A former journalist has become the de facto leader of the American environmental movement. And his attempt to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is the fight of his life

By Karl Taro Greenfeld

Photograph by Justin Maxon

EVERY MONTH, Bill McKibben gets dozens of e-mails from pseudo-scientists — or perhaps actual scientists, for all he knows — describing plans to build perpetual motion machines. The senders want McKibben to help them secure financing to build these contraptions, which they claim will solve the world’s energy needs and save the planet. He took the first few of these requests seriously enough to at least ponder before deleting. Now he gets so many he doesn’t even read the descriptions or business plans, though he can’t shake a certain nagging guilt. “My heart breaks a little each time,” he says. “What if someone has actually figured it out?”

It’s precisely because global climate change is such a huge, complex, and costly problem that McKibben, 52, has become a tribune for those trying to solve it. Formerly a magazine journalist and writer of ruminative books about the environment and other issues, he’s now, at least in the U.S., the environmental movement’s most influential spokesman. As the founder of the advocacy organization, McKibben has spent the last five years traveling the world to raise awareness about climate change, leading acts of civil disobedience and urging academic institutions to divest their portfolios of stock held in fossil-fuel companies. He didn’t seek the role, nor does he particularly relish it. If he could, he would retreat to his solar-paneled house in Vermont tomorrow to write more books. But time, McKibben and the best scientists insist, has run out.

McKibben’s message is blunt: The planet is warming faster and changing more rapidly than expected. For the past 10,000 years, the number of carbon particles in the earth’s atmosphere had never exceeded 275 parts per million. Climate scientist James Hansen, the man who first testified to Congress about the perils of global warming back in 1988, calculated the level at which the earth will drastically change to be around 350 ppm. In his 1989 book, The End of Nature, McKibben predicted that the planet would hit that number sometime around 2050; it turns out we blew past it back in 2007. In other words, the global crisis isn’t coming — it’s here.

It’s fallen to McKibben to assume the role of America’s leading “professional bummer-outer,” as he says. He tours the country explaining in clear, scientific terms how we are all, to some degree, screwed. It will no longer be enough to merely switch to more-efficient light bulbs or drive hybrid vehicles or swap natural gas for coal. Instead, McKibben believes that Americans have no choice but to end their consumption of cheap, carbon-producing fuels — immediately. So he’s waging an all-out campaign to prevent the biggest and most powerful fossil-fuel companies — “the richest industry there ever was,” he says — from extracting the estimated 2.8 trillion tons of carbon sitting in the world’s proven oil, gas, and coal reserves. If even one-fifth of that is actually extracted, refined, and burned, global temperatures will increase another 1.2 degrees. The climate impacts of such a rise may be civilization-altering.

His decision to bypass Washington’s cadre of environmental policy wonks and create his own grass-roots movement to take on corporate interests has echoes of the pro-environment populism of Teddy Roosevelt. Yet in choosing this fight, McKibben is also arguing against a notion that nearly every politician and corporate officer agrees on: that growth is good. He’s emerged as a self-proclaimed threat to the American way of life, so much so that men like Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil’s chief executive officer, label him a “purveyer of fear.”

The gut-check issue for McKibben and his supporters — thousands of whom turned out for a mass demonstration in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 17 — is the Keystone XL pipeline, a 3,400-mile pipe proposed by oil infrastructure company TransCanada that will allow crude oil extracted from the tar sands of Alberta, in southern Canada, to be refined on the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline, which will cut through at least six American states, will facilitate the extraction and release of 240 billion tons of carbon, roughly enough to take us halfway to the 2-degree Armageddon point. McKibben’s argument — widely shared by climate scientists like Hansen and environmental groups like the Sierra Club — is that this carbon must stay in the ground. Because the pipeline crosses an international border, the authority to build it rests not with Congress but with the president, making this decision a unique opportunity for a world leader to strike a blow against global warming.

The showdown over Keystone is a mismatch, and even people sympathetic to McKibben’s efforts wonder if he’s picked the right battle. In one corner stands the richest industry the world has ever seen, and in the other, a wiry, middle-aged author who pretty clearly doesn’t want to be in the ring at all. But McKibben will tell you he has 64 percent of the U.S. population (the number, according to a recent Duke University survey, that believes in government regulation to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions) on his side, plus the passion, creativity, and spirit of the environmental movement. “It’s not going to be money,” McKibben says. “The other side is always going to have all the money. We have to use the currencies we do have.” He believes the paralysis that has overtaken the American political system will, over time, yield to common sense about the climate. The arc of the physical universe, on the other hand, is short, and it bends toward heat.

