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Environmental Journalist Bill McKibben on the Links Between Global Warming & the California Wildfires

StoryOctober 23, 2007
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“This is the kind of disaster we see more and more of as we begin to change the basic physics and chemistry of the planet we live on,” says McKibben, who is organizing the Nov. 3 Step It Up National Day of Climate Action. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 12, 2023As Historic Storms & Flooding Kill 19 in California, Why Is Media Ignoring Role of Climate Change?
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue on this issue of global warming, what does global warming have to do with the fires raging in Southern California? More than a half a million people in San Diego County have been ordered to evacuate. Over 900 homes have been destroyed. At least one person has died. Another 37 people have been reported injured, including 17 firefighters. The fires extend from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara, the most devastating fires in San Diego County. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency.

Bill McKibben is a leading environmentalist and one of the leading forces behind Step It Up. In 1989, he wrote the book The End of Nature, one of the first books to describe global warming as an emerging environmental crisis. His latest book is called Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. Bill McKibben, joining us from Boston, welcome to Democracy Now!

BILL McKIBBEN: Amy, it’s good to be with you, as always.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. The fires in Southern California and global warming, is there a connection?

BILL McKIBBEN: I’m afraid that there is. This is the kind of disaster that we see more and more of as we begin to change the basic physics and chemistry of the planet we live on. One of the people leading the really brave rescue effort out there yesterday said, one of the San Diego authorities said, this is the driest it’s been in at least 90 years. It’s dry because they’ve had terrific heat and not much rain. And those are just the conditions for that part of the world that all the modeling suggests come about when you begin to raise the temperature.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Tom Swetnam of the University of Arizona, one of the ecologists there. He has written about the connection to global warming. He published a study in the journal Science, saying global warming has increased temperatures in the West about one degree, and that’s caused four times more fires.

BILL McKIBBEN: This is the problem. Things don’t work in a linear smooth relationship, you know? You raise the temperature a little bit, and you begin to get very large cascading effects. So, for instance, across much of the West in Alaska, warmer temperatures have brought with them infestations of new kinds of insects. Those insects have killed off hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest. That forest catches fire once those trees die. All that burning forest sends yet more carbon into the atmosphere. On and on and on. We see the same kind of dynamics playing out now with this drought in the Southeast, with the ongoing drought in the Southwest. And, of course, the U.S. has been hit less hard by these changes than much of the rest of the world so far.

What’s important to remember and the reason that we spend all our time organizing now, trying to change all this, is that so far human beings have raised the temperature of the planet about one degree Fahrenheit. The computer modeling makes it very clear that before the century is out, unless we take very strong action, indeed, we’re going to raise the temperature of the planet another five degrees Fahrenheit. So, take whatever you see now, multiply it by five, and then toss in all those cascading effects that come, as we exceed one threshold after another.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, we hardly see, with the massive coverage of what’s going on in California, which is very significant, these fires raging in Southern California, the words “global warming” mentioned.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, it’s like Katrina. I mean, the sheer horror of it in the moment is so enormous that it’s hard to focus on causes. That’s why we’ve got to be building that movement all the time, doing the kind of stuff that Ted Glick is doing in Washington, doing the kind of stuff that at we’re doing all across the country, as we get ready for our next round of big nationwide protests on November 3rd.

It’s only, you know, when we’re able to take a step back —- I mean, you know, the people in California today can’t be concentrating on global warming; they’ve got to be concentrating on getting people out of harm’s way and fast. My aunt was evacuated yesterday afternoon, and I’m worried sick about her. But the rest of us can’t be in there -—

AMY GOODMAN: Where does she live?

BILL McKIBBEN: She lives near San Diego. The rest of us can’t be in there fighting fires, you know? We’re thousands of miles away. What we can be doing is trying to put out, or at least damp down, the big fire that’s causing all these other effects, and that’s global warming. And that can only be done with federal action soon. That’s what we’re pushing for on November 3rd.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to New Orleans for a minute. You mentioned Hurricane Katrina. They are experiencing a massive rainstorm, at least eight inches yesterday. The forecast: it will continue. Mayor Ray Nagin closed City Hall. They closed the schools. They told people not to drive in the streets. The waves, they were afraid, would inundate the buildings that have just been cleaned up from Hurricane Katrina. That connection?

BILL McKIBBEN: Look, when you raise — warm air holds more water vapor than cold air does, right? That means that in arid areas, you get more evaporation and hence more drought. And we’re seeing that around the world. Once that water is up there in the atmosphere, it’s got to come down someplace. In wet areas or in big storms, we see way more precipitation. The number of storms that drop more than two inches of rain in a 24-hour period has grown by something like 25 percent, the real gullywashers.

We’re — to call it “global warming” is correct, but almost a misnomer. What we’re really doing is adding immense amounts of energy to a system, and that energy is expressing itself in all kinds of ways: more evaporation, more precipitation, higher wind speeds, rapid melt of ice across the Arctic and across every glacial system that we know about, on and on and on.

