Bill McKibben – Our Strange New Eaarth

June 18, 2010

Global warming, we’re often told, is an issue we must address for the sake of our grandchildren. We need to cut carbon because of our moral obligation to future generations.

But according to Bill McKibben, that’s a 1980s view. As McKibben writes in his new book Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, the increasingly open secret is that global warming happened already. We’ve passed the threshold, and the planet isn’t at all the same. It’s less climatically stable. Its weather is haywire. It has less ice, more drought, higher seas, heavier storms. It even appears different from space.

And that’s just the beginning of the earth-shattering changes in store—a small sampling of what it’s like to trade a familiar planet (Earth) for one that’s new and strange (Eaarth). We’ll survive on this sci-fi world, this terra incognita—but we may not like it very much. And we may have to change some fundamental habits along the way.

Eaarth, argues McKibben, is our greatest failure.

Bill McKibben is a former staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, and author of the famous 1989 book The End of Nature, as well as over a dozen other works. He is currently a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, and founder of the global warming grassroots organization, which lobbies for tougher climate policies. In 2009, the group conducted what CNN later called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 18th, 2010. 

Welcome the point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest this week is the celebrated writer and climate change activist Bill McKibben, author of the famous 1989 book The End of Nature, in over a dozen other works of S. Bill on to talk about his new book entitled Earth, and that’s with two A’s Making Life on a Tough New Planet. The book is getting rave reviews right now and prompting a powerful wave of discussion. And no wonder. It argues that globe warming has already delivered us a dramatically changed planet, a different, less hospitable home. This is not an issue for the future. This already happened. So it’s not a happy tale. But I think we only to hear from Bill about just how bad things have gotten. How they got so bad and whether we may have to change the very patterns of our lives in response. Bill McKibben is a former staff writer for The New Yorker. He’s currently a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont and founder of the global warming grassroots group 350 Dawg, which lobbies for tougher climate policies. In 2009, the group conducted with CNN later called the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history. 

Bill McKibben welcomed the point of inquiry. 

Chris. Very, very good to be with you. 

It’s a true pleasure to have you on to talk about your new book, Earth, which I just stayed up late reading, I have to say. And I found it pretty powerful, but that’s not the best adjective. The best adjective, I think, is intense. Let me quell those emotions for a moment, though, and ask you a very mundane question at the outset. Maybe I’m too literal minded, but you spell Earth in the title with two aims. What does the other a stand for? 

Well, first of all, you have to have to pronounce it correctly. You’ve got it. Oh, yes. 

Schwarzenegger you know, the conceit is merely that I wanted a way of getting across that we live on a new planet, not the one we think we inhabit. Yes, it has the correct number of continents. Yes, gravity applies. But in fundamental ways, it’s already begun to shift as we’ve poured so much carbon into the atmosphere. So, you know, the oceans are 30 percent more acid. The air is five percent moister, which means we get these incredible day, Lucias. The temperature is higher, a lot higher. It’s not easy and benign planet that we knew during the Holocene. 

The Holocene is over. We’re on to what comes next. 

And that’s the Anthropocene. Right. And I thought maybe the day was anthropogenic or. Here you go. 

That works just fine. 

Well, it’s a really lyrical book. And you start out with this incredible remembrance of the famous image taken from Apollo eight in 1968 of what’s been called the Earthrise, which is earth rising above the landscape of the moon as they saw it from the ship. And you you say we’re actually changing something as massive as the image of the planet from space. We’ve marred the Earthrise. 

That Arctic up there has about 40 percent less ice than it did in midsummer 1968. The Earth looks very, very different to the naked eye, which is pretty astonishing. If you stop to think about it. 

Well, there’s the Arctic can tell us about some of the other massive fundamental planetary features. 

