Outlook: Obama needs to feel the heat
The sharp contrast between Barack Obama and Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives on global warming

Bill McKibben
Scholar in Residence, Middlebury College and Co-Founder, 350.org
Monday, November 23, 2009 11:00 AM

Bill McKibben, scholar in residence at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org, an advocacy Web site for solutions to the climate crisis, was online Monday, Nov. 23 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "Obama needs to feel the heat."


Bill McKibben: Hi all--I'm online, will do my best to type fast--bill


Washington, D.C.: How do you suggest we reach people who aren't interested in or knowledgeable about climate change to pay attention? The facts are compelling, but they also can scare people off sometimes (head in the sand-syndrome).

Bill McKibben: You have to organize. At 350.org we managed to build what CNN called 'the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history' on Oct. 24, with 5200 actions in 181 countries. There were 15,000 people in the streets of Addis Ababa, for heaven's sake. You can't reach all the people, but we do need to reach more--to really build a movement


Barranquilla, Colombia: How hotter was this June-October season from the average for this season in history?

Bill McKibben: Here's a pretty good link to answer that question: http://climateprogress.org/2009/11/16/nasa-noaa-hottest-june-to-october-on-record/

In general, this decade as a whole has been hotter than the 1990s, and by a larger margin than the 1990s were hotter than the 1980s. It's a canard that 'the planet is cooling'--clearly it is still getting warmer, and indeed more quickly. this isn't linear--there are bumps up and down--but the trend is clear


Oldwick, N.J.: Why is it good that the Maldives is pursuing kelp as biofuel? Does anybody know what the emissions of burning biofuels do to human and vegetative health? Is it possible that those emissions are even MORE dangerously toxic than those of fossil fuels?

Bill McKibben: Anything is possible, I suppose, but haven't seen anything to suggest this would be true. The use of biofuels is that, though they emit carbon, the regrowth of the vegetation (grass, seaweed, whatever) soaks up carbon. You need to be careful with 1) things like corn-based ethanol which take lots of fuel to grow in the first place and 2) things like temperate zone trees, which can take a long time to regrow


Florissant Valley, Mo.: Thanks for taking our questions, Bill. No doubt you have answered this before, but in my undergraduate geology course forty years ago we learned that the earth has on frequent occasions been hotter than it is today. (Greenland as recently as 900 AD for example.)How can we demonstrate that it is our emissions that are raising the heat this time, and not part of a normal cycle? Thanks for trying!

Bill McKibben: This was one of the key questions back in the late '80s when I wrote The End of Nature. Was there a signal that rose above the noise of climate variability (which is geographical as well as temporal). By now it's very clear--from the IPCC to the world's academies of science, there's strong agreement that what we're seeing is unusual warming with a strong anthropogenic signal. And at this point the most compelling evidence of all is what it's doing to physical systems--to glaciers, to sea ice, to the chemistry of seawater, to hydrological systems.


Atlanta, Ga.: With all the statements of right-wing politicians who tell us that global warming is a hoax, I'm curious: Are there any reputable climatologists who seriously question that the problem is REAL?

Bill McKibben: Not that I've ever met. There are people who differ on how it will all turn out, but pretty much everyone accepts that we've put a lot more co2 into the atmosphere, that its molecular structure traps heat, and that the world will therefore get warmer. Some suggest other variables will play a role as well, but co2 is, sadly, not a hoax


washingtonpost.com: NASA reports hotest June to October on record* (Climate Progress, Nov. 16)


Washington, D.C.: Bill,

Seeing as we are in a major global recession and we already at 387ppm, how much more economic output are you projecting the globe will lose as a result of reducing concentrations below current levels?

Bill McKibben: No one can say for certain (economic forecasts being far more uncertain than climatological ones!). But clearly far less than the economic price of doing nothing--the best report we have on that, from the British economist Nick Stern, has suggested a price for inaction larger than the Great Depression and both World Wars combined. Remember--the economy is a subset of the physical world, not the other way round


Washington, D.C.: Any treaty agreed upon in Copenhagen or later will require ratification by a two-thirds super-majority in the Senate before it becomes law. That means 34 senators can block it. Since Republicans hold 38 Senate seats and are nearly unanimous in regarding climate change as a non-issue, and more than a few Democrats from coal and oil states likewise oppose large emissions reductions, it's hard to see how a meaningful climate treaty will get through the Senate. What do you think?

