Caring for Climate: Xiye Bastida and Bill McKibben in conversation
Photo — Media.Work
Science tells us we are in the decisive decade for addressing the climate emergency. We know that we must act now to avoid the worst consequences of the crisis.
At SPACE10, we’ve been concerned by the climate crisis for years. However, the sheer amount of climate data, typically communicated in global averages, has often left us feeling overwhelmed when trying to understand what’s happening. This has made us wonder: Instead of being numbed by numbers, how do we come together to act on a common challenge? How can we communicate the complexity of the climate crisis in a way that focuses not only on the science, but also on the solutions? And how do we stay optimistic in the face of an overwhelming task?
With that in mind, we reached out to some people smarter than us, representatives of two generations of climate activism: the author of the first-ever book of popular science on climate change, Bill McKibben, and Xiye Bastida, the 18-year-old organiser with Fridays For Future.
Join us as we sit down with these two leaders of the global climate movement, to reflect on how far we have come in protecting our planet, how much is left to do, and how we can use the knowledge we have to create change.
First encounters with the crisis
Xiye Bastida: Hi, Bill. I was wondering if you could tell me about the first time that you encountered climate science.
Bill McKibben: It goes back to when I was in my twenties in New York City, writing at The New Yorker and reading the early science about climate change, as it was beginning to be published in obscure journals. That led me to writing The End of Nature in 1989, the first book about climate change for a general audience.
The task then was making the climate emergency real for people. It was much harder back then, because it was all still very much in the future. The scientists were telling us that we were approaching a precipice and we should stop in our tracks. We didn’t stop, and we are now going over the edge. And that’s why there are now pictures that people can point to in every province, every state, every territory, and on Planet Earth, of what the damage entails.
We thought we were having an argument: if we just piled up some more data, eventually our leaders would do the right thing. It really took me far too long to understand that we had won the argument already; what we were having was a fight. And fighting is about power — you know, people power. That’s when we started building a climate movement, with 350.org.
Xiye: I know 350 stands for 350 parts per million CO2.
Bill: That’s what the scientists have said is the most amount of carbon dioxide we could safely have in the atmosphere. I’ll tell you why we took that strange, data-driven name: we knew we wanted to have a global reach, and we figured that numbers would translate more easily across linguistic boundaries. And we knew that, whenever anybody talked about the organisation, the reporters would have to explain the meaning of the number — and that would help spread the idea.
Xiye: Now it’s becoming a language: I say I was born at 402 ppm and now we’re at 420 ppm. It’s a very good global marker of where we’re at.
For me, it was the other way around: instead of reading about climate data, I experienced directly the consequences of the climate crisis. My family migrated to the US after my hometown, San Pedro Tultepec, experienced catastrophic flooding in 2015 after three years of drought.
Climate data not only validated my worries and my concerns, but also showed me how far behind we were. All countries need to be a lot more ambitious in their climate goals.
Bill: Absolutely. There’s a lot of very tough things about climate change, but one of the good ones is that there’s an easy marker — data — for how well we’re doing. We can be winning many individual battles, but they all have to add up to that number going down.
When data makes us anxious
Xiye: It takes a long time for science to reach people, and this delay in communication delays empowerment and action. And with climate science, it’s even more complicated because those numbers can induce anxiety. How can we communicate the climate crisis in a way that focuses not only on the numbers, but also on the solutions?
Bill: Climate data gives us a deadline and an assignment.
People in low-lying Pacific Island nations and in Africa were saying that 2 degrees’ temperature increase isn’t good enough, and we need to do better. “1.5 to stay alive” is what we were all chanting, at climate meetings in Copenhagen and in Paris. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which brings together world’s climate scientists and has been our global data source from the beginning, did something remarkable. Instead of just synthesizing all the data, in their last report they set a deadline. ‘You said you wanted to hold the world’s temperature rise as close to 1.5 degrees as possible? If you’re serious about this, here’s what you have to do by 2030: you have to fundamentally transform our energy systems.’
Now, we have a deadline and an assignment.
This doesn’t mean that things end in 2030 — but that, if we do our job right, we will pass onto the next generation a winnable fight. For your generation, this is going to be the work of your entire lives.
‘Science is only half of climate action’
Xiye: We need to be straightforward about the fact that this is the challenge that we’re dealing with. I feel that humanity has been lacking a purpose for a long time, and now we have one: our purpose is to come together, because there is no other option.
Instead of feeling despair, we need to feel that this is our role now. This is our opportunity to do better.
After we migrated from Mexico to the United States, my mum told me: ‘You are not a citizen here, you could get deported if you get arrested in a protest.’ And I told my mum: ‘This is a global crisis. Wherever I am, I’m going to be fighting for the same cause.’