Writing a story about Bill McKibben, you become acutely aware of the hundreds of pounds of fossil fuels you are consuming on your way to meet him: the car to the airplane, the airplane, the rental car from the airplane. McKibben is well aware of the same contradiction in his own life and can find no way to reconcile the demands of his role as global speaker on behalf of the environment with the vast amounts of carbon his travel emits. “One of the great ironies of my life is that I have a carbon footprint the size of a small Indian village,” he says.

My drive up to McKibben’s house in central Vermont coincides with the first lashes of Winter Storm Nemo, an extreme climate event for coastal New England. Pransky, a half-labrador, half-poodle mutt, leaps through the 8 inches of snow that have already stuck before Bill emerges, dressed in a Middlebury College ski team jacket — he’s a faculty consultant to the cross-country team — and zip-up black sweater. In his wire-frame glasses and short gray hair, and with his measured, gravelly voice, he looks and sounds like a combination of Agent Smith from the Matrix movies and Henry Fonda from The Grapes of Wrath.

McKibben was born in Palo Alto, the oldest of two boys. His father, Gordon, was a technical writer for the Stanford Research Institute before joining the Wall Street Journal and, later, the staff of Businessweek.

McKibben spent his teen years in Lexington, Mass., where he wrote sports stories for the local newspaper and gave tours of Revolutionary battlefields. “I’m basically a patriot. My default is that American democracy is the greatest invention of the world. So to be forced to realize that on the most important issue we’ve ever faced, it’s failing — that’s a hard realization.”

In college, McKibben was editor of the Harvard Crimson before joining the New Yorker as a staff writer straight out of college in 1982, where he was “the youngest person around by a fairly large margin.” He met his future wife, writer Sue Halpern, around this time and was on course to live a different kind of life, a mandarin of New York’s media class. His course changed after he wrote a story for the New Yorker in which he tracked down where everything in his apartment was made.

“In those days, the New Yorker had unlimited amounts of money,” says McKibben, allowing him to travel to Brazil to look at where Consolidated Edison was getting low-sulfur oil, to hydroelectric plants inside the Arctic Circle, oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and uranium mines in the Grand Canyon. “It was a pretty good piece,” says McKibben, “but more importantly, it was my introduction to the idea that we actually live in a physical world.”

He left the magazine, moved to the Adirondack Mountains, and went to work on The End of Nature, a book that describes the impacts of global warming as a fundamental transformation of the earth itself. It became one of the seminal texts of the climate-change movement, laying out the scope of the problem and describing humanity’s moral obligation to respond. It was McKibben’s view, until quite recently, that his role was simply to explain the severity of the crisis. “I was 27 when I wrote The End of Nature, so my theory was that people will read the book, and then they will change, and policy would change, which is not the way it works.”

He’s written 11 more books, on topics as diverse as cross-country skiing and the commercialization of Christmas. He returned to climate change repeatedly, both because of his fascination with the subject and his increasing concern that the planet was warming faster than previously estimated. Yet he didn’t see himself as an activist. The environmental movement seemed to have a leader in former Vice President Al Gore, whose documentary film An Inconvenient Truth had raised more awareness of the issue than McKibben’s books ever could. Gore and others believed that political forces would eventually drive the policymakers in Washington to do the only logical thing: ward off the disaster by reducing U.S. dependence on fossil fuel. “But nothing happened,” McKibben says. “It’s been a perfect, bipartisan, 25-year history of doing nothing. ... What I never could have predicted was that one entire political party was going to give itself over to climate-change denial.”

In 2006, a trip to Bangladesh convinced McKibben to turn words into action. He’d been afflicted with Dengue fever and fell violently ill in a friend’s house in Dhaka where he had been researching a book. The disease, spread by a mosquito species whose range had expanded because of a hotter, wetter climate, left him feverish but also pondering the impact of global warming on the world’s poor. “These people had done literally nothing to cause this, yet they’re paying the price.”

The following summer, the Arctic experienced its most severe melt, prior to the summer of 2012. “Scientists were calling me constantly,” McKibben says. “They were looking at historical charts, and what was happening in the Arctic simply was not on them, anywhere.” That’s when he knew, he says, that he was “no longer capable of being a beat reporter on climate.”

During our conversation, McKibben pauses frequently to check the Web to see how the Middlebury ski team is faring in a meet taking place that afternoon. He spent a year of his life, chronicled in the book Long Distance, training for and competing in nordic ski events. Downstairs is a workshop with a sliding glass door where he heats and blends ski waxes for his own cross-country skis. The tiny bars of extremely expensive chlorinated waxes can run into the hundreds of dollars a gram. The mixing of the waxes is an alchemist’s art, and the formulas are closely held secrets among competitive skiers. The goal, he explains, is to have enough grip to climb hills and enough glide to still slide down the other side. Every change in temperature means a different viscosity of wax is required.