Bill McKibben: Yeah, a very good point. Whatever comes out of what I guess we'll know call the Copenhagen process (because it clearly won't be settled in Copenhagen) will apparently be cast in such a way that the US legislative participation will 'count' as its signature, so that you don't need 67 votes from the senate. Obama aside, the Senate really is the problem here--and it is incredibly depressing that, as with Kyoto, it is still the world body holding up action. What we need from Obama is some pressure on that Senate via the public


Arlington, Va.: Al Gore has suggested that Americans may need to engage in acts of "civil disobedience" in order to raise the level of "heat" on congress. Do you believe that acts of "civil disobedience" are now needed to use the limited time we have left to get action on the climate issue?

Bill McKibben: We organized one large civil disobedience action in DC last spring, and it succeeded in convincing Congress to switch their coal-fired power plant over to natural gas. My guess is there will be more pressure for nonviolent civil disobedience the more our leaders prove incapable of dealing with this question


Capitol Hill: Have you considered the long-term consequences to your issue by considering the long-term political consequences of attacking Obama, who is supportive of you on this issue? I see groups similar to yours and then watch conservative Republicans celebrating with glee. If environmentalists wish to attack Obama on global warming, Republicans will be glad to replace Obama. I wonder how many environmentalists who attacked Clinton and Gore were happy to see Bush and Cheney replace them.

Bill McKibben: The intent is not to attack Obama, but to get him to do more than he's done so far to raise this issue. I was an early supporter of Obama, and his fiercest advocates and volunteers came from the under-25 demographic--who also identified global warming as their single most important issue. So in the long run, it seems to me in his best interest--as well as the planet's--to get out in front on this. But I could be wrong--I'm not a political strategist.


Anonymous: How do we help people focus sufficiently on the climate crisis -- to keep the problem constantly in their mind?

People are pulled in so many directions and have so little free time, especially women during the holiday season.

Bill McKibben: At 350.org., we're sponsoring a series of candlelight vigils all over the world on the weekend of Dec. 12--outside Senator's offices, among other places. A little candlelight for the holidays, and a little hopeful gathering for what is clearly going to be a dark month politically.


Arlington, Va.: The CRU e-mails make clear that the small cadre of scientists driving the global warming agenda are politically motivated and have been deliberately suppressing their data. Certainly, this does not mean that they are necessarily wrong, but it does make it extremely difficult to trust them. If we are to formulate large-scale policy requiring sacrifices from millions of people based on the findings of these scientists, do you agree that it is reasonable to expect transparency from them?

Bill McKibben: Depends what you mean by transparency. Have everyone's email accounts open at all times? Not likely--though I'd sure like to see the ExxonMobil outbox. But robust peer review process? Yep.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Have you looked at the issue of using algae for fuel? Several researchers have shown it is the most productive source of energy --far better than petroleum, corn, and cane sugar -- and it is easier to find as it grows fast and doesn't require drilling. I see Exxon is investing in this, but I wonder why more isn't being said and done in this field?

Bill McKibben: There's a fair amount happening--but there will be lots more the minute we actually put a serious price on carbon. Does algae beat coal on cost? Probably not. Does it beat coal when the price of coal includes the damage it does to the atmosphere? Almost for sure. So that's why Copenhagen is/was important


New York: How has the recent hacking-and-releasing of climate scientists' private e-mail impacted the climate debate? How should the climate-concerned community respond to allegations of improper behavior by top climate scientists? Should Andy Revkin of the NYT and other credible reporters be taken to task for their poor reporting on the 'scandal,' or should we try another approach?

Bill McKibben: My guess is, it won't change much. There are always people looking for reasons not to believe in something that requires change.

But the problem is, this 'conspiracy' now includes the planet's glaciers, sea ice, seawater, etc--that is, it's not some plot hatched by a few scientists, it's the actual observable patterns of our planet.