Bill: I despair sometimes when I think about the power imbalances. We started 350.org as a very global organisation from the beginning, to give people in every place a chance to speak up. One of the first demonstrations we did was with women in Bangladesh. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the 180 million people in Bangladesh is so small — it’s like a rounding error in the calculations. And yet they are so harshly affected.
Xiye: This is not only about the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but also about social equity. Science is only half of climate action. The other half is: how do we have a just transition? That’s where climate justice comes in: how can we empower people around the world? How do we make sure that every community has the resources to build back better?
Bill: The good news is that we might finally redistribute power more democratically. Everybody has access to sun and wind — theoretically, if we redesign energy systems, that would begin rebalancing economic power. We’ve spent the last decade or two setting the table for this coming decade. We have built a big, powerful movement. And the engineers have spent a decade building really cheap solar power and wind power. There’s no technical reason we can’t move quickly. We now have the possibility to make real change.
350.org was the first iteration of the climate movement. Now there’s so many accomplices: Sunrise Movement, Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, climate strikes, and everybody else doing a superb job making the case for the climate. Xiye, the work you’re doing so beautifully is in the tradition of nonviolent movement-building that began in the 20th century with the suffragettes, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It’s the only real tool that we have to allow the small and the many to stand up to the mighty and the few.
Xiye: I feel that we need the many to feel truly united.
We live in a very individualistic time. We need to shift to a more collaborative mindset.
When you feel that everything is on your shoulders, it can feel really daunting, hopeless. It is important for people to realise that they can take their skills and their passion, and bring them to the climate movement. Sometimes it feels like there’s still too few people being part of the conversation.
Bill: However, for at least a decade in the ’90s, if there was a story written about climate change in the English-language press, there was too good a chance that it was written by me. The idea that there are now hundreds of climate journalists doing great work covering this topic and spreading the word — it’s a good sign, right?
Building community and celebrating success
Bill: The last time that we got to hang out in person, in September 2019, there were half a million people in the streets of New York, and big climate strikes in cities around the world. That was a remarkable day. A few things got in the way in 2020, but a ton has happened in the meantime — and the pandemic has taught us a few things, too.
Xiye: One year ago we were preparing for Earth Day 2020, but had to suspend all in-person organising, striking and lobbying. It’s been hard to keep optimism for the past year, but now it feels like it’s all been worth it. I’ve seen the climate community grow, especially internationally. We have created Re-Earth Initiative, an international youth-led organization that focuses on highlighting the intersectionality of the climate crisis. We have now found other ways of building a community.
I think that the pandemic taught us to take care of ourselves. When you feel that everything is on your shoulders, it can feel really daunting, hopeless. One thing that has helped me build resilience has been realising that I have limitations. I can’t do everything myself. We have to divide the tasks. We have to trust each other that we will keep going — and we need to be cautious not to put too much of ourselves in, to the point of exhaustion. The most important thing to remember is to celebrate our success each time we accomplish something that we put our minds to. That’s how you make a movement: when you believe in, and enjoy, the work that you’re doing.
Instead of feeling disempowered by climate data, [we need to] use it as a tool of empowerment: not only to guide your actions, but also to measure your success.
Bill: I think the reason we often feel despair is that we have been raised to believe that we need to deal with problems ourselves. The pandemic has reminded us that the most powerful force in the world is social solidarity. There’s a huge amount of work to be done, and there are easy ways now to come together with others.
I want to say to the current generation: don’t feel too much pressure as an individual. Embrace the idea that there’s other people to work with.
Xiye: This is definitely humanity’s greatest challenge — and it’s also our best opportunity to come together for a livable future.
Bill McKibben is a contributing writer to The New Yorker, a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and the Schumann Distinguished Professor in Residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. He was a 2014 recipient of the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the “alternative Nobel,” and the Gandhi Peace Award. He has written over a dozen books about the environment, including his first, The End of Nature, published 30 years ago, and his most recent, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
Xiye Bastida is an 18-year-old climate justice activist based in New York City. She is an organizer with Fridays For Future and the co-founder of Re-Earth Initiative, an international youth-led organisation that focuses on highlighting the intersectionality of the climate crisis. Bastida was born in Mexico and was raised as part of the Otomi-Toltec Indigenous community. For the first climate strike in March 2019, she mobilized 600 students from her school and has taken a citywide leadership role in organising climate strikes. She sits on the administration committee of the People’s Climate Movement, where she brings the voice of youth to existing grassroots and climate organizations. She is the recipient of the ‘Spirit of the UN’ award for the year 2018 and currently attends the University of Pennsylvania.