McKibben 363-02_Sofieprisen-2013_Charlotte-Nexmark

By Bill McKibben / Photograph: Charlotte Nexmark


I am so grateful for this prize.

It means a great deal to me for many reasons. One, of course, is the source: Jostein Gaarder and his wonderful book about Sophie Amundsen provided great reading pleasure, and to know of his remarkable generosity makes the conclusions of the book that much more powerful.

And it doesn’t hurt that I have a daughter named Sophie. In fact, she is slightly Norwegian herself, having spent two years at the UWC Red Cross campus at Flekkefjord, and in the process acquired a Norwegian boyfriend and a pretty good command of the language. I wish she were here to translate for me; alas, she’s grown up now and in college. But it is very good to be joined by her friend Henrik’s parents, Mona and Arne Gundersen.

For myself, Norway has always been the country I love the most beyond my own. Partly that’s because my great vice has been Nordic skiing, one of this nation’s gifts to the planet. I’ve gotten to ski the Oslomarka and race the Birkebeiner, and cheer on my athletic heroes from Ulvang to Daehlie to Bjornedaelen to Northug, though always with a particular soft spot for the incomparable Marit Bjoergen. It’s a thrill to be in Oslo as the winter begins.

That said, I recognize that this honor is not really for me; it’s for the many thousands of people who have come together in recent years to form the climate movement. Let me say at the beginning that this movement should be unnecessary. A quarter century ago scientists explained that climate change was real and constituted the greatest threat that our species had yet faced. It was in those years that I wrote the first account of global warming for a general audience. If our systems of governance worked the way they should, then those calls would have been heeded, and we would have gone straight to work on the monumental but do-able task of transitioning off of fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. We wouldn’t be finished the job yet, but we’d be well begun, on the way to a sounder future.

And for a while that looked as if it might happen. I was at the Kyoto conference where, in the late 1990s, governments agreed to take serious steps. A few did: the Scandinavian countries and to an even greater extent Germany really went to work starting to convert their energy systems. We see the results: there were days this summer when Germany generated more than half the power it used from solar panels within its borders. The growth of wind power has been remarkable. But in general progress has been slow, a matter of two steps forward and two steps back. The world produces more CO2 each year; carbon concentrations climb.

That inaction is particularly striking given that the consequences of global warming are now fully evident. In 1989, when The End of Nature was published, most of the damage from what we then called ‘the greenhouse effect’ was still abstract and theoretical. But no longer. Now 80% of the summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone. Now the oceans are 30% more acidic. Now we see a steady, relentless growth in climate emergencies: record rainfalls, longer forest fire seasons, unprecedented heat and drought, the spread of disease. And all that with a temperature increase of barely 1 degree. The same scientists who told us that would happen now warn us, unequivocally, that we will boost the temperature another 3 or 4 degrees this century unless we quickly get off coal and gas and oil. Change like that is not compatible with civilization as we’ve known it, the civilization whose roots Mr. Gaarder described with such playful eloquence. Take, for instance, agriculture: the agronomists at Stanford and the University of Washington calculated recently that from this point on every degree increase in global average temperature should reduce grain yields by 10%. Raise the temperature three degrees, and see the number of calories on the planet drop 30%. It’s easy to see how that could happen. In 2012, the warmest year yet in the history of my country, it simply got too hot for corn to grow in the most fertile farmland on earth. We had a failed harvest; our carryover stocks grow slimmer; prices rise; the poor are squeezed. But that squeeze is nothing compared to what’s coming.

So we need—more than we’ve ever needed anything in our history – to prevent that temperature rise. We need to hold the temperature as close as we possibly can to the historic norm. We’re already out of the Holocene, the 10,000 years span of benign climatic stability that coincided, not coincidentally, with the rise of civilization. The world’s governments have all agreed that a rise of two degrees is the most that can be tolerated. It’s doubtless too high a number: if one degree melts the Arctic, it’s folly to see what two degrees will do. But at the moment, as I say, our current trajectory heads us for a rise of four or five degrees.

So how to win the change we need, if reason alone will not prevail? Clearly we’re not going to outspend the fossil fuel industry—they have more money than any enterprise in human history and they’ve shown a willingness to spend it to make sure that nothing changes. Therefore, we reasoned as we started, we need to mobilize a different kind of currency, the currency of movements. This is measured not in kroner or Euros or dollars but in passion, spirit, and creativity. Sometimes, we’ve found, we need to spend our bodies and go to jail in order to be heard.

