Sustainable Community Development Initiative

Bill McKibben Lecture Transcript

 

Bart Bartels:

Hello I’m Bart Bartels, Campus Sustainability Manager at Grand Valley State University, and I’d like to introduce the following film clip. It was taken at the launch of the Campus Sustainability Spotlight, which is a yearlong project to highlight to sustainability efforts by Grand Valley’s eight colleges. For the launch, we asked Bill McKibben if he would be interested in giving a virtual presentation to the Grand Valley State community, and Bill graciously accepted. For those of you that aren’t familiar with Bill McKibben, he’s an environmental and climate change writer, an educator and an activists, he’s author of a dozen books about the environment including “The End of Nature,” which is regarded as the first book for a general audience written about climate change. He’s also founder of the grassroots organization 350.org and Time magazine called him “…the planet’s best Green Journalist.” The Boston Globe says he’s “…probably the country’s most important environmentalist.”  Bill refers to himself as a “Professional Bummer-Outer,” but he does it in a very entertaining, and understandable, way. It’s my privilege to introduce to you Bill McKibben.

 

Bill McKibben:

I wrote the first book about climate change for a general audience, that book, “The End of Nature,” in 1989, i.e. before many of you were born. And since then I’ve followed the politics of global warming very closely. It’s the most difficult problem humans have yet engaged in, and I wish I could tell you that we were wrong 25 years ago, or that we overstated—but in fact the opposite is true. What we’ve come to understand is that the world is changing much more quickly than we could have imagined. Just to give you a couple of examples from the last few weeks…some of you may have seen stories from the news about what happened in the arctic this summer. About 4 or 5 days ago, the long arctic night finally began to descend and the melt season up north ended, but it left behind a picture like we’d never seen before. There is 50% less area of ice than there was a couple of decades ago and about 75% less mass. And what ice that is there is much thinner. That is to say that if the late Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, had been able to look back this summer as he had 40 years ago, it would have looked like an entirely different planet with half as much white on top. We’ve taken one of the most visible physical features on this Earth and broken it, and really, if you look at the other visible physical features on Earth, much of the same is going on. The oceans are metaphors for vastness, and are about 30% more acid than they were 40 years ago. That’s because the chemistry of seawater changes as it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and that makes it very difficult for all of those creatures that need to form shells. The tiny, microscopic creatures, upon which the marine food chain feeds, depends on the calcium chemistry of the ocean—it’s their necessity and now it’s screwed up. For those of us who live near the land, probably the most obvious change is that warm air holds more water vapor than cold. We’ve raised the temperature of the Earth about 1 degree, and hence the atmosphere’s about 5% wetter than it was 40 years ago. That’s a huge change in the basic physical parameter of this Earth. I can’t begin to overstate what a staggering change that is. And it’s loaded the dice for both drought and deluge. That is, more water evaporates into the atmosphere and eventually you end up with drought and then eventually it comes down, and tends to come down all at once, and you end up with floods. We’ve seen both of them with record numbers. You don’t need to trust the scientists (if for some reason you think scientists are untrustworthy); you could ask the insurance industry, which, after all, are the people in our economy who we ask to evaluate risk for us. They’ve been flashing the Red Alert signal as brightly as they can now for some years. Last year, the biggest insurance company in the world said that there is no other way to explain what is going on on this planet than the rapid onset of global warming. Think about this summer in the United States, and you get some little sense of what’s going on. Probably some of you remember that summer began early. It really began in winter. The last couple days of winter, at the end of March, were astonishingly hot. A huge heat wave, a kind of summer in March heat wave, built across the Great Plains, it was 94 degrees in South Dakota two days before the end of winter. In Michigan, it got very warm as you know, and everything went into blossom, all of the fruit trees…and then it was completely normal, absolutely expected, April frost—all of those trees, blossoms, died. I feel this particularly strongly myself because I am a lover of cherries, and your state is the prime source, and there aren’t many this year. As the summer went on we saw the biggest wildfires in New Mexico and Colorado history, and then as June turned into July, a heat wave of epic proportions swept across the country. We saw record high temperatures in state after state. We saw the longest heat wave in the history of Washington DC. We saw a huge, powerful storm that meteorologists called a “Directional” that started in Indiana and swept through, in 16 hours, all the way to the Atlantic. It knocked out power for 5 million people. They called it a straight line hurricane with winds as high as 100mph. And then of course that heat helped produce a baking drought of enormous proportions that lingers, still, 68% of the country in drought conditions at the moment. The result of which is that grain prices have gone up 60% or so over the course of this summer. Now for those of us who are here, that’s usually livable. I mean, if you buy a box of cornflakes you’re paying more for the box than the corn, so the 60% increase in the price of corn isn’t going to do us in. But if like most people in the world you have to get up in the morning and dig for coins to buy corn meal from the market to make tortillas for your family for dinner, believe you me, a 60% increase in the price of corn is a big deal.