Sonoma, Calif.: Maybe this is a naive question to ask, but as a 22 year old who wants so much to raise children someday, I'm constantly wondering these days: is this it? Do we even have a shot anymore? Is there a point in starting a family, or should I give up on that dream until I can be sure the world's in a safer place?

Bill McKibben: We're not going to stop global warming. We've already raised the temperature about a degree, and there's probably another degree or so in the pipeline. What we're playing for now is: can we keep the changes within bounds that civilizations can cope? And the frank answer is, we don't know. There seems to be a narrow window still open, but there are wild cards--Arctic methane, say--that could close it very rapidly. That's why we can't waste opportunities like Copenhagen.

In any event, my guess is we'll need to refocus on communities and families in the years to come, in order to build the resilient local places that can cope with the changes we've already unleashed. Much of my intellectual work (see Deep Economy, or my forthcoming book Earth) is about this topic ,. as opposed to my activist work


Seattle, Wash.: I would like to know if there is such a thing as clean coal... I mean a tangible thing as clean coal?

Bill McKibben: Clean coal could mean coal burned in such a way as to reduce its sulfur and nitrogen and mercury emissions--that's already happening, though slower than it should due to utility foot-dragging--it's pretty simple, since these are trace gases

Or it could mean sequestering the carbon dioxide from the exhaust stream and burying it underground or underwater. This is much harder, because co2 isn't a trace gas--it's the main result of burning fossil fuel. Hence this is very expensive and as yet almost completely untried.

In any event, you have to keep mining the stuff--which is an environmental tragedy, at least if like me your family comes from W. Va. --On Obama's to-do list, it would be awfully nice if he used his authority to stop the destruction of Coal River Mountain, currently underway


Clovis, N.M.: How does the western developed world taking action change the climate when the increases are coming from the developing world? How will the hundreds of billions of dollars in projected payments to the developing world change anything considering the West has spent 2.3 trillion over the last 50 years and things are only getting worse? How do you hold developing countries accountable without being accused of eco-imperialism?

Bill McKibben: First, the developing countries aren't the main source of global warming. Since the co2 molecule has a residence time in the atmosphere upwards of a century, it will be decades before China is as responsible for climate change as we are (and even then, on a per capita basis, we'll still be far and away the champs).

As far as I know the West has not spent 2.5 trillion helping developing countries build clean energy systems. We will need to spend a lot of money doing exactly that in the years ahead, or they will choose to get rich the same way we did, by burning coal. Both China and India have been more forthcoming than expected in the runup to Copenhagen--they're clearly cared of the consequences of climate change (especially as relates to drought, and to Himalayan glaciers) and willing to strike a deal


Cambridge, Mass.: So should we support or oppose Kerry/Boxer? This is far-and-away the closest we've come to getting meaningful climate legislation passed. Should we encourage our senators to vote against it because the target is not strong enough?

Bill McKibben: We don't even have a bill at the moment to support or oppose. The already none-too-strong legislation has, as I noted in my piece, been turned over to Sens. Graham and Lieberman to work over. I'm unenthusiastic about that turn of events


Shepherdstown, W.Va.: Responding to the challenge of a changing climate will require unprecedented partnering among local, state, and federal conservation organizations. What do you think the federal government's role should be in developing adaptation strategies?

Bill McKibben: Good question. The fed govt can underwrite some of the cost, and help coordinate and provide info--but adaptation has a fundamentally local component. I mean, you need to know your watershed to know how to plan for the increased advent of hundred year storms, etc.

My guess is that climate change will play a role in causing us to think more locally and less federally as time goes on--at any rate, that's one thesis of my next book, Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet


Santa Rosa, Calif.: Hello Bill,

I teach at a local high school, and I'm getting lots of pushback with statements that the earth has shown no warming since 1998, and has actually cooled in the last 8 years.

What data can I point to to refute these misconceptions.


Bill McKibben: here's a good straightforward piece from the associated press that came out today summarizing, very conservatively, the data for the last decade: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hjrkevVWHdM8rWorsC2E8mUvBPzgD9C4NKU80

and here's a link http://climateprogress.org/2009/10/26/global-cooling-myth-statisticians-caldeira-superfreakonomics/ to another AP story that makes it clear that statisticians have found no let up in the rate of warming


Silver Spring, M.D.: If the recent health-care debate has taught us anything, I believe it has shown that many Americans are anxious about the potential negative short-term economic consequences of major reform legislation and not receptive to the probable long-term benefits.