Well, pretty much name a major feature of the planet and it’s going haywire. Everything frozen on earth is melting. High altitude glaciers point most desperately, perhaps the permafrost beneath tundra. It doesn’t. You don’t see anything melting. What you see is the if you have the right equipment, the flow of methane, S.H. four into the atmosphere. Another potent greenhouse gas. I think the thing that people are really starting to notice just in everyday life all over the world are these wicked changes in hydrological cycles. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold. That may turn out to be the key physical fact of this century we’re now entering. That means that what goes up must come down. We get these incredible flooding downpours. I described one that darn near washed my town away in the summer 2008. But something like that happens every place around the world these days. Some someplace. You know, six weeks ago it was Nashville, Tennessee. They had what meteorologists described as the thousand year storms. Hard to imagine even how you figure out what the thousand year storm is. Two weeks later, Guatemala, first tropical storm of the year, Agatha drops absolutely record amounts of precipitation. Hundreds of people die. Three days ago, it was Arkansas. More rain than they’d ever gotten up in the, what, Cheetah Mountains. And what do you know, campgrounds that have always been safe before. Lee, deathtraps this morning now is the news, it’s Oklahoma City, nine inches of rain in the last few hours. Cars flooded everywhere, streets closed. It’s a new kind of world. That rain is falling on a different world than the one we used to inhabit. Which is why it’s having new and unprecedented and dangerous effect. 

I think increasingly people across the United States are starting to have these sorts of stories. My family owns a house in Flagstaff, Arizona. And the snowfall is just so heavy that it collapsed the carport this last you know, and of course, the house that had never happened before. It had been there for 30 years. But these are all anecdotes. How do you go from the anecdote to the argument that this is systematic? 

I wanted I mean, in a sense, the argument and the data has always been there. It’s almost the anecdote that you just ones just sort of using to illustrate it. You know, on the broader scale, it’s extraordinarily clear what’s going on. I mean, the and it’s pretty easy to measure the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. It’s five percent more than it was 40 years ago. Think about what kind of change that is in one of the most basic physical parameters we could imagine. You measure the chemistry of seawater. That’s about as basic a measurement as you’re likely to make. It’s P.H.. It’s 30 percent more acid already. You know, organisms at the bottom of the marine food chain are having a tough time making their living hard to make shells in that kind of corrosive environment. 

All the big scale stuff, all the science is profoundly there. The only thing that’s not there yet is the kind of political action that will follow real public recognition of what’s going on. 

And I want to ask you more about what we can do. But first, let me alert listeners that Bill McKibben is new book Earth, or if I’m pronouncing it Rediker, this one finger is available through our Web site point of inquiry dot org. I want to also step back and give a little context for your argument, because 20 years ago, as you note in the book, you wrote The End of Nature. Much noticed a book and you warned us about global warming. And so at about the same time, did James Hansen, the famous climatologist standing before Congress and now with your organization, 350 Morgan, with your book, you’re telling us we’re past the point of no return again, Hansen is saying pretty much the same thing. Is he the scientist that you primarily sort of are in sync with in terms of your sense of just how up a creek. We really are? 

Well, I think by now an awful lot of the scientific community is pretty much in sync. But no question that Jim Hansen has been the pioneer right from the beginning. He’s our most important climatologist. Not only that, he’s the oldest, you know, the most willing to just get up and say what the data’s saying and to put it in terms that people can understand. So, you know, for many reasons, real, outstanding citizen. He and his team in January of 08 published a paper that said 350 parts per million CO2 is the most we can safely have in the atmosphere if we want a planet. How did they put it similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted? Which strikes me as something we do want. And the problem is we’re already well past 350 to about 390, two parts per million CO2 out there today and rising about two parts per million per year. That’s why the Arctic is melting. That’s why this is not a problem for your grandchildren. It’s a problem for right now. It’s true that we’re past that point. It’s also true that we could get back to it if we acted with great nimbleness and speed and resolve, if we made in very short order the transition off fossil fuel, then the Earth would slowly, too slowly suck that carbon back down into the oceans and forests. By century’s end, we’d be nearing 350 parts per million again, with a lot of damage done in the meantime, but perhaps not a kind of civilization scale challenge. The problem is, if we don’t make that transition soon, we won’t be able to make it. There’ll be so much carbon in the atmosphere, the temperature will have gone up so much that things like this methane loss from the Arctic will be kicking in and driving this cycle. And the kind of automatic fashion, the temperature of the planet so far as increased about one degree. That’s enough to do all those things I’ve described. But the climatologists tell us unless we get our act together fast, we’re looking at five, six, seven degrees before the century is out. That’s, you know, if one degree melts the Arctic. We sure as hell don’t want to find out what five degrees does. 