Everything that I’ve described happens when you raise the temperature of the Earth 1 degree. That’s how far we’ve raised it so far. The bad news is that the same scientists who told us that are now telling us, with robust confidence, that unless we get our act together very quickly and get off coil, gas, and oil and far more quickly than any government is now planning, than that 1 degree will be 4 or 5 degrees before the century is out. There is no reason to think that we can even begin to think that we can come up with change like that. It came from Stanford University. A team of Climatists did a set of calculations, they did not bother factoring in either drought or flood, which makes farming hard—lets just look at what happens to our main grain crops as temperatures rise, as they go out of their range for which they evolved, and now we’re seeing this period now coming rapidly to an end. What they found from this point on is that each degree increase in global average temperature should reduce grain yields 10%. You get a sense of how that could happen looking at the Midwest this summer. So what this means is that we’re looking at a planet potentially with 20, 30, 40% fewer grains on it. All of you are capable of doing the kind of math to figure out what it would be like if we could not have development, or could not deal with hunger, or could not keep the world peaceful, where we have faced that kind of situation—we can not let it happen; it is the most important challenge that we will ever face, and so we had best get to work on it—and that’s really what I want to talk with you about tonight, at least for a little while. The work we do at 350.org, which is the name for a campaign—we took it when we formed 350.org because our greatest climatologist, Jim Hansen at NASA, and his team, said we now know enough about carbon to know how much is too much. Any value of carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is, as they put it, not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and which life on Earth is adapted. And that’s strong language to use, and stronger still when you know that wherever you are today, Michigan or Mongolia, the average in the atmosphere is 395 parts per million CO2. Already way too much, and that’s why the arctic melts. That’s why these changes are happening.

When we started 350.org, it was myself and 7 undergraduates, so people your age. There was a college in Vermont where we would hangout. We took the name, in part, because we knew we wanted to act globally, and one of the obstacles of organizing globally is that everybody on the planet insists on speaking their own language, and that makes it difficult. 350 means the same thing no matter where you are. We set to work. We had no money or anything but there were 7 students and that was the right number because there are 7 continents—each one of them took one and we set to work and our work was to find people like ourselves around the world. Not everywhere is there a category called Environmentalist, but everywhere there is someone who’s worried about hunger, or war or peace, development, or women’s rights, or all the things that really unite us and we can pursue in a degrading world, and so those were our allies and many of them came from religious congregations. Young people dominate in this war. We asked everybody 3 years ago, in the fall of 2009, if they would try and have a big demonstration wherever they were. Now we didn’t know how well this would go, we didn’t have any money, but 2 days earlier we got a call on the satellite from someone leading our volunteer efforts in Ethiopia, a 17-year-old girl. She was calling us from the capitol of Ethiopia and she was in tears. She said, “the government took away our permit for Saturday so we cant do it, but we’re doing it today before they can stop us and we’re really sorry, and we don’t want to screw up everybody else because we were looking forward to doing it at the same time as everyone else and we’re really sorry because we have 10,000 kids in the street chanting 350,” and I said “that’s okay, don’t worry about the day!” It was an amazing, and I’m going to try and turn this computer—maybe you can see this picture from the streets? It’s one of my favorite pictures of all those young people hard at work. If you go to 350.org you can see thousands of these kinds of pictures. That first weekend, there were 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. CNN called it “the most widespread day of political action in the worlds’ history.” The 2nd one that came in was from US troops in Afghanistan; they made a 350 out of sandbags and they sent this in saying “we are parking our humvees for the weekend and walking in order to save putting that much more carbon into the atmosphere since it’s coal and oil and gas that powers this.” The pictures are remarkable. They demonstrate many things that people have told me for many years, which is wrong—I’ve often heard people say that Environmentalist is a luxury for rich white people, “If you had to worry about where your next meal was coming from, you wouldn’t’ be an environmentalist.” That’s nonsense—the majority of people we are working with are poor, black, Asian, brown, young people, because that’s what most of the world is made up of—and they are just as worried about the future as anybody else, maybe more so because the future bears down very hard on you in those categories.

