Bill McKibben on Climate Change: The Depressing Bad News, and the Amazing Power of People to Create Good News

Bill McKibben takes question on climate change in Sigtuna, Sweden

I’m attending a conference in Sweden called Climate Existence.  I’m here not as a speaker, for once; I’m here as a musician, scheduled to perform this evening. I’ll blog some of the highlights over the course of the day. Here is what was happening just as I walked in (late) to the event, in Sigtuna, Sweden:  Bill McKibben’s lecture, blogged in its entirety.

I walk in to the Climate Existence conference just as Bill McKibben (founder of is warming up … and talking about how quickly the planet is warming up.  Nineteen countries set new temperature records this past summer in the Northern Hemisphere.  Pakistan set the all-time temperature record for all of Asia.  Russia’s heat wave alone reduced

The atmosphere is 4-5% “wetter” (more humid) than it was just a few decades ago. All that wet air translates to a lot more rain.  This creates much greater risk of torrential downpours and flooding events.

Up by the Khyber Pass, which usually gets 1 meter of rain per year, about 4 meters fell in the space of a week.  Stream flow gauges recorded stream flow more than 50% greater than the previous peak in 1929 … before the gauges themselves were washed away.  The result was the drowning of Pakistan in geopolitically destabilizing floods, watched in horror around the world.

That’s the result of just 1 degree average warming.  We are locked in to getting another degree.  And if we are not able to stop burning fossil fuel far more quickly than we’re planning now, we’re going to get 4-5 degrees.

“The bottom line is, we do not want to find out what 4-5 degrees looks like.  There’s no reason to think we can sustain our civilization under those conditions,” says McKibben, for reasons ranging from sea level rise to depressed food production — 40-50% less grain production, for example.

McKibben’s Conclusions, his interpretation of the “Scientific Bottom Line”:

“(1) We need a very, very quick transition off fossil fuel.

(2) Even if we do that, we’ll have to change a lot of other things to adapt to those changes we’ve already locked in.

(3) If we cannot make that transition off fossil fuel, then the temperature will likely rise enough that effective adaptation becomes impossible.”

“That puts in place a set of parameters that have to especially with speed.”

That means slow, system transformation — the kind currently being talked about most commonly at the global level — will not do it.

“Let me raise a similar set of short, grim conclusions relative to the values side of this story.”

First, it is only our species that is causing the problem and reaping the benefits; all other species are

Second, among our species, it is only a very small percentage of people, the rich humans of the world (that’s people like us living in wealthy countries), who are actually causing this damage, while the impacts are largely being felt by the poor humans of the world (that’s people like those living in Pakistan along the Indus river).

Third, we are only talking about present-day humans; we are constraining the future options for tomorrow’s humans, and foreclosing their options.

“The stakes are incredibly high, and there is no ethical system I know of that allows us to behave as we’re behaving. And yet we’re doing it, and we’re doing without very much thought or reaction.”

Opponents of change to restore balance to the Earth’s atmosphere are called conservatives … and yet we are involved in a radical

So what can we do?  “I promise to be a little more cheerful, in a minute,” says McKibben.

First, scientists have done their job, and done it with incredible skill and speed. We’ve cracked the physics and the atmospheric chemistry, built good models, identified solutions.  It’s been a heroic and successful effort to untangle one of the most complex scientific problems of our age.

Second, the engineers have also done their job.  Solar and wind energy are now “entirely real,” after having been seen as science fiction just 20 years ago.  “There are real possibilities here, we don’t have to talk about these solutions with our fingers crossed, or in an attitude of prayer.”

The question is, can we change ourselves, and our technologies, fast enough?  That’s a question not of technology, but of political will.  Will we force this change faster than it naturally would happen — say, 75-100 years?

The only way to do that is put a stiff price on carbon — fossil fuel — than we would see much more rapid movement on solar power.  Every time you raise the price of carbon, up goes the speed of deployment of renewable energy.

The biggest, most central problem, the reason we are not doing that, is the incredible political power of the fossil fuel industry to prevent change.

Eight of the ten largest firms in the world are in the fossil fuel industry.  “Exxon-Mobil made more money last year than any company in the history of money.”  With small outlays of their enormous sums of money, they can easily delay the political process, which is all they need to do:  delay.  Because these companies can use the atmosphere as an “open sewer” for carbon dioxide, their business model generates enormous money flows and profits.  That’s what this battle is all about.  And they are able to win, in part, because most of us don’t want to change very much, either.  This makes it easy for them to nudge people to vote in ways friendly to their business cause, or even to corrupt the system.

They are winning pretty much every fight.  The US Senate this year was faced with a very tame climate bill.  The fossil fuel lobby spent about half a billion dollars, and prevented the Senate even from taking a vote.  Given how the election is likely to come out in the US, it is very unlikely that any vote will be taken in the near future, either.

