Bill McKibben: There’s More Work to Be Done


December 3, 2015

Bill McKibben could rightly be called the father of the US climate movement. We talked to him in Paris about how that climate movement has influenced COP21 proceedings, and why need to keep up the pressure more than ever.


The atmosphere inside the Paris UN Climate Conference (COP21) is positively buzzing with activity now that the heads of state have left and negotiators have gotten to work. But, according to Founder Bill McKibben, the biggest thing to happen at COP21 isn’t taking place behind closed doors— it’s out in the streets. And it’s what’s created such a massive shift in expectations from the previous UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen (COP20) six years ago.

“The reason is that so many people, like you, have built a movement over the last six years here,” says McKibben, speaking about the massive amount of people that have mobilized to march and take action to demand a solution on climate change. “No longer can Barack Obama go back home with nothing in hand. They’ve got to produce something.”

Already the author of a long list of books, including “End of Nature,” arguably the first major book on climate change, McKibben started the “Step it Up” campaign in 2006 with a group of Middlebury College students in Vermont. was born out of that group of students, and eight years later, the People’s Climate March took the movement to the streets of New York City, bringing out 400,000 marchers in the biggest climate action up to that point.

With decades of experience writing about the environment and taking action on climate change, McKibben is both highly knowledgeable and realistic about the proceedings and prospects of the COP21. In his eyes, Paris isn’t going to solve all the problems, nor is it the end of the road for fossil fuels.

“But what is does is make it clear that the conventional wisdom has shifted,” says McKibben. “Everybody knows now that we’re going to make change in the way we power the world, but the open question now is how soon it will come.”


Over the next two weeks, negotiators will hash out those details, discussing a mechanism to ensure all the countries revisit and ratchet up their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) every five years. Hopefully they’ll also nail down concrete financial commitments for supporting the developing countries and poorer communities that are disproportionally impacted by climate change. There’s so much at stake here, but McKibben is well aware that we likely won’t get everything we want, so we need to stay focused beyond Paris.

“The way to think of this place is not the game,” says McKibben. “This is the scoreboard, and it reflects the pressure people have put on them— we’ve put on enough pressure to get partway to where we need to go, and that tells us we better put on a hell of a lot more pressure in the next year.”

The 2014 People’s Climate March was just the beginning. This year, the Global Climate March counted 2,300 actions and events across 175 countries. 785,000 people participated. And when the COP21 started, the delegates were presented with the Avaaz petition for 100% clean energy by 2050— signed by over 3.6 million people. That level of people power is the difference between Paris and Copenhagen.

“The most hopeful thing in the first few days didn’t happen here,” McKibben says. “It happened everyplace else around the world. And what it showed was the size, scope, and scale of an amazing people’s movement like no other people’s movement in history. Every corner of the planet, people coming together, marching, demanding, it was beautiful— and there is a lot more where that came from.”