We’ve since got into a lot more of this thing—huge, global, education. The estimate is that we’ve organized 20,000 rallies in every country except North Korea in the past 3 years. It’s become a pretty big network and that’s a good thing—that education is extremely important. We’ve been able to do this work in places that people didn’t know about climate change—like China, India, Africa and the US, which actually lags behind most of the world in its knowledge of what’s going on—probably because the fossil fuel industry spends so much money spreading disinformation. It is very powerful to watch this happen. With that said we are still losing this fight; the amount of carbon in the atmosphere goes up each year and the temperature keeps rising. We are not making progress near as fast as we need to so in the last couple of years we’ve tried to step up our game a little bit to go beyond just education and really try to leave a mark. Last year, we had a big fight that some of you may have heard of, this so called Keystone XL pipeline that would have come through the tar sands of Canada to the gulf of Mexico. The reason that we decided to protest it is NASA scientists said those tar sands up in Canada are the 2nd biggest pool of carbon on Earth. If you could burn all of the recoverable oil off tonight, which thank god you cant, but if you could, the atmosphere would immediately go from 395 parts per million CO2 (already too high) to 540 parts per million—that’s how much carbon’s up there. As Jim Hansen, one of our most important climatologists said, “Burning this stuff, on top of everything else that we’re burning, and it’s game over for our climate.” So, we decided to organize against it; we went to Washington and we sat outside Barack Obama’s Whitehouse. It turned into the largest civil disobedience act in 30 years in this country. 1,253 people were arrested. Some of us in the first batch of that 2-week demonstration spent 3 days in jail, but that was okay—it wasn’t fun but it wasn’t the end of the world. The end of the world is the end of the world, and that’s kind of what we’re working on. We were really pleased that, as time went on, the President responded to some of these appeals. We surrounded the Whitehouse with people in November of last year—we surrounded it in a big circle, people shoulder-to-shoulder, 5-deep, in a mile and a half perimeter around the Whitehouse. It was not an angry crowd, just the opposite. Every banner was thanks to something that President Obama had said in his 2008 campaign: “It’s time to end the tyranny of war…Under my administration, the rise of the oceans will begin to slow…,” that kind of thing. So it was a powerful, powerful day. And 4 days later the President said “…we will postpone making a decision on this for a year, that is postponing it until after the election.” I can tell you for sure that Mitt Romney said that his first action as President would be to approve this pipeline and tap more heavily into those Canadian tar sands. We don’t know what will happen with the President—there are no guarantees one way or the other. Though we’ve learned one very happy lesson from that work: we could stand up to the Fossil fuels industry—even with all their money (they are the biggest industry on Earth). We are forced to recognize the limits of that approach, in that there are simply too many pipelines, too many oil wells, too many coal mines, to go after them 1 by 1, and end global warming in the short time that physics and chemistry allows us. And so our thought was that we needed to get more directly at the fossil fuel industry itself—try and put a dent in it. So this year, beginning the night after the election in Seattle, and continuing for 25 nights in 25 cities across the country, we will be doing this road show that will attempt to spark this new movement to take on the fossil fuels industry as a whole. One of the places it will be aiming very strongly at is colleges and universities, in part because they have often sewn endowments, invested in stocks of various of kinds, and we are going to be asking that they not make new investments in fossil fuels, and over the course of the next 5 years, when it’s prudent to do so, that they slowly sell their stock in Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Peabody Coal and the other fossil fuel industries. We need to do this because we need to put some pressure on these guys; we need to get to them to stop blocking progress on climate change. At the moment, they’ve been able, in Washington for 20 years, to prevent anything from happening, especially they’ve been able to prevent the one thing economists have called for over and over again, which is the serious price on carbon—something that would reflect the damage that it does in the atmosphere. If we could get that, we could put up serious prices on carbon, and markets could go to work in helping to solve this problem, but now markets can’t because they have no information regarding carbon. This is the only industry allowed to pour out its waste for free and hence that waste, CO2, which traps the heat in the planet, which would otherwise radiate back out into space, which is the essential problem behind climate change—it just keeps accumulating. And so we need to take these guys on strongly, and I hope that some of you will start investigating, figuring out whether there are opportunities on your campus and surrounding campuses to do that work and at other institutions—your churches and things like that. There’s no guarantee that any of this will work, this is a very powerful industry and the science is pretty dark, it must be said—things are happening very fast, but the stakes are so high that anything that can change the odds, and we think this could, is really important. The precedent, the lesson on which we draw, the last time anybody tried an approach like this, was 25 years ago when there was a big movement on campuses across America to divest from companies who were doing business in south Africa and it was very difficult. It lasted a while, but it had a significant effect on places like the University of California system to divest 3 billion dollars in companies that did business in South Africa, and the one result was that when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison—his first foreign trip he came to the US—he didn’t go to the Whitehouse first, or the State Department, but to those campuses, where people had done this work. And he wanted to say thank you. He said, “We south Africans liberated ourselves, but you guys were a real help!” We need that same kind of story here, and let’s hope that we can get it. Well you know what, I’ll just close so we can do some questions, but I’ll close with 2 stories from those arrests that we did in Washington last year, those big civil disobedience actions. It was very simple, simple disobedience. We did 2 things when we sent a letter out asking people to come. 1 was…I didn’t think that college students should have to be cannon fodder here. If you’re 22 right now in our economy, an arrest record may not be the most useful thing on your resume. One of the few advantages to growing older is, after a certain point, what the hell are they going to do to you? And so it was really good to see older people coming. Now we did not ask people as they got arrested, “How old are you?” That would be rude. Now you can cleverly say, “Who was President when you were born?” The 2 biggest groups came from the FDR and Truman administration, so that gives you some sense that your elders are beginning to step up and hopefully your professors, and administrators and things will be stepping up and helping out. The second thing we did when people came was say, “Please, if you’re going to come here and take part in this, be in a jacket and tie or wear a dress.” We wanted to make a visual statement, and the statement was: There’s nothing radical about what we’re asking for—just the opposite. We’re asking for a world that works a little bit like the one that we were born onto, and that’s really, if you think about it, a conservative demand, not a radical one. Radicals work in all kinds of ways—If you are willing to get up in the morning and alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere, in order to amass record wealth, then you’re a radical in a way that no human before you has been. 

