Global Warming Is ‘No Longer An Abstraction,’ Warns Environmental Activist

We may be too late to save the world from meltdown, but we have to try anyway, so said writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben to the audience that had gathered in Marquand Chapel to hear his lecture on global warming.

McKibben whose April 3 talk was sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics delivered the first annual Arthur W. Galston Memorial Lecture, titled "The Most Important Number on Earth." His talk was part of the campus-wide Sustainability Summit. (See related story.)

It was only about 50 years ago that humans began to understand there was an environmental downside to progress, McKibben told the audience. With a nod to influential ecologist Rachel Carson, he described our loss of innocence as a realization that "modernity is tainted."

A Methodist Sunday school teacher, with self-described "pulpit envy," McKibben put the matter in biblical terms, referring to the book of Job "as the first great piece of nature writing."

"God's speech to Job is a tour of the physical universe" and a "biologically accurate" one, he contended. On the other hand, while Job gets to argue with God about the suffering He inflicts on the natural world, "we can't talk back to God," said McKibben. In effect, he noted, we have no one to blame but ourselves. "Humans have gotten very big, very fast," he added.

McKibben, who has written widely about the perils facing the planet, then described the dire situation in stark terms: After spending many years and research dollars trying to "bring down" the theory of global warming, he said, scientists "woke up to the truth" in the late 1990s when the polar ice caps proved to be melting much faster than they had predicted. Although scientists knew that the ice cap could melt on average 1% to 2% annually, in the summer of 2007 they discovered that the arctic ice mass had decreased 25% in one year. For the first time in history, McKibben noted, it was possible to circumnavigate the polar ice cap on open water.

The polar ice caps reflect 80% of the sun's radiation off the earth, keeping the oceans cool, McKibben explained, and melting ice means warmer oceans. Because warm water occupies more space than cold, the swelling of oceans (a phenomenon known as arctic amplification) will result in the loss of considerable land mass, he warned.

At the same time that our oceans are heating up, we lose water to evaporation, he said, noting that rivers and lakes are drying up, and chronic drought has become commonplace in some regions. Condensed water in the Earth's atmosphere from the evaporation has led to storms of unusual severity, said McKibben, pointing to Hurricane Katrina as an example.

"We created the conditions for this situation by burning gas and coal, but we are no longer in control," said McKibben.

With that admonition, McKibben turned to the subject of the title of his talk, "The Most Important Number on Earth."

For over 10,000 years, before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere was a stable, and life conducive, 275 parts per million (ppm), he told the audience. That number has risen to a current level of 387 ppm, and it is growing by 2% to 3% every year. At one time, scientists estimated that the maximum CO2 level life on Earth could tolerate was twice that of the pre-Industrial level: 550 ppm. However, based on new data, scientists have reached a consensus that 350 ppm is the actual upper limit for the survival of the planet.

"We may never be able to reduce our carbon output to that level," McKibben grimly noted.

"This is no longer an abstraction, something that might happen to our children and grandchildren. This is what is happening here and now," he added.

To raise awareness about the issue of global warming, McKibben has been working with groups across the country to organize public demonstrations about the issue. His first demonstration in 2006, a march across Vermont, was largely ignored by the press. But by 2007, with the help of six students from Middlebury, he set up the online organization stepitup.org that effectively mobilized the largest-ever demonstration of protest against global warming. On April 14, 2007, the National Day of Climate Action, 1,400 community organizations across the country held separate demonstrations under one banner: "Step It Up Congress: Cut Carbon 80% by 2050." The demonstrations, which were broadcast on the Internet, reached people across the globe, and — perhaps, more importantly, said McKibben — politicians in Washington, D.C., prompting both then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to change their positions on global warming.

Building on the networks created by stepitup.org, McKibben has taken his campaign beyond the national borders. Through his new organization, 350.org, McKibben and his followers are reaching out to community groups around the world. Their target is to mobilize people from "the Himalayas to the Coral Reefs," to demonstrate for Global Action on Oct. 24, 2009, he said.

With the greatest financial resources concentrated in the fossil fuel industry, the odds are stacked against the movement, commented McKibben.

On a more optimistic note, he said, the network of activists he has helped to inspire have a resource more effective than money — a membership list that can grow exponentially thanks to the World Wide Web.

— By Dorie Baker