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Bill McKibben: Planetary Emergency

December 20, 2012

One of the world’s leading climate activists on the science of dangerous weather, the imperative to organize, and how to get out of bed in the morning on a planet in peril.

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Images courtesy of 350.org

This first thing that comes to mind when I think of Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth, Deep Economy, and Enough, and founder of the climate activist organization 350.org, is a line from his 1989 book The End of Nature, a passage on climate change that is particularly affecting and un-wonky: “We have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.” Nothing but us. Logical, elegant, and more chilling than any graph.

A confession: I hate thinking about climate change. It makes me feel at once guilty and powerless. It seems inevitable. It fills me with dread. But dread gets us nowhere, so I’m particularly interested in people who are able to look this slow cataclysm in the eye, which is what Bill McKibben does every day. His work as an author and activist is to spur people into collective action, from protesting hydrofracking to divesting from fossil fuel companies. As we end a year in which we broke all kinds of records for warm and weird weather comes to an end, I asked McKibben about atmospheric science, staving off despair, and what he thinks the future holds.

Rachel Riederer for Guernica

Guernica: Your organization 350.org gets its name from the level of CO2 in the atmosphere that we need to return to in order to stabilize the climate, 350 parts per million (down from the current 392 ppm). If we don’t return to 350 ppm, what kind of consequences can we expect to see, or is it possible to make this kind of prediction?

Bill McKibben: Returning to 350 isn’t going to happen in my lifetime, sadly, even if we do everything right. The question now is how far past it we’re going to go. At the moment we’re nearing 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, and scientists are saying on our current path we’ll raise the temperature of the earth 4 or 5 degrees Celsius this century, which is not remotely comparable to anything that’s happened before in human history. To give you a little sense of scale, so far we’ve raised the temperature 1 degree Celsius, and that’s been enough to melt the Arctic. As NASA’s James Hansen said this year, we’re in a “planetary emergency,” our first.

Guernica: We hear a lot a lot about how climate change enables extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy, but for laypeople, this connection can be pretty opaque. Can you describe some of the mechanisms by which atmospheric carbon translates to weirder, more dangerous weather?

Bill McKibben: Quick fact to remember: Warm air holds more water vapor than cold. The atmosphere, on average, is 5 percent wetter than it was forty years ago, a staggering change in a basic physical parameter, and perhaps the clearest sign that we’ve left behind the Holocene, that 10,000 year period of benign climatic stability that underwrote the rise of civilization. That much more moisture loads the dice for both drought in arid areas and downpours in wet ones—it helps fuel huge storms. Everything amps up as you add more of the sun’s energy to our narrow envelope of atmosphere. Think about Sandy: it featured the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras, and the widest windfield we’ve ever seen: at its height, tropical storm force winds stretched 1,040 miles across. And a few weeks later Super typhoon Bopha killed even more people across Palau and Mindanao—it was the most southerly typhoon ever recorded. We break weird records like that every week now.

It’s the greatest fight in human history, one whose outcome will reverberate for geologic time, and it has to happen right now.

Guernica: You’ve recently started a nation-wide campaign in which college students lobby their school administrations to divest from fossil fuel. How’s it going? Have you found that college students are especially motivated to do this kind of activism?

Bill McKibben: It’s going beyond our wildest expectations. In six weeks we’re up to 182 campuses with active divestment fights. Kids are motivated because a) it’s the biggest moral question of our time and b) they have to live on this planet another 60 years, so they have a stronger practical interest than those of us already on the downward slide. I think it’s the most exciting moment yet in the climate fight.

Guernica: I think that many of us, when we think about our carbon footprints, think mostly about driving—I know that I was surprised to learn that eating meat is incredibly carbon-intensive. Apart from driving less, what can we do?

Bill McKibben: Organize. You’re not going to solve climate change by yourself. Get together with other people someplace like 3350.org or gofossilfree.org and push for structural change now. Push as hard as you can. And if you have some energy left over, change your lightbulb and cook yourself an excellent tofu dinner!

Guernica: Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Flight Behavior imagines what happens when the monarch butterfly flock, basically the entire species, becomes so disoriented by climate change and habitat loss that they ends up wintering in Tennessee instead of Mexico. There are some activist-types in the book who the narrator calls “the 350 guys.” What did you think about your organization making the leap into fiction?

Bill McKibben: I think Barbara Kingsolver is about the finest novelist we’ve got, and a great active supporter of good causes too. You know you’re making an impact when the antennae of our most perceptive cultural observers twitch!

Guernica: My last question is a little more personal. It seems to me that the more you know about climate change, the more hopeless the situation looks. What do you say to people who might want to bury their head in the sand? This is a long way of asking: knowing what you know about the atmosphere, how do you keep from total despair?

