Students hold signs during a demonstration against climate change in New York on March 15, 2019. (Reuters / Shannon Stapleton)
Bill McKibben was one of the first people to warn of the dangers of global warming 30 years ago with his book The End of Nature. He is a founder of the environmental organization 350.org and the author of 15 books and hundreds of articles and essays, many of them for The New Yorker and some for The Nation. He’s also been teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he’s the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies. Now he has published a new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? This interview has been edited and condensed.
JW: You wrote your first book 30 years ago on pretty much the same topic as your new one, Falter. I guess this one could’ve been called I Told You So. But you decided not to take that course. It is striking that for 30 years we knew that climate change was coming, and a lot of people will tell you, ‘We did nothing.’ I’d like to look a little more closely at the “we” in that sentence. There’s you and me, and then there’s the people who ran Exxon.
BM: Yes. If you asked me 30 years ago, one of the things I would not have expected is how slow we would be to react as civilizations. And for a while, that really perplexed me. But it’s come into focus much more clearly in recent years. Great investigative reporting at places like the LA Times, the Pulitzer Prize–winning website InsideClimate News, and the Columbia journalism school revealed over the last few years that the fossil-fuel industry knew everything there was to know about climate change back in the 1980s. And they believed what their scientists were telling them. Exxon started building all its drilling rigs to compensate for the rise in sea level it knew was coming.