All the things that we can do around us are important. All the initiatives that are going on on campuses like yours are important. I have no doubt that there is a good recycling effort, and people are building new energy efficient buildings…maybe there are zip cars in the lot, maybe people are working on bicycling... All of that is extremely important and I commend you. But the message that I’m trying to give you tonight is that given the short time we have, and the amount of terrain we have to cover, you can’t actually make the ramp work quite that way. You also have to have structural change, and so that’s what we’re aiming for—and that structural change means dealing with the fossil fuel industry. I wrote a Rolling Stone article earlier this year and it turned into, I think, the most widely shared article I’ve ever had, 115,000 likes on Facebook, so now I feel very likeable. The point of the story was just what we’re really up against—before the global temperature increases by 2 degrees more, which even the most conservative governments think we can get away with (we’ve already raised it 1, and that’s melted the arctic, so 2 wont be good). If the whole temperature increases to that, we can only put about 565 more gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. A gigaton is a billion tons. We burn 31 gigatons a year on average, and now that’s going up about 3% a year, which means that gives us about 16 years. The really depressing number in that article was that a bunch of financial analysts in the UK had done the work to figure out how much carbon the big oil companies, and the countries that operate fossil fuel companies, like Venezuela and Kuwait—how much they had in their reserves. The answer was that they had 2,795 gigatons—5X as much as even the most conservative governments say would be safe. In other words, it’s like if the drinking and driving limit is .08, and maybe you can drink a 6 pack in the course of an evening and still, maybe, if you’re kind of fat, get away under that limit, just barely. It’s not wise, it’s not recommended. You may get a way with it—just like we may get away with 2 degrees. If that 2 deg is .08 and the 565 gigatons is the 6pack, then the fossil fuel industry has already popped the top on five 6-packs and they’re chugging them down. Think about the words we would use to describe their condition: wasted, trashed, wrecked, totaled. That’s what will happen to the planet, and the hangover lasts not a few days but geologic time. We are taking away, in essence, the fossil fuel industries’ social license—its’ license to keep on doing what they’ve been doing, and that work inherently involves coming together to demand real structural change. We can not do it 1 by 1, one place at a time, and so I hope that some of you have been moved to investigate 350.org and other things like it, and to get involved a little bit in this fight—we’d love to have you. It is the most important battle that’s ever been. Its more important for you than it is for me. I’ve, if I’m lucky, got another 25 years on this planet—you all have 60 or 70.  And if you get into this fight you will have the one thing I can guarantee: plenty of colleagues, comrades, all over the world. I’ve been in every corner of the world in the last 4 years, in every place—including those countries with people who’ve done nothing to cause this problem because they don’t burn enough fossil fuel. There are lots of people ready to go to work. I cant guarantee that we’ll win, but I can guarantee that we’ll fight, and that it will be an important fight, and it will be an honor to be a part of and to see how it turns out. So I thank you all very much for your attention, and if you have questions or things I’ll try to answer them but I also know that you’ve got local organizers there with important things to say, and I want to make sure that I get off the screen in plenty of time to let the really, more important, work go on—but thank you all very much.