In this economic down period, how does one convince America that it is in their national interest to support major climate change legislation? That is, how do we get people thinking beyond their pocketbook and see the global picture?

Bill McKibben: That's why I suggested Pres. Obama might want to get the press corps on an airplane and show them millions of acres of dead pine trees spread across states like Montana and Wyoming whose senators have not been very helpful in this process so far. I don't know if it will work, I do know it hasn't been tried


Washington, D.C.: A recent article (Everyone in Britain could be given a personal 'carbon allowance' (Telegraph.co.uk, Nov. 9)) supported the idea of an individual carbon allowance to ensure that individuals were only living within their own carbon means. Is this something that would help solve the climate crisis? Do you think it is a good idea?

Bill McKibben: It sounds unworkably interventionist to me at first glance, but I haven't spent any time thinking about it. As a thought exercise, it certainly makes sense to think of reasons why you should or should not be emitting fifty times as much carbon as, say, your average subSaharan African


Austin, Tex.: Bill, a similar question to that from Sonoma above. If I, a middle- aged man who doesn't plan on having a family and therefore has no direct interest in the state of the planet after I leave it, care about conservation and global warming, why doesn't everyone else, especially those with kids?

This baffles my mind that something like this can be a political issue. I understand that lobbyists can influence policy so that their industries can be more profitable, but WHY do citizens who don't have a vested economic interest continue to resist protecting the place we live?

Or, to make it short: how do we get through to the average citizen that global warming, among other environmental concerns, is an issue that must be addressed now?

Bill McKibben: I have no magic answer to this question. We need to organize people who do care, to spread the message to others. That's how it works--how it worked in the civil rights movement, and so on. This one is in some ways harder, since all of us benefit from burning lots of cheap fossil fuel in the short run. But it's not impossible--check out 350.org and just take in the pictures from around the world of millions of people doing just the kind of thing you recommend here


St. Petersburg, Fla.: I don't think most of the educated skeptics doubt that the earth is warming, the problem is they doubt the warming is caused by the scientific definition of global warming, i.e., putting CO2 into the atmosphere. They wonder how other processes, some of which can be manmade have been ruled out. A lot of the evidence appears circumstantial. For instance, the glaciers melting can also be melting due to soot from Chinese, Indian, coal fired generators that put soot onto the glaciers which then lower the albedo.

Bill McKibben: Clearly soot is adding to the problem, and in the ways you describe. It's one clear thing to try and eliminate, and it's probably practical to do so: I know lots of environmentalists who are working on it. We also need to get carbon under control very fast, because unlike most other causes it has a very long residence time--the stuff that comes out of my tailpipe today will still be warming the planet in a century.


Bill McKibben: Many questions re the hack of climate scientist's emails. I haven't' read them all--in general, transparency a good thing and since what's good for the goose... I imagine we'll be seeing the fossil fuel lobby handing over their emails soon.

But in any event, while this tempest is underway, outside the teapot the planet is warming fast, and with very large effects. Just to give one small example: these hacked emails were from England, but they were not a huge story in the British papers over the weekend, because they were full of stories about the single largest recorded rainfall in the country since measurements began in 1727. That is to say, the science is going on in the real world all around us.


Washington, D.C.: As a huge supporter of renewable energy, especially wind power, I have a hard time reconciling that on one hand, groups like Green Peace talk about renewable energy as a cure for our carbon addiction and then on the other hand, file lawsuits to have wind farms and solar farms stopped from being sighted. How can we ever expect to meet energy demand when renewable projects (which take up drastically more land than current sources) are being opposed by supposed green groups?

Bill McKibben: Actually, I think Greenpeace has done lots to speed up the siting process--they've been very active, for instance, in trying to win federal permits for the CapeWind development in Nantucket Sound. Most of the opposition has come from people who don';t want to look at windmills--I think you'll find your average global warming campaigner with a windmill button in his lapel


Anonymous: Hi Bill -- I share your desire for Pres Obama to develop some razor-sharp focus on this problem, but my real concern and disgust is with our legislators. What's it going to take for real responsibility and intelligence to reappear on the Hill?

