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.
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.
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
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
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]
That was enough to persuade 117 of those nations to sign on
to a 350 target--but they were the wrong 117 nations, the poorest and
most vulnerable ones. So our work continues--on 10/10/10 (October 10) we're organizing a Global Work Party on the same kind of massive
scale. All over the world, people will be digging community gardens,
putting up solar panels, laying out bike paths, and on and on. Not
because we think we can solve climate change one solar panel at a
time--we can't; it requires national and international legislation.
But we want to send a pointed political message to our leaders: We're
getting to work, what about you? If I can climb up on the roof of the
school and hammer in a solar panel, I expect you to climb to the floor
of the Senate and hammer out some legislation. Now.
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