 

Applause

 

Bart Bartels:

Bill, thank so much. Every time I hear you, it’s just a little more powerful than the time before, and of course your information seems to be more precise, just spot on every time I hear you. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to our group today. How about another round of applause?

 

Applause

 

Bart Bartels:

And as he’s mentioned, he’s now willing to take some questions, so if any of you are interested in asking a question to someone called the…what was it earlier, Bill? The country’s most important environmentalist—it is your chance.

 

Bill McKibben:

Don’t believe everything you read!

 

Bart Bartels:

I guess I can kick things off with a question while everyone here is thinking of something to ask. My question would be—if I could put my climate skeptic hat on, and I haven’t had that on since, I think, since I read your first book. But for a climate skeptic, what do you think is the most understood notion that’s purported out there but completely false?

 

Bill McKibben:

Well, the most understandable notion is the idea that maybe what we see around us is natural cycle, because the Earth does change over time. There have been past ice ages, and periods warm enough that dinosaurs were wandering around in the North Pole…and when I wrote “The End of Nature” in 1989 that was what scientists were still trying to figure out. They were looking for what an engineer would call “the signal through the noise.” Can they find the steady rising signal of global temperature? But in the mid 1990s, scientists were convinced. But it is hard for the rest of us to get our minds around it, just because we seem small, and the world seems large—but the truth is we’re now putting out endlessly larger amount of CO2 than, say, volcanoes do anymore. We’ve become the most powerful physical force on this planet—I haven’t had the chance to track down the statistic yet, and it may not be possible but I’ve been close…each year, the coal and gas we burn represents about 3million years worth of biology—3 million years worth of dinosaurs, ferns, plankton, dying and being compressed, and so the weird thing is that we can burn all that carbon in the atmosphere and not have an effect…

 

Bart Bartels:

Anyone else? Do you want to come up and ask? Why not? Laughs.

