Keystone: How Bill McKibben Turned a Pipeline into an Environmental Rallying Point

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Jocelyn Lee for TIME

Booted up. McKibben loves his rural Vermont home, but climate activism keeps him on the road.

The proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline is the environmental issue that will not go away. More than a month after President Obama rejected the initial plan for the pipeline—which would have moved some 830,000 barrels a day of oil sands crude from Alberta across the upper Midwest—barely a day goes by without partisans on both sides of the political divide arguing over Keystone. Republicans have seized on the President’s decision as proof that he’s not serious about expanding access to friendly sources of energy—a claim that is getting more traction as gas prices, now at an average of $3.77 a gallon, keep rising. “I’ll get us that oil from Canada,” Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said at his victory speech after the Michigan primary last week.

And it’s not just Republicans who seem itching to lay that pipe. Former President Bill Clinton turned some heads when he said at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) conference last week that Americans should “embrace” the Keystone pipeline, provided a new path is chosen that doesn’t threaten the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska. That’s actually very similar to the message the White House put out last week when TransCanada—the company set to build the pipeline—announced it was going forward with the domestic leg of the project, which would carry oil from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico. “Moving oil from the Midwest to the world-class, state-of-the-art refineries on the Gulf Coast will modernize our infrastructure, create jobs, and encourage American energy production,” White House spokesperson Jay Carney said in a statement. He added that the administration would “take every step possible to expedite the necessary federal permits” for the segment.

All of which puts that much more pressure on the environmentalists who have led the battle against the Keystone pipeline, and turned the project into a referendum on climate policy. At the head of that line is Bill McKibben, the writer-turned-activist who founded the online green group—and who has quickly become one of the most influential voices in environmentalism.

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And that, of course, is why I have a profile of McKibben in this week’s TIME. I traveled to the small town of Ripton, Vermont, where McKibben lives—just a short walk from Robert Frost’s old writing cabin—when he’s not on the road rallying the troops. The story is behind the paywall, but for non-subscribers, here’s a quick excerpt:

Bill McKibben misses winter. the 51-year-old environmental writer turned unlikely activist is marching through a frosting of snow outside his Vermont home, dodging the jabbing branches of spruce trees. McKibben has lived in and around the Adirondack and Green mountains since leaving New York City some two decades ago, and he remembers winters sunk “with a cold so deep, the trees would snap at night.” But not this year. Scientists are already predicting that this winter could be the warmest in recorded history in the Northeastern U.S. In its place–thanks in part to man-made climate change–is something different and likely more dangerous. As McKibben walks through the woods, on land originally owned by the poet Robert Frost, he recalls the damage inflicted on Vermont by Tropical Storm Irene, one of 12 record-breaking billion-dollar disasters that hit the U.S. last year. “The climate has already warmed 1 [Celsius], and if this is what 1 produces, more warming is going to be impossible to deal with,” he says. “We can’t let this happen. We won’t let this happen.”

McKibben has been writing about climate change for more than two decades, and for years he waited for the U.S. to get serious about what he calls humanity’s gravest threat. Finally, a few years ago, he grew tired of waiting and took action. With help from students at nearby Middlebury College, where he’s a scholar-in-residence, McKibben launched a digital activist group that organized climate rallies across the world, making him one of environmentalism’s most powerful voices. “Bill has helped turn this movement around,” says environmentalist Paul Hawken.

Last year, McKibben helped lead bottom-up resistance to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought carbon-heavy Canadian oil-sands crude through the upper Midwest to U.S. refineries. Most insiders considered the pipeline a done deal, but McKibben and his allies drew thousands of protesters to the White House–where McKibben himself was arrested–and helped pressure President Obama to reject the pipeline in January.

McKibben understands that his work has only just begun. One rejected pipeline won’t stop climate change. And the oil industry, along with its mostly Republican allies, is already fighting back hard, ready to make Obama pay in November. Critics say McKibben doesn’t understand politics. He responds that you can’t negotiate scientific fact. While he admits that his vision of an Internet-driven popular movement to save the planet might sound “naive,” he also says nothing else has worked thus far. And time, he insists, is running out.

I also trace his journey from writing—McKibben authored the first popular book on global warming—to nearly full-time activism:

Born in California and raised in Toronto and Massachusetts, McKibben followed the path of his journalist father. He was hired fresh out of Harvard by then New Yorker editor William Shawn. It was a plum job that McKibben quit out of solidarity when Shawn was fired in 1987–not the last time McKibben acted on seemingly impractical principles. He and his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, moved to a cabin in the New York Adirondacks, where he wrote his first book, 1989’s The End of Nature, about climate change. The tone was grim, but he was still optimistic. “I assumed the system would swing into gear automatically to start solving the problem,” he says.

That didn’t happen. McKibben spent years watching with amazement as science was undermined by corporate interests threatened by the prospect of carbon cuts. He now realizes it was foolish to assume that Washington could be moved by science alone. McKibben is normally subdued, but when the conversation turns to the politics of climate, his voice rises and his eyes widen behind rimless glasses. “While the scientists were talking patiently into our leaders’ ear, the fossil-fuel industry has been screaming into the other,” he says. “We’re no closer to dealing with climate change than we were in the late 1980s.”

McKibben always assumed it was “someone else’s responsibility” to translate his ideas into activism. But a reporting trip to Bangladesh several years ago changed his mind. The low-lying South Asian country is uniquely vulnerable to climate change, and while there, McKibben–stricken by dengue fever–mused on the injustice of poor Bangladeshis suffering for the wealthy world’s carbon habit. “If you try to measure the carbon footprint of Bangladesh, you’ll barely get a number,” he says. “There was this guilty part of me that said I had to do more.”

And I look at whether the focus on the Keystone pipeline could end up backfiring on environmentalists in November:

Stopping the pipeline may also be a temporary victory. TransCanada, Keystone’s builder, has already said it will reapply using a different route. Still, McKibben believes he can slow the development of the oil sands in time to change climate policy in the U.S. “We can build off the momentum of stopping this,” he says.

But at what political cost? Republicans cite Keystone as evidence that Obama would rather “appease left-wing environmental activists in San Francisco,” in Newt Gingrich’s words, than create jobs. (TransCanada claims Keystone would have created 20,000 jobs. The State Department’s estimate is more like 5,000.) “I don’t see where the protests go from here,” says Michael Levi, senior fellow for climate and energy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I’d worry it leads to a dead end.”

McKibben is done with waiting, however. “This isn’t the life I thought I was setting out to have,” he says as he walks back through Frost’s woods. “But the only way to win is to spend our bodies on this, and we’ll do that.” And he won’t mind if you call him naive, so long as you’re paying attention.

The one thing I learned about McKibben during out time together is that he has no intention of backing down on Keystone or any other climate issue. This is a fight that won’t be ending any time soon.
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