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At COP21, for Bill McKibben, the Sideshow Is the Main Event

A foundational figure in America’s contemporary green movement, McKibben says whatever the outcome of COP21, it is citizens who must exert the power.
Bill McKibben during a sit-in at the Paris climate summit. (Photo: Emma Cassidy/Survival Media Agency)

Bill McKibben during a sit-in at the Paris climate summit. (Photo: Emma Cassidy/Survival Media Agency)

When I meet with Bill McKibben on Wednesday during the global climate talks in Paris, just days before the final agreement will be handed down from foreign ministers, his demeanor is surprisingly calm.

The convention center is teeming with a reported 40,000 dignitaries, activists, and journalists all hustling to figure out what will become of the final text, as 186 countries negotiate action plans to reduce carbon emissions and stave off the worst effects of climate change. But McKibben is chatting amiably with another reporter, and the first thing I hear has nothing to do with draft text at all—it's about an upcoming demonstration, scheduled to take place in the streets of Paris on Saturday at noon, the very time when collective wisdom says global climate negotiations in the suburbs will be drawing to a close. He suggests we take a stroll through the media gallery.

McKibben has just finished his reaction statement to Secretary of State John Kerry's speech; earlier in the day, he had spoken at a panel discussion about the international movement to ban fracking, and attended another about ExxonMobil's disinformation campaign on climate. Since arriving last week, he's spoken out on a range of issues, including divestment, but his proudest moment was the December 5 mock trial of Exxon, in which the oil-and-gas giant was showily indicted for a long list of climate crimes. "It was very, very powerful," McKibben says, "and I think it gives us lots and lots of stuff to work with in the year ahead."

For McKibben, making up the score doesn't mean inserting one more clause here or removing a bracket there. It means a sea change in the way people think about energy.

One of the criticisms of the annual Convention of the Parties is that the gulf between closed-door diplomatic negotiations and what's happening in the public pavilion is too wide. The implication, generally, is that there should be more focus on figuring out what's happening behind closed doors, that the text being agonized over by world leaders is ultimately what matters. But for McKibben, it’s the other way around: The main event is the sideshow. "This is the scoreboard, not the game," he tells me of whatever agreement is made. "The game is what we've been doing these past years back at home. The game is raising the political price for not doing anything, and the game is lowering the cost of solar panels. Engineers and activists have played the game and played it pretty well these past five years. And the game for the oil companies is pressure and intimidation through money, and they've played it pretty well too, but they're not as omnipotent as they used to be."

Most important: At this year's COP, in McKibben’s view, humanity seems to be improving its game.

"We're in the third quarter," he says, "and now we're catching up, but time is going by. The question is, will we be able to make up the score in time?"

For McKibben, making up the score doesn't mean inserting one more clause here or removing a bracket there. It means a sea change in the way people think about energy: the same kind of tidal shift America saw around gay marriage in the past few years. Before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage rights this June, those rights had already been legalized in 28 new states over the previous two years. What changed wasn't how the courts work—it was overwhelming public opinion. McKibben thinks the same thing could happen with climate change. The question is: Will it happen before the world is fully baked?

"The real task for activists is to change the zeitgeist," he tells me in a follow-up exchange. "When that happens, legislation follows naturally. It usually doesn't work the other way 'round."

Sure, there are things he would like to see in an agreement, like getting a solid review system built; "that would be a rare concession to reality," he says. But he's less interested in negotiators' deliberations than in convincing ordinary citizens to change, and to speak their minds loudly enough to reach leaders behind closed doors. He's not overly concerned about the exclusion of civil society at this year's meetings either. "If civil society was entirely impotent then they'd be happy to have everybody here," he says with evident pride. "The fact that movements have started to make people and nations uncomfortable is a good sign.... When we build a movement and push, then we get somewhere."

McKibben and his advocacy group are fresh off a success that's been years in the making: President Obama's rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline just ahead of Paris negotiations. It came after years of marches and demonstrations and arrests—McKibben himself spent three days in jail. He calls Obama’s decision "the first time oil companies lost."

"For the first time, there's widespread acceptance that we need to leave fossil fuel in the ground," McKibben says.

So is he disturbed it took the president four-plus years of intense public scrutiny to come around to that view? Not particularly. "Basically anytime they weren't building, we were winning," McKibben says of the pipeline. "That's 800,000 barrels [of crude oil] a day every day it's not built. So I'll take that. That's worth a few days in jail."

Of course, at the time, didn't act like they were winning. They maintained dire rhetoric and public pressure. I can tell you that in my time as a fledgling beat reporter blogging for a traffic-driven outlet in the early days of the movement, it was impossible not to cover. If McKibben or one of his compatriots was being arrested in front of the White House, 50 yards from my then-office, and I wasn't covering it, I wasn't doing my job. In private, other journalists on the climate beat would complain that if they had to write about Keystone one more time, they would flip.

The reporters didn’t flip—but, eventually, the levers of power did.

It is said there will be red tulips at Saturday's action by the Arc de Triomphe.


"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.