This movement, which you honor today with your prize, has grown quickly—at alone we’ve organized 15,000 demonstrations in 189 countries over the last five years, what CNN has called ‘the most widespread political activity in the planet’s history.’ Much of that effort is spent playing defense against the bad schemes of the fossil fuel industry – for instance, the fight against the exploitation of the tar sands of Canada. Were all the economically recoverable oil there to be burned, it would be equal to all the oil humanity has so far consumed, and as NASA’s James Hansen memorably put it, it would mean “game over for the climate.” It’s the fossil fuel equivalent of cutting down the Amazon rainforest. And yet people continue to push for expanding the tar sands, even though everyone concedes it’s the dirtiest oil on earth, because there’s several trillion dollars to be made. Indeed, even Norway, through Statoil, invests in the tar sands. I think it would stop doing so if you could see the scenes of destruction in Alberta, where native people have seen an enormous landscape destroyed.

But of course the damage reaches here as well—the carbon from those tar sands will raise the Norwegian temperature just as much as the Canadian temperature. It doesn’t much matter how virtuously you live if you insist on investing in companies that plan to keep searching for more hydrocarbons long past the point where the climate can be salvaged. 18 months ago I wrote a piece for Rolling Stone magazine that became one of their most-viewed articles ever—it laid out the case for considering the fossil fuel industry a rogue industry. It has in its reserves between three and five times as much carbon as the most conservative governments on the planet think is safe to burn. It has, that is, announced plans to investors, banks and governments to burn 3 to 5 times the carbon necessary to take us past a temperature rise of two degrees, the red line set by international negotiators for many years. Once you know those numbers, then you know that the end of this story has already been written. There is no drama—if the business plans of these companies are followed, the planet will tank. So, we need to rewrite the script.

One way to do that is to divest from these corporations, as a way of pressuring them and of signaling to others that they are no longer to be considered ‘normal’ industries, but rather dangerous forces. We can’t bankrupt Exxon, that is, but we can begin to politically and morally bankrupt them, and their kin, so they don’t exert such powerful control over our political bodies. And here Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, as the largest single investor on the planet, has a crucial role to play. It is time for Norway to end its investments in fossil fuel. Yes, that wealth was built on oil, mostly in a time when we didn’t understand its peril. But now it needs to be invested in the future, not the past.

Morality demands no less. If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from the wreckage. And if Norway takes this step, it will reverberate. It won’t immediately end climate change; many other strategies are needed. But it will send a powerful message, just as it did a generation ago when many institutions and governments divested their holdings in companies doing business with South Africa’s apartheid regime. When Nelson Mandela was finally freed from prison and visited America, his first stop was not the White House: it was California, so he could thank students at the university system who had forced the divestment of $3 billion in stock. We liberated ourselves, he said, but we couldn’t have done it without you.

It was Mandela’s great accomplice, Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, who helped issue the call for fossil fuel divestment. If you could see the effects of climate change on Africa, he said—the famine, the drought—then you would know why we ask you to take up this tool once more. Africa burns less than one percent of the planet’s fossil fuel; they can’t solve this problem by themselves. None of us can. We must work together.

In this case, the working together will be of benefit to everyone. The Oil Fund invests perhaps ten percent of its holdings in the fossil fuel industry. This is a bad idea because the Norwegian economy is already too dependent on oil. It’s also a bad idea because, if the world ever takes global warming seriously, those investments will plummet in value. HSBC estimated earlier this year that if the planet tried to meet its 2 degrees temperature target, you’d have to cut the valuations of fossil fuel companies in half. Just last week the heads of some of the planet’s largest pension funds wrote the fossil fuel companies asking them how they can justify their continued investment given those numbers.

If you think about it, investing in fossil fuel at this point is a bet that the world will do nothing to act on climate change. That’s an immoral bet. And it’s also a bet that keeps governments from providing the leadership they should. We need Norway to act as the great leader it can be. That wealth carries responsibility, and that the wealth was built on the hydrocarbons now endangering the planet makes the responsibility all the greater. As the Zero Emissions Resource Organization puts it in a study to be released next week, With an 80+ year investment horizon and a duty to “safeguard Norway’s wealth for future generations”, the Norwegian Oil Fund represents the world’s most compelling financial case for divestment from fossil fuel shares.

And if this country leads, then there is some hope many others would follow. Why you could be to the drive for a new energy paradigm as Petter Northug and Marit Bjoergen are to the Swedish ski team.

(This speech was delivered at the 16th and last Sophie Prize Ceremony, the 28th of October 2013)