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Bill McKibben: New Report Reconfirms Climate Change Is Shrinking Inhabitable Parts of the Planet

StoryNovember 26, 2018
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On the heels of yet another alarming climate change report—this time released by a White House that openly denies global warming—we speak with 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben and public health scholar Kristie Ebi about President Trump’s environmental policies, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and what it will take to fight the growing threat of climate change.

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

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Bill McKibben into this conversation, co-founder of 350.org, his latest piece for The New Yorker headlined “How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet.” His 1989 book The End of Nature was the first book for a general audience about climate change. His new book, coming out, will be Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Bill, talk about the significance of this report and your really critical piece in The New Yorker, what you were trying to convey as you were writing in the midst of the fires in California.

BILL McKIBBEN: So, this report is important, and it follows on a string of other reports—a month ago, the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—talking about what the future holds. None of it, in a sense, is new or surprising. We’ve been getting this warning for many years. What’s finally happening, I think, is that the country is beginning to pay some attention. The Trump administration tried to bury this by putting it out on Black Friday, but it didn’t work very well, in part because the report came right on the heels of the catastrophic fires in California.

Look, you know, as you know, I wrote the first book about all this 30 years ago next year. And at the time, it was an abstract, theoretical threat. Now it is the fierce daily reality of people’s lives all over the place. And because of that, I think even the shopworn Republican attempts to avoid having to deal with it are beginning to look lame. I mean, Rick Santorum came on the TV yesterday on the Sunday news shows to say that he thought climate scientists were in it for the money. You might ask your other guest from Seattle there exactly what pile of filthy lucres she was paid for contributing to this report, because I doubt it was much.

AMY GOODMAN: OK. Let’s put that comment to you, Dr. Ebi. But also, the significance, Dr. Ebi, of this being a government report, the very government that is denying climate change?

KRISTIE EBI: Well, first, Bill, thank you very much for the question. We’re volunteers, so we’re paid nothing to work on the report. And we’re also paid nothing to work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. These are our nights, our weekends and our family vacations, where we work on this material because it’s important for people to understand the state of the science.

And Bill is right that there has been a big shift from climate change being a—I would say it’s more than theoretical. It was an understanding of how the climate system worked, and saying as we mess with the climate system, there will be consequences. And we’re seeing those consequences now. And that’s one of the reasons you’re seeing so much interest in the report.

And the report, as he mentioned, is mandated by law. There was a law enacted by Congress in 1990 that mandates there be regular national assessments. The federal agencies that fund research around climate change are involved in this report. They are set up as leads of the chapters, but they don’t actually write the chapters. The chapters are written by the scientists who are listed on the front page of each chapter. There’s a chapter lead, and there’s an author team.

AMY GOODMAN: White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the new report was, quote, “largely based on the most extreme scenario, which contradicts long-established trends by assuming that … there would be limited technology and innovation, and a rapidly expanding population.” Bill McKibben?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, President Trump said last week that he was very good at science, and he believed that the climate had changed, it would soon change back. I mean, you can take your pick—Dr. Ebi and her colleagues or President Trump—on this one.

The good news is that not only is it beginning to really break through into the public consciousness, there’s even signs on Capitol Hill of things beginning to shift. The move last week by young people from the Sunrise Movement to demand a select committee on a Green New Deal is good news. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has kind of emerged as the point person on this, and there’s a lot of pressure on Nancy Pelosi to try and move this issue along now, to give it the prominence that physics and chemistry demands. As you know, at 350.org, we’ve worked for a very long time to push this fight, and there is a feeling that it’s beginning, finally, to break through in powerful ways.

Whether we’ve waited too long is, in another sense, part of the question. I mean, clearly, we can no longer stop global warming. That’s not on the menu. What we can perhaps, if we work with real diligence at this point, is limit it to no worse than it has to get, limit it to the point where it doesn’t undermine the stability of our civilizations. But that’s an open question, whether we can still do that and whether we will do it. It will take enormous effort.

AMY GOODMAN: Just two days before the new report was released, which presumably Trump knew about, he tweeted, “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL records -Whatever happened to Global Warming?” Dr. Ebi, can you talk about the ignorance behind this comment?

KRISTIE EBI: I’ll be happy to do that, and I’m going to go back to the question that you asked Bill for a moment, just to provide some clarification on the process, that these assessments are mandated to be comprehensive. We have to take all viewpoints into account, and there is extensive review of the chapter as it’s developed. There’s review by the scientific community across the United states, and there’s a review by the National Academy of Sciences. And the federal agencies also provide a review of the chapters. So there’s significant review to make sure, in fact, that these chapters are balanced and provide a fair and honest assessment of the state of science.

As to the second question, climate is changing. We have well-documented evidence that the climate is changing. It does not mean that because global mean surface temperature is getting higher that every day is going to be warmer. There’s always going to be variability from time to time. The cold temperatures in the East Coast are sometimes, and in this case may be—I’m not sure—due to changes in the Arctic. And with warming in the Arctic, essentially the way cold temperatures stay in the Arctic is being affected by climate change. And so these cold temperatures are no longer being confined to the Arctic. They’re kind of wandering south. They wander south into the United States; they wander south into Europe. And so there is discussions within the climate community of the extent to which climate change and the impacts it has on the Arctic is affecting these very cold temperatures that occur occasionally on the East Coast.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Bill McKibben, the piece you wrote in The New Yorker, the cover story, “How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet,” how is it?

BILL McKIBBEN: Look, as this century wears on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that as the temperature rises, the habitable planet is going to be smaller. People are already beginning to flee the coastlines of the planet because of rising seas and the storms that ride in on those higher tides. Where exactly people will go is a little more open to question, because the continental interiors are beginning to heat up at a rapid rate. New science over the last 18 months has made it clear that a wide belt across the tropics, much of Asia into the North China Plain, on current trajectories, will be so hot that humans really won’t be able to function effectively there by the latter part of this century.

And this goes straight back to the images you were talking about a few minutes ago from the Mexican border. One of the reasons that people are on the move from Guatemala and Honduras, what climatologists call the dry corridor of Latin America, is because there has been a terrific drought. It drove people first into the violent cities of that region and then on the move. The predictions are that we can expect 140 million to 300 million climate refugees over the next decades. We better come up with some better idea than just tear-gassing people, because this is the reality of this century that we find ourselves in.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the progress of the fuel divestment campaigns, Bill?

BILL McKIBBEN: We’re past $7 trillion in portfolios and endowments that have divested in part or in whole from fossil fuel companies. Shell Oil said earlier this year that divestment had become a material risk to its business. That’s good news. We need to pressure the fossil fuel companies, because, ultimately, until their political power is broken, the chances of moving as quickly as we need to move are nil. So, that’s why movements like 350.org push it so hard.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, we have to leave it there, but we want you to stay with us, and we want to thank you for being with us. We’ll link to your piece in The New Yorker, “How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet.” And, Dr. Kristie Ebi, professor of global health at University of Washington, Seattle, thanks so much for joining us.

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