And I just you know, I agree with you that the scientific community is growing more in the James Hansen mold. You know, the more you talk to them, the more you find out that they’re they’re really saying. But there probably are some pretty serious researchers who think that Hanson is a little bit too alarmist. Do you think that that’s fair to say? Ah, no. 

You know, it’s funny. I don’t think in the two years that it’s been out, I haven’t read a serious temperate any challenge to paper challenging the 350 number as the best approximation of what we got of where we should be going? 

Well, in any case, the precautionary argument is really incredibly powerful in this context. 

So at this point, it’s you know, it’s it’s sort of the precautionary ileum. It’s more like the guy, you know, just like standing directly in front of the collapsed bridge, waving his arms, trying to get you to stop. You know, it’s not a very theoretical philosophical point anymore. 

Well, let’s assume that you and Hansen are on the science, right. And you make the point really eloquently. It’s really convincingly. And you even say, you know, global warming didn’t read the invitation correctly. It showed up at four for the reception instead of six. I don’t think I’ll I’ll forget soon. But why did we get it so wrong? How do we manage to so underestimate when it was going to when it’s going to go in first place? 

Is efficiency immensely complicated problem and atmospheric chemistry and physics. You know, you’ve got more moving parts than just about anything else. So, I mean, in a sense, it’s amazing that we basically got it right. You know, 20 years ago, we knew everything we needed to know. The only thing we didn’t know was how quickly it was going to happen. And scientists and maybe all of us, or in that sense, by nature, conservative, you know, you don’t want to ever over interpret the data and you don’t want to freak people out, maybe including yourself. So scientist after scientists that I’ve known for a quarter century, you know, they’ve always been concerned and alarmed. But really, it’s only in the last three or four years that when you talk to them on the phone, there’s more than a note of panic in their voice. 

And yet still, you give this litany of all the people who say we’ve got to do something about global warming for the sake of our grandchildren. 

Yeah, well, politicians are, in my experience, slow off the mark. You know, they’re responding to signals that they got 20 years ago and their understanding of problems doesn’t always change very quickly compared with the with the data. Also, as long as it’s a problem located in the future, they can justify scant action at the moment, minimal action when what we need right now, because it’s the only point where we’re going to have real leverage over the outcome is maximal action. 

You know, and I think the way that point most hits home is when you talk about how our vulnerability keys on infrastructure. I don’t think people stop to think enough about how much our civilization is set up to assume a particular kind of planet, a particular kind of temperature, and how much you could all come tumbling down if the weather or the sea level or something else were to change dramatically. 

Yeah, that’s right. The shear sunk cost what economists would call sunk cost of investment in infrastructure is overwhelming. And if it becomes literally sunk cost, you know, if sea level rises or the sheer dollar cost of trying to do a thing about it is really beyond calculation. You know, most of our great cities are built along the ocean. Our other great cities tend to be built along rivers. Now much more vulnerable to flooding on and on and on. One of the places where you can sort of see this pinching already and I write about it a little in the book because I think it’s something people don’t quite understand. A dynamic modern economy depends very much on the ability to hedge risk. You know, a task that we assign the insurance industry to figure out ways to underwrite that kind of risk. And the tool they use the actuarial table is one of the exquisite technologies that humans ever developed. It allows enough predictive capacity to make that risk hedging a rational proposition. The only trouble with this piece of technology is that it depends on the world behaving in the future, more or less as it behaved in the past. And when you start changing it dramatically, boy, things get in trouble quickly. We’re already seeing homeowners along, say, the Gulf states that are hurricane vulnerable. Having an enormous trouble getting anyone to sell them insurance. They’re increasingly having to turn to the state as an insurer of last resort. A proposition that’s probably very dicey when the big ones start to hit. That’s the kind of thing that begins to really, really pinch. 

