Things are dire, but the fight for Earth is not over, says Bill McKibben

Photo of Bill McKibben
(Photo by Michael Marsland)

The planet Earth is in the beginning stages of a mass extinction, warned environmental activist and author Bill McKibben during his campus visit as a Chubb Fellow on Oct. 10.

McKibben is the founder of 350.org, a worldwide grassroots movement to stop fossil fuels, and the author of more than a dozen books about the environment. He described some of the signs of a planet in peril, including: the year 2017 has been the hottest on record; the increasing melting of ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic; the rising acidity of oceans and its effect on coral reefs; the intensity of the recent devastating hurricanes due to warmer oceans; and massive forest fires such as the recent one in California that burned entire towns to ashes.

McKibben often sighed deeply after speaking about some of these calamities, all of which, he said, can be traced to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from fossil fuels.

Each day, the carbon that we put into the atmosphere traps the heat equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs,” McKibben told a full audience in Woolsey Hall.

So much damage has already been done, said McKibben, that even if every participating nation kept to the promises it made to mitigate global climate change as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the Earth’s temperature would still rise by about 6 degrees Fahrenheit during the lifetime of most of his audience members.

If that happens, then we can’t have civilizations like the ones we are used to having,” McKibben said. “That is the bottom line.”

He noted that other historic mass extinctions were driven by the release of “massive qualities” of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when natural deposits of coal, gas, or oil were burned in active volcanoes.

Now it is us who is doing the burning, and we’re doing it more quickly than we’ve ever seen in the geologic record,” he said.

There is still a chance, however, that the tide of environmental harm could be turned, said McKibben.

We’ve been given a great gift in the last decade,” he told his audience. “The engineers have done their job and done it very, very well indeed. The price of a solar panel has fallen 80% in the last decade. Around the world in most places, wind power is the cheapest way that we can produce electrons. That means that because of that gift of the engineers, we’re at the outer edge of possibly changing those numbers [of rising Earth temperatures due to fossil fuels].”

McKibben noted that some countries have made steady progress toward transitioning to renewable energy. Denmark now generates half of its power from the wind because its leaders had the “political will” to make a change, he said, adding that he has visited rural villages in Africa where solar power is now bringing light and refrigeration to communities that never before had those luxuries.

It was beautiful to reflect that it came from the entirely benign process of pointing a piece of black glass at the sky and letting the sun’s beams be transmuted,” said McKibben. “This is J.K. Rowling stuff: You can point a piece of glass at the sky and electrons come out the other end. That should allow us to change absolutely everything.”

However, the pace at which the United States and many other nations are transitioning to solar and wind power is exceedingly slow, McKibben acknowledged.

Our job,” he said, “is to make it go much faster. Why are we moving so slowly, given that we are faced with the biggest crisis we’ve ever faced on our planet, and given that we have a powerful solution at hand?”

He blamed the fossil fuel industry for halting a conversion to renewable energy even though executives in that industry have long known about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change. In their quest for money and power, McKibben said, fossil fuel companies have hoped to extend their products’ usage by another few decades “even at the cost of breaking the one planet we have.”

For example, as far back as the 1970s, Exxon scientists and researchers had “mapped out” the parts of the Arctic that would soon be melting so they could drill for oil in those places, but “they didn’t tell the rest of us” what company research showed about thawing ice, McKibben said.

 “[An] architecture of deceit and denial has kept us locked a completely phony debate that has cost us most of what we value. There has never been a corporate crime of that magnitude.”

All across the globe, however, those most victimized by climate change — in places affected by drought, flooding, sea-level rise, and other environmental ills — have joined in a movement to fight fossil-fuel use, McKibben pointed out. He showed the audience images of rallies and protests in Pakistan, Mongolia, the Maldives, Haiti, the United States, and other parts of the globe.

What these people are demonstrating is what our job is: Our job is to speed up the pace at which we make this transition [to renewable sources of energy], to act as accelerants in the process, to figure out — each one of us and in our organizations — how to build the movements that push hard enough to make this change happen fast enough to matter.”

Rallies and protests are one of the most effective ways to help save the planet, said McKibben, noting the success such actions have had in halting the Keystone and other pipelines, fracking, and the building of coal mines, including one planned in Australia that would have been the largest in the world. He lauded indigenous communities, such as those in South Dakota, for their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and for becoming leaders in the fossil-free movement.

Using a slogan commonly chanted by protesters, he urged everyone in his audience to take part in the movement to “Keep It [fossil fuels] In The Ground.” He also implored them to join in the fight for divestment from fossil fuel companies. He called climate change “the first time-limited challenge humans have ever really had to face,” and said that even if prompt action is taken to remedy it, the future of the planet is still in question.

I can’t guarantee that we can win the fight, even if we do everything right. We have waited so long to get started. It is a bad sign that the ice sheets are slowly disintegrating. It is a bad sign that the chemistry of seawater is changing. There is still a narrow window, narrow and closing. … The only thing I can guarantee is that there is going to be a real fight,” said McKibben, adding that for him it would be “a privilege to stand shoulder to shoulder” in that fight with those in his audience.

McKibben’s full Chubb Fellowship address can be viewed on the Yale YouTube channel.