JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

In all the major news of 2012, let's not forget that one of its most consistent features was the extreme weather. While we bemoaned unbearable heat, livelihoods in the Midwest and the South dried up in the worst drought in 50 years. And then there were the floods and superstorms both intense and deadly.

Author Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, focused on the movement to solve the climate crisis, which he wants to be a top priority for the next Obama administration.

BILL MCKIBBEN: The first tell that we're going to get of whether the second term will be different from the first will be the president's decision on this Keystone Pipeline, this huge pipeline to the tar sands of Canada. It's the one thing that's really united the environmental movement and brought people out into the streets. And if he stands up to the fossil fuel industry for once, it'll be a, I think, a sign that he may be ready to take climate change with at least a little bit of the seriousness that it deserves, the single biggest problem we've ever run into as a species.

LYDEN: Well, obviously, Keystone is huge and international, but beyond that, why is it so important?

MCKIBBEN: It's important in very practical terms as tar sands are the second biggest source of carbon on Earth. But at this point, it's also very important in symbolic terms. The one thing the president and most other leaders have been unwilling to do is leave some carbon in the ground, which we now know every scientist tells us we must do.

We've already passed all kinds of tipping points. Last year, the hottest year in American history, also saw a rapid, rapid melt of the arctic. And so extreme that by its end, the NASA scientist Jim Hansen was saying there's no other word for where we are now than planetary emergency.

LYDEN: Planetary emergency. What issues will we be talking about in 2013 when it comes to the environment? I mean, you just mentioned hottest year, obviously an enormous and devastating drought in the Midwest.

MCKIBBEN: In this country, one of the big questions will be whether we luck out and are able to see some break in this drought or whether it stretches on for another year. Already, the Mississippi, which just 18 months ago was in record flood, is now flirting with the lowest water ever measured there.

Food prices were up 40 and 45 percent around the world because the harvest failed in North America. The world is at a point. It's, you know, last year, grew less food than it consumed. We can't keep on with this kind of erratic weather and not pay huge consequence.

LYDEN: Are we going to see more activism? Are people starting to understand that fossil fuel companies have been a part of the problem?

MCKIBBEN: I think that that's exactly right. There are now students at 192 campuses demanding divestment. It really does put those fossil fuel companies right in the center of the debate. It's not that we don't each contribute to climate change, which everything we do in the course of a day. It's only the fossil fuel industry that's determined to keep the status quo to status quo. And that's why students who after all have 60 or 70 years on this planet ahead of them are really beginning to speak up.

LYDEN: What are the alternatives? I mean, fracking seems to only be on the rise.

MCKIBBEN: Fracking for gas is really just one more way to keep ourselves going down the same path. It's another fossil fuel. The clear alternative and the best news from 2012 came from Germany, the one big country that's taken climate change seriously. There were days last summer when they generated more than half the power they used from solar panels within their borders. What they're proving is it's not natural bounty nor technological know-how that holds us back. It's simply political will, one resource we're capable of ginning up if we set our minds to it.

LYDEN: That's Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and founder of 350.org. Thank you, Bill, for speaking with us.

MCKIBBEN: Jacki, thank you so much.

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