Be a Climate Hero: Act Up, Act Now
Oct 11, 2010 10:25AM
By Bill McKibben
At any given moment, there are a thousand things going wrong in the world. If we were to list just major environmental problems alone we could go on for a long time, citing everything from toxic contaminants in our food to the scarcity of safe drinking water.
This past summer, we all stared in horror at the slowly blackening Gulf of Mexico as the Deepwater Horizon oil slick spread on and below the water’s surface. Making such a list is such a depressing exercise that the temptation is to just walk away from the task. We might feel like a surgeon at a wartime field hospital, forced to do major triage. Where do we turn first?
The half-good news is that our planet’s mounting environmental troubles aren’t isolated, individual casualties. If we can figure out what the keystone is, then we can collectively start to work to cure a bunch of the most pressing problems at once. By the same token, if we guess wrong, we can labor for years to correct a particular woe, only to have our hard work overwhelmed by the underlying infection.
Based on the scientific evidence, I think it’s pretty clear that the most crucial of all the complex issues we face today revolve around the cause-and-effect relationship of burning fossil fuels and the accelerating changes in Earth’s climate. In short: If we can’t deal with global warming, nothing else we do will really matter. To put it more positively: If we can remove the needle from our arm that feeds society’s addiction to petroleum products, many of our other troubles would begin to wane.
Signs of the Times
Let’s start with the hard stuff: Global warming is the first crisis we’ve ever faced that has the potential to shake our civilization to its core. So far, human beings have burned enough coal, gas and oil to raise the temperature of the planet about one degree Fahrenheit. That’s already been enough to cause all manner of troubles:
- The Arctic icecap is melting, and quickly. By summer’s end in 2007, a record-setting year, the northernmost continent, which moderates air and water temperatures for the whole planet, contained 25 percent less ice than the year before. As of this writing, the 2010 melt was outpacing that of 2007.
Scientists now routinely predict it won’t be long before we’ve seen the end of Arctic summer sea ice altogether—that is, the world as viewed from outer space would be without its familiar white top. Worse, it’s not only the Arctic; pretty much every other geographic area that’s frozen is melting as well, perhaps most dangerously in the high-altitude glaciers of the Andes and Himalaya mountains, historically relied upon to send water, respectively, to the South American and Asian continents below.
- The Earth’s hydrological cycles are undergoing a dramatic shift. Because warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the general atmosphere is about 5 percent moister than it was 40 years ago. This means more evaporation, hence more drought, in arid areas.
But on the rest of a planet, where what goes up must come down—we’re witnessing extraordinary increases in flooding. This year, for example, we’ve seen record (and lethal) rainstorms in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arkansas, just within the 1.5 percent of the planet’s surface comprised by the continental United States.
- Overall, temperatures are rising to near unbearable levels as that single degree average increase on the thermometer reverberates in savage heat waves. This past spring, India experienced weeks of record temperatures that beat anything recorded since the British started measuring them in the early 1800s. Early this summer, seven nations smashed all-time temperature records. In Burma, the mercury set a new all-time record for Southeast Asia, at 118 degrees. In June, Pakistan went on to establish a new benchmark for the highest temperature ever recorded at any time, anywhere in Asia, of 129 degrees.
All of this is due to a single degree of global temperature increase. The climatologists have warned us that if the United States, China and other countries don’t make a super-swift transition from the use of coal and oil, the world’s collective temperature will climb something like five degrees before the century is out. If one degree melts the Arctic icecap, we don’t want to see what five degrees looks like.
So, that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news.
Let’s imagine we took the most significant step we could to speed the worldwide transition off of fossil fuel. Let’s imagine that the U.S. Congress and the United Nations managed to agree on a national and international scheme to set stiff pricing on coal and oil that accurately reflects the damage these fossil fuels are wreaking in the atmosphere. If that happened, then many other things would follow.
The most obvious is that we’d see lots more solar panels and wind turbines. Suddenly, anyone with a spreadsheet would be able to see that it no longer makes sense to invest in a coal-fired power plant. Anyone building a new apartment complex would immediately understand that it’s in his or her best interest to install solar hot water tubes on the roof. In China, the world leader in total energy use, yet also in renewable energies, 250 million people now get their hot water this way. But, such a simple and effective solution still has to fight against the force of economic gravity there, as elsewhere. As long as coal-fired electricity is absurdly cheap, renewable energy sources will stay marginal.
The effects of a widespread switch to clean and renewable energies wouldn’t be confined to the energy sector. Think about farming. We’ve spent half a century building a giant agro-industrial complex that runs entirely on fossil fuel.
Yet author Michael Pollan recently calculated that it takes 10 calories of fossil energy to produce one calorie of food. Because that growing complex is a machine, not really a farm, the food it produces is terrible in terms of taste and nutrition, and includes toxic residues from pesticides, herbicides and chemically synthesized fertilizers.
The ultimate irony is that we now devote the best farmland on the planet, the American Midwest, to growing high-fructose corn syrup. It’s a prime culprit in our country’s diabetes epidemic. The ripple effect goes on and on.
