co-founder and director of 350.org. He is author of the book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
Hurricane Irene received a massive amount media coverage, but television reports made little or no reference to the role global warming played in the storm. We speak with someone with his eye on climate change and its impact. "We’ve had not only this extraordinary flooding, but on the same day that Hurricane Irene was coming down, Houston set its all-time temperature record, 109 degrees," says Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of 350.org. "We’re in a new situation." McKibben is among hundreds of people arrested last week during ongoing sit-ins outside the White House, protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. On Friday, the U.S. State Department’s final environmental review of the proposed pipeline found that the project will have "limited adverse environmental impacts." Protesters will begin their second week of sit-ins today, and continue to demand President Obama veto approval for the pipeline. "There’s never been a purer test of whether or not we’re prepared to stand up to climate change or not," says McKibben. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Hurricane Irene received a massive amount of media coverage, but there was very little reference to another two words. While they talked about Hurricane Irene, what about global warming?
NBC ACTION NEWS: People up and down the East Coast are preparing for the worst, as Hurricane Irene approaches. This morning, President Obama announced this the—all indications point to this being a historic hurricane.
SCOTT PELLEY: Hurricane Irene is moving in, and people along the East Coast are moving out. The first watches and warnings went up today for what could be the most powerful hurricane to hit the East Coast in seven years.
ANTHONY MASON: This is a CBS News hurricane update. I’m Anthony Mason. Irene is nearing Norfolk, Virginia, with hurricane force winds and dumping torrential rains from the Carolinas to New Jersey.
JIM SCIUTTO: The hurricane is still several hours away from landfall here, but we’re already feeling the strength of the storm, the winds gusting about 50 miles an hour. There are times when you really have to hold on here.
ALI VELSHI: CNN New York City, which has a lot of those people, is prepping for a direct hit by Hurricane Irene. Don’t know whether it will happen or not, but they are preparing for it, Mayor Michael Bloomberg deciding today whether or not to evacuate low-lying areas of the city.
WOLF BLITZER: In New York City, five New York City hospitals now under evacuation, along with 370,000 people living in some of the low-lying areas of New York City. The Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is warning residents to take this unprecedented order to leave seriously.
AMY GOODMAN: Wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Irene. And yet, who talked about global warming? One person that has made this a central tenet of his work is Bill McKibben, a Vermont native, co-founder and director of 350.org. He’s joining us now from Washington, D.C., author of the book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, among hundreds of people that are being arrested during ongoing sit-ins outside the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. On Friday, the State Department’s final environmental review of the proposed pipeline found the project will have "limited adverse environmental impacts" as it carries oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
Bill, we welcome you to Democracy Now! As you listen to your governor, Governor Shumlin in Vermont, describe your state, where you aren’t right now, your thoughts in a state that actually a climate cabinet the Governor has appointed to look at this issue?
BILL McKIBBEN: Hey, Amy. It was very good to hear Governor Shumlin. And, of course, it’s unbelievably hard not to be home. My town is taking a beating. The town next door, East Middlebury, was apparently evacuated last night. All the roads connecting up to my town are cut off. It’s killing me not to be there. And I’d be there in a flash, except that I think the work we’re doing here in Washington right now is key towards trying to rein this kind of thing in in the future.
AMY GOODMAN: We did not hear those words, "global warming." I watched a lot of the media coverage this weekend. What about this? I mean, to say the least, there was time in the endless coverage.
BILL McKIBBEN: Yes. Well, here’s what’s—I mean, first of all, here’s what’s going on. I mean, I wrote the first book about climate change 22 years ago this year. And I should begin by saying, there’s very little satisfaction in saying, "I told you so." We knew then enough to predict exactly what was going to happen. And climatologists, 22 years ago, were saying, this is what to look forward to.
The basic physical property here is that warm air holds more water vapor than cold. You can get stronger storms. The atmosphere is about four percent wetter than it was 40 years ago. That’s an enormous change in a basic physical parameter. It loads the dice for both drought, as you’re getting increased evaporation, and deluge and downpour and flood. And that’s what we’re seeing all over the planet. You remember the pictures from Pakistan this time last summer, with a quarter of the country underwater. You remember the pictures from Queensland in Australia. You remember the pictures earlier this year in the Missouri and Mississippi River Basins, which saw more water go down them than ever before. As Governor Shumlin said, the Northeast was hard hit earlier this year. We had absolutely record flood levels at Lake Champlain, where there are records dating back more than 250 years. Now we’re seeing, as this water drops across the Northeast, rivers and streams at levels that we have literally never seen them before. That’s what it means when a 250-year-old covered bridge goes washing down the Quechee River.
It’s, on the one hand, entirely predictable and, on the other hand, the greatest sort of series wake-up calls that we could possibly be getting. So far this year—it’s only August—so far this year, the U.S. has suffered more billion-dollar weather-related disasters than any year in history. Last year was the warmest year in the planet’s history, Arctic ices at record low levels—on and on and on, which is why, you know, I mean, we’re going to have to do two things.
One, as Governor Shumlin says, is figure out how we protect places against trouble that we can no longer completely prevent. We’ve already raised the temperature of the planet a degree. That’s not going away. The scientists tell us there’s another degree in the pipeline that’s coming at us from carbon we’ve already emitted. So that’s job one.