And this is, of course, why the insurance industry actually cares a lot about global warming. You know, industry is not usually interested in my books. But when I wrote a book about hurricanes and global warming, I did get invited by insurance industry groups to come and talk about. 

There you go. There you go. Now, there from the beginning. 

It’s especially the European insurers who realized early on that this was a really serious threat, probably because they’re among the few, you know, relatively few industries whose timeline, you know, really works more than a few quarters out there. Literally in it for the long haul as they underwrite lifetime’s worth of projects. 

Well, another industry or company that was supposed to be way ahead of things was was BP. And I really wonder, in light of your arguing about infrastructure and peak oil, we didn’t actually talk about it. But I mean, how you would interpret an event that you couldn’t have put in the book because it happened after. 

Well, look, what does it tell you? We’re out of easy to get that oil and there isn’t any left. So now we’re doing ludicrous things. I mean, you know, there they were a mile beneath the surface of the earth with no idea what to do. I mean, you look at what’s happened for the last six weeks, you know, one crazy Rube Goldberg, all we’re going to do, top hat. No, no. We’ll do junk shot. No, no, we’ll do top kill. You know, one after another. Their emergency plan clearly was to not have any emergencies. And it’s a mark of our desperation for that oil and depth of our addiction that not only did it happen, but it’s worth remembering that two weeks before it happened, Barack Obama announced that we were going to be doing a lot more of it. It’s folly of a large sort, but a predictable swerve to hopefully it’ll be the moment when Obama decides to do some real teaching. When he tells us, look, that flak still you see behind me here in the Gulf is as ugly as sin. And we’re gonna do everything we can to clean it up. But you also have to understand that if that oil had made it safely to shore and been refined and put in the gas tanks of our cars burned, it still would have caused an environmental catastrophe, maybe a deeper one. One that’s invisibly destroying every she all of the seven seas. If that message could somehow get crushed and there’ll be something good to come of all of this. But at the moment, it stands as a pretty remarkable testimony to our addiction and our hubris. 

Well, I wish that you were a speechwriter, assuming that you’re not. But that’s a pretty good transition to going from the spill to climate policy. In fact, let’s let’s talk about policy and the Obama administration and all this. In early 2009, the start of the Obama years, I wrote an article about how, you know, we’re going to get a cap and trade bill within a couple months and then we’ll be ready to go to Copenhagen with something to show for it. And we’ll make U.S. policy into essentially global policy. And then we’ll start dealing with a lot of people felt that was going to happen. It obviously didn’t. If it had, would you have been at least partly satisfied or you would’ve thought that was not really even a drop in the bucket? 

Oh, it would have helped. You know, we’re going to at this point if anything helps. Basically, we’re all spinning our wheels right now. The U.S. needs to get in gear first so that the other countries can fall in line. So I think some of those other countries are willing to do it. That’s our sense at 350 North where we’ve organized the first big global climate movement. It’s very good to see the participation. We’ve had one hundred and seventeen nations now that have endorsed that 350 target. They’re just the wrong hundred and seventeen nations. 

Well, I kind of feel like in some sense your book has to be thought of as a post Copenhagen book. I think that there was this hope in the Obama years that at least something would happen. And now we’re sort of mid Obama years. Copenhagen ends up delivering nothing with any teeth. And you really have to say it’s time to hunker down. 

