A Conversation with Bill McKibben
We talk with environmentalist Bill McKibben about how we can turn individual action into collective action, how Exxon gets away with using our money to build pipelines, and how we can hold banks and corporations accountable for their damage to our planet.
By Helen So
October 12, 2022
In September, our co-founder Elizabeth Landau spoke with Bill McKibben, prominent environmentalist and author, at the 2022 For ClimateTech Summit.
We learned so much, and we'd like to share the conversation with you all! Below you'll find a transcript of the talk and a link to watch the video.
We hope you enjoy it!
Elizabeth: Hello, Bill. It’s really great to have you here today.
Bill: Very good to be with you. I’ve been suitably introduced so now let’s get to work.
Elizabeth: Alright, great! Well, we were really happy to have you here. I know you’re an inspiration to me as well as other founders at Venture ForClimateTech. So let’s get started.
You’ve been involved in this space—in climate advocacy—for quite some time.
What have you learned over the years, and is there anything about your journey that most people aren’t aware of?
Bill: Well, I’ve been involved in a couple of ways. I’m a writer by trade, and so I wrote the first book about what we now call “climate change” (what we then called the “greenhouse effect”) back in 1989. A book called “The End of Nature”. So I’ve been at work for this for a long time. And the part that took me a while to figure out was that we were winning the argument—the scientific argument. We were just losing the fight. Because the fight turned out not to be about data and reason and evidence. It turned out to be about money and power, which is what fights are usually about. And the fossil fuel industry had so much power that they were getting away with what they wanted to get away with. And so that’s when we started trying to build power by building movements. We obviously weren’t going to come up with the billions of dollars that Exxon or Chevron or whoever has, but movement-building can allow, sometimes, the small and many to stand up to the mighty and few.
Finance as a weapon against climate change
Elizabeth: Yeah. That’s a great point. And I’ve noticed that you started talking more about the power of finances, and using that as a weapon for climate action. It’s really one of the reasons why my co-founder Bonnie and I started GreenPortfolio. Because we believe that shifting your money to climate-friendly actions is one of the most impactful actions you can take in fighting climate change. And generally if it’s something that’s easier for people to do, they’re gonna do it. And the whole point of this is making it super simple. So I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this along with what you’ve heard from others who are actively working to defend climate and use finance as a weapon.
Bill: Sure. So I think there’s two levers big enough to matter here to move change. One’s marked politics, and the other’s marked money, or finance.
We’ve been pulling the politics one to the ground and it’s resulting, finally, in some change. We got this bill through Congress finaling this summer, and so on. We need to pull hard on the lever marked “finance” too. We’ve done some of this work in the past with this massive divestment campaign, getting institutions to sell their holdings in coal and oil and gas. It’s been very effective, we’re at about 40 trillion dollars in endowments and portfolios and pension funds that have joined in.
And now we’re working hard on the banks and asset managers and financial institutions that loan money or otherwise underwrite the fossil fuel industry. Now, I do think it’s important for people to move their money individually, but the most important way to do that is in a way that combines efforts.
Because in the short time that we have any individual action, a solar panel on your roof, a Tesla in your driveway, a greener bank account… is by itself not enough to move the needle. So the reason I work on these things is in the effort to do, for instance, in the case of the banks, reputational damage to Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, B of A, so that they stop doing what they’re doing. And for that to happen, we have to be loud and noisy and join together. So for instance, at Third Act, we’ll have a day in March when people around the country are cutting up their credit cards from those banks at the same time. If you did it by yourself, it’s possible that Chase, which has 75 million credit card accounts, might not notice yours had gone missing. So we need to make some noise while we do this too.
Divestment vs. Activism
Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s a great point. I mean, individuals, when we talk, are always wondering how their actions can actually roll up in something bigger. So when you talk about collective action and this movement of creating this change, it’s great. It’s a perfect way to show how one person can turn into the voices of many.
