On March 25, 2012, Eleanor Rosellini and Jim Glickman of Green Needham Collaborative attended a speech on climate change given by environmental scholar/activist Bill McKibben. McKibben spoke about the current state of climate change, which unfortunately seems to be advancing at a remarkable pace. He also advocates for a very politically active environmental movement to counter the outsized influence of the fossil fuel industry. McKibben recounted the Tar Sands project as an example of the need for political activism to counter corporate power and money. McKibben ended by thanking al those who are working on this issue, and is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.
McKibben, whose latest book is “Eaarth” and who in 1989 wrote the first book on climate change for the general pubic, is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, and the founder of 350.org. The speech was sponsored by the Weston Congregational Church, and was held at Weston High School, with the crowd filling a large auditorium.
For more from McKibben’s talk, read on…
THE CURRENT CLIMATE CHANGE SITUATION
For the first portion of the speech, McKibben, a self-described “Professional Bummer Outer of People,” summarized the current climate change situation. Scientists going back 20 years or more knew of the effects of adding more and more carbon to the atmosphere, but had a hard time imagining that the environment could change as much as it has in such a short period. The Earth’s temperature has been raised 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial levels. There is 40% less ice in the Arctic region than the average ice measurements during the 1979-2000 period. The Oceans, which are hard to imagine changing since they are so vast, are 30% more acidic than 40 years ago. The earth’s hydrology has changed, with warmer air holding more moisture, resulting in our atmosphere being substantially wetter than a century ago. This results in serious and more frequent droughts (Russia in 2010 for example) and also floods (Pakistan in 2010 and Hurricane Irene and its aftermath in the Northeast U.S., for example). He stated that it seems as if it shouldn’t be possible, but that in fact we are a “different planet,” which has begun to shift. McKibben referred to late March’s unusually warm weather, which shattered many records by a large margin. Chicago broke heat records ten days in a row, something that is “off the charts, and off the wall that the charts are tacked to.” And all this creates to a global temperature rise of 1 degree. Scientists say that there could be a rise in global temperatures of 4 to 5 degrees by century’s end, something which “there is no reason to think we can cope with.” For example, for every 1 degree increase, there is a 10% decrease in grain yields. McKibben stated that “this is the biggest thing that humans ever stumbled into” and we’ve got to stop it and stop it quickly.
THE NEED FOR ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICAL ACTION
The second part of his speech was devoted to solutions to the challenges of climate change. McKibben stated that those in the environmental movement think mostly of technological options. But that is the easy part, the part that we are good at. The question is before us now is not technology, but political will to do the things we need to do, in a timely way. Environmentalists thought that, if we could just get scientists to talk to politicians, the necessary energy legislation would pass. The fossil fuel lobby was formidable, however. With a combination of threats and promises, and backed up by a huge amount of money, they bought the votes they needed to stop legislation addressing climate change. McKibben stated that we have to figure out how to confront the fossil fuel industry directly, and weaken it and blunt its effect. While they have huge amounts of money to spend on lobbying, and giving to politicians, we have to counter that with passion, spirit and creativity, to build a movement. It’s an art, not a science, to succeed in the political arena. Although it is hard to organize around the world, with different peoples speaking different languages, it is possible. McKibben recounted the successes of his 350.org movement, which relies on a number, 350, which translates across political boundaries, and derives from scientists’ pronouncement that we need to get back below 350 ppm of CO2, to avoid the worst effects of global warming. (Today, we are at 393 ppm of CO2 and rising. The strong momentum built up from 350.org’s first climate action day in 2009 was soon followed, unfortunately, by disappointments in Copenhagen and then the U.S. Senate refusing to even take a vote on a climate change bill. But 350.org carries on. The group is planning its next big day of action on May 5th, called “Connect the Dots,” designed to show people that climate change “is not a future problem but a present crisis.” He stated that while local action is very important and should continue, we need large scale national and international change soon. He stated that he is not becoming more militant, but rather more real.
THE TAR SANDS PROJECT: AN EXAMPLE OF ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICAL ACTION
McKibben discussed the effort to stop the Tar Sands pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, which would unleash the second biggest pool of carbon on earth. We should not make it easier to get carbon out of the ground, and he decided to draw attention to this project. Many people demonstrated and were arrested in Washington, and activists encircled the White House, after which President Obama delayed the project. McKibben feels that the victory is encouraging for now, and shows that we can “get in the face” of big oil. Big oil “never loses,” but this time they did. We may not be able to stop the Tar Sands project for good, but we showed that we can figure out how to combat big oil, a learning process that he has gone through. In the course of discussing Tar Sands, McKibben referenced the huge amounts of political contributions that politicians deciding the fate of energy legislation take from big oil. He stated that one can predict how they’ll vote by the contributions they take. He also stated that we must take away the subsidies from big oil, who do not need them.
CONCLUSION AND CALL TO ACTION
As a final thought, McKibben stated that environmentalists are not radical. They are trying to preserve the status quo. The “oil guys” are the ones who are radical, because they are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere for all time, to make a profit. McKibben stated that he does not know if we can stop global warming, but we can stop it from getting as bad as it can get. He has learned that he put too much stock in President Obama’s wining the election, and that we must push and probe towards our goal every day, and not assume that electing the right person to do what you want him or her to do will lead to the right result. Many noble and courageous people are engaged in this struggle, and he appreciates everyone’s contribution. He ended “with so much money on the other side, success sometimes seems almost impossible, but I look forward to standing shoulder to shoulder with you and working on it.”