Yeah. Well, look, we’ve got two jobs. One of them is, as I see it, one of them is to develop communities and things that can deal with what’s coming at them. And that’s not an easy job. The world’s going to get harder. It turns out that our banking system isn’t the only thing too big to fail. Our agriculture system and our energy system is top heavy and vulnerable and brittle as the banking system wants. That’s job one. And that’s much what I write about in the book job, too. And I spend all my time with 350 dot org is to make sure that we are simultaneously slow, as fast as we possibly can, the flow of carbon into the atmosphere, because there comes a point at which even the most prepared community or country is going to be helpless. Look, we talked before about how the current one degree increase in temperature could easily become five six. Seven before the centuries out. You can be the best prepared organic farmer with the most terrific local food network and whatever on earth. And if it rains 30 days in a row, you’re out of luck. If it never rains, you’re out of luck. And those are the kind of things that we’re increasingly seeing around the world. 

You write that new planets require new habits. And then you argue strongly, you know, as I think you’ve already said, we need to give up on the idea of continuing robust economic growth because it’s precisely that philosophy that got us to this point. You say we’ve got to live smaller, more sustainably. But, I mean, you saw how the economic crisis choked off attention to climate change and set us back. 

Do you really think we can change that incredible drive to grow, grow, grow? 

I don’t know. I, I think that that’s probably the key question. It’s not a drive that’s marked us forever. You know, it’s in many ways a relatively recent invention. The idea that we were going to try to make economies bigger all the time. And the reason for that inventions clear to a certain point, it actually helps. And people get, you know, healthier and happier and so on past a certain point, that effect dies away. That’s what I’ve written a lot about in recent years. And you’re left with just the downsides, the environmental trouble and in many ways, the social dislocation that comes with that growth. Forty years ago, those guys at the Donella Meadows and people who wrote the first limits to growth reported them mighty. Everybody scoffed at them and scorned them. And whatever the point, it’s looking like they called it pretty darn well when you melt the Arctic. That’s a poor sign. You know, to sign it, you’re running into some pretty fundamental limits. 

But this brings up the topic of green energy where I sense the sort of ambiguity, I mean, not the year against it, but rather that, you know, you’re afraid that people are going to throw their hope behind the next kind of growth. It’ll be green growth rather than brown or dirty growth. But you’re afraid that it will actually. I mean, what are you afraid of? That it will be a bubble, too, or that it will make us. 

I, I, I’m not I don’t think exactly afraid of it. I just don’t think it’s going to. I don’t think we’re going to have one for one replacement. I don’t think we’re going to rip the internal combustion engine out of the big machine and toss in a windmill and just sail on as before. You know, 80 miles an hour. I think we’re gonna have to think fundamentally about what that new world looks like. Renewable energy is different than fossil energy. Instead of being incredibly concentrated, indention BTC is it’s scattered, dispersed, diffused, omnipresent, but never overpowering. And the logic of the world that works on it is a much more spread out, distributed world than the one that we’re used to. The world looks the way it does, Chris. In large measure, because of the particular properties of fossil fuel, that’s what’s driven the economic transformation of the last couple of hundred years. It stands to reason that without that, we’ll need to look differently. 

A few months back, we had on the air a guy named Eli Kintisch, a science reporter for science. I don’t know if you know his book. It’s called Hack the Planet. It’s about geo engineering. And I know you know a lot about that. Yeah. Jessica Goodell’s book, too, this. 

You know, it’s really interesting because in some sense, the same sense of fear and maybe even despair that it’s driving. I think you is also driving the Would-Be geoengineers because they’re both saying this problem has gotten beyond control. And they say, well, you both agree on the size of the problem. You just disagree vastly, I guess, on the response. 

Well, I don’t you know, I didn’t listen. I didn’t hear your interview with Eli. Go back and listen to it. I had dinner with Jeff last week. I think all the people I know who were most interested in geoengineering would say two things. One, boy, there’s absolutely no great reason to think it’s going to work and that, you know, you’d be smart to study it as fast as we can and figure out what the possibilities are. But it looks laden with the chances of huge and horrible side effects. And many of the schemes, ocean fertilization and things just seem like they’re not going to work in any event, even if finishes. The other thing they all keep saying, even if we’re gonna do it, we have to simultaneously and radically cut carbon emissions. That’s the best. It buys us a little time. So, you know, to me, it’s the kind of thing that you have behind the glass when all else fails and things are really unfair. It’s not the first resort. It’s maybe the last resort. But it’s so messy and at some level so crazy. You know, we filby. Atmosphere with carbon. So what’s our solution? Now let’s fill it with you know, it may come to some of this. But if it does, we’ve also got to be busily doing all his other work. 