With that, one question I had around divestment as well, and collective action, if you’re driving emissions reductions from corporations, like the pressure that that has on them: What are your views on how collective action can drive emissions reductions, and what’s your view on 100% divestment versus pushing companies to be better? Where’s that line?
Bill: Depends on the company. So you know, with the fossil fuel industry, there’s no real hope that they’re going to change in any significant way.
So the important pressure is to divest.
I mean, Exxon has known about global warming, we now know, since the 1980s.
They had great research all about it. All they’ve done about it is lie and try to protect their business model for another couple of decades. And that worked. They’re still fully engaged in both those practices. And it’s disgusting. And even if it was completely ineffective, just to avoid being bad people, we should do what we could to get rid of them. But it’s very effective to divest from them. Shell said not long ago that divestment had become a material risk to its business which is good because Shell’s business is a material risk to life on Planet Earth.
There are other companies where probably the possibility for change is more real. Look at a big bank—Chase or Citi. They’re producing large amounts of carbon by lending money off to the fossil fuel industry, but it’s not their entire business model. It’s 6-7% of their dealbook. So it’s entirely plausible to imagine them deciding out of conviction (maybe that’s not so likely) or out of pressure, that they want to change their model and stop funding the fossil fuel industry. That’s what we’re pressing them to do.
For instance, I just wrote a piece in the New Yorker about these new calculations on how much carbon your cash produces. Companies like Google saw their carbon emissions go up, double overnight, once people started factoring in these new numbers, exactly how much carbon that cash on hand produces. Google was double. Netflix produces more carbon from the cash on hand than from all the streaming they do. Amazon, more carbon from its cash than its warehouses and delivery vans.
We need those guys to change, and put pressure on the banks to change. Amazon or Apple aren’t going to go bank with their local credit union. They’re too big for that. The only way for them to get their work done is to pressure those banks to change.
So the short answer is, with Big Oil, sell. With everybody else, kick.
The sheer scale of corporate Scope 3 emissions
Elizabeth: Well, that’s a great way to summarize it. Your piece in the New Yorker was really insightful. And talking about the Carbon Bankroll report you were mentioning, it’s really interesting at the individual level to understand that, as an individual, you’re having this complication. You do have local credit unions or climate-friendly banks you can switch to, but it’s a problem that’s pervasive at the corporate level.
Bill: The scale just blew me away, Elizabeth. I wouldn’t have guessed what the numbers were going to be. But if you have 125 grand in the banking system, it’s producing more carbon than all the cooking, heating, flying, driving, cooling that the average American does in the course of a year. And it’s all silent. You don’t know about it. It’s like if you just bought 3 Cadillac Escalades and parked them in the driveway, and just ran them all year, you know? Which no one would do because it would be stupid. But all of us blindly stick our money if we have any off in some account somewhere, and don’t think twice.
Elizabeth: Yeah, it’s something that we’re trying to bring awareness to, similarly working with Bank Forward on that. It’s really important to understand what your money’s up to when it’s sitting at the bank. We’re just trying to bring awareness to that. I think it was a report that CDP put out recently when it talks about the emissions, right, of a financial institution. And when you’re looking at Scope 1 and 2 emissions, which is more in control of the bank, they all look very rosy. But when you start looking at Scope 3, which is where all the lending comes into play,
the emissions from that are 700 times more than Scope 1 and 2. And so, you know, it’s really important to start pressuring, I agree with you. It’s something that once people are aware of, it makes them think.
Elizabeth: I’m just making it easier for them to do that.
Bill: Companies and individuals need to think of banks, in essence, as vendors. They’re selling you a product—storing your money, providing you financial services, whatever it is—in just the way the guy who leases you a car is providing you a service. You understand the carbon implications of one more easily than the other. But that’s what we’ve gotta shift now.
