, they corrected issued corrections, you didn’t bother to call me? Are you opposed to me keeping track of the number of rejections, you seem to object to this,
Bill McKibben 1:00:41
I’m happy to keep track of them happier me, and I didn’t attack you. And in fact, we attack you. And you had a long you, you were able to explain precisely what you were doing. And it was printed in the New Yorker right from the start. And I didn’t you know, I’ve looked over your blog just for fun. The other day, I was looking over your blog, you’ve gone after me time and again, you called me two faced and on and on, long before any of this and you never called me to ask my what I’ve thought about
Robert Bryce 1:01:15
times bill, and it’s just rude.
Bill McKibben 1:01:17
So I didn’t bring that up. I didn’t bring it up, brother. But you know, I know that that people love in our current world to take umbrage at things. And I didn’t take umbrage at that. I was happy to come on and talk with you anyway. And I’ve enjoyed talking with you. But I have no idea why this sort of, you know, used to be in this country that people just kind of, were able to, you know, accept that there would be disagreement not be taking so much umbrage at everything. That’s what we do up here in the northeast, maybe people a little more sensitive in Texas, I don’t know. But it’s good fun to talk with you.
Robert Bryce 1:01:57
Well, fair enough. So you’re ready to sign off? That’s fine. I asked these questions of all my guests. What are you reading?
Bill McKibben 1:02:06
Move? That is a good question. And in these topics, the last really fascinating book, you know, everybody read, and rightly so. Kim Stanley, Robinson’s book ministry for the future. Sure you read it fascinating. But I like even better, his novel one before that. New York 2140. If you like New York City, and I do like New York City. It’s a great novel about New York, it’s a kind of post flood, New York, the waters reason. But people are figuring out how to keep on keeping on in a lot of ways. And you know, we didn’t really talk about that. But that’s some of what we’re going to have to be doing on this planet. Because we wasted a lot of time, we’re way behind the eight ball. Now, even if we do everything right from this point, we’re going to be dealing with dramatic and difficult physical challenges. Even the next couple of years, this new El Nino that’s kicking in now, on top of the temperature that we’ve raised with carbon in the atmosphere is going to be truly traumatic. And it’s the reason I hope, above all, that we’re able to come together in certain ways, because we’re going to need that solidarity in a way we haven’t before. I sometimes think. And this goes back a little bit to that Kim Stanley Robinson book, I sometimes think that Americans for the last 75 years have been the first people on Earth who could get away with not knowing their neighbors, not relying on them. I mean, if you’ve got a credit card, some guy will deliver everything you need to your door, you never have to see another human being. But I doubt the next 75 years are going to be like that, I think we’re probably going to be in enough trouble that we’re going to need to relearn the lessons that humans have known for many, many 1000s of years about neighborliness, on all scales, your neighbor next door, your neighboring community, but also your neighbor in China and Vietnam, and Angola and all the other good places you brought up. So for me, New York 2140 was a good, one good way in there.
Robert Bryce 1:04:26
Well, I so I said one more question. But you in your book, I want to refer back to that because, you know, we clearly disagree. And I’m pleased that you came on the podcast, it took a while to make it happen in the book by talking about redemption. And I didn’t know your Sunday school teacher. But you ended by saying the only way I’m quoting here, quote, The only way to make our heritage any better is to make our present and future better. Perhaps if we install enough solar panels, again solar panels, then the American science and engineering of the 20th century which birthed those miraculous devices will be remembered for more than making the comfortable more so you go on this kind of redemption. So not on suppressing the truth of our past, but on engaging in overcoming it. Redemption means actively supporting the changes need to make that transition. Redemption has religious connotations. And but you’re talking about it here in a community kind of way. What do you mean by using that word redemption in that space there? How do you how do you define redemption?
