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Environmentalist, 350.org Founder Bill McKibben on “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet”

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Ahead of Bolivia’s indigenous summit on climate change and the expected unveiling of a Senate climate bill next week, we speak to someone who sounded one of the earliest alarms about global warming. Twenty years ago, environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, but his warnings went largely unheeded. Now, as people are grappling with the unavoidable effects of climate change and confronting an earth that is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding and burning in unprecedented ways, Bill McKibben is out with Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, a new book about what we have to do to survive this brave new world. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bolivia is hosting a people’s summit on climate change next week that could draw up to 10,000 participants from 100 countries around the world. The conference will focus on those most affected by global warming — indigenous and poor communities, particularly in the Global South —- and highlight their demands for climate justice in advance of the United Nations climate summit to be held in Mexico at the end of this year.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, the Senate is expected to unveil a climate change bill next week. Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman will reportedly release a specific plan by Earth Day on April 22nd. The proposed compromise legislation is expected to include caps on some greenhouse gas emissions, but also boost domestic oil and natural gas production and spur new nuclear power plants.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we’re joined by someone who sounded one of the earliest alarms about global warming. Twenty years ago, environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, but his warnings went largely unheeded. Now, as people are grappling with the unavoidable effects of climate change and confronting an earth that’s suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding and burning in unprecedented ways, Bill McKibben is out with a new book about what we have to do to survive this brave new world.

Today, he says, global warming is no longer simply a threat. It’s a reality. And the planet is so fundamentally different as a result, might as well call it “Eaarth.” Well, that’s the title of his latest book: Eaarth -— E-a-a-r-t-h — Making [a] Life on a Tough New Planet. Author, activist and founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben joins us now from Washington, DC, as he whirls around the planet.

Bill, E-a-a-r-t-h? Why?

BILL McKIBBEN: You have to channel your inner Schwarzenegger to really pronounce it, Amy. It’s sort of “Eaarth.”

Look, the planet that we live on now is different, and in fundamental ways, from the one that we were born onto. The atmospheres holds about five percent more water vapor than it did forty years ago. That’s an incredible change in one of the basic physical parameters of the planet, and it explains all those deluges and downpours. The ocean is 30 percent more acidic, as it absorbs all that carbon from the atmosphere. NASA said yesterday that we’ve just come through the warmest January, February, March on record, that 2010 is going to be the warmest year that we’ve ever seen.

And we begin to see just in every day in the newspaper the practical effects of all this. Last week it was Rio de Janeiro with absolutely record rainfalls, causing landslides that killed thousands. Today, in the run-up to the summit in Bolivia, in Peru an enormous chunk of glacier fell off a mountainside into a lake, set up a seventy-five-foot-high wave that killed some people and destroyed the one water processing plant in the whole area. These sort of things happen now someplace around the world every single day, because we’ve undermined the basic physical stability of this planet.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Bill, in terms of your proposals for solutions, you — in your book, you don’t focus so much on governmental or top-down solutions. What are some of the — what are some of the key ingredients of how the world’s population can reverse this trend?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, reversing the trend is hard — impossible, in fact. We’re not going to stop global warming. We can keep it from getting worse than it has to get. For that to happen, Juan, we need things to happen at two levels. One is the governmental, national and global. We need a stiff price on carbon, one that reflects the damage it does in the atmosphere, that will reorient our economy in the direction of renewable energy instead of fossil fuel. But we’re also going to need, because we have a new planet, a new set of habits for inhabiting it successfully.

Our fundamental habit for the last couple of hundred years has been to assume that growth is going to solve every problem that we face. I think now we’ve fundamentally reached the limits to growth that people started talking about fifty years ago. When you melt the Arctic, that’s not a good sign. So we’re going to need, instead, to start focusing on security, on stability, on resilience, on figuring out how to allow communities to thrive, even on a tough planet. And I think that that has a lot to do with decentralization, with scaling down, with spreading out, with building food systems and energy systems that aren’t too big to fail, that are small enough and stable enough to succeed.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at this chart that you’ve put out with the book, and it says, from 1989, when you published The End of Nature, some of the — well, the rise of temperature accelerating at the same time that more gas has entered the air, the British model now lists the six warmest years on earth — this was in 1989 — as 1988, ’87, ’83, ’81, it went back. Then you say one scientist has considered a fleet of several hundred jumbo jets to ferry 35 million pounds of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere annually to deflect sunlight away from the earth. Now, this was twenty years ago. Since then, of course, the warmest years have been the last years since then.

Talk about 350.org, your organization. As we lead into Bolivia, Democracy Now! is already headed down to Cochabamba. We’ll be broadcasting from there Monday through Friday, right through Earth Day. Expected, 15,000 people, particularly from around Latin America, but from around the world. It’s not as if this is going to change policy, as Copenhagen would have if it succeeded, but it’s about people going back a step and saying, well, then it’s going to come from grassroots movements. 350.org simply — certainly was an emblem of that. Talk about the actions around the world that are being taken now, Bill.

BILL McKIBBEN: Absolutely. Amy, you’ve got it exactly right. We’re going to have to build a movement to put political pressure on to finally get some change out of this system. We haven’t done it in the past well enough. And that failure of Copenhagen was symbol of that.

At 350.org, we’ll have a bunch of folks in Cochabamba, and they’ll be spreading the word, telling people what happened last year with 350.org, when we pulled off the largest — what did CNN say? — the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history: 5,200 separate actions in 181 countries on a single day in October.

