A Conversation With Bill McKibben

04/10/2013 06:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2013

Since joining The Nature Conservancy, and over the course of writing Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, I've been fortunate to benefit from the perspectives and advice of many leaders of the environmental community. To continue the conversation on the ideas in Nature's Fortune, I recently spoke with leading conservationists, CEOs, scientists, academics and activists about the environmental movement -- what's working well, what we could do better and what they see as the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead.


First in the series is my conversation with writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben. Bill is founder of the grassroots climate campaign, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in nearly 200 countries in the past four years. Read on for his thoughts on the Keystone XL pipeline, how environmental organizations can get more done and what he would do if he had my job leading TNC.

Mark Tercek: Congratulations on the great progress you've made galvanizing young people to be much more engaged on climate and other environmental issues through What can the environmental movement as a whole learn from's recent efforts and successes in this area?

Bill McKibben: I think the most important thing to learn was that it wasn't really our success -- we just helped connect all kinds of people. Indigenous groups across the continent were already leading the fight; it was fun to watch them hook up with ranchers in what some are calling a CIA (Cowboy-Indian Alliance). The big green groups, once they saw Americans willing to go to jail again, got their courage up. People on the front lines in refinery communities, and people who cared about the climate for their grandchildren, and especially young people-those college students whose lives will be run right over by the graph lines of rising temperature and rising sea level.

Mark Tercek: Why do you think the Keystone pipeline issue has resonated so strongly with such diverse groups?

Bill McKibben: Because the president could actually say: we're not going to do this. And if he did, it would be the first time a leader has blocked a big project because of the damage it would do to the climate. A damage that's almost incalculable; as NASA's Jim Hansen pointed out, burn those tarsands on top of all else we're burning and it's game over for the climate. Stakes don't get much larger than that.

Mark Tercek: Where do you see the Keystone effort going next? What follows if President Obama approves Keystone, and what if he halts it?

Bill McKibben: If he halts it, he has a big, broad and somewhat unified movement at his back to accomplish more; if he okays it, that movement will still be there, but it will have seen once more that fossil fuel money rules the roost in D.C.

Mark Tercek: Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, how are we in the environmental movement doing? What are we doing well? What could we do better?

Bill McKibben: Well, since the Arctic melted last summer, and the U.S. broke its heat records by a full degree, we're clearly losing badly. We've done reasonably well at conservation -- I'm proud to be a board member of the Adirondack Conservancy, which has helped preserve the most beautiful landscape in the country. But preservation without action on climate change is pretty empty-it won't be the Adirondacks if it doesn't have a winter.

Mark Tercek: Exactly. And it's not just about pristine places like the Adirondacks. As we know from Hurricane Sandy, cities are also seeing the effects of a changing climate.

At TNC, one area that we focus on -- in addition to reducing emissions -- is the role that nature can play in protecting people and property from climate impacts. In my book I argue for viewing nature as an investment opportunity -- one that can reduce risk and produce big returns for people, businesses and governments. What do you think of this approach?

Bill McKibben: It's very important for rich people to realize that if we wreck the environment, particularly the climate, it will cause them and everyone else insane levels of economic damage; to me, that's the most compelling economic argument. Time for us to obsess less about growth, especially in the rich world, and to think more about maturity

Mark Tercek: If you had my job leading TNC, what would you make your top priorities?

Bill McKibben: I'm glad that TNC has moved from protecting particular little groves to protecting regions and landscapes; I think it's also time to realize all those features exist on a single globe. And we can't protect that without more hands-on political involvement. Ultimately this is a fight between the future, and the fossil fuel industry. It would be nice to see TNC join the college kids and faith communities around the country demanding complete divestment from fossil fuel stocks, for instance.

Mark Tercek: Any other advice on how environmental NGOs can get more done?

Bill McKibben: Pay more attention to the movement -- the people who don't work fulltime for green NGOs but are out in the streets. If they've got an issue they care about-Keystone, say, or divestment-then help with it. Don't be above it.

Mark Tercek: Thanks Bill. Yes, one of TNC's main priorities right now is to build a broader and more diverse base of supporter for conservation. In many cases that support is already there -- we just need to better tap into it. We're doing some good work in this area, from our Nature Works Everywhere education initiative to Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) internship program. But we always have room for improvement and could always learn from the efforts of organizations like As you say, we should not be "above" the people who care about environmental issues. We're working hard at connecting with supporters in meaningful ways.

Keep up your great work, Bill, and thanks very much for sharing your perspective.

Photo credit: Nancie Battaglia