Rob Parsons

Global Warning

How eco-author Bill McKibben motivated people to take action on climate changes

by Rob Parsons

April 24, 2008

Bill McKibben

"I'm going to depress you for a few minutes," was how noted environmental scholar and writer Bill McKibben began his Maui Community College appearance last week. "This rapid, rapid change in climate is big enough that it's worth reviewing the cataclysm."

About a hundred people packed into the newly remodeled MCC student lounge to hear McKibben's talk about climate change. A scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, McKibben traveled to Maui to participate in MCC's three-day program of environmental presentations, in association with the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui.

Four days later, hundreds more gathered at an Earth Day celebration at Baldwin Beach Park, joining hands to convey McKibben's latest urgent warnings on global climate change to a worldwide audience.

McKibben has authored a dozen books, on topics ranging from global warming to local communities, and from population dynamics to genetic engineering. In 1989 he published his first book, The End of Nature. It's hailed as the first tome to reach a general audience about climate change.

Since 1995 the scientific community has known that global warming was real, he noted. Since then there has been endless peer review but precious little action to correct it. The 10 hottest years in recorded history have all occurred since 1995. The predicted effects are larger, and happening faster than we originally understood.

"A one degree temperature change has sent the planet into a tizzy and it could be five degrees by the end of this century," McKibben said at MCC. "Mosquitoes love it and may spread to new regions, carrying with them malaria, dengue fever, and West Nile virus." A dengue outbreak in Rio de Janeiro killed 87 people as of last week, and sickened nearly 100,000 others.

McKibben reported that last summer's Arctic ice melt was of historic proportions, with portions the size of California lost each week in August 2007. In fact, the Northwest Passage opened for the first time in human history.

The melting of ocean ice caps is troublesome for numerous reasons, including that it exposes dark water that absorbs, rather than reflects, the sun's light and heat. Should the 1.5 miles of ice covering Greenland melt, it could raise the world's oceans 25 feet. Greenland's glaciers are now exhibiting cracks and fissures, with melts "like Niagra Falls" pouring down and greasing the bottom of the glacier.

Many scientists now feel that the one- to three-foot ocean rise predicted over this century may have been a dramatic underestimate. McKibben noted that NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that a four- to six-meter (12- to 18-foot) rise in our oceans may be entirely possible.

McKibben said he's shifted his life from writing to organizing, at least for now. Beginning in January 2007, he and six college students set up an Internet site, StepItUp.org, demanding that Congress cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. The effort "took off like a virus," he said. By April 14, 2007, more than 1,400 global warming demonstrations took place across all 50 states.

On Maui, the Hawaii PV (photovoltaic) Coalition organized helicopter photos of demonstrators linking hands and holding signs at Baldwin Beach Park, as part of the StepItUp efforts. In the past few seasons, beach erosion undermined and claimed decades-old majestic ironwood and false makani trees at that very location.

"We have to very quickly get the whole world engaged in this process," McKibben warned. "We need a really strong international accord [to limit greenhouse gas emissions] within the next two years. Otherwise, we'll be dealing with the effects of global warming, rather than the causes."

To that point, McKibben has just launched another Internet campaign for climate change awareness. His new effort, 350.org, is based on a number he believes represents safety for the planet. In a Washington Post article published a few months ago, McKibben wrote that NASA scientist Hansen has indicated that the safe upper limit for atmospheric carbon dioxide is 350 parts per million (ppm), which we've already surpassed.

Pre-Industrial Revolution amounts are estimated at 275 ppm, with ample data available from sources such as ice corings. On the Mauna Kea summit atop the Big Island, carbon dioxide sampling began in 1958, with levels at 315 ppm. Now, 50 years later, those levels have climbed to 383 ppm. Greater concentration of CO2 and other so-called "greenhouse gasses" are responsible for trapping more of the sun's radiation within the Earth's atmosphere, creating the "greenhouse effect."

McKibben's passion for reversing these trends is apparent and contagious. "There's never been any more important task in human history," he said. "My goal is to tattoo the number 350 into every human brain. It represents safety."

He then drew a comparison with the CO2 target number, and a visit to a doctor who informs his patient that his cholesterol is high. "You know it's not going to kill you right away," he said. "But it places you at far greater risk. We need to change our lifestyle as a planet."

That means weaning ourselves from those fuels that produce millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions: coal, gas and oil.

The fastest growing technology in the world is wind, McKibben, who has solar panels on his Vermont home, said. "But I won't talk too long about technology. There's no lack of technology or engineers. What we lack is political will."

Germany leads the world in solar panel installation, with Japan second. This is not because they have more of that resource available, but because they have plenty of support from government leaders. By contrast, McKibben said the U.S. has "a 20-year bipartisan effort to accomplish nothing, and it's been 100 percent successful."

One audience member asked if there's such a thing as "clean coal."

"Coal is a great temptation," McKibben said. "It's cheap and easy to get at. They can produce electricity in China from coal for two cents per kilowatt. In Appalachia they are literally blowing the tops off mountains to get coal."

Of course, this results in acid rain and high mercury levels in fish, as well as humans.

"Remember, though, consumption is the big issue," McKibben added. "The `more is better' credo no longer works."

Asked about possible solutions, McKibben said local solutions are best, with local food as a powerful metaphor. He recommended his recent national bestselling book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and a Durable Future.

He also urged the audience to design local actions to bring attention to the 350.org initiative. He suggested a photo of 350 rooftops that could all benefit from solar panels, or perhaps 350 surfers. "Send me the photos," he said.

Two days later, four of those who had heard McKibben's talk paid for a banner. A quick collaboration was forged with organizers of the Baldwin Beach Park Earth Day festivities, including Bruce Douglas of Mandala Ethnic Arts in Paia.

By Sunday afternoon, hundreds of Maui residents stood on the beach, forming the numbers three, five, and zero, holding the banner aloft for a helicopter flyover. Reached by phone on his way to speak in Monterey, California, McKibben was clearly delighted to hear his message conveyed to a broader audience.

With a backdrop of local musicians, dancers, drummers, and environmental speakers, the Baldwin Beach event also drew two-dozen booths in the beach pavilion. Volunteers spread information about eco-efforts, Hawaiian sovereignty, genetic engineering, plants, foods and offered voter registration. The positive vibration carried into the early evening, with Mapenzi marimba band and Crazy Fingers among the many musicians who brought people to their feet to dance in the sand.

The challenge is to harness the energy and people power at such an event, and to inspire collaborative action and political change of sufficient impact for a planetary course correction.

Among those who heard McKibben's talk last week was Melanie Stephens of Olinda, one of those inspired to contribute to the effort and the cost of a banner. "I think it was the combination of the sense of serious urgency, coupled with a healthy dose of positivity," she said when asked why she stepped up. "We don't have much time to turn things around, so let's get together and support our elected representatives to make the tough, tough changes. For me, that's a message I can run with."

Maury King of Kihei agreed. "Bill is so bright and well informed about climate change issues," he said. "It's disappointing that like the recent Focus Green lecture series there weren't a lot of people there from the county or the electric utility. I think those people need to get a little more scared about the reality of things so they'll be prompted to act more quickly. On the positive side, I really like his new 350 campaign and I think it's great that we were able to be one of the first places on the planet to promote it."

Bill McKibben has been an astute educator for the past 25 years, tirelessly urging people to recognize the challenges before us and implement change. Wouldn't it be great to see the inspirational seed he planted last week on Maui take root and blossom for the entire world to see? That's up to all of us.