The Battle is Joined

May 2013
By Bill McKibben
Sojourners Magazine

We can see in our mind's eye all the generations to come, and so we know why we fight.

ALL I EVER wanted to see was a movement of people to stop climate change, and now I've seen it. And it looks so beautiful. It's hometown heroes like our friends in D.C. who've been fighting coal plants, and far-flung heroes like those who've been bravely blocking the Keystone XL pipeline with their bodies in Texas. It's people who understand that the fight against fracking and coal ports and taking the tops off mountains is ultimately the fight for a living planet; it's people who have lived through Sandy and survived the drought, some of whom I got to go to jail with recently.

It's the students at 252 colleges who are now fighting the fossil fuel industry head on to force divestment of their school's stock—the biggest student movement in decades. It's all of you—you are the antibodies kicking in, as the planet tries to fight its fever.

We've waited a very long time to get started, I fear. We've already watched the Arctic melt; our colleagues in 191 countries tell us daily of some new drought or flood.

Because we've waited this long, the easiest answers are no longer enough; we're going to have to make tough decisions. Our theme has to be: When you're in a hole, stop digging. Above all stop the Keystone XL pipeline. The president can do it with a single stroke of his pen, and if he does he will become the first world leader to veto a big project because it's bad for the climate. That would be a legacy—and a signal to the rest of the world that we're serious about this fight. It's his test.

And so we will keep making our case—we will follow the president and the secretary of state wherever they go this spring. But we'll have actions across the country that focus on all the other holes we're still digging too. And as summer comes on, I hope you'll circle those days toward the end of July that are, on average, the hottest each year. We're going to try and make them politically hot too—maybe set aside a few dollars each week for a bail fund?

SO FAR WE'VE been firm but peaceful, diverse but united. We have to stay that way, because the job we've undertaken is the most important one that any humans have ever been entrusted with. It is our job to make sure that the planet doesn't catastrophically overheat. The oil companies aren't going to do that—their business plan is to wreck the earth. The government isn't going to do that—they're too busy taking money from the oil companies.

But history shows that, though we'll never outspend the fossil fuel industry, we can find other currencies to work with: passion, spirit, creativity; the powerful love for the future that brought us into the struggle. We can see in our mind's eye all the generations to come, and so we know why we fight. We can see the beauty of the world we've been given—the cold of a winter day, the color on an autumn hillside—and so we know why we fight. We know our brothers and sisters in the poorest parts of the world are already suffering—and so we know why we fight.

I can't promise you we're going to win. But I've waited a quarter century, since I wrote the first book about all of this, to see if we were going to fight. And now, having been energized by the biggest climate rally in U.S. history, I know we will. The battle—the most fateful battle in human history—is finally joined. And we will fight it together. 

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont and founder of This column is adapted from his speech at the largest climate rally in U.S. history, Feb. 17 in Washington, D.C.