Bill McKibben: Environmental Justice Must Take Center Stage In Maryland

Bill McKibben talks to Dharna Noor about the actions Ben Jealous would take to fight climate change and protect the Chesapeake Bay if he beats the odds and defeats incumbent Larry Hogan in the Maryland governor’s race

Bill McKibben: Environmental Justice Must Take Center Stage In Maryland

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Story Transcript

BILL MCKIBBEN: My name is Bill McKibben. I’m an environmentalist. I’m not from Maryland at all, I’m displaced from my home country up in Vermont. But I’m here because this is one of these critical elections for climate policy around the country. And Ben Jealous is one of the most remarkable environmental advocates, as well as civil rights advocates, that we have.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, we were speaking about off camera about how much excitement there has been around these midterm elections. People have lost so much faith in the executive branch federally that a lot of people are looking downballot. Talk about what this election could mean for climate change and for the environment.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Look at the signs around you, just to get some sense of just how nuts people are about getting out to vote. I think there’s this huge pent-up demand since 2016 to go get it right this time, you know. You saw the UN report 10 or 12 days ago about climate. The bottom line of it was we’re out of time. I mean, if we haven’t made a massive shift in our direction in the next 12 years, then we’re not going to be able to do it. And 12 years is like, that’s like two more presidential elections; it’s five more of these congressional elections. I mean, we can’t just keep putting this stuff off now. We actually have to do it.

And some of that’s in Washington and at the congressional level, and some members at the state level, where there’s much more freedom for people to act. If you elect a governor in a state like Maryland they may actually be able to get something done, not wait for the Senate to get its act together.

DHARNA NOOR: The incumbent running here in Maryland, Larry Hogan, is very popular even amongst Democrats. And he touts his environmental record. He talks about how he enacted a fracking ban. He put billions into restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

BILL MCKIBBEN: So it’s not that he’s done nothing. And it’s not that anybody except Donald Trump’s done nothing. The question is are we doing anything on a scale that’s going to catch up to this problem, or not? Or are we doing kind of what we need to do just to kind of not have people angry at us all the time, and things? I’d much rather have that than Donald Trump, but I’d much rather have someone who actually was serious about real change.

You know, the temperature of the planet keeps going up. Therefore, we’re not doing enough to deal with this problem. We’re not doing enough in America, we’re not doing enough in Maryland, we’re not doing enough in any place to deal with it.

DHARNA NOOR: And could you talk a little bit about how Jealous has distinguished himself from that environmental record of Hogan?

BILL MCKIBBEN: So, Jealous is such an interesting character, because people look at him and think, well, he’s a civil rights leader. He ran the NAACP. That must be- civil rights must be his main focus. And it is, in certain ways. But the first political stuff he ever did as a young man was work on environmental stuff. As a young newspaper reporter he covered a lot of these environmental justice issues that I think really brought it home to him. And so when he took over the NAACP he really helped bring this question of environmental justice to the forefront, helped change it from environmentalism to environmental justice. And that’s been really, really key.

I tell you, when we started things like the fight against the Keystone pipeline, there were’t many political figures at all who wanted to be engaged in that. It seemed too far out, and things. By now it’s become the sort of wellspring of an enormous amount of really good activism. But one of the very first people who got engaged was- really the first two prominent national figures who got engaged were Bernie Sanders and Ben Jealous. And I’ve been real loyal to both of them ever since, because they were willing to do this stuff before it was popular, while it was still hard. And God bless them for it.

DHARNA NOOR: And in terms of enacting that at a state level, Jealous has said that he would commit to setting a target for renewable energy. Have you talked to him about what that target would be, when we need to get there?

BILL MCKIBBEN: I’m not exactly sure what target they’re going- you know, how much by what year. But the fact that we’d be moving swiftly in the direction of 100 percent renewable energy, which is where we need to go, is the important thing.

And you know, ten years ago this was kind of, would have been sort of wild-eyed to say. But in the last ten years the price of a solar panel’s come down 90 percent. This is now the cheapest way to generate electricity most of the places. What’s wild-eyed now is to say let’s build some more pipelines. Because when you do that you’re locking Maryland into another 50 years of the same kind of energy system we have now. That’s really irresponsible about the future. And instead to try and say let’s get ahead of this curve economically and environmentally, that’s really smart. The places that prosper are going to be the places that are ahead, not behind of the curve that everybody knows is coming.

DHARNA NOOR: And how does a state like Maryland get there? Is it through market solutions like cap and trade, or a carbon tax? Or is it through regulation at the state level?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Well, some of each. I mean, one of my- one of the things I have to be careful about is that because I wrote the first book about climate change, it came about 30 years ago next year, I sometimes find myself wanting to say, oh, if only you’d listened to me then. You know, because 30 years ago there’s a lot of really gentle things that we could have done that wouldn’t have caused anybody- a very modest price on carbon, and that kind of thing. Having waited this long we’re going to have to do more dramatic stuff.

And so you know, price on carbon is one thing. But there’s also going to have to be a lot of support for renewables going forward. And there’s going to have to be a firm hand at telling the fossil fuel industry, no more expansion. I mean, they managed to sneak through this last pipeline here in Maryland. That’s got to be it. I mean, we can’t build more fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere.

DHARNA NOOR: And can you talk about Jealous’ policies regarding the Chesapeake Bay? Especially because it’s such a huge economic factor for voters here, I think that’s something that people are really concerned about in terms of the environment.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Absolutely. We’ve made some strides in cleaning up places like Chesapeake Bay. We’ve made a lot of strides in cleaning up a lot of places around the country. But all of that is now coming apart as the temperature warms. And as the, in the case of the oceans, not only is their temperature going up, but their ph is going down because of the carbon in the atmosphere. And these are now the really deep threats. There’s no way to make Chesapeake Bay a healthy place, save dealing with climate change. That’s going to be the bottom line for all marine ecosystems going forward.

And so for places that are, like Maryland, low to the water- I mean, go to Ocean City. I mean, low to the water, and depend on the ocean for both economic value in terms of fishing, but also in terms of tourism, and just where the ocean is a part of people’s psyche, you know, part of how they identify who they are. I mean, what would Maryland be without crabs to eat, you know? In that kind of world we’ve got to take this super seriously.

DHARNA NOOR: And why did you choose to come here ten days before the election? As we were saying before, there are so many progressive candidates who are running.

BILL MCKIBBEN: I’m doing my best to go out and help a lot. I’ve been all over the country. But this is one of the most important races. And it’s one of the most important races because among other things, it’s really time for Maryland, I think, to to embrace the idea that civil rights and environmentalism are crucial parts of the future; not something to be deferred or delayed, but to be put center stage. I mean, climate change and economic inequality are the gravest things we face. The things that can undermine America as we’ve known it. And so it’s time to actually stand up to them.

DHARNA NOOR: I guess one of the issues that Jealous is facing, though, is that so many voters do, again, see Hogan as somebody who has a pretty strong environmental record. And you know, he’s down in the polls by some 15 points; 538 gave him a less than 1 percent- or a 1 percent chance of winning this election. So what do you think the strategy is for the next 10 days?

BILL MCKIBBEN: I’m the wrong person to ask. I’m not an election handicapper, I don’t know how it all turns out. I just know we need to do what’s right, and do it as quick and hard as we can. So let’s hope that, I mean … One has to say, the polls have been wrong in this country before, as we found out in 2016. Let’s hope they’re wrong in a different way this time around.

DHARNA NOOR: And I think another reason, maybe, that people are disillusioned is because they look at a problem as global as climate change and they say, what can a state as small as Maryland do about something that’s that big a problem?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Well, this is true. Every place in the world- I mean, no matter where you are. If you’re sitting in Sichuan province, you say, oh, well, Sichuan Province is just one part of China, and it’s all- you know.

I mean, look, people in Maryland, like all Americans, have done way more than their share to destroy the climate. You know, America’s per capita the world’s champion in burning fossil fuel. It’s up to us to be real leaders in doing something about it instead of doing what we’ve done. I mean, Larry Hogan’s party pulled us out of the Paris climate accords. Think about that for a minute. There’s only one country in the world that’s not taking part in the fight to save the climate. And it’s the country that poured more carbon into the atmosphere than any other, historically. And that’s Larry Hogan’s party. That’s not good.

DHARNA NOOR: And lastly, could you just talk a little bit about the stakes if we do just conduct business as usual? What happens if we don’t change the game?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Well, I mean, by now we know- the science is pretty clear about what happens if we just keep going as we’re going. The temperature just keeps going up and up and up and up, and that means that all the things that we’re seeing already we’re going to see in spades. You know, if you like big hurricanes, then go for it, because we’re going to see ever bigger ones. If you like sea level rise like we’ve seen already, go for it, because it’s inches now; is going to be feet and then yards. If you like extreme heat waves then let’s keep doing what we’re doing, because it gets hotter with each passing decade, and by really large amounts.

That’s what keeps happening. That’s why elections like this are so important. If you’re not taking care of the problem now, don’t fool yourself that somehow you’re going to by just pushing the same buttons some more times. I mean, it’s like standing in front of the elevator. If it’s not coming it doesn’t do any good to keep hammering away at the button that doesn’t do anything. You gotta take the stairs, or whatever you’re going to do. And that’s where we are right now.