There’s no wax, however, that works when there’s no snow, as has happened more frequently during Vermont winters. Next to the waxing room is a cellar, where a banner with the name of McKibben’s nonprofit group,, is set up in front of a computer with a video camera mounted on it. Whenever possible, McKibben does his talks from here, rather than board a plane. Named for the 350 ppm carbon threshold, is a self-proclaimed “global movement to solve the climate crisis,” McKibben’s response to the realization that there had to be an activist organization devoted exclusively to climate change. “The big environmental groups forgot about the grass roots,” says Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine and fellow climate-change activist. “Bill stepped into that vacuum.”

He started in 2007 with seven Middlebury students and raised $30,000 from environmental foundations. “We sat in the Middlebury College dining hall and said, ‘There are seven of you and seven continents. Who is going to take what?’ ” May Boeve, the executive director of and one of the original seven, says. “There had been this shift toward focusing on policy in the environmental movement, and I think we felt we needed to take a step beyond policy and information and into activism.” She says one of the group’s inspirations was the first Earth Day in 1970, the springboard for landmark legislation like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The distributed platform of has allowed it to spread virally and more efficiently — college campuses have proven fertile ground — and stage high-profile acts of civil disobedience, as well as the Feb. 17 Forward on Climate rally in Washington attended by more than 40,000. Additionally, there have been three global days of action, thousands of rallies, and a sold-out, 20-city Do The Math tour, during which McKibben laid out the case for leaving carbon in the ground. Those initial seven co-founders now collect a salary — all under six figures — while McKibben serves as president strictly on a volunteer basis. The organization’s annual budget is $4.7 million, much of it from the Oak Foundation and the Kendeda Fund. McKibben makes his living from his books and is paid an annual salary as a professor by the Environmental Journalism Program at Middlebury, which is funded by the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy.

Despite being president, McKibben doesn’t know the exact budget of and professes to be outside the day-to-day operations of the organization. The seven co-founders take care of that, freeing McKibben to focus on messaging. “I’m the main moving part in it. I’m really in motion. In the last five years, I’ve been on every continent including Antarctica. ... I’ve gone in 36 hours from an anti-fracking rally in Columbus, Ohio, to an island off Istanbul to meet with the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church to a meeting in Rio de Janeiro, where they were doing the Rio+20 summit where I helped lead a walkout movement. It’s crazy.” When McKibben was arrested in 2011 for sitting-in outside the White House and spent three nights in jail, his wife, Sue, complained that he had spent more time in jail that year than he had spent at home.

For those environmentalists convinced that progress on climate change won’t happen inside the halls of power in Washington, McKibben is a galvanizing figure. “Bill is such a reasonable guy, and such a logical guy, that activism takes on an air of inevitability when you’re around him,” says Klein. “He’s perhaps the most humble leader on this scale I’ve ever known.”

McKibben doesn’t like to talk about Al Gore, but he shakes his head sadly when I bring up the recent sale of Gore’s Current TV to Al Jazeera — a media company funded in part by the emir of Qatar’s fossil-fuel fortune — and how that seems to have diluted Gore’s credibility. McKibben raises his eyebrows, smirks, and says, “You think?” McKibben sees himself as part of a tradition of environmental writer-activists, from John Muir to Henry David Thoreau to Rachel Carson. Yet the stakes this time are different: Issues like air pollution, pesticides, and the depletion of the ozone could be resolved by regulatory changes such as banning lead in gasoline or fluorocarbons in aerosols. To ward off the worst effects of climate change, according to McKibben, we have to change virtually everything.

In that sense, even McKibben will admit, the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline is as much symbolic as it is practical. If the Alberta tar sands are mined, the carbon levels in the atmosphere would increase by only 0.02 percent, according to TransCanada. The fact that McKibben and his organization have made the proposed pipeline the bête noire of the entire environmental movement — and the litmus test by which they vow to judge President Obama’s integrity on the environment — seems arbitrary. “If these guys were serious about climate change, then there are numerous other industries they should go after rather than Keystone,” says Russ Girling, CEO of TransCanada.

Girling concedes that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and therefore could have an impact on global temperature but insists his pipeline is simply bringing supply to demand. There are 8.5 million barrels a day of refining capacity on the Gulf Coast. Those refineries can process oil brought in from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria — or Alberta. Americans will still be driving cars, and they will be using immense amounts of electricity and gas. That oil is coming into the U.S. one way or another, Girling insists, and it may as well come from America’s neighbor. “If you want to go after greenhouse gases in a meaningful way, then go after consumption,” he says. “Don’t pick winners and losers among all the heavy oil being produced in the world: Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela, not to mention California heavy crude that has a higher greenhouse-gas footprint than our tar sands oil.”

