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.


| November/December 2012



Dying Spongebob

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.

ron huber
11/24/2012 1:54:38 AM

Alas Bill, for a quarter century you've been sorting and re-sorting the deckchairs of our great titanic of a civilization into come of the finest most progressive - visionary even- arrangements ever seen. Even the title of this latest essay of yours would have suited the first of your op-eds all those years ago. Here's a thought: rather than going on with that trying-the-same-thing-over-and-over-again-and-expecting-a-different-result approach, with all its ramifications, let us steer our attention away (briefly!) from reforming humankind en masse, to negotiating with Nature en masse. As any marine microbiologist worth his or her salt will tell you, carbon dioxide absorbed by the sea is mostly consumed by phytoplankton. As these die, they release the captured carbon as tiny particles. If each of these carbon bits is to reach the seafloor and become part of the geologic record, it must pass a gauntlet of billions of upper ocean bacteria, which ordinarily attack and consumes about 90% of these carbon particles - and then respire most of it BACK INTO THE ATMOSPHERE. That's right: only about 10% of ocean-absorbed carbon makes it to the seafloor. Bill, here's where "negotiating with Nature en masse" comes in. Those carbon noshing marine bacteria can be convinced to let most of that sinking carbon pass through their ranks untouched, and fall into the sediment below. Actually, they can be FOOLED into this, by employing a sort of meta-filibustering called quorum quenching. And yes, we can adapt our technology to carry this out and catch the attention of "nature-en-masse", at the scale necessary to bring the atmospheric CO2 concentration rather close to the longed-for 350 parts per million concentration. Where YOU come in, Bill, is not hectoring the microbes; rather it is organizing and amplifying the demand that the farseeing among the world's microbiologists raise their minds from the sewers of genetic engineering, and from the anti-bacterial crusade that mostly defines our relationship with the prokaryotes as a lethal one.. Bill, find those best and brightest who are interested and willing to interface with that great colonial majority of life on earth, starting with those carbon-eating sea bacteria For, once we can communicate meaningfully with the colonial majority then (1) global warming and infectious disease will quickly become part of the past, (2) our fermented foods, from cheese to sauerkraut will reach new gustatorial heights, and (3) "microbrewery" will take on a whole new level of meaning. Do it Bill.