Bill McKibben 1:05:23
Well, I, what I was talking about, particularly a, I am a religious guy, I’m a Christian, and I make no apologies for it. And be in that case, what I was talking about more was American history, much of that books kind of about American history, partly because it I grew up in Lexington. And I think there’s much to redeem. I mean, we are a country that classified large parts of our population as three fifths of a human being for a century and kept them in slavery. And then for the century after that, kept them in Jim Crow, you know. And still to this day, I have allowed to exist extraordinary gulfs in wealth and income, you can still measure. Here’s an example, you know about the racist redlining that the federal government engaged in in the early part of the 20th century. And how we took different communities neighborhoods and said this was rated A and go invest here. And this place where it’s all black people is rated D and don’t invest here. You know, I was just doing a story about a study that some kidney doctors were doing of all people, because they were noticing that you could track kidney stone disease across these redlining across these red line districts. And the reason turns out to be that because of that disinvestment in those poor neighborhoods, black neighborhoods that didn’t get trees, parks, we all those other things. If you look at a city like Portland, Oregon, the average temperature difference between the on a hot day between the A rated neighborhoods and the D rated neighborhoods was 12 degrees Fahrenheit. So think about that. In Texas today, when you’re in the middle of heatwave, you know how much nicer it would be to be in a place that was 12 degrees cooler than the place you’re in at the moment, when I say America has some work to do and need some redemption. That’s what I’m talking about. Now, on Sunday morning, we can talk about a different kind of redemption, and you’re you’re welcome at our Methodist Church, wherever you want to come. And then that works for me too. But um, but that’s what I mean, we’ve got some stuff to make up for here and around the world. And I think we’re completely capable of doing it. But I think we have to get to work.
Robert Bryce 1:07:58
So you may have answered this question with that. But this is the question. I always end on show. And I’ve done now some 200 podcasts, what gives you hope? We’ve talked about a lot of things where we disagree, and we can talk and I think it was fairly, fairly civil,
Bill McKibben 1:08:14
which entirely is not only but there
Robert Bryce 1:08:18
there. You’re worried about the future, you look at the future and a lot of what I see right, it’s very dire. So I’m not
Bill McKibben 1:08:26
always I mean, I’m not. I mean, look, the cheerful title of the first book about all this that I wrote back in 1989 was the end of nature. So I’m not a Pollyanna by any means. But I, well, here’s what I think. I think that climate change is a test of whether or not the big brain was a good adaptation or not. It clearly got us in some trouble, and we’ll see if it can get us out of trouble. And my intuition is that it’ll rest at least as much on the size of the heart that the brains attached to. And so that’s where I place my hope and I, and it’s active hope, because I spend most of my day is trying to make it happen as best I can.
Robert Bryce 1:09:16
Like can’t resist falling up. And so how much how much of that is your money because I asked this sincerely about your own Christian faith. I mean, is that, does that make that hope? And I asked that sincerely. I was raised Catholic, I think in this case, hopefully that there’s a another part of this for you that that is
Bill McKibben 1:09:36
the only thing I’ll say there is I think people of faith have an advantage in this respect, in that they’re allowed to hope or believe that if they do everything they can, there might be some other force in the universe that will meet them halfway. But that’s the exact opposite of the thing I sometimes hear People say, which is God will take care of these problems. There’s not a lick of theology in the world to backup that idea. And it’s absurd. Our job is to do everything we can to take. And and it’s by no means confined to Christians, we find exactly the same impulse all over the world, and among people of no faith at all. The impulse to do what you can for those around you. And that’s the, you know, that’s the thing that in the end, makes us human, if anything makes us human. And so I put my trust in that, but I do hope that it operates quickly because climate is the first truly time limited problem we’ve come up against. That’s why it seems urgent to me that we go to work. And I’m back to work many, many thanks for an interesting interlude.
Robert Bryce 1:10:55
Well, thanks, my guest has been Bill McKibben. You can find him on the Twitter at Bill McKibben. He also asked me to direct you to third act.org. So Bill, thanks for coming on the power grid podcast. It was fun.
Bill McKibben 1:11:06
It was indeed take good care brother.
Robert Bryce 1:11:08
And all you had podcast land. Thanks for tuning into this episode of the power hungry podcast. Until next time, see ya.