This year, on October 10th, we’re organizing what we’re calling a global work party. There will be thousands upon thousands of communities around the world where people will be putting of solar panels or digging community gardens, not because we think that we’re going to solve this problem one project at a time — we are not — but because we want to send a message finally to our leaders: get to work. If we can do it, if we can climb up on the roof of the school and hammer in a solar panel, you can climb up on the floor of the Senate and hammer out some real legislation, not the kind of watered-down stuff that we’re likely to see next week that is — I’m afraid, falls deeply into the category of “too little, too late.”

AMY GOODMAN: And when you say next week, you mean Earth Day around the world?

BILL McKIBBEN: Kerry and Graham and Lieberman are supposed to introduce a bill in the US Senate this coming week. And from — though we haven’t seen it yet, and it’s too early to definitively describe it, it looks like an incredible accumulation of gifts to all the energy industries, in the hopes that they won’t provide too much opposition to what’s a very weak greenhouse gas pact.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bill, I’d like to ask you to talk a little about the impact of climate change, especially on the developing world, and specifically in terms of the massive migrations of peoples. Obviously, throughout Latin America and Africa, more and more people are leaving the land, huge metropolises building up that then those populations have to be fed from the countryside. The impact of the drying up of some lands and forcing these mass migrations? Northern Mexico for instance, increasingly arid, and more and more the peasants of northern Mexico are leaving and moving and trying to get into the United States.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yep. Look, the world looks the way it looks because we’ve had 10,000 years of climatic stability. That’s why we built our cities where we did, and so on and so forth. As that changes, there are going to be enormous consequences, and we’re already seeing them. And they’re painful in every corner of the world. The Indians are building a 2,000-mile-long wall around the border with Bangladesh, because they know what kind of flood of people will be coming from that direction.

And the horrible part is, of course, that the countries hit hardest and first are the ones that have done the least to cause this problem and the countries that are most unfairly going to have to change their economic development plans the most over the next decades. The easiest way for India or China or almost anybody else to pull people out of poverty would be to burn more of the cheap coal that they have at hand. But they can’t do it, because the West has filled up the atmosphere already.

The global inequity, that’s always been a sin, has become a great practical impediment to action on this. And if we can’t somehow square that circle, if we can’t figure out how to transfer some serious resources north to south in the form of technology to allow countries to develop without going through the fossil fuel age, then we have little to no chance of preventing the absolute worst outcomes.

AMY GOODMAN: And Bill McKibben, the question in this country is always, we are in a recession ourselves, why would you be sending money south?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, we’re going to have to — I mean, the trouble is that what we’re dealing with, Amy, is not a debate between China and the US or between Republicans and Democrats, fundamentally; it’s a debate between human beings and physics and chemistry. And physics and chemistry don’t suspend their operations just because we’re in an economic rough patch. We’ve got to get our carbon emissions down, and fast, and we’ve got to help the rest of the world do the same thing. If we can’t, then we’re in far greater trouble than any recession we’re experiencing now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the direction of the Obama administration, saying that as part of the clean energy solution, the United States must begin building nuclear plants once again, and then presumably other countries in the world should do, as well?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, first of all, let’s give credit where it’s due. The Obama administration has done more in its year and a half in office on climate change than all the other presidents of the global warming era combined. On the other hand, you know, I’ve drunk more beer than my twelve-year-old niece. The bar was set pretty low. And the actions that we’ve seen so far have been around the edges.

Now that we’re beginning to get — head toward some serious negotiation in the Senate, the Obama administration is giving away an awful lot: offshore drilling, lots of support for nuclear power. Nuclear power doesn’t give off much carbon. That’s the best thing you can say about it. The worst thing you can say about it, at least aside from nuclear waste and plutonium and terrorism, the worst thing you can say about it is it wastes an incredible amount of money. It will only happen with massive, massive government subsidy. And if we’re going to subsidize something, there are a lot of technologies that offer a lot more kilowatt hours for the buck than trying to build giant nuclear power stations.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, we’re in the wake now of this terrible mine disaster, the worst in, what, forty years, twenty-nine miners dead. All through the Democratic convention, as we were in Denver, we saw those signs for clean coal. What about coal as an answer?

BILL McKIBBEN: Coal is the most dangerous substance on the planet, in almost every way — I mean, for the people who have to mine it and for the landscapes where it exists, like across southern Appalachia, for the people who have to breathe the smoke around power plants, mostly in our inner cities, but most fundamentally for the climate. Coal produces more carbon per BTU than anything else you can burn. And as a result, more than anything, it’s what’s driving our climate problem.

We’re not going to have, in the time that we require it, anything that really resembles clean coal. What we need to do is make that transition away from coal, and make it as fast as we can. Job one is putting a really significant price on carbon, so that coal begins to pay for some of the incredible damage that it does to the environment.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, your organization, 350.org, explain it one more time.

BILL McKIBBEN: Three-fifty is the most important number in the world. NASA scientists have said that any value for 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 earth has adapted. That’s strong language, and it’s stronger still, because we’re past it already. We’re at 390 parts per million or so today and rising about two parts per million a year. That’s why the Arctic is melting. It’s why the oceans are acidifying. And it’s why we need a movement around the world to force political action sooner rather than later. We’re running out of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, we thank you for being with us, co-founder and director of 350.org. His new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. And thank you for giving us our headline for the day: “I drink more beer than my twelve-year-old niece.” At least there’s hope, at least for her. Thank, Bill.

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