Bill McKibben Says It’s Urgent

February 21, 2011 at 4:53 pm

The Nation, America’s oldest magazine, is self-described at Amazon.com as “the flagship of the Left.” However, if one arrives as a casual reader at the magazine’s website, its About page displays a declaration some might consider misleading:

The Nation will not be the organ of any party, sect, or body. It will, on the contrary, make an earnest effort to bring to the discussion of political and social questions a really critical spirit, and to wage war upon the vices of violence, exaggeration, and misrepresentation by which so much of the political writing of the day is marred.

– from The Nation‘s founding prospectus, 1865

It seems to me this is typical of the environmental movement itself. People say their main concern is saving the planet. But the first few chapters of an eco activist’s book are usually sufficient to establish that the writer’s worldview leans emphatically left. This means the economic analysis is comic book simplistic and the proposed solutions are mush-headed. Corporations are evil. Small is beautiful. Another government program/grant/regulation will fix everything. Let it never be said the Left doesn’t believe in recycling.

A few days ago The Nation posted a 28-minute video in which environmental activist Bill McKibben explains why climate change is an urgent problem. If The Nation wishes to call out people who exaggerate, McKibben is surely a prime candidate.

He believes the natural world is such a straightforward, easily-comprehended organism – and that we humans have so thoroughly decoded all of its secrets – that we now know with utter certainty that a slight increase in a single variable has sent the planet careening off its rocker. (That variable is the gradual rise of CO2 in the atmosphere from to 275 parts per million to 390 parts per million – at a current rate of 2 parts per year.) As McKibben tells it:

…name a physical system on this Earth and it’s been knocked out of kilter.

This CO2 increase, he says:

…is why Russia is catching on fire. It is why Pakistan is flooding.

…At this point it’s very clear that all the kinds of weather events we’re starting to see – including these remarkable array of floods and downpours and deluges – are precisely what the climate models have been predicting will happen. There’s no mystery here. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the data.

Tell that to Roger Pielke Jr. He’s a University of Colorado professor who studies precisely this sort of data. He says there’s currently no evidence of a link between natural disasters and increases in greenhouse gases such as CO2 (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). Pielke doesn’t rule out the possibility that such a link may someday become apparent, but he’s adamant it doesn’t exist yet. In his words: “Connecting the dots is fun, but it is not science.”

In the world McKibben inhabits climate change is “a crisis that’s breaking over our heads at this moment.” In his world ExxonMobil doesn’t sell a legitimate product that powers hospitals and delivers humanitarian aid to earthquake-devastated parts of the world. Rather, it uses the atmosphere as “an open sewer” and peddles oil the way drug traffickers peddle heroin.

In McKibben’s world “we have no choice if we want a habitable planet” but to turn our backs on fossil fuels and embrace the far more costly energy produced by solar panels and windmills. In his universe “adaptation to rapid [climate] change is all but impossible” despite our ever increasing affluence and ever more wondrous technology. In his drama queen assessment “we’re literally playing with fire” and widespread civil disobedience is an appropriate response. Oh, and the “most important number in the world” is 350 (as in parts per million) – which just happens to be the name of the activist organization he himself has founded – 350.org.

The problem with people like McKibben is that they’ve latched onto a particular narrative. For whatever reason, that narrative gives them comforts them – and they aren’t about to let it go. Not even when it becomes clear the universe isn’t behaving the way they’ve said it would.

Twenty-two years ago McKibben insisted in his book, The End of Nature, that we needed to act immediately because:

…continuing to burn ever more oil and coal…will lead us, if not straight to hell, then straight to a place with a similar temperature. [bold added, p. 124]

In fire-and-brimstone fashion he warned:

…a few more decades of ungoverned fossil-fuel use and we burn up, to put it bluntly. [bold added, p. 128]

Irrespective of his dire prognostications, the world did continue to use coal and oil. And if we’re in danger of burning up anytime time soon I expect those in Europe, the Far East, and North America who have endured yet another unusually bitter winter would like to hear about it.

Among them are two young boys whose 30-year-old mother froze to death in her apartment in Ireland last month. Among them is the family of a 41-year-old Canadian man who froze to death on his way to work after his car got stuck during a snowstorm a week prior to Christmas.

A few years back McKibben wrote an Afterword for a book titled Earth Under Fire. The final section of the book (which uses a sky in flames as its cover art) is called A Safer, Cleaner, and Cooler World.

But there’s nothing remotely safe about dying of hypothermia – or from a fall after slipping on ice. A cooler planet is not a planet that is friendly to humans, vegetation, or animals. There’s a reason tropical forests and lush biodiversity are closely related. There’s a reason people retire to the south of France rather than to Iceland – to Arizona and Florida rather than to Alaska.

No matter how urgently McKibben (or The Nation which gave him a platform last week) insist on talking talks nonsense, ordinary people aren’t that easily fooled.

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Entry filed under: big oil, Bill McKibben, predictions that failed. Tags: , , , , .

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