Bill McKibben has become one of the world’s most notable commentators on climate change since the release of his first book The End of Nature 30 years ago. Foreign Policy magazine named him on its inaugural list of the 100 most important global thinkers in 2009. He was a 2014 recipient of the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel’.
His current mission is to rapidly accelerate a just transition to 100% renewable energy. The tagline for his current speaking tour is: “Winning slowly is the same as losing – and losing is not an option”.
Bill spoke exclusively to SBN members last Tuesday May 8. His message?
- Electrify everything we can as quickly as possible.
This includes cars, home heating and industrial production. Electrification will allow us to become highly efficient and to generate energy from clean sources: the sun, wind and hydro power.We have been relying on a transition from coal to natural gas as a bridge before switching to renewable sources of energy, on the premise that burning natural gas releases less carbon to the atmosphere than coal. However, new science indicates that burning natural gas results in more carbon being emitted due to methane leakage. We need to make the leap to producing electricity from fully renewable sources quickly and directly.
- The impact of climate change is easier to understand through the lens of risk.
This ranges from insurance risk (for example the inability to insure coastal property due to the high risk of flooding) to reputational risk (loss of staff and customer goodwill towards companies not acting on climate change), litigation risk (for example New York suing the five biggest oil companies for damage associated with climate change) and financial risk (in 2015 the Bank of England warned of the huge financial risk from fossil fuel investments).
- The economy is a subset of the physical world, not the other way around.
Until now we have focused on the health of the global economy. But we should spend more energy worrying about the health of the underlying physical systems. This is a difficult transition, because our systems have been set up to measure the wrong things.
- Financial systems are moving faster than political systems.
Political systems are largely dependent on money made in the past. The fossil fuel industry has remarkable power to slow down change.
- New Zealand has an important role to play.
New Zealand could make a big difference internationally by acting as a lynchpin and standing together with the nations of the Pacific. They have more at risk than any other countries. This diplomatic and advocacy role is an important part of the story.
We already have a high degree of certainty about where we want to be in 30-50 years’ time. The question is simply how we get there and how quickly we move. 350 parts per million is accepted as a safe upper level of carbon in the atmosphere, yet we are now at 412.
We have no time to waste.
- Faster action on climate change could save NZ $30 billion by 2050, according to research by Westpac (April 2018)
- The Productivity Commission has mapped out a low carbon economy for NZ (April 2018)
- Auckland could be $8.8 billion better off by switching to a circular economy, report by Sustainable Business Network (May 2018)