Bill McKibben to tell Yukon to keep carbon in the ground

There's a certain irony in the act of flying across the continent to give a speech about the perils of man-made climate change.

There’s a certain irony in the act of flying across the continent to give a speech about the perils of man-made climate change.

At what point, one wonders, is the benefit of raising awareness outweighed by the quantity of carbon burned in the process?

This is something Bill McKibben thinks about a lot.

“The last seven years, I’ve been in fairly constant motion,” he said. “And I’ve spewed a lot of carbon behind me in the process. And I hope that it’s been worth it.”

As leader of one of the world’s most recognizable climate change campaign groups,, McKibben is in very high demand. That means a lot of travelling, a lot of planes and yes, a lot of carbon.

But McKibben has also catalyzed an international movement. His organization operates in 188 countries and has organized thousands of rallies around the world. It has spawned a global fossil-fuel divestment movement, and has helped popularize the “carbon bubble” concept. That refers to the idea that much of the world’s known fossil-fuel reserves will need to stay in the ground to achieve emission targets, creating a financial risk for the companies that own them.

So on April 2, McKibben will be in Whitehorse to speak about his work at the Yukon NDP’s Change 2016 conference, carbon footprint and all.

McKibben met Yukon NDP Leader Liz Hanson during the Paris climate talks last year. He accepted her invitation in part, he said, because he’d always wanted to see the Yukon.

But there were other factors, too.

“One of the reasons that it was so compelling was the description of the fact that the Yukon was still at an early stage in deciding how far down the fossil fuel production road to go,” he said. “And it seemed like it was a crucial discussion that was being had up there, and I thought I might be able to help a little bit.”

During his keynote speech at the conference, McKibben said, he’ll focus partly on Yukon’s oil and gas reserves, especially the unconventional shale gas in the Liard Basin.

That basin, which straddles the borders of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and British Columbia, was recently labelled the second-largest unconventional natural gas deposit in Canada.

“One of the points I’ll be trying to make, I think, is that it would be highly ironic if the Yukon signed up for large-scale fracking right at the moment that the fossil fuel age was lurching to an end,” McKibben said.

“Keep it in the ground” is something of a mantra for The organization is named for the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide widely accepted as a safe target. The Earth’s record concentration has already exceeded 400 parts per million. McKibben believes 80 per cent of known fossil-fuel reserves need to stay in the ground for the planet to avoid dangerous global warming. That doesn’t leave much room for a brand new oil and gas industry in the Yukon.

“The more remote one gets, the more foolish it is to be developing any of this stuff,” he said.

He believes the Yukon should work to develop more renewable energy instead. “I’m pretty sure that given the size and scale of the Yukon and the fact that there are 36,000 of you up there, I’m almost certain you’re capable of figuring out good ways of providing your energy needs.”

He also doesn’t buy the argument that liquefied natural gas is a cleaner replacement for diesel. That was one of Yukon Energy’s key justifications for its new LNG plant in Whitehorse.

“There was a school of thought that natural gas was a kind of cleaner bridge fuel that was a sort of halfway house between diesel and coal and renewable energy,” he said. “But we no longer think that.”

That’s because of methane leaks during the production and transportation of natural gas, McKibben explained. In fact, he published an article in The Nation magazine this week arguing that U.S. carbon emissions have actually been increasing, not decreasing, thanks to methane leaks from natural gas development.

But when it comes to Canada, McKibben’s not all doom and gloom. He admires Canadian resistance to oil sands and pipeline development, and especially First Nations leadership on those issues.

And he seems optimistic about Canada’s recent change in government.

“Coming out of Paris, it’s clear that Canada’s no longer a rogue nation on this stuff, which it was before. It’s not in the way,” he said.

But his prescriptions for the country are fairly stark, and aren’t necessarily easy pills to swallow.

Oil sands expansion needs to stop, he said. And pipelines are just “enablers” for more extraction.

He also doesn’t think too highly of the Yukon government’s opposition to a price on carbon, or of its argument that the Yukon only emits a tiny fraction of Canada’s total emissions.

“If everyone makes that argument, then nothing will ever happen, right? That doesn’t strike me as a good argument.”

Instead, there are two things the Yukon needs to do, he said. “One is keeping carbon in the ground. Two is … serving as witness for the rest of the world to the very rapid changes underway up there.”

McKibben, too, may bear witness while he’s here. Cross-country skiing is his main vice, he said, and he’s bringing his skis with him. But at the rate things are going this winter, there may not be much left to ski on when he arrives.

Tickets to the NDP’s Change 2016 conference are available at

Contact Maura Forrest at