Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010

What It Will Take to Return the Globe to 350

by Bill McKibben

As much as I love the Network of Spiritual Progressives, I am not sure how much of a progressive I am. Seems to me that I spend almost all my time trying to keep things from changing, that in some deep sense I am a conservative—conserving the earth!

I wrote my first book about climate change, called The End of Nature, about twenty-one years ago. At the time we knew about everything we need to know about climate change. We knew that the molecular structure of carbon dioxide trapped heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. And we knew that by burning coal, gas, and oil we were putting a lot of that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The only thing we didn't know was how quickly it was going to pinch.

Being human, we hoped it would take a while and be someone else's problem to deal with. But it has happened much faster than we anticipated a few decades ago. So far human beings have raised the temperature of the earth about one degree, which doesn't sound like an enormous amount, but it turns out that it is. It also turns out that the planet was more finely balanced than we would have guessed. One degree, which translates to about two extra watts of solar energy per square meter of the earth's surface, is enough to cause very large changes. Everything frozen on earth is melting fast. This June the national sea ice data center said satellite measurements show that we are ahead of the record pace of 2007 for the Arctic melt this year. Looks like we may end up with even more open water than we have ever had.

The earth already looks entirely different from outer space than it did forty years ago when those pictures came back from Apollo. Because warm air holds more water vapor than cold air does, the earth's atmosphere is about 5 percent moister than it was forty years ago. Which is an astonishing change in a basic physical parameter in a very short period of time. Because of that, we are seeing not only wicked drought all over the world, but also deluges.

This past summer, drought in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates got so bad that the flow along the rivers past the Garden of Eden became insufficient to keep the salt front from the sea from pushing back in. According to a June 12, 2010, article from the New York Times, once that water is evaporated up into the atmosphere, it is going to come down, so we see these incredible, unprecedented deluges. This year Tennessee had what meteorologists called the "1,000-year storm," the kind of storm that now comes every day in some place around the world. The first tropical storm of 2010, "Agatha," dropped absolutely record rainfall on Guatemala, killing all kinds of people. And this June in Arkansas about eight inches of rain in a couple of hours pushed the level of streams up so high that at least twenty people died in the campgrounds along the river. That rain was falling on a different world than those cabins, campgrounds, and bridges were built in. It is no longer the same world; it is mismatched. We think we live on the one we used to, but now we live on the one where it can rain eight inches in a couple of hours.

Even temperature itself is just plain out of control. NASA said last week that we just lived through the warmest twelve months on record, and that calendar year 2010 is almost certain to be the warmest calendar year we know about.

People in India and Pakistan don't usually complain about the heat very much because it is always so hot there. But they are complaining now. India is coming through the worst heat wave since the British started keeping records sometime in the early nineteenth century. Pakistan set the all-time temperature record for Asia: it got to 129 degrees. Never been hotter. That's what the world feels like right now.

Political Failure ... So Far

This summer in the Senate, we claimed a victory of sorts because only forty-seven senators, including the entire Republican delegation, voted for a resolution saying that global warming wasn't real and that the EPA shouldn't be doing anything to regulate greenhouse gases. We managed to defeat that 153 to forty-seven, so that is the high-water mark of what we have accomplished.

Basically nothing has happened for twenty years. We have had a perfect bipartisan record of accomplishing nothing.

Barack Obama has done more in twenty-one months than all the presidents of the global warming era before him. He has done some of the things that we needed done. But I am afraid that it is sort of like saying, "I have drunk more beer than my twelve-year-old niece." The bar was set very low. Compared to the scale of what we need to do, almost nothing has happened. Clearly the political inclination of the people in the White House is to do as little as possible for the moment because we are up against the single most profitable enterprise that human beings have ever conducted. ExxonMobil made more money last year than any company in the history of money. So it is no wonder that it is difficult.

No wonder that even with the incredible stain spreading across the Gulf of Mexico, what we mostly talk about is putting better blowout preventers on or paying for the cleanup. It doesn't yet rise to the level where we can address the real questions raised by that. People keep calling it an oil spill. That seems incorrect to me, unless you are going to call a knife wound a kind of blood spill. They punched a hole in the bottom of the ocean with no idea how to fix it if something went wrong. Their emergency plan was not to have an emergency. And then they did. It should be the great teachable moment, the moment when we have the kind of transformation that we need. So far, not.

