It’s Not Getting Any Colder

You bought a hybrid. That's swell. Now how about we all get down to business?

Bill McKibben

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IS IT OK, JUST FOR A MOMENT, not to be all jolly about the environmental crisis we now face?

I am entirely in favor of green building, smart metering, carbon-neutral reggaeton festivals, presidential solar panels, eco-christenings, eco-weddings, eco-funerals. We’ve made more political progress on environmental issues this year than in the previous 20. Al Gore won the Nobel. The hipster band Guster is on board.

But it’s still a crisis. Global warming is the biggest thing we’ve ever done to the earth, and the news from science is getting worse at least as fast as the news from politics is improving. Dealing with it is going to take more than getting your tail in a Prius—it will even take more than getting the respective tails of Alicia Silverstone, Dr. Andrew Weil, Billy Crystal, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Donny Osmond, Ed Begley, Harrison Ford, Kevin Bacon, Kirk Douglas, Dr. Oliver Sacks, and Robin Williams into Priuses.

In fact, if you want to be realistic—which in my experience increases your chances of being right—the only question is what kind of a crisis we’re talking about: the nasty kind you get through or the nasty kind you don’t get through.

The first kind—bad but bearable—can seem impossible when contemplated from a distance. Like divorce: impossible enough that people do all they can to avoid it. But then you’re sucked out of the smooth water and into the rapids and you’re no longer contemplating something dauntingly large; you’re just handling the details as they come roaring at you: court dates, separate apartments, garnishments, weekend-visitation rights. It’s not fun, but half the country has been through a divorce. You deal, and eventually you’re out the other side, maybe chastened, maybe poorer, definitely different, but still intact.

Global warming might work out like that. We’ve spent two decades hoping it would get better on its own, but now, pretty clearly, we’re going to start doing something. New technologies are coming online faster than we could have hoped, and political attitudes are starting to change, too. Lightbulbs, carbon taxes,
international treaties: We’re in the process of rolling up our sleeves, and any minute now we’re actually going to get at it—and then it’s going to be OK, yes? Things will be different, but different is good, right?

HERE’S THE BEST CASE: The U.S. breaks its political logjam and passes ambitious caps on carbon, pledging to reduce emissions quickly and dramatically. This reconfigures economic gravity, so that money now flows toward the sun and wind and insulation, not coal. That money starts producing engineering breakthroughs, lowering the price of everything from solar panels to plug-in hybrids so rapidly that the technologies spread as quickly as, say, the Wii Remote.

Meanwhile, seeing that rapid change is possible, we in the rich world rise to our obligations and embark on a kind of global Marshall Plan to deploy the same new gear all over the world, allowing China and India and everyone else to develop without burning their coal. Meanwhile, we make noble changes in our habits—the rising price of gas leads to the demand for decent mass transit, and once the bus is there we actually decide to, you know, take it. We become less American, more European, and we encourage the developing world to aspire to Oslo and not Orange County.

Oh, and the earth responds. Seeing our good intentions and rapid progress, nature backs off a little. Sea levels rise in inches, not feet. We build some levees and we evacuate some low-lying Pacific atolls. It could happen. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that noble band of climate experts, calculated last spring that we could build all the technology we needed to hold carbon emissions down at an eminently reasonable cost; in the next 20 years it would knock about one 12th of 1 percent off gross world product annually. As The Economist, that Trotskyite rag, put it, “The world would hardly notice.”

But then there’s the other kind of crisis, the one that begins with the Very Concerned Doctor sitting down across from you. And now we’re talking about a different kind of regimen. The changes aren’t just daunting; they’re damaging—technicians are X-ing target=s on your body with grease pencil and your hair is falling out. A lump in one place turns into a shadow in a dozen others, and the “treatments” start seeming very nearly as bad as the problem, and your friends are scanning the Internet for news of new, novel cures.

If you were laying down odds right about now, you’d be hard-pressed not to lean toward this scenario. Late last summer, the sheets of Arctic sea ice began to thin at a markedly faster rate: There was a week when an area the size of Florida melted every single day. And the same kind of bad lab results were coming back from many different systems: tundra permafrost, temperate-forest soils, Amazon aridity. Small flare-ups caught everyone’s attention: Wildfire blazed across a parched Southern California, drought dropped Lake Lanier so low that Atlanta started measuring its water supply in weeks. Worse than we’d feared, and spreading faster. There seems little doubt now that this century will be at least as tough as the scientific consensus has been warning: crop-threatening heat waves, rapid spread of mosquito-borne disease, the whole litany.

But now we’ve begun to fear that it may be very much worse even than we had feared. New data from Greenland and the west Antarctic suggests that those great ice sheets are becoming dangerously unstable—and with that comes the possibility of sea level rising not merely a few feet this century, but a few meters. Which takes us from civilization-challenging to civilization-threatening. Greenland alone has about 25 feet of sea-level rise locked in its mile-thick glaciers. Boot up Google Earth if you want to see what this would mean for your local coastline. No wonder serious scientists are starting to talk about, say, orbiting giant shades to cast cooling geometric shadows, or flooding the upper atmosphere with sulfur dioxide. Desperate measures

WE DON’T KNOW YET if we’re facing type one or type two. But in both cases the actions are pretty much the same: We need to change, quickly and comprehensively. This means go ahead and screw in the lightbulb, but then screw in the new senator immediately thereafter. Big political action—in Washington, and then internationally—is the only way we can start snuffing carbon fast enough.

The difference comes in attitude. If you’re dealing with a bad-but-bearable problem, it’s best to be flexible, to compromise, to negotiate and arbitrate and mediate. This is what we’re starting to do, finally. Congress is grudgingly raising mileage standards, and the international community at least met in Bali to talk about talking. Nothing to sneeze at. But if your back is against the wall, then it’s time to fight. And by fight I mean out in the streets, as if your life depended on it. This is starting to happen—in the past year a few of us have organized almost 2,000 rallies in all 50 states. This doesn’t take much in the way of money or a big organization. Just start e-mailing everyone you know and saying, “If you’re worried, if you’re mad, if you want to feel hopeful: Hold a demonstration.” They’ve mostly been polite, even good-humored: scuba divers underwater in the Florida Keys, skiers descending en masse down the melting glaciers of the Rockies and Cascades. But they came with an edge, too—the demand, not the request, for meaningful action now. A demand that has begun to make some headway.

But not enough. We have a few years, no more, to make the kind of deep switch the science requires; if the next president doesn’t take it on as job one, then the presidents who follow won’t be able to make much difference. Which means we need a stronger movement, one that’s willing to take real chances. Six or seven years ago, I met the nonagenarian extreme activist Granny D, fresh off her cross-country walk to demand reform. We were both participating in one of the first protests against global warming on Capitol Hill. As we were being arrested and led away, she looked up at me and said, “I’m 91, and I’ve never been arrested before. I should have started long ago.” That’s known, I think, as calling you out.

Maybe Greenland won’t melt; maybe it will just be the mosquitoes and the drought. The choice is not the lady or the tiger—we’re going to get a tiger. The question is how hungry the tiger’s going to be. And how tough we are.

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