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As U.N. Backs Fossil Fuel Divestment, Bill McKibben on Vanuatu, Oxford Vote, California Water Crisis

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Original at Democracy Now!

As the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu is devastated by Cyclone Pam, 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben links the storm to global warming and responds to the new decision by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to back the fast-growing divestment campaign to persuade investors to sell off their fossil fuel assets. This comes as University of Oxford alumni, donors and students are watching a vote set for today on whether the school will divest its endowment from the top 200 companies involved in exploring or extracting fossil fuels. McKibben also discusses news from NASA that California's water supply could be exhausted by next year.

Meanwhile, the environmentalist and former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed has been sentenced to 13 years in prison after he was found guilty of ordering the arrest of a judge while in office. Nasheed became famous in 2009 for holding a cabinet meeting underwater to show the threat of climate change to his island nation. McKibben is the author of several books, including "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." 350.org has been posting updates about the situation in Vanuatu on its live blog at 350.org.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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AMY GOODMAN: Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale spoke Monday about plans to rebuild after Cyclone Pam.

PRESIDENT BALDWIN LONSDALE: We have to be very careful how we build our houses, all infrastructure, how we build our infrastructure in place. We must take into account this disaster that has happened to us, so that we can build better infrastructure, better place for development in Vanuatu.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben is joining us now, co-founder of 350.org, author of a number of books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Bill, we want to talk about a number of issues here, but can you start off by talking about what's happened in Vanuatu -- 350.org is active there -- and how it links to climate change?

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. We've been hearing sporadically from our coordinator in Vanuatu, Isso Nihmei, who has been doing a lot of relief work as this crisis has unfolded. The picture is, as you've been saying all morning, extraordinarily grim. Port Vila, the capital city and the place with most of the infrastructure, took a huge hit. But the winds were higher, the seas were higher and the infrastructure much flimsier, to begin with, on many of the outlying islands, so the picture, I'm afraid, is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

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The tragedy, the bottom-line tragedy here, as in so many other places around the world, is that Vanuatu's development has been put back decades with this destruction of roads, bridges, hospitals, schools. This is what's happening now around the world as people begin to kind of run on a tilted treadmill trying to develop on a disintegrating planet.

And the people in Vanuatu know exactly what the culprit is. You know, in one of the most beautiful demonstrations of the climate change era, last summer Vanuatu and 10 other Pacific Islands' Pacific Warriors, 350's Pacific Warriors, built indigenous traditional canoes and took them off to Newcastle in Australia, the largest coal port in the world, and used them to blockade the great coal ships in an effort to demonstrate exactly what Cyclone Pam also demonstrated -- the incredible vulnerability of so many of the poorest people in the world to the rising temperatures that we're inflicting on our one Earth.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, in a broader way, about the threats that small island nations face? And then we're going to take this home, not to a small island nation, but to California, to talk about the issue not of too much water, but of too little.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. Look, if you're low to the water on an island nation and the sea level starts going up, that makes everything that happens, every cyclone that comes, that much more dangerous. Even without a cyclone, in the Pacific earlier this month, the huge king tides in Kiribati flooded many, many homes and villages. Add to that things like the ongoing heating and acidification of the oceans' waters and the concomitant erosion of coral reefs around the world. In many of these nations, coral reefs provide the best defense against a raging ocean. And that defense is breaking down everywhere. Add to that the fact that we keep seeing these super typhoons, super cyclones. You know, warm air holds more water vapor than cold. It allows, in arid areas, for more evaporation, and hence more drought. We'll talk about California in a second. But once that water is up in the air, it's going to come down someplace. And so, we see, from Boston, which just set yesterday the all-time record for snowfall, to places that are getting hammered by big storms, we're seeing more and more and more devastating downpour. This is a worldwide problem. But, of course, places like Vanuatu are at the very sharpest end of the stick because they are so, so vulnerable.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about another climate crisis closer to home. On Thursday, a NASA scientist wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times headlined "California Has About One Year of Water Left. Will You Ration Now?" Jay Famiglietti, who authored the piece, is the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, and a professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine. He wrote, quote, "the simple fact is that California is running out of water -- and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century. Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing," he wrote. Bill McKibben?

BILL McKIBBEN: Hey, it's up and down the West Coast of the United States. Yesterday, Washington state declared drought emergency over large regions. The snowpack in the Olympic Mountains is about 8 precent of normal. The snowpack up in the Sierra Nevada, which has to water pretty much all of California, is 20 or 25 percent of normal. We're in the fourth year of a drought, and the scientific papers published in the last couple of weeks said that California can really start expecting, in our new climate regime, that drought will be the new normal. Last year, the satellites indicated that California had lost about 63 trillion gallons of groundwater to evaporation. That took so much weight off the crust there that the Sierra Nevada mountains jumped a half-inch. Look, there's no way that you can have civilizations of the kind that we've built in California without water. And there's less and less of it all the time.

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