Bill McKibben. If you haven’t heard of him you should familiarize yourself immediately. McKibben is an environmentalist, a writer, and a legend. He’s a New York Times best selling author and founder of 350.org, a world climate movement that spawned the largest ever unified global rally on October 24, 2009. His latest book is called “Eaarth” and it will probably make your head explode.
Last week I got to see McKibben live in action in Boston, speaking about climate change (aka humanity’s biggest FAIL ). It was a fantastic talk (nerd-alert side note: I got to meet him and he signed my copy of “Eaarth!”) Anyway, to those who have already embraced the biggest problem affecting humanity today, the talk was a refreshing bit of truth. To those who aren’t as familiar with the current climate situation, well, you probably left the event feeling just a bit queasy and unsettled.
I’d like to summarize his words by going back in time. Since the last ice age, for the past 10,000 years, life on earth has existed within a constant and predictable climate. Our plants, with many years of evolution and adaptation behind them, have become accustomed to growing at the same temperate throughout that time. That’s 10,000 years, same temperature. Over the past 100 years, temperatures across the world have gone up by 1 degree. Now, off-hand that number may not seem a like a lot, but if you do the math and understand that evolution is a slow process, then 1 degree in a hundred years is quite a spike. And it’s only a fraction of what’s to come, when scientists today predict that temperatures will rise 4 to 5 degrees by the end of the century.
As McKibben pointed out, we are already seeing the byproducts of a warming climate. Last summer, for example, wildfires raged for two weeks across the gargantuan landscape of Russia. Moscow, which had never seen a 100 degree day, got eight consecutive 100 degree days. It was the hottest recorded summer in Russian history. The disaster cost numerous lives and over $15 billion in damages. But how does a warming climate and fires in far away Russia affect me, you may ask? The answer lies in the grocery store. It just so happens that Russia is the 3rd largest wheat producer in the world. After the fires broke out, President Medvedev ordered wheat exports to be stopped. Shipments were canceled and trains were ordered to turn back around. Within a week, wheat prices across the world went up by 70% and have held steady since. There are countless examples of this. All over the world, rising temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns are disrupting crop yields. Food prices are nearing all time highs and within a few decades we’ll be feeding an extra couple of billion mouths.
To quote McKibben, the world we are living in today is not the world we were living in 40 years ago. Take the story of McKibben’s visit to Bangladesh, for example. In 2000, Bangladesh had its’ first outbreak of Dengue Fever, a viral disease carried by mosquitoes that prefer hotter climates. In the past decade, incidents of Dengue Fever in Bangladesh have increased by a dramatic 200%. McKibben caught it while he was there and was taken to a local hospital. His illness he got over quickly, but what he couldn’t forget was the scene of desperation at the hospital. It was so crowded inside the building that you could barely move. Beds were stacked like dominoes, one right next to another, spewing out into the hallway. Many patients were dying. And as he looked outside his window and saw the rickshaws and bicycles that crowded the streets in a country where most people don’t have access to the electric grid, he realized the terrible unfairness of climate change. Because it’s not the Bangladeshis that are causing it. It is us, and our dependence of fossil fuels and reckless spewing of carbon over the past 100+ years that is sending viral mosquitoes to explore new, uncharted regions. And the Bangladeshis are paying for it.
And that’s the world we live in today. Forget the notion that what we do today will only affect our grandchildren. We are those grandchildren. It is already affecting us and it may be too late. By raising the temperature by a whole degree, we’ve opened the flood gates to a massive snowball effect of natural carbon release that is beyond our control. Just one alarming example of this: scientists have recently discovered that permafrost in Alaska and Siberia is starting to melt for the first time since the last Ice Age. Melting permafrost releases methane, a heat trapping gas like Carbon Dioxide, only much more potent. According to McKibben, melting permafrost will release enough methane this century to equal 270 years of CO2 emissions at current levels. And so, climate change is possibly beyond our control at this point.
McKibben ended his talk on a more positive note. The only way we can hope to turn things around is by fighting the fossil fuel industry. It’s tough, when oil companies like Exxon are earning more money than anyone has ever made in history. But it can be done. He encouraged us to go out and become active citizens. As part of a 350.org campaign, he urged us to contact our local businesses and demand they quit the Chamber of Commerce. A shocking 94% of the Chamber’s campaign contributions in the 2010 elections were doled out to climate deniers. If we are serious about turning things around, we will have to unite against a rigid status quo and demand change. Most importantly, we have to take our blinders off and start confronting the reality: we have plundered and pillaged to a point where we will never again live on the same planet that our ancestors called home for so many years.
Stay tuned for my review of “Eaarth.”