(Article changed on December 19, 2013 at 15:16)
I must begin this article, another (but only in places) critical of Bill McKibben, by correcting a deep injustice. An injustice, moreover, that's totally "my bad." I must state categorically, for the record, that I regard McKibben as a great hero of the climate movement.
If we scan the climate educator horizon, we see, for example, top-notch blogger Joe Romm of Climate Progress, who above all keeps us up to speed on the latest science. And Steve Horn of DeSmogBlog, an investigative journalist who deserves a much wider public, does a yeoman's job of exposing how two of America's most grievous problems, climate change and political corruption, unite to toxic effect. Film director Josh Fox, of Gasland and Gasland 2 fame, has added another piece of the climate education puzzle, by unforgettably highlighting the environmental and climate dangers of fracking. Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein, from their essentially non-climate beats, also speak out, with increasing frequency, to raise consciousness on the issue.
But no one, possibly excepting Al Gore--who unfortunately is politically polarizing--has done more to put climate change on the general public's mental map than Bill McKibben. With such books as The End of Nature and Eaarth, with his articles in popular venues like Rolling Stone, and above all through 350.org, McKibben has been a virtual one-man task force in taking the abstruse but urgent message of climate science to the streets. While men such as Romm and Horn inform the choir, teaching us what hymns to sing, McKibben performs the ever-more-essential work of waking even the nodding and irregular churchgoer, and of zealously preaching the climate gospel to the heathens. If we humans do the highly improbable and stave off climate apocalypse, we'll never properly assess our debt of gratitude to Bill McKibben.
Why, then, am I so bloody critical, to the point of making folks think I don't admire him at all? As the wording of my next-to-last sentence should indicate, I feel we live in emergency times, where we can ill afford for our heroes to have clay feet. If we must prod them to be superhuman, without the flaws allowed lesser mortals, it's their very success--their deserved and valuable widespread influence--that has brought about our carping perfectionistic requirements of them. See, if I wish to influence climate policy, to find a spokeperson with a vast following whose votes can potentially twist political arms, who can I turn to besides a climate change hero like Bill McKibben?
And sadly--forcefully proving the insight that our biggest vices are inextricably tied to our greatest strengths--McKibben's Achilles' heel is politics. In building a climate movement by intent apolitical, McKibben has grievously neglected his own political education. Above all, by placing climate change hopes in a heel named Obama. The crucial question now is whether he'll place similar trust in a bigger heel--in high heels--2016 Democrat presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.
Let me assess matters bluntly. On the issue of climate change, we now face a choice of three sorts of politicians: deniers, panderers, and leaders. Given the extremely narrow window for climate action, the only kind of politicians we can now afford in high office are climate leaders. Sadly, these are few and far between, being found almost exclusively in a set comprising Bernie Sanders, the Green Party, and a ragtag smattering of independents and socialists. As to our two major parties, they break down almost perfectly along party lines, with Democrats being panderers and Republicans deniers (though with a growing set of panderers among the new breed of Chris Christie Republicans). Now, anyone who regularly follows Joe Romm knows that in poll after poll, a majority of Americans are no longer buying climate change denial. That makes climate change pandering--stock-in-trade of the Democrats--far more dangerous. This is the sort of thing McKibben needs to know.
Climate change pandering is extremely dangerous, not only because it's a majority view, but because it perfectly fits the human, all-too-human psychology of climate thinking itself. Though extremely solid, climate science is very subtle and almost counterintuitive, easily refuted in the imagination by a bout of unseasonably cold weather. Indeed, I have a highly intelligent, well-read friend, a Ph.D. in philosophy, who (citing chaos theory) links his own climate change denial to our notorious inability to predict the weather, not realizing that in this instance it's literally easier to see the forest than the trees. But my point is that if a highly educated sophisticate's trust in climate science is so easily shaken, how much truer that must be for average persons--which all of us, especially in the effects of our imaginations, to a large extent are. And when you consider how much our prosperity and comfort depend on fossil fuels--fossil fuels are our comfort zone--the matter only worsens. Expert estimates differ widely about how different a world based on renewable energies will be--whether, for example we can maintain anything near present levels of consumer lifestyle--but make no mistake: it will be different. Emerging from fossil fuel use will be as frightening as emerging from the womb, a choice many of us (if it really were a choice) would not on reflection make. With climate change, the choice is real, and it's no surprise the panderers are winning. Climate fiasco seems so far off, and that fossil fuel womb is so cozy. Until...
Climate scientists are increasingly starting to scream that the prospect of that apocalyptic "until" depends on what we do now--over the next few years. And politically, what our government does will depend on a partisan analysis, such as I've done, squarely identifying where the leaders, the panderers, and the deniers are to be found. And whether the leaders are electable. We've seen enough of the Satanic power of pandering in Obama. Indeed, surprisingly, I just read one of the best imaginable sentences on the subject from Bill McKibben himself--surprisingly, because I (and, by McKibben's own showing, apparently many others) have raked him over the coals for his naivete about Obama. Here's what McKibben just wrote in Rolling Stone: " In any event, building more renewable energy is not a useful task if you're also digging more carbon energy--it's like eating a pan of Weight Watchers brownies after you've already gobbled a quart of Ben and Jerry's." Exactly, but what McKibben didn't write--or realize?--is that kind of comfortable pandering, the appearance of effective climate action without the likely painful reality, is what the general public--even the progressive public--unwittingly wants. That's why we urgently need a climate leader like Sanders, and not an "Obama on steroids" panderer like Hillary Clinton.
Sanders is deservedly popular with progressives, but the Democratic leadership (with deep ties, like Hillary, to fossil fuel interests) will do its best, with Hillary in the picture, to ensure he does not become popular with mainstream Democrats--if he chooses (as he pragmatically ought) to run as a Democrat. McKibben, like all progressives and climate activists, should be pushing for his Democratic candidacy. But above all, to destroy Hillary's.
McKibben, as I said, is a climate hero. But many of us demanding successes will be enraged at him if he's not a triumphant one. Success, in our steeply uphill battle, demands near perfection--and McKibben's long failure to call out Obama is anything but. McKibben may not command the constituency to elect Bernie Sanders, but he certainly has a large enough one to cost Democrats the election if Hillary (or a similar climate panderer) is the candidate--by urging his followers to vote Green if she runs. He's clearly awakened from his "dogmatic slumber" over Obama; we perfectionists can surely forgive him if he starts blackmailing Democrats to dump Hillary NOW.