Superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment: That’s not really a Bill McKibben critique of the global response on climate change, but it did make sense for the leading global environmental activist from Vermont to quote Pope Francis and Laudato Si during his April 12 visit to the University of Notre Dame.
McKibben’s talk was followed by a student rally to demand that university officials managing Notre Dame’s $10.5 billion endowment act on fossil fuel divestiture. McKibben joined them even as, on the same day, climate activist students were arrested at Harvard University and University of Massachusetts Amherst, and democracy protests continued in Washington D.C.
Amid the day’s clamor, a quieter man named Myles Robertson asked McKibben who – at this critical time for both the planet and the nation – is the American presidential candidate best qualified to lead the United States. McKibben drew laughter and applause from the crowd of 375 participants when he referred to that “raging Vermonter” he endorses, Bernie Sanders.
On this all-too-serious final question, though, McKibben said the stalwart Sanders stance on climate moves the discussion far beyond the shore of Lake Champlain, where McKibben first joined Sanders to announce his candidacy. “He is the real deal,” he said, concluding his talk.
That real deal on climate has, in recent weeks, been harder to hear above the clamor that is the 2016 election cycle: Will the GOP nominate a candidate, other than front-runner Donald Trump, at a contested convention in Cleveland? Does Sanders really have any plan to rein in Wall Street? Does Hillary Clinton really know how to ride the New York City subway? Is there even a cursory news story on climate out there, an issue that makes all others seem superficial?
As Sanders himself heads to Vatican City to present “The Urgency of a Moral Economy,” it’s worth asking why, beyond the rhetoric and the rallies, it’s that sense of urgency that unites millions of American voters in a breathtaking alliance. The students with their grandmothers, the fiery Occupy Wall Street activists with the moderate independents, pious believers and atheists, academics and trade union leaders, veterans and pacifists – they’re connecting in ways to define diversity, beyond race and gender, that defy the polls and shopworn pundits.
The real argument for a Sanders presidency is that the planet is his priority. The real reason for his “surprise” 2016 viability is the common cause that this priority is creating across the American landscape, because incremental change is no longer a realistic approach to solving our climate challenges. What mobilizes many Sanders voters is urgency on the environment, because it intersects with issues seen as essentially subordinate to that moral arc above our universe – and that means that the climate narrative is inseparable from our political process and the decisions that derive from them. Earth is the urgency at the heart of all approaches to Wall Street, health care, military action, immigration, education infrastructure and more.
McKibben referred to “the architecture of deceit, denial and misinformation” that served as the foundation for Exxon executives who knew that their decisions foreclosed on the future, but made them anyway. It’s the same structural framework that supports the disastrous financial decisions on Wall Street, resulting in still-grievous consequences. It’s the system that supports the near-treason of tax evasion by a corporate America that has long abdicated its responsibilities to the United States and its citizens who demand that they act.
It’s also the architecture that, in this pivotal moment of climate transition, has begun to fail. Peabody Energy, the largest private coal producer in the world, has just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States, where coal still powers about a third of the U.S. grid. At ExxonMobil, and at the other oil majors, investors are insisting on “stress tests” to evaluate the potential impact of climate change policies on future profitability and shareholder value. In London, BP is explaining to its shareholders why its business model no longer works in a world moving toward a future rooted in renewable energy sources while there is still time.
And there is still time for a future to believe in, but not if we airily dismiss that as a Sanders platitude meant to attract “misguided” youth who don’t do research, middle-aged workers who aren’t smart enough to “get economics,” and aging Woodstock lefties with one last chance to wave signs for “free stuff.” It is far, far too late for those cynical attacks from his opponents. The climate urgency is true, the time is now – and Sanders is the “real deal.”