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India should do with energy what it did with telecom: Bill McKibben

According to reports, environmentalist and author Bill McKibben brought the climate change issue to the drawing rooms of America with his 1989 book, The End of Nature. McKibben went on to establish 350.org, an environmental awareness organisation. His recent piece in Rolling Stone magazine inviting people to mobilise in New York to pressurise world leaders into taking action at the UN Climate Summit led to one of the largest demonstrations for the environment. McKibben is touring India to deliver Dirt(E) Talks, a series of talks on alternatives to fossil fuel-based development.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What brings you to India?

We are here because it is such an important, interesting moment for India. It’s still at a decision point whether it wants to be part of the new energy world that’s now dawning very quickly around the planet, or whether it wants to stay in the 18th century and work on coal. So, the hope is that India would be the pioneer to make the leap and do with energy what it did with telecommunications: to leapfrog past telecom poles straight to mobile, to leapfrog past antiquated technology and into the most modern technology. In 40 or 50 years, no one’s going to want coal-fired power. What a mistake to walk into it now. Risk analysis firm Maplecroft recently flagged the Indian subcontinent for facing extreme risk from climate change.

Do you see governments waking up?

People aren’t paying enough attention yet. Governments treat natural disasters as one-off unexpected events that just come… When there’s a flood in Jammu and Kashmir, you have to ask, why does this keep happening? What can we do to reduce that risk? And the biggest we can do to reduce that risk is get carbon out of the atmosphere.

Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh thinks climate change should be viewed as a public health issue to spur governments into action. Would you agree?

I think that public health is a huge part of it. And that’s a very good way of getting people to understand what’s going on. It’s especially important because it combines the other public health threat from the effects of burning fossil fuel. There was a study yesterday (last Wednesday) that said that each year in China, 680,000 people die from the effects of air pollution. I have been to China and India. The air is just as bad in Indian cities as it is in China’s. There are a lot of people, I have no doubt, dying here too. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report identified fossil fuels as causing irreversible damage to the environment. I feel sorry for the scientists. They have been saying the same thing for 20 years and the world doesn’t pay enough attention. So, basically, each time the IPCC writes a report, it tries to think of some stronger way to say that we are completely screwed. The IPCC is like a doctor. The doctor is saying, ‘Look, your cholesterol is way too high, you have already had some small strokes. If you do this any longer, you are going to have a big heart attack.’ And the world is mostly like, ‘Oh well, I’ll keep smoking, I’ll keep eating whatever’. It drives the scientists crazy just like it drives your doctor crazy if you pay no attention when he tells you to change.

Are developed nations doing enough?

There’s definitely a need for lot of resources, lot of money and technology to go from north to south. The rich world became the rich world by burning fossil fuel and filling the atmosphere with carbon. So it’s neither moral nor practical for the US and EU to tell India: ‘Sorry the atmosphere is filled up, you figure out some other way.’ They need to transfer resources to allow India, Africa to jump past fossil fuel. It’s a very fair request.

Will world leaders reach some kind of an agreement at Paris Summit 2015?

I think they will reach some kind of an agreement. They are so embarrassed by Copenhagen that at any cost they will sign something. But I don’t think it will solve the problem. It will be, at best, a small step along the way to dealing with the problem. The most important thing they probably could do in Paris is really nail down the financing. In Copenhagen the rich countries promised they would give $100 billion a year to the developing countries to leapfrog fossil fuel. So far there’s no great sign of that $100 billion materialising. In New York, there were some people talking about may be $10 billion. They’ve dropped a zero, and that’s an important zero.

Did the economic recession emerge at a wrong time?

Yes. I think it made it more difficult because all the policymakers just stopped thinking about anything else. The world’s gonna go through recessions, booms and busts. Climate change is the most important problem the world has ever faced. I don’t think there is a scientist on the planet that would disagree with that. When times are good, when times are bad, we need to keep focused on it because it’s the biggest thing that’s going on.

What are your plans for the summit?

We will be there at the summit. The most important work will be leading up to it. One of the things we are working on in the developed world is this divestment campaign. We are getting universities to sell their stock in fossil fuel companies to put pressure on these guys. In New York, the day of that march, the Rockefeller family, the original fossil fuel fortune, announced that they were selling all their fossil fuel stock and invest in renewable energy. That was a really important moment.

Do you have plans to export your divestment campaign to Asia?

We know that this kind of strategy can work because it worked 30 years ago during the apartheid in South Africa. We are just now starting to talk about divestment in Asia. There’s not quite the same tradition of endowments at universities and things like that, but it is going very strong in Europe and especially in Australia. I think this (Asia) will be the next logical place for this divestment to happen.

Do we need more policy initiatives such as Australia’s carbon tax to force companies to comply with climate change rules?

I think the price on carbon everywhere is a good idea because it distorts markets. This is the one industry that we allowed to pour their waste in the out for free. The fossil fuel industry gets to use the atmosphere as a free open sewer. Economists, left, right and centre, have said that makes no sense. Two of the largest Indian conglomerates have coal interests in Australia. Two weeks ago, there was a big team of groups from Pacific Island nations that would disappear because the sea levels were rising. They built these traditional canoes and blockaded the biggest coal port in the world, Newcastle in Australia, with these canoes… From an Indian point of view this is interesting because they were protesting with what was going on in Australia, but they were also saying to people in India, ‘You are sinking our countries.’ They were saying Australia and India and others were being ‘Coal-onial.’

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