 

Gary:

Hello Bill, I’m Gary, good to see you again. I have a question about another misconception, I think, is that science will save us, that there is an engineer someplace, maybe in this college, that is going to come up with a solution so we don’t have to worry, because there will be some miracle like there have been miracles in the past—that have solved major problems for us. Are we any closer to anything like that? Should we live in hope?

 

Bill McKibben:

They’ve produced much of the science that we need. There were a few days earlier in this summer when Germany, which is the one country that has even taken this halfway seriously, when Germany, industrial powerhouse, generated more than half their power from solar panels within its borders. To me, that’s a pretty big indication that our problem is not technological, as much as it is political. Even countries that are burning lots of carbon—China now produces more CO2 than the US, although, in per capita terms, we remain on top. China now produces about 25% of the hot water that people use from solar rays on the roof—that’s huge, a big business there. In the US that number is less than 1 %. Most of it is used to heat swimming pools, and so we’re not making progress like we need to. But the technology is not the stumbling block—it’s the power of the fossil fuel industry that gets in the way.

 

Terry:

It seems like 5 billion people would produce a lot less carbon than 7 billion, so your organization and activities…have you focused any activities towards this problem?

 

Bill McKibben:

In my own work, I wrote a book about population called “Maybe One,” but I think that population is actually—is one of the places that we can say we’ve really turned some corners. You know, 30 years ago, the average woman in this world had 6 children, now that number is 2.4 and continuing to fall. We will see some population increase over the next 30 to 40 years, but that’s just because of what we call “Demographic Momentum”—young people coming into their child bearing years. Even if they only have 1 or 2 kids apiece, the population grows some. There’s really not a way around it at the moment.

It turned out that any place in the world where you educate women and empowered them, birth rates just dropped like a rock. The question for us is what thing will do that same trick for consumption rates—the rate at which we use stuff. The other thing to know about population growth is, of course, most of it will come, as you know, in places that use very little carbon. A statistic I saw stated the average American uses more energy between midnight on New Years Eve and dinner on January 2 than the average African uses in the course of a year. So you can have almost an infinite number of Tanzanians without screwing up the climate—it’s consumption that you really have to worry about.

 

Bart Bartels:

Great. Anybody else? Bill, sorry if you were lacking in the audience participation—they had to mute the microphone for a while during the talk, so if you’re wondering why some of your lines didn’t get the laugh that they usually do, that was why.

 

Audience Member:

I was just wondering if you would know if it would be more proactive to—I know neither of them are bad—but what would be better: to use less energy, or to use renewable energy, or to go on the opposite end and plant a tree?

 

Bill McKibben:

There are really 3 options there, and all of them are good. The 1st one, use less energy, conservation efficiency, is the easiest way to make really rapid progress and the reason is, we waste an insane amount of energy and you can tell that because the average American uses twice as much energy per capita as the average Western European, who lead lives that are at least as good as ours. Energy conservation is easy, and we’re just beginning to get the hang of it. It’s just beginning, but it’s very good to see that Detroit is hard at work trying to create automobiles that will get 50mpg. I’m in the market for a new car now and I see that the Ford Fusion Hybrid is supposed to be available in December; I would like that Ford Fusion. Renewable energy is also very important for the reasons I’ve described. We’re going to need to power our lives somehow, and one of the very good things about electric cars, and that kind of stuff, is that we can power them straight off the sun and wind—we don’t need to burn things to get there. Planting trees is also useful. Trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Our problem is that there isn’t enough land mass left to plant the trees needed. It doesn’t hurt, but it isn’t a silver bullet either. In fact, there really are no silver bullets for this—our hope is that there is enough silver buckshot lying around, and that if we can pick it up, we’ll have enough.

 

Bart Bartels:

That’s great, thanks very much. I think that’s it for the questions on this end.

 

Bill McKibben:

Thank you guys so much and I hope that you’ll go check out 350.org, if for no other reason than to see what people your age are able to accomplish. It’s been a great pleasure of mine to get to work almost exclusively with young people for a long time now, and you guys are going to have to deal a large degree with this, and the rest of us will help you as much as we possibly, possibly can. So thank you very much.

 

Bart Bartels:

We sure will. Thank you, once again, Bill McKibben.

Page last modified January 3, 2013