McKibben on Sandy: The World’s Greenest Author Talks to TIME

Bil McKibben has spent his career warning the world about the wages of climate change. Now, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he's seeing his fears come true.

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Peter Dejong / AP

American environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben during the Climate Conference in Copenhagen, Dec. 10, 2009.

Not surprisingly, environmental journalist-turned-climate-change-activist Bill McKibben has a few opinions on what Hurricane Sandy portends. He talks with Time about the storm, people’s need for cell phones and the unfairness of Nordic skiing.
Have you personally been affected by Sandy, up there in Vermont?

No, Vermont’s hardly been hit this time at all. We got our Atlantic super-storm last year when Hurricane Irene skipped New York and did more damage to Vermont than any event in its history. The irony of course was that because it skipped New York City, all of the world’s media said, Oh, Hurricane Irene was a bust. Meanwhile 500 miles of state highway were disappearing in Vermont and a number of people drowned and the whole shape of the state was being changed by rivers [spilling] out of their banks.

(PHOTOS: After Sandy: Scenes of Wreckage and Recovery)

Is Sandy an “I told you so” moment for people in your line of work?

No. I wrote the first book for a general audience about climate change almost a quarter century ago. Since then, there have been so many horrible storms, droughts, floods all over the world that I think no one moment kind of stands out. What we’ve seen is the steady confirmation of exactly what scientists told us would happen. This will be the warmest year in American history. It came with the warmest month in American history, July. It featured a statistically almost-impossible summer-in-March heat wave. It brought us a drought so deep that food prices have gone up 40 percent around the world. It brought us this completely unprecedented mega-storm, the biggest storm, as one weatherman put it yesterday, to hit New York since its founding in 1624. And horrible as it is, a hundred years from now Sandy won’t be the event from 2012 that people most remember. I imagine it’ll be the shocking melt of the Arctic this summer.

So why do so many people think that climate change is a myth?

First of all, it’s really only America where’s there’s serious climate denial. And second, [the misconception is] not that deep even among Americans. The latest polling shows something like 74% of Americans think that the planet is warming.

If that’s true, why was climate change missing from this campaign?

There’s been a 20-year bipartisan effort in Washington to accomplish nothing, and it reached its comedic height this summer when our presidential candidates, despite barnstorming through the warmest summer in American history, seemed not to notice. The reason is the incredible power of the fossil fuel industry. Until we can diminish that power, I imagine nothing very large will be done to deal with climate.

How would you grade the Obama administration in terms of climate change?

I’d say they did better than the Bush administration, but then I’ve drunk more beer than my 14-year-old niece too. They did one thing that’s very useful — raising automobile mileage standards — and they’ve done a couple of things that have been very detrimental: opening huge swaths of the high plains to new coal mining — the Powder River Basin — and opening the Arctic to oil drilling. And rhetorically, the President’s commitment to an all-of-the-above energy policy has been the opposite of what we need.

Obviously my experience is not universal, but during Sandy all anybody seemed to want in my neighborhood was somewhere to plug in their cell phones. Is that something you would have predicted?

Yes. If you’re going to prioritize power for almost anything, it’s the ability to communicate, to build communities as it were, that we didn’t have even five or 10 years ago. It’s not only a hallmark of our moment; it’s one of the things that gives me some hope. We built, the only global organization that just deals with climate change, straight out of Flicker and Gmail and Twitter and Facebook. We’ve had 15,000 demonstrations in every country on Earth except North Korea, but we were able to organize it when that we had no money, because we knew how to use those tools.

(MORE: Sandy and Climate Change: Preparing for a Warmer World)

Will Sandy make people begin to care more about the environment?

We leave the night after the election on a 20-city road show and the whole purpose of it is to say that no matter who wins, we have to take on the fossil fuel industry. We’re going to try and spark a disinvestment movement on college campuses, like the one that helped bring down apartheid, and we’re going to be figuring out other ways to resist the power of that industry.

With all this opposition to big oil, when you go to the gas service, do you get bad service?

I’m afraid service is not an issue at gas stations in America anymore.

What do you say to people who feel like that there’s no point in cutting their carbon footprint in the face of what they’re doing in developing nations?

China is obviously emulating a lot of the worst things that we did, in terms of building big coal-fired power plants. But they’re also leading the world in renewable energy, and by a large margin. They’re putting in wind farms with abandon. In 25% of Chinese showers, the hot water’s coming from solar arrays on the roof. There were days this summer when Germany — soggy, Wagnerian Germany — generated more than half the power it used from solar panels within its borders. Our main problem is not technological; our main problem is political will.

Ski season is coming. You’re a serious cross-country skier. Who are the best cross country skiers in the world?

The Norweigans. That’s why they call is Nordic skiing. The high point of my life as a cross country ski racer was getting to race in Norway’s famous Birkebeiner —  10,000 Norweigans contest it every March. It’s like the Boston Marathon but, given the population, it’s as if five million people showed up for the Boston Marathon and they had to run uphill for 40 kilometers.

And how’d you do?

I finished. I beat some Norweigans. On the other hand, I noticed some 75-year-olds in their lycra racing suits going right by me.

MORE: Capturing Sandy’s East Coast Devastation