Building the Movement—Starting with One Writer

The only way we are going to change the situation is by building a political movement strong enough to make sure that it changes. By nature I am not an activist at all. I am a writer. I live out in the woods. I only really started to think about trying to do something more activist a few years ago. I went to Bangladesh, which is a beautiful place, one of my favorite countries, but a place that is going to be in big trouble from global warming. The Bay of Bengal is rising. The glaciers that feed the sacred rivers of Asia are dwindling fast. But when I was there they were having an acute problem, their first major outbreak of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease that is spreading like wildfire across Asia and South America because mosquitoes truly dig the warmer, wetter world that we are building. While I was there I was spending a lot of time in the slums, so I eventually got bit by the wrong mosquito myself, and I got dengue. I didn't die, because I was strong and healthy going in, but many other people do die of it.

I remember going down to the hospital. There was a ward bigger than this room. There were cots lined up as far as the eye can see with people shivering on them. People were on the floor between cots, shivering, because there weren't enough cots. And my main thought was, "How unfair is this?" There are 140 million people in Bangladesh, so half the population of the United States. But when the UN tries to measure how much carbon each country emits, you can't even get a number for Bangladesh. It is just a rounding error. People take bicycle rickshaws when they need to go someplace and they aren't going to walk. Almost no one is connected to the electrical grid. So this is not their fault. The 4 percent of the human race who live in the United States produce about 25 percent of the carbon dioxide. About 40 percent of global warming is our responsibility because we have been doing it for a long time. If there are one hundred people in that ward, at least twenty-five of them are on us.

When I came back from that I wanted to do more. But I didn't know what to do at all. As I say, I am a writer—we are kind of self—selected to sit in our rooms and type. We aren't good at this other kind of stuff. My initial plan was to call up my writer friends in Vermont and say: "Listen, here is what we are going to do—we are going to go up to Burlington. We are going to go up there and sit in on the steps of the Federal Building and get arrested, and there will be a story in the paper." Burlington is our main city, about 50,000 people—it's not so big, but it's all we have.

The other writers were as clueless as I was. They said, "All right, let's do that." Happily, one of them called up the police and asked them what would happen if we did this intrepid stunt. The police said: "Nothing will happen. Stay there as long as you want." So we had to recalibrate and I started sending out emails to people saying we were going to go for a walk. We left a couple of weeks later from Robert Frost's old summer writing cabin up in the Green Mountains, because he is kind of our patron saint. Off we walked. We slept in farm fields at night, and I called up all the Methodist Mafia so we had potluck suppers all along the way. That is kind of the Methodist sacrament. We got to Burlington after five days, and there were one thousand people marching.

You are all probably residents of cosmopolitan places, so that doesn't sound like much. But in Vermont, one thousand people is as many people as ever come out at one time in a single place, except maybe at University of Vermont hockey games. The march got everyone who was running for office to come down to meet with us and sign a piece of cardboard that we had been carrying across the countryside. The cardboard said, "If I am elected I will work to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050," which at the time was a very radical proposition. Only scientists were in favor of it, but the politicians all signed, even the woman who was running for congress on the GOP ticket and almost won. Two months before, when she started to run, she had said, "I am not sure global warming is real; more research needs to be done." It turned out that the research that needed to be done was on how many people would walk across Vermont and ask her to change her mind. Empirically, one thousand turned out to be enough. And she signed, which is great: that is what is supposed to happen.

The only problem was reading the paper the next day and seeing the paper saying that this thousand-person march was probably the largest demonstration about climate change that had yet taken place in the United States. I read that and thought, "Good God, no wonder we keep losing." We have all the kind of super-structure of a movement: we have Al Gore, scientists, policy people, economists, all the people you would need for a movement. The movement part is the only part we left out. So we asked ourselves, can we build this? And we decided to try to see if we could. By "we" I mean seven undergraduates at Middlebury College and me. We had no money or organization then.

That January, which was in 2007, we started sending out emails to people saying, "Do something like this." And it turned out that there were more people like us all across the country who had already figured out that changing their light bulbs wasn't going to change much. They wanted to do more. The problem with climate change is it is just so darn big and one feels helpless in the face of it. They were attracted to the idea of doing something all together and at the same time. So in April 2007 we had 1,400 simultaneous rallies across the country in all fifty states. The rallies were beautiful and actually kind of useful: in the next couple of days, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama changed their energy and environment platform and adopted this 80 percent thing.

