Bill McKibben’s New Math Should Mean Action

Doomsday Clock: We have 5 minutes to change the world

Since 1947, the world has lived with a Doomsday Clock telling us how close we are to annihilation of all life on this planet. Before 2007, that time was based on the likelihood of nuclear war. Since 2007, that clock includes the impact of climate change.

Bill McKibben’s article on climate change, appearing in the July 19, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone magazine — “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” — is one of the most important articles you will read this year.

In it he explains that the planet has experienced a 0.8 degree (Celsius) increase in average global temperature (hotter in some places, colder in others). And now that we’ve gotten the ball rolling, it won’t stop there. We’ve triggered a feedback loop of thawing permafrost and polar ice melt that will release even more greenhouse gases. Scientists say the feedback loop will result in (at least) another 0.8 degree temperature increase, regardless of the actions we take.

Knowing the impacts that climate change is already making (see the Climate Vulnerability Monitor), world “leaders” agreed in Copenhagen to limit climate change to 2 degrees of hell. However, they did so without any actual plan to achieve that limit.

McKibben likens that agreement to playing Russian roulette with 5 bullets in the gun.

  • The first bullet hurtles toward island nations like Kiribati, which cannot survive rising sea levels. But it’s not just island nations that will disappear, so too will inhabited low-lands, areas along the ocean coasts, the city of Venice, the lowlands of Holland.
  • The second bullet will hit nations whose water supply is dependent upon seasonal snow and ice (notably parts of China, India and the American West), which will suffer increasing desertification.
  • The third bullet — heat — stresses food crops, drives massive wildfires and kills plant and animal life. We’ve already seen catastrophic corn crop failure throughout the U.S.
  • The fourth bullet — torrential rains and cyclones — will hit in old, familiar places, like Bangladesh, with increasing frequency and intensity. But we’re seeing the consequences of torrential rainfall even in Minnesota, where “once in a lifetime” floods now come every few years.
  • The fifth bullet hits when plant and animal life that cannot adapt as quickly as humans begins to disappear. We may think we can live without polar bears, but just how many animals and plants can we really live without?

World “leaders” found this price acceptable, in exchange for the ability to continue burning fossil fuels and conducting business as usual. Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems to have backed off even this very minimal agreement. The U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, has said that countries should pick their own goals without any internationally agreed upon requirements. In essence, allowing some to do nothing.

Those in the Transition community might once have hoped that decreasing oil supplies would keep climate change in line. McKibben makes it clear that there is enough oil, gas and coal in the ground to load that last bullet in the gun, with ammunition to spare. We cannot count on luck – or on the promise of technology – to save us. We must actively choose life.

Read Bill McKibben’s article.
Understand what this means.
If you find it too distressing, find a supportive community in which you can begin to engage the problem of greenhouse gas emissions in positive and meaningful ways.

Whatever you do, please don’t read it and then think you’ve done enough.

1 thought on “Bill McKibben’s New Math Should Mean Action

  1. Anonymous

    In addition to melting ice releasing greenhouse gases, Canada is mining massive areas of bog for minerals right now and sphagnum moss and peat are very effective carbon sinks. When they are stripped, all that trapped gas is released into the atmosphere. They are doing it to mine but selling the peat. PLEASE do not ever but peat moss. There are other ways to amend the soil.




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