Reprinted with permission from WNY Climate Action Coalition dedicated to addressing the critical problem of global warming and climate change.
Those who attended the 2010 WNY Environmental Congress yesterday had the honor to hear renown writer and climate activist Bill McKibben address the climate change problem. While the WNY Environmental Alliance, the main sponsor of the event, may be planning to release a report about or video or audio of McKibben’s excellent talk, we thought it would be helpful if we did a quick summary to share with those who missed the presentation. That summary is below and attached. Whether you attended or not, please feel free to use and distribute this information if you find it helpful.
Bill McKibben’s visit to Buffalo was a call to action. We hope you will visit two websites that provide excellent energy and climate information and resources to help you learn more and take action: WNY Climate Action Coalition and Walter’s personal website.
Hopefully, the local climate action work that is urgently needed will be taken up by the WNY Environmental Alliance / GrowWNY, WNY Sustainable Energy Association, Sierra Club Niagara Group, Wind Action Group, PUSH, Partnership for the Public Good, Citizens Campaign for the Environment and others locally. All those groups need and deserve support and involvement, especially on the climate change issue.
Unofficial, Unauthorized Summary of Bill McKibben’s Talk on Climate Change
November 13th, 2010, WNY Environmental Congress, City Honors High School
Note: this written summary is intended to be an immediate vehicle for sharing Bill McKibben’s excellent talk with a wider audience. Apologies to McKibben and the WNY Environmental Alliance in case we missed something important or did not accurately capture what was said. – Nan and Walter Simpson.
First the Bad News
Bill McKibben began his remarks by reporting that 2010 had the hottest summer on record and is going to be the hottest year on record. This decade is also the hottest decade on record.
Unbelievably, temperatures as high as 129 degrees were reported in Asia during 2010. Also this summer, the Arctic continued to melt and the NE and NW Passages were open simultaneously. Russia experienced its worse heat wave with temperatures above 100 degrees for extended periods of time in Moscow, precipitating many fires in the countryside, and significant loss of grain production -- causing the Russian government to ban grain exports. McKibben pointed out that Russia is normally the world’s third largest exporter of grain.
Pakistan was among the nations hardest hit, experiencing extreme heat this summer as well as extreme flooding. The floods were precipitated and sustained by torrential rains which produced twice as much precipitation per week than the hardest hit areas of Pakistan normally receive in an entire year. Climate change is producing more extreme rain events because warmer air holds more moisture.
Closer to home and earlier in the year, Tennessee experienced a “1000 year flood” in May that put much of Nashville under water.
These terrible events, McKibben explained, all happened with just one degree of global warming. But according to the scientific community we could see as much as 4 or 5 more degrees of warming by the end of the century. McKibben asked: if one degree of warming is capable of melting the Arctic and causing so much damage and misery, what would 4 or 5 degrees mean to the Earth and its inhabitants?
To round off the bad news, McKibben turned to the political scene. Internationally and nationally, we are at a standstill. In McKibben’s unvarnished opinion, the 2009 UN climate protection conference in Copenhagen was a failure. And this year the U.S. Senate would not even vote on a very modest climate protection bill -- let alone pass it. McKibben sadly observed that the failure of the U.S. Congress to act on the climate issue in 2009 is fully consistent with the Congress’ twenty year bi-partisan failure to act. And given the make-up of the new Congress, he said the next two years look bleak as well.
After apologizing for so much bad news, McKibben stated that technology is not the problem. We have all the technology we need to slow and stop climate change. Where we fail is in the area of human behavior, policy, and political change. We have everything for a movement to address climate change except the movement itself, McKibben remarked.
Bill McKibben’s Early Involvement and Activism
McKibben then explained a little about his background with this issue. Noting that he is a writer by trade and not a political organizer, he reminded the audience that he wrote the first popular book on the subject, The End of Nature, in 1989. He lamented that we had enough information then – 21 years ago! – to act yet we did not and still have not.
It is possible, however, to activate people and create a movement. McKibben initially saw this on a small scale a few years ago when he and a handful of other writers organized a march to his home state Vermont’s largest city, Burlington. Surprisingly, 1000 people joined the march (which was a lot for a small state like Vermont) and when they arrived in Burlington, many political leaders and candidates were so impressed that they signed an agreement promising to address climate change.
Back then, McKibben explained, the accepted climate protection policy goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. But in the summer of 2007, there was 25% less Arctic summer ice than in 2006 – a shocking development. It was becoming clear that the pace of warming was accelerating faster than scientists had been predicting.
Then, in 2008, a group of scientists led by NASA’s Jim Hansen released a study arguing that any level of atmospheric carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas) over 350 parts per million (ppm) was inconsistent with the climate human civilization evolved with and what we need to sustain civilization as we know it. That study, which can be read here, noted that the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide was already 385 ppm, making clear that the established policy goal of 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 was inadequate. This finding was painful to realize because collectively we were very far from adopting even an 80 X 50 emissions reduction trajectory.
The Birth of 350.org and an International Outpouring of Good News
Hansen’s 350 ppm goal was the inspiration for McKibben’s 350.org group which he explained was organized by him and 7 students! They arbitrarily established October 24, 2009, as an International Day of Climate Action, and, after getting the word out and encouraging actions on all continents, the result was an incredible outpouring of action in every corner of the globe. Ordinary citizens and activists of every race and ethnicity participated, sending photos of their actions which we posted on the www.350.org website. (Click here to see the photos. See below for two of the photos from the Buffalo October 24, 2009 event.)
McKibben repeatedly pointed out that we are mistaken if we think caring about the natural environment and mobilizing to defend the Earth is inherently a Caucasian, Western, well-to-do phenomenon. The October 24 international event demonstrated that people everywhere of all races, ethnicities, religions, and income levels – from affluent to very poor – cared and were ready to act to address climate change. Some the largest demonstrations were in poor nations and in cities many of us may not have even heard of. For example, over 10,000 people defied the Ethiopian government and gathered in Addis Ababa to take a stand against climate change.
In December of 2009 McKibben and his team then attended the international conference in Copenhagen and were successful in getting 117 nations to sign on to a 350 ppm statement – though, he explained, they were the “wrong” countries, i.e. they weren’t the larger, industrialized countries whose fossil fuel appetites and greenhouse gas emissions were causing climate change. That reality and the general failure of the Copenhagen conference caused McKibben to be discouraged but he said his team of young college graduates gave him some perspective by stating the obvious: the failure of Copenhagen conference was not surprising because, after all, we are up against the biggest (and most polluting) industries in the world – Big Coal, Big Oil, etc. It will take a sustained effort to defeat them.
Next for 350.org was the Global Work Day, October 10, 2010, which produced over 7,000 events in 188 countries including a Green Buffalo Run in Delaware Park.
No Guarantee But We Must Keep Fighting!
All of these actions are reasons for encouragement and hope but McKibben said he could not guarantee that it will work. In point of fact, he warned, we don’t know if anything we do will work but we must keep trying.
While the future is uncertain, McKibben said we can be certain that climate change is happening, is principally caused by our addiction to fossil fuels, and is accelerating. Some scientists have said that we have started too late to address the problem. And for all practical purposes some degree climate change may be irreversible. Even if we stopped using fossil fuels today, McKibben explained, there is another one degree of warming in the “pipeline.” The question is: can we prevent 2 to 5 degrees more warming this century and thus avoid an even more catastrophic situation.
McKibben concluded by saying irrespective of the odds we cannot give up hope. There is too much at stake. He said while he cannot guarantee victory he can and does guarantee that people across the world will keep fighting.