Helping individuals switch to climate-friendly financial products
Elizabeth: Yup. Agreed. And I love what you’re doing with Third Act, and I have a question for you too on, understanding generational differences in willingness to switch. Because what we’ve seen sometimes when we talk about our platform is, when people are more entrenched in their bank, it’s more complicated.
Bill: It’s very true. So part of the thing is you have to make it easy to switch. And part of the thing is you have to start with the things that are less sticky. And so going after credit cards, for instance. Credit cards are relatively easy to obtain in this country, and they’re not as hard as figuring out how to move your mortgage from one bank to another. So we’ll start there. And lots of people are starting to figure out how to move their bank accounts happily. And there’s more and more options coming. When we began this, we were talking about a few web banks, and you know, Amalgamated on the East Coast, and Beneficial State on the West Coast.
There’s more and more players emerging, some of them large. People are beginning to talk a lot about First Republic in California, about Silicon Valley Bank, which is one of the 15 largest banks in the country and good at business development. And both of them seem relatively free of fossil fuel ties. So, as with charging your electric car, this will get easier as time goes on but we need a lot of early adopters to push it forward.
The insurance industry, Patagonia's commitment to the planet, and wrapping up
Elizabeth: And I love your approach to starting with the easiest financial product, which is your credit card, and moving on from there. I’m curious, have you started tackling industries around mortgages, insurance as well?
Bill: Well there’s lots of people at work in the insurance industry, wonderful organizers that I’ve gotten to work with some over the years, some trying to take on the big insurance companies, more at this point on reputational grounds. But more and more people are just saying, “Liberty Mutual, we don’t want your policy if you can’t”—I mean, the insurance ones are particularly egregious because these are the people in our capitalist system that we ask to understand risk. They understand risk, they’ve got all that actuarial data to understand what climate change is doing to the planet. They’re just too greedy to stop doing the very small percentage of their business that surround fossil fuels. Not only investing in them, but literally underwriting these insane new pipelines and things. You can’t build a pipeline if somebody won’t give you insurance to go do it. And these companies continue to do it, even as they pile up more and more data about how much flooding, and how many storms, and on and on. I gotta say, there are moments when one wonders what’s rational about capitalism sometimes. It’s not acting on the information that it has.
Elizabeth: Yeah, definitely it’s something that, in terms of short term vs long term gain, not just from a financial perspective, but it all links into climate.
Bill: Right. And of course, the problem here is that climate is a very short term problem. If we don’t solve it in the next few years, then there’s really not going to be a long term.
Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s the unfortunate [thing], as it becomes more tangible we’re out of time. And we’re running up on time ourselves here, so I do want to take one question on the audience. There’s a lot of chatter around your take, and I know you posted about it today actually, on Patagonia’s announcement.
Bill: Oh. I was very—You can tell because I’m wearing my Patagonia shirt, I'm very taken with what Patagonia's done over the years, and this caps it off. Yvon Chouinard is a hero. If all companies worked like Patagonia, we’d be in a good place. Unfortunately, they seem to be the only company at the moment that works like Patagonia. So instead of counting on the good will of great people like Yvon Chouinard, we have to knock some sense into the rest of these guys.
Elizabeth: Well said. We’re up on time, so I just wanted to thank you for being here.
Jacqueline Ros Amable, Managing Director at Venture For ClimateTech: Thank you Bill. Thank you so much for hanging in there with the technical difficulties. And I agree, that announcement from Patagonia gave me so much renewed faith in humanity. So has this conversation. So, really appreciate both of you sharing your expertise and time.
About Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben is a contributing writer to The New Yorker, and a founder of Third Act, which organizes people over the age of 60 to work on climate and racial justice. He founded the first global grassroots climate campaign, 350.org, and serves as the Schumann Distinguished Professor in Residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. In 2014 he was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel,’ in the Swedish Parliament. He’s also won the Gandhi Peace Award, and honorary degrees from 19 colleges and universities. He has written over a dozen books about the environment, including his first, The End of Nature, published in 1989, and his latest book is The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at his Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened.
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