The question that haunts Bill:  how do we change that?  Despite the size of the opposition?

That’s the question that drove Bill from a more academic, writerly approach to these issues into an activist.  “We’re kind of making it up as we go along. No one had tried to build a global movement on these issues before.”

Why do we need a movement?  For one, we’ll never have as much money as the fossil fuel industry.  We need to use another currency:  human bodies and spirits.

On the other hand, it’s a daunting task to build a global political movement.  He tells the history of starting in 2007, with seven students at Middlebury College in Vermont, and helped turn Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s heads on the climate issue.  Then came the Big Melt in the arctic in the summer of 2007.  That summer’s events raised the ante:  “We realized that we’re not going to solve this problem ‘one light bulb at a time.’ … We’re going to have to work ‘one planet at a time.'”

Working globally raises all kinds of problems.  “For one thing, everyone insists on speaking their own language.”  Even Coca-cola and McDonald’s have trouble with that, notes McKibben.  But the imperative remains, and it was driven by the conclusion of Hansen et al. (in a paper published that year) that 350 — “which instantly became the most important number in the world” — was the right target for CO2 concentration.  That is, 350 parts per million.

“You wouldn’t ordinarily try to organize people around a wonky (nerdy) data point. But the advantage of working with Arabic numerals is that they mean the same thing everywhere.”  His seven students each took one continent.  “The guy that got Antarctica also got the Internet, because that was kind of its own continent.”  And they quickly began to find allies … all over the world.

Now come the stories … the launch of the 350 demonstration day, 24 October 2009.  There were 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, “the most widespread day of demonstrations in the planet’s history.”  There were 10,000 people in the streets Addis Ababa … there was a group of US soldiers in Afghanistan who “parked their Humvee for the weekend” and made a “350” symbol out of sandbags … school kids in India … hundreds of people under water, in “diving demonstrations” … religious people responding to pronouncements like the Orthodox Patriarch’s (“global warming is a sin, 350 is an act of redemption) …

The pictures keep coming, from the Dead Sea (one numeral in each of the three ethnic groups, on their respective beaches), South Africa, the Philippines, Bhopal …

“People turn out to be unbelievably creative,” says McKibben.  “We weren’t organizing this. It was like a ‘pot-luck supper.'”  They didn’t tell anyone to paint a banner and hang it from canyon in Chiapas, or to bungee-jump 350 times from a retired coal-fired power plant’s cooling tower. People just did it.

“We set this up to be a campaign, not an organization, because there were so many other organizations. Being a campaign allowed other organizations, like Greenpeace, to participate without being threatened by an upstart organization. Then they did an event in Times Square, showed the pictures they had received on the big screens on the skyscrapers, and then sent the pictures back to people in Congo or the Maldives, so they could see their work getting noticed by the global media.  There are even 600 pictures in a Flickr file labeled “350-cute”:  that’s pictures of kids, for whom our nightmares of a globally-warmed world will be their reality.

“I wish I could tell you that this had been phenomenally successful,” says Bill.  he’s edging up to the story of what happened in Copenhagen. “It was pretty good, we had a lot of momentum, we convinced 117 nations to sign on to this 350 target.  But they were the wrong 117 nations.”  They were the poor, the powerless, the not-getting-rich-on-oil nations.  But the young people engaged in said, we’re not giving up. We’re going to build this movement, bigger and stronger.

Bill was worried that 350’s “Global Work Party,” which happened on 10-10-2010, would not be successful … that folks would be depressed and despairing after Copenhagen and after the loss in the US Senate, etc.  But that day’s work-party demonstrations attached even more people, more countries, “every country except North Korea and Equatorial Guinea.”  Here come the pictures again … people struggling to work in knee-deep water in Bangladesh, muslim women in Nigeria … solar panels in Iraq … bike mechanics in New Zealand … including the ultimate symbolic victory of restoring Jimmy Carter’s solar panels to the White House.

And now we’re silent looking at “place, after place, after place …”

The power of the images for me is to remind me that, although the chances may not be all that good — we’re losing this fight — there are now lots and lots of people in this fight.  There are so many people living in the places that are most affected by climate change, who didn’t do a thing to cause this problem, who are “patiently and sweetly willing to work with us” … like this young girl in the Maldives, holding a tree seedling, ready for planting, ready to try to make 350 a reality.

2 thoughts on “Bill McKibben on Climate Change: The Depressing Bad News, and the Amazing Power of People to Create Good News

  1. Pingback: On Being an American Troubadour at the Swedish Climate Change Conference « Alan AtKisson – Words & Music

  2. Pingback: David Abrams: Breathing ourselves aware on planet “EAIRTH” « Alan AtKisson – Words & Music

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