Bill McKibben: That’s where the fighting comes in. It is despairing if you can’t figure out a way to take it on commensurate with the scale of the problem. But we can take it on—it’s the greatest fight in human history, one whose outcome will reverberate for geologic time, and it has to happen right now. We’ve got a very few years to break the power of the fossil fuel industry and help the planet chart a new course. So, that’s worth getting up for every morning!

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

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More End Times explorations:

Caleb Daniloff: Russia, Cradle of My Dead Worlds

Meaghan Winter: Extinction is the Rule

Joel Kovel and Quincy Saul: Apocalypse and Revelation Are the Same Word

Anne McClintock: Too Big to See With the Naked Eye

Nathaniel Flagg: Apocalypse Illustrated

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2 comments for Bill McKibben: Planetary Emergency

  1. Comment by Ilma on December 20, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    It is difficult to call BmK ‘distinguished when just about everything he says us demonstrably untrue!

    There is no evidence whatsoever that the temperature rise this century is anything but the natural rise to be expected when exiting a natural climate minimum.

    The level of storms is now lower than has experienced in recent history, and out technological and powered developments in the developed world provide us much greater protection when they do happen. In the far greater 30s dust-bowl heat wave, people died, today the strawberry price rises.

    Atmospheric vapour levels have been demonstrated by a 20+ year, published paper to have NOT risen – another untruth.

    Further, from a Christian point of view, which Bill claims to be (when convenient), Earth’s resources are at man’s disposal to use, to deny them is to deny God himself, and takes the environmentalist line of despising the human race to the point of desiring its destruction. Man uses and shapes nature, which is why we develop and prosper, why we enjoy better productivity, living conditions and health. Bill would have all that removed from us and denied to those in developing and undeveloped countries. How cruel!

    The whole climate alarmist position is now unraveling as real-world observational data is showing up the climate models and their projections/predictions to be as good as useless, i.e. junk, and that much of the data purporting to support it has unexplained and unwarranted adjustments favouring the warming rhetoric. Take the Arctic for example, the larger than normal ice loss was not a melt, but broken up by a huge storm, and the regular winter refreeze happened at a record rate to bring it back to normal. McKibben heralded the loss from the rooftops as a man-made melt but remained very silent about the real cause and the inconvenient refreeze.

    Talking of heralding, it’s been commented that no one enjoys human misery as much as he does. That is not a nice person!

    Do not take McKibben at his word, but test his claims against empirical observational evidence and scientific analysis that is not driven by vested interests or claims of authority, but is wiling to have hypotheses binned when clearly falsified. For example, the climate models are not evidence but reflect the biases of the programmer, you only get out what is put in, i.e. GIGO.

  2. Comment by Doctor Lionel on December 21, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    I vigorously disagree with the previous post made by Ilma. I am an environmental scientist with more than 25 years experience and it appears to me that Ilma does not understand the basic scientific process which goes through great pains, using blind peer review, to be as objective as possible. Based on long-term and extremely rigorous climate change research by thousands to independent researchers from different countries, cultures, and even political orientations/ideologies, there is an extremely high degree of consensus that climate change is occurring. The probability that it is not is very close to zero.

    The problem that Bill McKibben is addressing here is more profound than it appears on the surface, it is the choice between two worldviews, one old and one new. The old worldview, the one that has been dominant the last three hundred years since the Industrial Revolution, the one that gave birth to modern capitalism, Exxon, Chevron, pipeline builders, and the like, is one of exploitation of natural resources, people (i.e., the top 1% exploit the bottom 99%) and environmental pollution. The emerging new worldview, the one millions of environmentalists such as Bill McKibben embrace, is one of living in harmony with the natural environment and ideally also with other people, heeding the precautionary principle with respect to global warming, and being concerned about the long-term sustainability of the human civilization. As pointed out in the recent book, which incidentally was also endorsed by Bill McKibben, “Technofix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us of the Environment” (www.technofix.org), we need to make the transition from the old to the new worldview ASAP in order to avoid environmental and societal collapse. Each worldview gives rise to different technologies. The old one exploitative and polluting fossil fuel technologies, including tar sands and pipelines, and the new one renewable and environmentally sustainable technologies. While Bill McKibben’s pipeline protests and oil company divestment strategy may or may not work, the main point should not be missed here: Capital, including the billions of dollars of outdated and perverse tax subsidies, of oil, coal, tar sand, and pipeline companies must be reduced and re-invested towards the development of environmentally sustainable energy generation. The faster this happens the better for us and the Planet.

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