Bill McKibben: Elections, maybe. But since we have to move quickly, my hope is that Obama could use some of his great eloquence, and even more importantly his team's campaigning skills, to focus attention on the biggest problem the world faces.

Beyond that, at the risk of sounding like a broken record (a metaphor that doesn't really work any more, does it?) there's no shortcut to organizing. It's what we try to do at 350.org--check out also campaigns like 1sky.org


Reno, Nev.: Wouldn't Cap and Trade create a cumbersome byzantine bureaucracy prone to delays, errors, political meddling ... and even corruption? (In contrast, a Carbon Tax at point of combustion would be simpler, more transparent, and ultimately supported by the public.)

Bill McKibben: It would be simpler. The argument against it is that Congress would never adopt it, or if they did raise it quickly enough to keep any pressure on the system. The best way around that problem would be the so-called Cap and Dividend plan, which would return the money you raised from a cap directly to the people. Moving such a plan would require truly heavy lifting, which would have to begin in the Oval Office--so far they seem to have decided to cobble together something along the lines of the legislation you see right now, which has many of the defects you describe. Teh best argument in its favor is--something beats nothing. Which is true until that something becomes worse than nothing, or unless it relieves the pressure that would cause you to do something better. These are--no question--tough political calculations. But right now it all appears to be drifting


Staunton, Va.: Big fan Mr. McKibben.

My concern is Peak Oil, which very few seem to be talking about even though Cheney had advisors in the peak oil community on his energy task force. Given that conservation in advance of peak oil (or to meet the fact that it's already here,) would address both dwindling energy supplies and climate change concerns, shouldn't that be a bigger part of the national and international focus?

But if political will is difficult to muster on climate change, is it harder with peak oil, where we'll have to down shift, which no financial market is willing to acknowledge?

Bill McKibben: Peak oil is very real--I write about it a good deal in my coming book. And it would help to deal with climate in certain ways--though it also might accelerate a shift towards coal, which we still have in too much abundance, though maybe not as much as we once believed.

Peak oil will exert its effect, at least initially, through price. You saw what $4 gas did: an end to SUVs and a deep unwillingness to buy the farthest-out loop of mcMansions


Lakeside, Ore.: The metric for tracking anthropogenic climate change is 'mean global temperature,' compiled on an annual basis. Where do climate scientists 'stick the thermometer' to determine the 'mean global temperature' every year? How is this number actually measured/calculated/estimated?

Bill McKibben: They stick the thermometers all over the place--there's a huge global network, albeit not without some holes (the Arctic is underrepresented). NASA and the Hadley Center are the main compilers, and their data is always a little different but pretty much parallel.

BTW, since people are busy attacking scientists as frauds, etc this week, I'd like to say climate scientists deserve an enormous vote of thanks. They've taken a highly complex problem in atmospheric chemistry and physics and in two decades given us a robust understanding of what's going on. The scientific method has worked well; the political method, so far, not so much


Santa Barbara, Calif.: What area of the U.S. is in most need of awareness raising and most likely to respond positively if better informed?

In other words if someone had an opportunity to network with potential activists in another geographical area where should the person direct his or her efforts?

Bill McKibben: To judge from the votes in the senate, looks like the midwest will be determinative. The South is a lost cause--the GOP simply refuses to take the issue seriously.


Kansas City: Bill -- what do you think about the climate geo- engineering potential? I am an architect firmly committed to green building. Researching the myriad of geo-engineering options, I think some people or countries will or are already experimenting. How do you approach these ideas? Should we manage experiments or do everything we can to restrict it? Thank you.

Bill McKibben: I think we should be researching everything we can. But the large-scale geoengineering stuff is not easy or cheap, and filled with possible pitfalls, and as even its biggest proponents have pointed out, it doesn't obviate for a second the need to reduce carbon.


Bill McKibben: Thanks to all, apologies for the questions I didn't get to, please help us out at 350.org


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