We felt quite smug about our accomplishment, but only until the arctic started to melt six weeks later in the summer of 2007. I spent that whole summer getting phone calls from panicked scientists: "This is falling apart, right now. It is happening so much faster than we thought." By the time that summer was over, it became clear that our targets were out of date—that what happens in 2050 is not as interesting as what happens in 2020 or sooner. It also became clear that we are not going to solve this one light bulb at a time, or even one country at a time: we are going to solve it one planet at a time, or not at all. This is a scary thing to realize because global organizing is so hard.

So we were both relieved and horrified when in January of 2008 our best climatologist, Jim Hansen at NASA, and his team published a paper saying they looked at all the paleoclimate data and they looked at the observational data from the last few years and they were finally able to say that "any value of carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on the earth is adapted." That is strong language. And it is stronger still when you know that outside right now it is 390 parts per million and is rising 2 parts per million per year. We are already way past where we should be. That is why the arctic is melting. That is why the ocean is 30 percent more acid than it used to be, and why it is beginning to unravel the marine food chain. It is why all of these things are going on. It is why we are really in the process of de-creating the planet in very powerful ways. So that is bad news.

One Writer and Seven Students Start a Global Campaign

The scientists' proclamation about 350 parts per million was good news to us as organizers because the two things that translate across the world's frustrating linguistic boundaries are musical notation and Arabic numerals. Having this number, 350, meant that we could try to build a global campaign, because 350 means the same thing in Warsaw as it does in Washington. We still didn't have any money, but by now the seven students had graduated from Middlebury. So they could work all the time on this. And seven was a good number because there are seven continents, so each one of them took a continent. The one who got Antarctica also had the Internet because it is kind of its own continent. They set to work, which in our case just meant finding people like us. Some of them were environmentalists. Most were working on agriculture, on war and peace, on human rights, on public health, on all the things that were coming unraveled immediately as we changed the basic physical stability of the planet.

We planned our first big day of action for October 24, 2009, to try to drive this issue into the middle of things. And we told everybody to try to do something on October 24. We were hopeful but we didn't really know what it was going to look like. We had gathered our small core team in a couple of borrowed offices in New York about three or four days beforehand. Somebody lent us a couple of dingy offices down in lower Manhattan. We were there doing press releases but basically just watched the laptop. We had told people to send us pictures.

One thing we had done was to train people all over the world. We had training camps in Turkey for people in central Asia, we had one in the Caribbean, we even had one in South Africa for people from all across Africa—one or two per country. Most had never been on an airplane or left their country, but they came down to Johannesburg and then fanned back out across Africa. Then we didn't hear anything for about six months, because in much of Africa the Internet is still pretty notional. You can't Skype people all the time. And Skype was about what we could afford. But we knew they were working.

We got the first sense that our day of action was going to work on October 22, when we got a phone call from two sisters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. One of them was saying, "I am so sorry, the government told us we can't do this thing on Saturday." Ethiopia: not an especially nice government. "They won't let us do it, so we decided to do it today before they could tell us not to. We know we're not supposed to. We know we are jumping the gun. We hope we're not spoiling it—we are really sorry. And we have 15,000 people out in the street right now in Addis Ababa." So I was like, "OK, it's all right, Isha, you can relax, you have done great." And it was great. Soon we had a picture of that protest, and a couple of hours later another picture arrived, completely unexpectedly, from U.S. troops in Afghanistan who'd made a big 350 with sandbags—they sent a note saying, "We're parking our Humvee for the weekend to save gas."

For the next forty-eight hours, these pictures just started flowing in from all over the world. Incredibly big, beautiful rallies from all over the place. By the time we were done there'd been 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. CNN said it was the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history on any issue ever. I'd been told my whole life that environmentalism is something for rich white people who'd taken care of their other problems. But if you look at the pictures (there are 25,000 pictures on Flickr and a bunch on the 350.org website), you'll see almost all pictures of poor, Black, brown, Asian young people. There are a couple hundred pictures of women in full burqas, in Saudi Arabia or in Yemen, forming huge human "350s." For the first time all kinds of religious communities really began to come on board and do more than just say the right words. It was really fun for me as a writer to have this number sort of subsume some of our individual differences. We're probably too good at writing manifestos and proclamations; it was good for once to just have something simple.

Two weeks beforehand one of my favorite religious leaders—the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox, Bartholomu, who leads about 400,000 Eastern Christians—had given a sermon. I admire his straightforwardness. In his sermon he said, "Global warming is a sin, and 350 is an act of redemption." It was good, solid language, and boy, did it help us organize across the sort of Transcaucasus there. It was good!

