Bill McKibben: The Climate Change Crisis Needs a Movement
As the temperature of the earth climbs ever higher, Bill McKibben lays out his prescription for battling the fossil fuel industry and confronting climate change.
We have to build movements—creative, hopeful movements that can summon our love for the planet, but also angry, realistic movements willing to point out the ultimate rip-off under way.
Illustration By Eric Alos
My solution is: get outraged.
Having written the first book about global warming 23 long years ago, I’ve watched the issue unfold across decades, continents, and ideologies. I’ve come to earth summits and conferences of the parties from Rio to Kyoto to Copenhagen, and many places in between.
All along, two things have been clear.
One, the scientists who warned us about climate change were absolutely correct—their only mistake, common among scientists, was in being too conservative. So far we’ve raised the temperature of the earth about one degree Celsius, and two decades ago it was hard to believe this would be enough to cause huge damage. But it was. We’ve clearly come out of the Holocene and into something else. Forty percent of the summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone; the ocean is 30 percent more acidic. There’s nothing theoretical about any of this any more. Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere is about 4 percent wetter than it used to be, which has loaded the dice for drought and flood. In my home country, 2011 smashed the record for multibillion-dollar weather disasters—and we were hit nowhere near as badly as some. Thailand’s record flooding late in the year did damage equivalent to 18 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). That’s almost unbelievable. But it’s not just scientists who have been warning us. Insurance companies—the people in our economy who we ask to analyze risk—have been bellowing in their quiet, actuarial way for years. Here’s Munich Re, the world’s largest insurer, in their 2010 annual report: “The reinsurer has built up the world’s most comprehensive natural catastrophe database, which shows a marked increase in the number of weather-related events. For instance, globally, loss-related floods have more than tripled since 1980, and windstorm natural catastrophes more than doubled, with particularly heavy losses from Atlantic hurricanes. This rise cannot be explained without global warming.”
Two, we have much of the technological know-how we need to make the leap past fossil fuel. Munich Re again: “Whilst climate change cannot be stopped, it can be kept within manageable proportions, thus avoiding the possibility that climate change tipping points will be reached.”
What does this mean in practice? Go to China where, yes, they’re emulating the West by putting up lots of coal-fired power plants. But they’re also busy building, say, solar hot-water heaters: 60 million arrays, providing hot water for 250 million Chinese, almost a quarter of the country—compared with less than 1 percent in America. I could list here a long tally of solutions (wind, geothermal, conservation, bicycles, trains, hybrid cars, tidal power, local food) and I could list an equally long tally of policies that everyone knows would help bring them quickly to pass: most important, of course, putting a stiff price on carbon to reflect the damage it does to the environment. That price signal would put markets to work in a serious way. It wouldn’t guarantee that we could head off climate change, because we’ve waited a very long time to get started, but it’s clearly our best chance.
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