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People power for the climate

April 28, 2017

Ahead of the People's Climate March, DW spoke to environmental activist and author Bill McKibben about what people power can do for our planet in the Trump era.

USA March of Science in San Francisco | Klima
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Edelson

Deutsche Welle: April 22 was Earth Day and the March for Science, and one week later on April 29 the People's Climate March marks 100 days of the Trump administration. Have these events taken on added meaning this year?

Bill McKibben: I think they have taken on different meaning. The plan was to go march, no matter who was president at the end of April - but if it was Hillary Clinton, it would be a real effort to get her to do the things she promised to do.

In the case of Trump, it's part of this large resistance that's been forming around so many issues, and a real reminder that people will not idly sit by and let their future be completely compromised. So it will have a very different flavor than I think we thought it would six to eight months ago. 

Do you think proposed budget cuts to scientists' work and the changes at the Environmental Protection Agency will mobilize more scientists, and get them involved in politics? 

Bill McKibben, founder of environment organization 350.org. Photo credit: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Battaglia.
Bill McKibben says people power is a potent forceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Battaglia

Yes, I think scientists are becoming more politically engaged. I think they're beginning to understand they have no choice.

It's not an ideal situation. In a rational world, we'd let scientists do their work, and then when they offer explicit warnings as they did 20 years ago around climate change, the rest of our political system would go to work acting on those warnings. But as we've all learned, that's not necessarily what happens. Power, money and influence can get in the way and that's, I think, why scientists are now mobilizing.

Trump focuses a lot on jobs, the economy and security. Do you think the environmental movement has been successful at appealing to his constituency? What needs to change in its "sales pitch" to enable the movement to compete for public opinion?

I think action on climate change is more popular than Donald Trump at this point. But that has as much to do with Trump's unpopularity as anything else. I think it's important for the environmental movement to keep stressing the upside to big change.

Jeff Merkley, the senator from Oregon, and Senator [Bernie] Sanders, the most popular politician in America, are introducing a bill at the end of the month that calls for 100 percent clean energy by 2050. I think that will be the real rallying cry - and part of that rallying cry will be about the 4 or 5 million jobs that would get created along the way.

Protestors attend the People's Climate March in New York. Photo credit: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency/C. Ozedel.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets for the last People's Climate March, in New York in 2014Image: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency/C. Ozedel

Could a slowdown of US action on climate change result in more Americans taking the government to court over climate change?

There's a couple of important court cases already working their way through, especially this case from what's called Our Children's Trust. Court action takes a long time and in the end, to a large degree, courts are moved when politics moves. The job of the environmental movement is to continue to try and shift the zeitgeist around climate change in a powerful direction.

You've been heavily involved in protests against the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines for the past several years. What are you planning to do now that Keystone has been formally approved?

The Keystone Pipeline's been formally approved by the State Department and the White House, but it's got some hoops to jump through yet, mostly in states like Nebraska where there's not even a route approved for this thing - and there's a lot of organizing and anger.

Sioux Protest against the Keystone XL pipeline in the USA. Photo credit: Getty Images/C. Somodevilla.
The Keystone XL Pipeline has been the target of protest - which hasn't ended since Trump approved the pipelineImage: Getty Images/C. Somodevilla

It also has some financial hoops to jump through - it's not as if the price of oil is doing any favors to people in the tar sands where that pipeline begins. So I don't think we've seen the end of that story yet.

Trump's climate position has so many implications. Where do you predict the biggest resistance will come from? 

I think that you're seeing resistance from smart scientists and from people in frontline communities who deal with the effects of climate change already. I think the thing Trump needs to fear most is the awakening of all those normal people in the middle who don't normally think that much about politics, but know enough about the future to know that what we're doing is not safe, is not smart, and is putting their children at risk. And that's a potent force, once awakened. 

I assume you'll be out protesting this weekend - what do you hope to see when you're out there?

I hope to see a lot of people!


Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist. In 2014, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the "alternative Nobel." He is a founder of 350.org, a grassroots climate movement that has organized thousands of rallies around the world.

The interview was conducted by Charlotta Lomas.

Thousands join global "March for Science"