Yeah, I think it just shows that we’re in this, you know, dire hour where, you know, on the one hand you’re saying get ready for new planet and the geoengineers zone. Not that far from. Yeah, no, absolutely. 

Well, again, I’d like to alert our listeners that Bill McEwan’s new book, Earth, is available through our Web site of Inquiry Gorog. And we’ll wrap up a couple final questions here for you. I have to tell you, reading the book to me, it felt like I was experiencing a sort of stunning act of negotiation between hope and despair. You know, you tell us we’ve we’ve destroyed the planet. And then you tell us that we’ve got to look forward to how to live on a new one. Are you sure that most readers or most people can move from one to the other and see see hope in downscaling life and downscaling our aspiration? 

You know, it’s a very interesting question. I mean, I wouldn’t have written the book any differently depending on the answer to that. I first, I guess obligation is tell the truth. But in the last couple of years, I’ve come to think that people really can’t deal with this kind of information. So we started this thing called 350, dawg. And I was very worried it was going to depress everybody because we’re already past 350. You know how gloomy it was that it turned out to be kind of the opposite. It’s sort of like the difference between going to the doctor and the doctor says someday your cholesterol will be too high, you know, take care, which no one pays any attention to. And going to the doctor and having the doctor say you’re in the heart attacks up to do something now, at which point many people do pay attention and change their lives. This 350 dot org thing that we have no money, really. It was all sort of a homemade effort has spread like wildfire. Last October 24th and our first big day of international action, we managed to coordinate 50, 200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries. CNN called it the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history on any issue all around this kind of wonky scientific data point. We’re having another huge global work party on the 10th of October, 10, 10, 10, and there’ll be people in thousands of communities around the world putting up solar panels, digging community gardens, not because we think we’re going to solve this thing. One solar panel at a time. But because we want to send a sharp political message to our leaders, we can get to work. You can get to work. If I can climb up on the roof of the school and hammer in a solar panel. You can be bothered to climb to the floor of the Senate and hammer out a little legislation. That’s the message we’re going to try to send. And I think it’s possible for people to hear it, even though there’s a lot of fear there, too, and a lot of noise as well. 

But I do have to commend you. I mean, I saw 350 dot org just sort of appear and then it was everywhere. I mean, you did something. You really lit a spark. Let me just one last question. You know, 20 years ago was the end of nature. Now, this book, what would your next book say in another time interval, 10 years, 20 years? If we still haven’t done anything? 

If we haven’t been anything, then. I’m not going to bother writing another of the next 10 or 20 years or are the key time. I mean, there won’t be one. All the damage appears, though. Much of it will. But there’ll be the time when we have maximum leverage left to do anything about it and passed. And if we haven’t done anything. Our options for really doing much are probably limited to things like geoengineering. It’ll be a great black mark against us. I’m afraid it will be a. I’m afraid it will be rather a powerful demonstration that perhaps the big brain wasn’t quite the adaptive mechanism it was cracked up to be. 

Wow. Ho ho hum that. Gosh. Well, thanks for using your big brain with me for the last 30 minutes has been really great to have you on point of inquiry. 

My great pleasure. And thank you for all your good work. 

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I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. For updates throughout the week on the subject of this show, please check out my blog at blogs, DOT. Discover magazine dot com slash intersection. Also to get involved in a discussion about Bill McKibben, his new book. Be sure to visit our online discussion forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org. 

One of inquiries produced by Atomizing and AMR’s New York and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Wayne. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney