Climate change

Dumb Question: Is a Leaderless Climate Movement Like al-Qaeda?

Photographer: Logan Mock-Bunting/Redux

Bill McKibben, founder of the environmental activist group (center, in black) marches at an event billed as the largest climate protest in history, Thousands of protesters gathered in Washington on Feb 17. Close

Bill McKibben, founder of the environmental activist group (center, in black) marches... Read More

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Photographer: Logan Mock-Bunting/Redux

Bill McKibben, founder of the environmental activist group (center, in black) marches at an event billed as the largest climate protest in history, Thousands of protesters gathered in Washington on Feb 17.

Bill McKibben published The End of Nature in 1989, one of the first popular books to explain global warming. In recent years, he has turned to climate change activism, founding 350.org in 2008 with seven undergraduate students to build "a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis," according to its website. The group now has about 50 employees and works with voluntary organizers in approximately 190 countries. McKibben is one of the most visible activists fighting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver Canadian oil sands crude into the U.S., if approved by the Obama administration.

McKibben answered writers and editors' smart questions at a Bloomberg Government breakfast this morning. And this dumb one.

Dumb Question: A recent book about environmental economics lists your activist work next to the successes of Mahatma Gandhi and Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai. Is the Bill-McKibben-endgame a Nobel Prize?

Bill McKibben: The interesting thing about this movement is it really has no leader at all. I, as you can tell, am the furthest thing from an activist leader. I'm a writer. My career is as a journalist. That's what I like to do, know how to do. I can't make a speech to save my life. I don't understand Washington or any of that stuff. I do my small part in all of this but it's a leaderless movement. And that's an interesting thing.

The fossil fuel industry, when Al Gore emerged as the leader of this, destroyed him. They and their friends in the GOP completely unfairly destroyed his reputation here — happily, not abroad. And he's doing a lot of work and a lot of good around the world, where people, for some reason, admire Nobel Prize winners who got it right about the biggest question in our world, 20 years ago. For some reason, that's held in high esteem in the rest of the world.

If I were the fossil fuel industry, I'd be worried about this movement precisely because it has no leaders.

DQ: Al-Qaeda is set up this way, too.

BM: The difference is, the commitment to nonviolent action is a really powerful thing, far more powerful in the end. When we look back on the 20th century, I'm convinced that, far more than nuclear power and things, the interesting invention of the 20th century may have been nonviolent civil disobedience. And as you look at what's happened in the last 10 years around this world, far more than al-Qaeda, it's things like the Arab Spring that have begun to reshape the world in which we live.

I'm confident this movement will continue to grow and reshape things. I'm not completely confident it will happen in the time frame that physics allows us. That's why it's a really interesting contest, and a contest with by far the highest stakes that human beings have ever played for. Ever.

Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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