Bill McKibben lays it out for us–climate change is the greatest problem of the 21st century by enormous levels of magnitude.
If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.
Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.
Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world’s nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn’t even attend. It was “a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago,” the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls “once thronged by multitudes.” Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.
When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn’t yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.
McKibben names a clear enemy: the fossil fuel industry and the greed of their executives. I don’t disagree with this, but I think it is a bit more complicated–the person who wants a monster truck that gets 7 mpg is also kind of the enemy, as is the suburban family who wants to commute 50 miles each way to work with an 9 mpg SUV. Of course, this is also too simplistic since we can have conversations about how and why capitalists stoked those demands. But that’s fine, I guess I understand the need to make this argument. Plus there’s no question that early 21st century monopoly capitalism is a huge issue. If the government made a good faith effort to open the energy market to clean innovators, maybe we could make some progress, but as we’ve seen with the Solyndra non-scandal, even the slightest attempts to do so will spark fake outrage among oil’s bought politicians in Congress.
More problematic is the false hope McKibben provides at the end of the article, when he suggests that we should put pressure on the petroleum corporations like activists in the 80s did to the apartheid regime of South Africa:
The fossil-fuel industry is obviously a tougher opponent, and even if you could force the hand of particular companies, you’d still have to figure out a strategy for dealing with all the sovereign nations that, in effect, act as fossil-fuel companies. But the link for college students is even more obvious in this case. If their college’s endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree. (The same logic applies to the world’s largest investors, pension funds, which are also theoretically interested in the future – that’s when their members will “enjoy their retirement.”) “Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective,” says Bob Massie, a former anti-apartheid activist who helped found the Investor Network on Climate Risk. “The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now.”
Yeah, I don’t know. The environmental movement is really concerned that it doesn’t come across as too negative. The fear is that if they tell the unvarnished truth without providing hope that people will just shut off. So rather than give the full jeremiad, screaming from the rooftops about the horror about to change all of our lives if we don’t change our ways RIGHT NOW!!!!, McKibben suggest pressuring students pressuring college administrations to pressure corporations to change their ways. That’d be great if we were talking about social policy. But instead we are taking about the future of life on the planet. Given the very real nature of the crisis, something that during this horrible heat wave and drought most Americans are just beginning to feel (but nothing compared to what it will look like 10 or 20 years from now), the call for traditional types of campaigns that make liberals feel good just feel inadequate. Climate change writers shouldn’t pull their punches. The issue is too important.