We had amazing help from every corner of the religious community. There are beautiful pictures from South Africa of the country's Muslim leader and the indigenous, tribal religious leader, and Desmond Tutu's successor as Anglican Archbishop at the head of this huge multi-faith procession.

I'd been in Bethlehem doing some organizing a few weeks before. It's sort of a hard place to even get to, and it was really hard to get people from around the region there, but they all wanted to work together. The blockades and roadblocks made actually working together really hard, but the Dead Sea's shrinking really fast as the temperature warms. So everybody decided that the Israeli friends should make a giant human "3" on their shore of the Dead Sea, and those in Palestine a huge "5," and those in Jordan a huge "0."

One of my favorite pictures is of three or four hundred people rallying at Wheaton College in Illinois. Now, it's not that amazing a picture unless you know that it's the most important Evangelical college in the country, Billy Graham's alma mater. Two or three years ago there would not have been an environmental demonstration going on there—it would have been seen as kind of pagan or some such, but there they were.

The Setback in Copenhagen

I wish I could tell you that this had all carried the day. We got to Copenhagen six weeks later with all kinds of momentum. We had a church service in the cathedral in the middle of those two weeks: Archbishop Tutu and the Archbishop of Canterbury preached an amazing service and then rang the great bell of the cathedral 350 times. Thousands of churches across the world did the same thing later that afternoon—350. We convinced 117 countries to sign onto this 350 target, and that was really good because it's a radical target. The problem of course is that it's the wrong 117 countries, you know? It's the ones who are poor and most vulnerable and getting wrecked. The ones who are richest and most addicted, led by our own, are not yet ready to get to brass tacks.

I was depressed and angry, frankly, that last Friday in Copenhagen, but glad that we'd brought the largest delegation to Copenhagen—350 young people from all over the world. They kept saying: "Look, we didn't really expect to win right away. We've only been doing this a year. We're up against the richest force in the world. We're just going to have to go back and get bigger and stronger and then see if we can give them a fight."

Join Us Next October 10, Worldwide!

So that's what we're going to do. We need your help next on October 10—that will be 10/10/10, so no excuse for forgetting the date. It's a Sunday, but not a restful one in this case. We're having what we're calling a global work party, not quite like the global political rally we had last year. This time all over the world—in thousands and thousands of communities and probably as many countries—people will be putting up solar panels, digging out community gardens, and putting down bike paths. It's not that we think we can solve climate change one bike path at a time. Sadly, we can't. We can only solve it when we get political action at a global and national level to reset the price of carbon, when we in fact engage and defeat the fossil fuel industry. But the political message that we're going to be trying hard to send on 10/10/10 is: "We're getting to work. Where are you?" If I can climb up on the roof of a school and hammer in a solar panel, I expect you to climb to the floor of the Senate and hammer out some legislation. That's the case we've got to make.

The truth is there's no guarantee that this is going to work. There's no guarantee that anything's going to work. There are scientists who think we've waited too long to get started and that this heating has taken on a kind of irreversible momentum. The best science would indicate that we still have a narrow window, but not to stop global warming. We've raised the temperature one degree. There's another degree in the pipeline from carbon we've already emitted. It's going to be much hotter, but maybe if we do everything right at this point we can keep it from going up six or seven degrees, which is what the climatologists say will happen almost certainly if we do not slow things down right now. That's a civilization-challenging number. Maybe that's a polite way of putting it, actually.

There are political scientists who say that it's just impossible, that the force on the other side of both inertia and vested interest is simply too large. And they might be right too. They've been right so far about that. If you were a betting person—Methodists aren't allowed to bet—but if you were a betting person, you might be advised to bet that we will not solve this in time. But that doesn't strike me as actually a bet that you're allowed to make. We happen to be alive at a time when the worst thing that ever happened is happening, and if we're conscious of it the only moral course of action is to work as hard as we possibly can to change the odds of that wager some, and then have some faith that having changed the odds, maybe we'll catch a break.

So no guarantees at all. No guarantees at all except that around the world we're going to fight as hard as we can all the way to the very end.

Bill McKibben is cofounder of 350.org, an international grassroots campaign organizing people everywhere to spread the 350 number. He is also a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.

Source Citation: McKibben, Bill. 2010. What It Will Take to Return the Globe to 350? Tikkun 25(5): 45
tags: Climate Change, Environment, NSP, NSP Conference, NSP Speeches