Job two, equally important, is stop pouring more into the atmosphere. And that’s why I think that message is getting through. I was worried that Hurricane Irene would slow down these protests that have been building in Washington, that last week were the biggest civil disobedience protests in—at least in a generation in the environmental movement. I need not have worried. I was at the church last night where people were preparing for this morning’s arrests, by far the biggest crowd yet, over a hundred people who will be arrested, along with Jim Hansen, the NASA scientist, who said, if we start burning these unconventional fuel sources in a big way, then it’s essentially game over for the climate. Game over. I mean, right now, game on.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain. In the last few weeks, we’ve experienced earthquakes, which many scientists say are not related to climate change—
BILL McKIBBEN: Not related.
AMY GOODMAN: —and I’d like to get your view on that.
BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And then we move right to this unprecedented hurricanes. And again, for people to understand how hurricanes work, and why, for example, Vermont is seeing floods reminiscent of 1927, a number bridges—
BILL McKIBBEN: Floods worse than 1927, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And so many of—so much was wiped out at that time, that a lot of time you can trace 80 years to what we saw in Vermont in 1930, what was it, 1938 and 1927—
BILL McKIBBEN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —the great hurricane, these two great disasters.
BILL McKIBBEN: We’re in unprecedented, off-the-charts territory. It’s not that there haven’t been disasters before. There have always been disasters. Nature is relatively random in that sense. But now we’re seeing two things. One, disasters that go beyond the bounds of what we’ve ever seen before. Because there’s more water in the atmosphere, it’s possible to have bigger floods, record snowfalls when it’s cold, record rainstorms. And we’re seeing more of them in conjunction. I mean, think about what’s been going on just on this continent this year. We’re about one-and-a-half percent of the surface area of the globe in the continental U.S., and we’ve had not only this extraordinary flooding, but on the same day that Hurricane Irene was coming down, Houston set its all-time temperature record, 109 degrees. We’re in the middle of the worst drought ever recorded in Texas. And, you know, Governor Perry’s prayers for rain have so far been unanswered, maybe because he’s done so little to ameliorate the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. We’re in a new situation.
It doesn’t mean that everything that happens is caused by global warming. Hurricanes aren’t caused by global warming. They’re caused by tropical waves drifting off the coast of Africa and encountering the earth’s spin, you know, that can begin to set them into rotation. But they are made more powerful. As this hurricane rode up the coast, one of the reasons it was able to pick up so much water, that it’s now dumping on Vermont and Quebec, is that sea surface temperatures were at an all-time record high off New York and New Jersey. Never—the last two years have seen the highest temperatures ever recorded in those waters. When you amp up a system—and so far we’ve added about three-quarters of a watt per square meter of the earth’s surface extra solar energy to the planet by burning coal and gas and oil—when you do that, you can expect more dynamic, more amped-up, more violent weather. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing.
Earthquakes, with rare exceptions, are not climate-related. There is reason to think that in certain localized places, earthquakes are now resulting from some of this kind of fracking, attempts to get oil and gas out of the ground through unconventional means. And in Greenland, there’s increased seismicity as that huge sheet of ice begins to melt and unweight the land beneath it. But for the most part, volcanic and tectonic forces are still beyond the reach of human beings.
Everything else bears our thumbprint now, and the only way to deal with that is to quickly get off coal and gas and oil. We’re not, at the moment, in our Congress, you know, prepared to do that. That’s why it’s good news that, at the very least, President Obama can keep us from getting in any deeper. Without even asking Congress, he can veto this Keystone pipeline thing and prevent us from taking the next step into the brave new world of unconventional energy.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, finally, the State Department ruling, why so many are being arrested in Washington, D.C., the XL pipeline?
BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah. This pipeline goes to the second-largest pool of carbon on the planet, the tar sands of Alberta. The State Department, which is—was responsible for doing an environmental impact statement, released its statement last Friday. It was completely expected. What it—it has hundreds of pages of detailed accounting of exactly how many leaks per kilometer of pipeline are acceptable, and on and on and on. What it doesn’t talk about at all, does not even mention, are the carbon implications of opening up a Saudi-sized pool of oil. That oil has to stay in the ground. It’s as important that it stay in the ground as it is that Brazil guard its rainforest.
That’s why hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people have been arrested here. This protest at TarSandsAction.org has taken off in ways that we couldn’t have expected when we started a week ago. It’s turned into something very, very large. All the environmental groups said last week that this was now the premier challenge on the environment for President Obama between now and the election. And they said, we expect nothing less than his veto, which he can do without even asking Congress. There’s never been a purer test of whether or not we’re prepared to stand up to climate change or not. I’m going back down to the White House this morning. There will be more than a hundred people arrested, on and on and on for the next few days, right through September 3rd. We hope that people will join us at TarSandsAction.org.
This has, sort of unexpectedly, spiked into the biggest thing of its kind in a very long time, and that should be very good news. Part of the way that we react to traumas like Irene is to figure out how to prevent them from happening. I’m eating away at me not to be in Vermont, and I, you know, can’t tell you how worried I am for my friends and family up there. But the way that I’m going to show it today is being back in front of the White House and doing what we can to head this kind of thing off.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, Bill McKibben, in Washington, D.C., right now, a part of the mass protests around the XL Keystone pipeline. He was arrested last weekend. Hundreds have been arrested, as we speak. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to look at beach erosion and what it means. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.