It is — you know, we used to think that we were still a decade or two away from the real emergency. That’s what we would have said 20 years ago, when I wrote The End of Nature. Now, we understand, the modeling makes clear, that the planet was more finely balanced than we’ve understood. What we’ve done so far has been enough to throw every physical system on earth out of kilter. What we’re fighting for now is not to prevent global warming. There is going to be some global warming; there already is. What we’re fighting for now is to keep that miserable and difficult century of global warming from turning into an absolute catastrophe that rewrites the geology and biology of this planet for eons to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, in the Southeast, several states are in the midst of a major drought. As of last week, 71 of North Carolina’s 100 counties were in exceptional drought, the federal government’s highest classification. Georgia has declared a state of emergency, appealed for federal aid. The drought has also affected large swaths of Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina?

BILL McKIBBEN: When you increase the temperature, what you’re really doing — I mean, if I say the temperature has gone up one degree, it doesn’t sound like much, but that masks enormous increases in the extremes, much longer and stronger heat waves. You know, we keep having one record warm year after another across this globe. And that doesn’t happen without consequences. The earth is a physical system, and those inputs start to change the outputs pretty darn dramatically.

AMY GOODMAN: The action that you’re planning as one of the lead forces behind Step It Up on November 3rd, can you talk about what your demands are? You say the federal government has to take action.

BILL McKIBBEN: Absolutely. We’re talking about three things at One of them is the same call for an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 that we called for last spring, when we organized 1,400 demonstrations in all 50 states. Those demonstrations were very successful in getting that demand deep into the agenda. It went from being a kind of radical and fringe idea to being very much part of the legislative mix that’s reflected in what Congress is thinking about now.

Second demand is that we need an immediate moratorium on new coal-fired power. No such thing, at least at the moment, as clean coal; it’s dirty where it comes from, and it’s dirty when we burn it. And that — you know, if we build any significant percentage of the 150 coal-fired power plants now on the books, then the discussion about dealing with global warming is moot; we will put so much carbon in the atmosphere that we can’t control it.

Third thing, we need to make sure that the big economic transition that’s coming with global warming, with fighting global warming, the move to a new set of energy sources, doesn’t leave behind the same people that our last economy left behind. So we’re stressing very hard this Green Jobs For All campaign.

What we’re trying to do this time is find out which of our politicians are actually going to become leaders. People who go to the website can use the nifty new invite tool devised by my colleagues, all of whom are 21 and 23 and who actually know how the Internet really works, and with this neat tool, they can easily invite their senators, congressmen and the presidential candidates to come appear at one of these hundreds of rallies that will be taking place across the country on November 3rd. They can find out where in their community people will be gathering to make their voices heard.

We need a movement as strong, as willing to sacrifice, as morally urgent, as passionate, as the Civil Rights Movement was a generation ago. If we don’t get it soon — and we have a real time limit here — if we don’t get it soon, then we’re not going to be able to force the changes that we need over the power of the very strong vested interests that would like to keep things the way they are, even though it’s now destabilizing the planet in the most powerful and most tragic ways. Those pictures of that smoke pouring out of those canyons in California should remind us at the deepest level what’s at stake and what we can do to help right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, you mentioned Congress. What about the presidential candidates, the Democratic presidential candidates? What about the Democrat-led Congress, both the House and the Senate? What are they doing to deal with this crisis?

BILL McKIBBEN: They’re getting closer. They’ve started. We haven’t done anything about climate change for the 20 years that we’ve known about it —- I mean, literally zip, zilch, nothing in Washington. Finally, this year there’s legislation on the table. There’s very good legislation from Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Henry Waxman. That bill is being watered down at the moment by Senator Lieberman of Connecticut and Senator Warner of Virginia. It’s a big fight as to what kind of bill will go through. It may not matter, unbelievably, at the moment, because President Bush is going to veto whatever happens. We do need, however, to get the framework for strong legislation, and then we need to make sure that whoever wins the presidency really steps up to this challenge. They’re all saying -—

AMY GOODMAN: What about before? What about before? This is the chance that constituencies have all over the country to make demands of candidates, and then afterwards — I don’t want to say “hold their feet to the fire,” given what’s happening right now.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, I think that would be, in fact, an appropriate and correct thing to say right now. That’s what we’re trying very hard to do. Look, the presidential candidates, the Democrats, have so far mostly said the right things. After our demonstrations on April 14th, all the leading candidates signed onto this Sanders bill for an 80 percent reduction. However, none of them have yet shown that they’re determined to make this the central organizing principle of their presidency, which it pretty much has got to be.

This is the biggest thing human beings have ever done, and if we don’t get on it right away, none of the other issues will matter. We’ll find out on November 3rd which of these people show up to talk to America about this question, and we’ll find out what they say, whether or not they’re going to go beyond saying the right thing and starting to work and offering solemn assurance.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, we have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us. November 3rd, declared a day against global warming. They’re stepping it up.

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As Historic Storms & Flooding Kill 19 in California, Why Is Media Ignoring Role of Climate Change?

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