Earth Chats: Bill McKibben
If we don't slow global warming through growth control, we'll have to fight its disastrous effects.
Slate invited author Bill McKibben to take readers' questions on Washingtonpost.com about solving the climate-change crisis. An unedited transcript of the chat follows. See the schedule of Slate's upcoming Earth Chats.
Stockholm, Sweden: In light of the current food crisis (partly as a cause of the wrong-headed "biofuel" solution) and with the rise of China and India to American levels of consumption, and the hemming and hawing of politicians, just how hopeless is the climate problem? For me? For my children? For my grandchildren?
Bill McKibben: It's on the edge of hopeless—the scientists are telling us now that going past 350 parts per million co2 means massive climate disruption. We're at 385 ppm right now—and what do you know, the Arctic is melting.
That's why we've just formed 350.org. May analysis is that the next round of international climate negotiations, set to conclude Dec 2009 in Copenhagen, are the last real bite at the apple. If we can somehow do the massive political lifting between now and then to get a strong treaty, well, we have a chance.
Albany, N.H.: A small group of us have started to meet to discuss ways that we can start to relocalize our community of approximately 750 people. Roughly 5/6 of our town lies within the White Mountain National Forest, and we have little industry. Most people are employed out of town. We initially are focusing on food and energy. Any thoughts or ideas would be greatly appreciated.
Bill McKibben: Your town sounds like mine (except we're in the Green Mountain National Forest). Food and energy are the places to begin, because they're so central, and because the centralized approaches are starting to break down. But don't neglect culture either—local music is a remarkably good place to start.
Local farmers market? Small scale hydro? Check out the work that's going on in the UK with the Transition Town movement, and in this country at the post-carbon institute.
Chicago: Isn't it true that solar activity appears to be the principal driver for climate change, accompanied by complex ocean currents that distribute the heat and control local weather systems?
Bill McKibben: No. Solar input has fluctuated very little in recent times, nowhere near enough to explain the sudden surge in temperatures. The only thing that does is anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide. We're taking a couple of hundred million years worth of carbon and tossing it up into the atmosphere in a century. Given what we know about the heat-trapping power of co2's molecular structure, the resulting warming should come as no great surprise—and the scientific consensus behind it is now very strong
Vancouver, B.C.: I'm sorry, I have not read your book (give me time!), so forgive me if you've covered this previously. How do societies with large families because of religious beliefs cope with steep population growth? Changing secular policies (e.g. China) is easy compared with changing centuries of religious teaching limiting birth control.
Bill McKibben: Don't worry overmuch about religious strictures and their effect on population. The two countries with the lowest birth rates on earth, Italy and Spain, are the two most heavily Catholic countries on the planet. Ditto for Mexico and Brazil in the developing world. (to the degree that the Catholic church is an effective part of the education system in the developing world, it's probably actually contributing to cutting birth rates). At the moment, the most pressing question for climate change is how to bring consumption rates down.
Montpelier, Vt.: Hey, Bill. I'm wondering, what do you think of Lieberman-Warner? A step in the right direction that should be supported, or a "least we can do" approach that kills the momentum toward better, more substantial policy?
Bill McKibben: It clearly needs to be much stronger—and it clearly needs to be seen as, at best, a first step in the two-step process that leads to a strong international agreement soon. A particularly important provision is that, as Barack Obama has insisted, all the carbon permits in the Lieberman-Warner bill need to be auctioned off with the proceeds for the public, not given away to industry
Burbank, Calif.: If growth is not a good sign of economic strength, is the converse true? In other words, we generally define recession as two consecutive quarters of economic decline, but might slow growth be almost as important a warning of economic troubles?
Bill McKibben: My guess is that we may be reaching the point that people have predicted for some years, where the confluence of limits that we're reaching begin to make continued progress along our old path of economic growth unlikely. That is, one part of our current problem is the credit crunch stuff. But another is the skyrocketing price of energy, now beginning to mix in with the price/availability of food, and both of those impacted in various ways by climate change. I wonder if this won't turn out to be not just one little downturn in our economic cycles, but a break point
Washington: There has been a lot of media attention lately focused on the question of how much it will cost to address climate change. Doesn't this assume erroneously, that the actions we need to take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions cost money, when in fact they often save money? Shouldn't we be talking about how to profit from solving climate change?
Bill McKibben: Sure, it's good to focus on that. It's also good to focus on how much it will cost if we don't take action. Nick Stern originally estimated it would be the combined cost of both World Wars and the Depression—and last week he said that was an underestimate given new data.
Bill McKibben is the author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Atlantic, Harper's, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, Outside, and Grist.
Photograph of Bill McKibben by Toby Talbot/AP Photo.