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Bill McKibben's Straight Talk on the Environment

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I have read Bill McKibben's work for years. I was excited that he would be speaking at the conference of The Network for Spiritual Progressives held earlier this month in Washington. I was not disappointed. McKibben is passionate about the environment but, surprisingly, neither dour nor humorless. While he's a major figure in the movement, he's also extremely low-key and self-deprecating. He's articulate and knows well a story's power to make a point and capture the imagination. Over the years, he's raised eco-consciousness around the world, asking hard questions and serving as an able spokesman for the health of our planet and all its inhabitants. I'm delighted that he found time for this interview.

***

My guest today is environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben. Welcome to OpEdNews, Bill. I had the opportunity to hear you speak several times at the recent Network of Spiritual Progressives conference. Can you give our readers an idea of how we're doing right now, environmentally speaking?




Right now, not so well.

There's that small problem of the Gulf of Mexico turning a nice shade of black. But even if that oil had made it safely ashore so ita could be burned in your car, it would have done tremendous damage. Simply put, global warming is getting utterly out of control. Arctic ice melt is ahead of the pace of 2007, NASA said last week that we have just come through the warmest 12 months on record, and in Asia the week before last, they recorded the continent's highest ever temperature, 129 degrees in Pakistan. That heat wave is killing a lot of people. So, things could be better.


Okay, I get that it's been getting warmer. Before we turn to what we can and should be doing about that, could you explain a little more fully what these signs of warming mean for us as a planet? There are still plenty of intelligent people in America who pooh-pooh the idea of this being anything more than part of a natural historical cycle. What would you say to them?

We're off the charts in terms of both carbon dioxide and temperature in the human experience--and probably long before. And you can tell by watching subtle little signs like the Arctic melting.

So, back to the question, what do these sings of warming mean to us as a planet?

Well, the first thing to say is, we're no longer in the holocene,
which is what scientists call the last 10,000 years, a time of great
climatic stability that allowed the rise of human civilization. By
pumping carbon into the atmosphere, we've raised the temperature
beyond the levels we've known as humans--and it's getting steadily
hotter with absolutely no end in sight unless we quickly get off
fossil fuels.

What this means is that pretty much everything we're used to doing
will become steadily harder. For instance, towns design their water
and sewer systems to deal with a '100-year-flood.' But if that flood
comes every five or ten years, it raises the cost enormously.

Farmers are used to planting certain crops--but wheat and corn and
rice are as adapted to the climate of the Holocene as people, and
probably more so. That means, according to new data from Stanford,
that we could see yields fall by 40% in the decades ahead. Our cities
are mostly built on the seacoast--which is bad news since oceans are
steadily rising.

The list goes on for a very long time.

So, if what you're saying is that our infrastructure and way of life no longer fit the conditions at hand, that's a pretty drastic assessment, not easily remedied. It's tempting to say the problems are too big and too hard and just give up. But you and others haven't. Tell us about the 350 project and the significance of that number, please.

350 is the most important number in the world, though no one knew it
even mattered until about two years ago. In January of 2008, our
foremost climatologist, Jim Hansen, and his team at NASA published a
paper setting the boundary condition for the planet: any amount of
carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million was not
compatible with a planet "similar to the one on which civilization
developed and to which life on earth is adapted."

That's tough news, because the atmosphere already holds 390 ppm c02, and it's going up two parts per million per year. Translation: we're
like the guy who goes to the doctor and learns that his cholesterol is
already much too high.

We took it as our rallying cry for organizing the planet. Not an
obvious choice, since 350 is a won scientific data point, but it has
made global movement-building easier because Arabic numerals cross
language boundaries. And indeed, in October of 2009, we managed to
stage what CNN called 'the most widespread day of action in the
planet's history,' with 5200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181
countries. [See some of the photographs taken across the world]

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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