Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
Climate Stability First
by Bill McKibben
In a certain sense, my lifework is frustratingly abstract: trying to reach national and international accords that would slow the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. It's not nearly as satisfying, even for me, as building strong local economies and farming networks, or aiding real people in dire need of real and immediate help.
But it is, I fear, crucial work that undergirds those other efforts. What we're trying somehow to do is keep the basic operation of the planet on course so that we actually have some hope of getting around to those other tasks. That background stability has marked the 10,000 years of human civilization, the period that scientists call the Holocene. But we've emerged from the Holocene now -- our great fossil fuel binge of the last two centuries has added enough carbon dioxide to the air that temperatures have begun an abrupt and rapid rise. And we can feel the consequences already: the summer of 2010, for instance, was the most brutal in history across the northern hemisphere, with nineteen nations setting new temperature records. (It got hotter in Asia than it had ever been before -- 129 degrees in Pakistan in early June.) The results weren't pretty: fires and drought spread across Russia, and immense floods wracked Pakistan.
But the consequences of those events are what I want to focus on. In Russia, the Kremlin announced that it would not export any grain this year and perhaps next -- this from the world's third largest grain exporter. The price of corn jumped 70 percent in less than two months, and around the world people were unable to afford dinner; food riots began to break out, as they had two years earlier. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, by early October the New York Times was reporting that the number of homeless from the floods may have topped 7 million. What I'm trying to say is that these kinds of events -- precisely the kind climatologists warn about and that every model says will become more prevalent in the years ahead -- make development impossible. Nothing that anyone has done this summer to aid the poor can compensate for the damage we've done simply by raising the temperature.
There is no way to repair and heal while we're still inflicting damage. And we will inflict damage as long as we burn fossil fuel, and we will burn fossil fuel as long as we keep allowing the oil and coal companies to pour their waste into the atmosphere for free. And we'll keep doing that as long as we don't stand up politically to the power of that industry. Therefore, my conclusion: whatever else you're doing, you need to save a little bit of energy for joining the fight for climatic stability. At 350.org we work with folks in the hunger movement, in the justice movement, people enmeshed in the fight for women's rights, and the struggle for peace -- people who understand that every other cause on the planet ultimately rests on the background staying in the background, instead of overwhelming every other concern.
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and founder of 350.org.
Source Citation: McKibben, Bill. 2011. Climate Stability First. Tikkun 26(1): 56