On the other hand, consider what would happen if the price of oil went up high enough that this nation could no longer afford to farm in the manner preferred by agribusiness behemoths? What would happen is that we’d need more Americans engaged in healthier farming, with human labor and ingenuity replacing some of the fossil fuel.
That would increase yields per acre and also increase the quality of the foods we eat. Research studies reported by Jules Pretty, pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, UK, in his book, Agri-Culture, have proved that small farms around the world are routinely as productive as agro-industrial lands, and that low-input farming, too, can feed the world with a wholesale switchover.
Again, this is already starting to happen: Farmers’ markets continue to be the fastest growing part of our nation’s food economy; the last agricultural census found that the number of farms in the United States is increasing for the first time in a century-and-a-half. That’s good news and potentially great news, but small farming, co-ops and organic production will remain a small, marginal trend until the price of energy changes. The day that happens is the day that everyone finds their way to a local farmers’ market.
Helpful changes roll out, from bus and train commutes replacing cars to the rising popularity of densely inhabited urban blocks, as cul-de-sac suburbia loses its appeal. Local storefronts naturally get the nod over big box chain stores, too, and so on.
The Key to Change
How do we make it happen? How do we change the price of energy, which is what almost every observer thinks is the only way we can make a real change in the physics and chemistry of the current global warming phenomenon, and make an effective difference in the short time allowed before the harmful consequences explode exponentially?
If only everyday people could do it solely by making personal energy improvements around the house, at work and in their communities—through such steps as switching to more energy-efficient light bulbs and riding our bikes to work. Such changes are good to do, of course, and it all helps, but we don’t have a century to turn around our global situation. Which means we also need to engage in… politics.
We need to put the pressure on our leaders now to change the price of energy now. Remember—they’re getting plenty of pressure from lobbyists pocketing profits on the other side. Because of government subsidies and cartels, fossil fuel is the most profitable industry humans have ever engaged in; last year, Exxon Mobil Corporation made more money than any company in recorded history. That buys them a lot of power.
We won’t be able to outspend them, so we will have to do what people have always done when they have found themselves needing to take charge of their future: We must build a movement. Politicians won’t change because scientists tell them we have a problem—they’ll change because enough people tell them they have to, or they’ll lose their jobs. Building just this kind of movement is entirely possible.
Citizen Action Plan
Two years ago, a few concerned citizens joined me in launching 350.org, a wholly grassroots campaign that takes its name from a wonky scientific data point. NASA scientists led by James Hansen have published reams of data showing that, “Any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million [ppm] is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.”
It sounds like an unpromising banner to rally people around—too serious and too depressing, because we’re already well past the 350 mark. The atmosphere is currently at 392 ppm carbon dioxide, which is why the Arctic is melting. So far, we’ve racked up some successes; in October 2009, we held an International Day of Action that created some 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. That’s a lot—in fact, CNN called it, “… the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”
Online images posted from those events banish wrong preconceptions people might have about who is and is not an environmentalist. Most of the rallies were orchestrated by poor, black, brown, Asian and young people, because that’s what most of the world is made up of. Six weeks later, at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, 117 nations endorsed that 350 target, which was good; except that they were 117 poor and vulnerable nations, not the richest and most addicted to fossil fuels. So, we fight on.
This October, we’re holding a 10/10/10 Global Work Party. It’s set to spread around the world, too, with people in thousands of communities doing something practical: putting solar panels on local schools, harvesting community gardens and planting mangroves along rising shorelines.
In Auckland, New Zealand, they aim to repair every bicycle in every garage. The intention will be twofold. Point one is that bikes are good. Ditto solar panels. We need both in our communities. Point two acknowledges that we know we can’t solve climate change one bike path at a time.
So we’re also intent on sending a strong political message to our leaders: If we can get to work, so can you. Right now. If I can climb up on the roof of the school to hammer in a solar panel, you can climb to the floor of the Senate and hammer out some helpful legislation. It’s time to shame our government and corporate leaders a little, and maybe inspire them, too.
This is far from the only people’s campaign swelling around the world. They range from the small and specific (e.g., Project Laundry List, which advocates for right-to-dry laws that would let all Americans hang their laundry on clotheslines) to the far-ranging Green for All, which works for clean energy jobs across the country. This year, the Great Power Race, between campuses in the United States, China and India, will make news via a friendly competition to see who can come up with the most creative sustainability ideas. Then there’s www.PutSolarOnIt.com, pushing the U.S. president and other world leaders to at least do the symbolic work of sticking panels on the roof of the White House and all of its equivalent buildings around the world. The list goes on.
We all need to get to work addressing climate change right where we live, in our communities. We need to build towns and cities that make sense and create jobs for families. We also need to build a world that works, because the best organic gardener on Earth won’t be able to cope with 30 straight days of rain, or a month with no rain at all, without helpful policies. That means resorting to politics, which is another way of saying that we must work together as people for better solutions to climate change than what we have now. It can be beautiful. If you don’t believe me, check out the pictures at 350.org.
I dare you.
Bill McKibben is the author, most recently, of the bestselling Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He’s the founder of www.350.org, and a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. The Boston Globe this year described him as “…probably the country’s leading environmentalist,” and Time called him “…the planet’s best green journalist.”