Surprisingly, the journal Nature more or less agreed with Girling — that if McKibben is serious about combating global warming, he should focus his energies elsewhere. In a January editorial, Nature urged Obama to approve Keystone XL while issuing stronger regulations for power plants and the coal industry. Some more mainstream environmental groups, those that specialize in policy as opposed to public protest, quietly say the power plant issue is more important than Keystone, though they are reluctant to publicly part ways with McKibben. “Symbols are important,” says Sierra Club President Allison Chin.

“If the president says no to Keystone,” McKibben says, “it will be the first time that any world leader has stopped a big project on the grounds that it was bad for the climate. That would be a big deal, not just incremental but philosophical, which would lead to other possibilities. Suddenly, we could say to the Chinese, to the Australians, with full moral authority, ‘You shouldn’t do that.’”

Because McKibben doesn’t trust Washington to take on corporate fossil-fuel interests, the other mission of is a divestiture movement urging American universities, state and local governments, and pensions to sell their investments in companies ranging from BP to PetroChina. The plan, modeled after the divestment movement of the 1980s that helped end apartheid in South Africa, would hit the fossil-fuel companies where it hurts: in their share prices. So far, the campaign has spread to over 250 college campuses and three universities. Three private colleges have divested their portfolios of fossil-fuel companies; another half-dozen, including Harvard, Bryn Mawr, and Northwestern, have passed student resolutions supporting divestment.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has introduced a resolution calling for his city’s pension fund to divest, and supervisors in San Francisco are considering a similar move. For the first time, those concerned about climate change can do more than reducing, reusing, and recycling. “How do you take on a huge industry?” McKibben says. “Divestment is clearly something that is more impacting than, say, writing another book.”

On the morning of Feb. 13, I meet McKibben next to the bike rack at Washington’s Union Station. He wears sneakers, a tan overcoat, and a suit and tie, practical gear, he explains, for getting arrested in. Today’s sit-in against Keystone, to be held on the White House North Lawn, is the second one organized by It marks the start of a week of protest leading up to a mass rally on the National Mall. McKibben is quick to add that today is the first time in the Sierra Club’s 120-year history that it’s participating in an act of civil disobedience.

We walk over to the Sierra Club’s D.C. offices, where a few dozen activists sit around a table and listen to a presentation from Matt Leonard, a veteran Greenpeace activist. He tells those gathered — including actress Daryl Hannah, writer Rick Bass, former poet laureate Robert Hass, hedge fund manager Jeremy Grantham, and civil rights activist Julian Bond — how to flexicuff themselves to the wrought-iron gate in front of the White House. “After the police clip you out, they will grab you by the hands, turn you around, put your hands together, and take their cuffs and put your arms through them. Then you’ll be walked off. ... Our expectation is that police will come out and the arrest will happen efficiently.”

An attorney then gives a presentation that includes a PowerPoint of what to bring and what not to bring to your arrest. “Don’t: Weapons. Drugs. Jewelry. Unneeded stuff.”

The group piles into an SUV for the short drive to the White House. McKibben looks around the car sheepishly. “They said this was an eco-friendly vehicle.”

“Bill, any vehicle you’re riding in automatically becomes an ecofriendly vehicle,” jokes a fellow passenger.

At the North Lawn, those about to get arrested mill around, outnumbered by the media who have come to cover the event. McKibben is the first of several speakers who gets up on the small wooden stage. “We really shouldn’t have to be put in handcuffs to stop Keystone. Our nation’s leading climate scientists have told us it’s dangerous folly, and all the recent Nobel peace laureates have urged us to set a different kind of example for the world ... but given the amount of money on the other side, we’ve had to spend our bodies — and we’ll probably have to spend them again.”

McKibben, who attends a Methodist church in Vermont, has a preacher’s knack of going to a lower register and pausing to make sure that what he wants to get heard is heard. Later that day — after McKibben and the others have handcuffed themselves to the White House gate, been arrested, and then released — I ask if he believes in God. He pauses and says, “I guess. I’m not a particularly orthodox believer. The gospels are very important to me. And they posit the idea that one is supposed to think of others, to love one’s neighbor, and that is clearly what we’re doing right now.

“God has set this up as the most perfect pure test there could be,” he continues. “We have an infinite amount of hydrocarbons. Does man have the self-restraint to save himself? Or it’s like, is the big brain a good adaptation? It got us into this predicament. Will it get us out?”


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