McKibben’s 13 books include The End of Nature (widely regarded as the first book about climate change for a general audience), and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, Outside and many other publications. Here are excerpts from a recent e-mail interview with Xpress:
Mountain Xpress: What will your upcoming talk at Warren Wilson cover?
Bill McKibben: I'll talk about where we are right now in the process of building a movement. It's my last public talk before our big 10/10/10 Global Day of Action, so I should have a pretty good sense of how things are starting to come together around the world.
How’s that progressing?
It's going great guns. We've got thousands of communities around the world involved, and in mid-September we're delivering solar panels to the White House in hopes that they'll take part. No word yet on their response — we'll see! The Indian Parliament is going to put up solar panels, and the Maldivian president. So the movement-building is going strong, but it's not yet translating into reductions in CO2, which of course is the real measure that counts.
Where does your goal of limiting carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere to 350 parts per million come from?
A 2008 research paper was the first to assign a real “red line” value, and it came from the planet's foremost climatologist, Jim Hansen, and his team at NASA. They say any amount of atmospheric carbon more than 350 ppm “is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”
You’ve noted that we’re already at 392 ppm now. Has this encouraged folks to conclude that there's nothing to these dire warnings?
Oddly, it doesn't seem to have worked that way. It's more like when people go to the doctor and he says, “Your cholesterol is way too high.” You may feel OK, but you know it's time to go to work.
Skeptics say, “What good is it if the U.S. cuts its emissions by 50 percent tomorrow — China and India are going to keep on polluting. And how can we be sure we humans are the main cause of the accelerating climate change?” The earth's atmosphere, they argue, is too big to be affected so dramatically by smokestacks that have been active for only the last 150 years.
These folks aren’t very good at math. In 150 years, we've put hundreds of millions of years of biology — all those ferns and dinosaurs — up into the atmosphere. It would be shocking if it wasn't having an effect. Twenty years ago, scientists were still trying to figure out how much of this was us and how much was “natural cycles.” By the mid-1990s it was clear we were the main cause by far, and that conviction has grown stronger with each new study. As to China, it’s installed far more renewable power than we have. With some leadership from us (we are by far the biggest per capita contributors to warming) they may well go farther.
You and others have said the oil industry’s stranglehold is preventing passage of carbon-emissions caps and other legislative solutions. What will it take to change this?
It's going to take a very large movement, vocal enough to overcome the massive power of money wielded by the fossil-fuel industry.
You’re a father. What do you tell kids about the planet they're inheriting?
I tell them they need to get out, see the natural world and fall in love with it, and in a few years they'll be old enough to help lead the charge to protect it.
— Direct your environmental news to Susan Andrew: 251-1333, ext. 153, or firstname.lastname@example.org.