Bill McKibben has a message for Aspen’s billionaires |

Bill McKibben has a message for Aspen’s billionaires

Elizabeth Stewart-Severy
Aspen Journalism
Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben. photo by Nancie Battaglia
Nancie Battaglia | Nancie Battaglia

Bill McKibben first wrote about the changing climate more than 30 years ago, and he continues to document global warming and speak out against the largest culprits. Most recently, he was arrested while protesting Chase Bank’s ties to the fossil-fuel industry.

McKibben will be in Aspen this weekend, learning to downhill ski and speaking as part of Aspen Skiing Co.’s occasional speaker series Aspen U.

Aspen Journalism: You’re coming to Aspen to talk about climate change — but also to learn to ski. Under most projections, the ski industry is looking to suffer pretty badly from climate change. Why do you want to learn to ski now?

Bill McKibben: I actually ski a lot. I’m a die-hard cross-country skier and just came in from a ski through our woods here in Vermont. But I am eager to ride the chairlift up and just take a look at all the beautiful mountains from up top.

As for skiing, it could be one of the, I guess, less important but more painful casualties of the climate-warming era. Already, the number of days on average that winter lasts is shrinking. Already, in the West there is considerably less snow on average than there used to be. We’re starting to watch a whole season that’s helped define the psychology of people at our latitude for eons; we’re watching it begin to disappear.

AJ: The ski and outdoor industries want to move the needle on climate. Aspen Skiing Company is focused on national lobbying efforts rather than emphasizing their efforts to reduce emissions from local operations. Sometimes the company gets criticism for this approach, and for hosting events like this weekend’s X Games, which have a large carbon footprint. Is that a fair criticism?

BM: I think actually at this point, the changes that we need to make are so large that probably the best leverage does come from trying to work on national and international policies.

I’m coming to Aspen mostly because, frankly, it’s where lots and lots of people in the financial industry come to play, and the financial industry — the biggest banks and asset managers in the world — are increasingly the focus of efforts to try and slow down climate change.

I think perhaps Larry Fink, from BlackRock, the single biggest financial company in the world, is a sometime-Aspenite. And you probably saw the fairly remarkable news that after unrelenting pressure from activists, BlackRock is now stepping up its efforts to at least begin doing something about climate change. We need a lot more of that.

So, for me, the fact that there are people in Aspen who need to understand the effects of their businesses on the one planet that we’ve got is the most significant draw.

AJ: So, are you coming to Aspen hoping to reach some of the super-wealthy people who come here on vacation or own homes here?

BM: If I’m not able to reach them, then I’ll settle for reaching the people who take them for ski lessons and give them yoga classes and hope that it all begins to trickle down somehow to these guys, because we really — we’re out of time.

AJ: As you mentioned, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, just announced that it would start placing a larger focus on climate change in its investment decisions. Does this give you hope?

BM: I think it’s less seismic in the short-term details of the policies they announced, which are not all that far-reaching. They’re mostly talking about coal, not gas and oil, at this point.

The part that, when I wrote in The New Yorker, was seismic about it was simply that the institution with by far the most money in the world is now saying that they’re deeply unsettled about the financial future of the fossil-fuel industry. And so, as a result, everyone else will be unsettled about that future, too. And that’ll help.

AJ: The young face of climate activism right now, Greta Thunberg, has taken individual accountability to a whole new level. She refuses to fly as she lobbies for action on climate change …

BM: I know her and like her and work hard with her, (and) she said this fall that the point of what she was doing was not to tell people that they should never fly. The point of doing it was to point out how hard it is to travel sustainably in the world now, and that’s a really effective and powerful and important thing to do.

AJ: You were recently arrested as you occupied a branch of Chase Bank to protest the bank’s ties to the fossil-fuel industry. What’s it like to be arrested for this?

BM: Well, it’s never fun to be arrested.

But we needed to try and send a message that it’s not all right what Chase Bank is doing. They’re the biggest lender in the world to the fossil-fuel industry by a large margin. Since the Paris Climate Accords were signed, they’ve lent 29% more to the fossil-fuel industry than any bank on the planet. They’ve lent $196 billion.

AJ: You’ve also been arrested for protesting the Trump administration’s immigration policies. What’s the connection between climate change and immigration?

BM: We think now that perhaps the biggest driver of immigration out of Honduras and Guatemala over the last few years has been a really dramatic drought there that’s made it almost impossible for small farmers to grow crops.

So we’re going to have to come up with some system other than walls and cages to deal with this, especially since the people who are becoming climate refugees, almost entirely, it’s not their fault. It’s not like anybody in Honduras or Guatemala or wherever — Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands — it’s not like they burned very much coal or gas or oil. I mean, that was us.

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