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Climate change: It's time to talk, and act, tough

Environmentalists have tried the compromise route. It hasn't worked.

August 04, 2010|By Bill McKibben

Try to fit these facts together:

•According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the planet has just come through the warmest decade, the warmest 12 months, the warmest six months and the warmest April, May and June on record.

•A "staggering" new study from Canadian researchers has shown that warmer seawater has reduced phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, by 40% since 1950.

•Nine nations so far have set their all-time temperature records this year, including Russia (111 degrees), Niger (118), Sudan (121), Saudi Arabia and Iraq (126 apiece), and Pakistan, which also set the new all-time Asia record in May — a hair under 130 degrees.

•And then, in late July, the U.S. Senate decided to do exactly nothing about climate change. It didn't do less than it could have; it did nothing, preserving a perfect two-decade bipartisan record of no action. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided not to even schedule a vote on legislation that would have capped carbon emissions.

I'm a mild-mannered guy, a Methodist Sunday school teacher. I'm not quick to anger. But the time has come to get mad, and then to get busy.

For many years, the lobbying fight for climate legislation on Capitol Hill has been led by moderate environmental groups, outfits such as the Environmental Defense Fund. We owe them a great debt, and not just for their hard work. We owe them a debt because they did everything the way you're supposed to: They wore nice clothes, lobbied tirelessly and compromised at every turn.

By the time they were done, they had a bill that would have capped carbon emissions only from electric utilities (not factories or cars) and was so laden with gifts for industry that if you listened closely, you could actually hear the oinking. Sen. John Kerry, the legislator they worked most closely with, issued this rallying cry as the final negotiations began: "We believe we have compromised significantly, and we're prepared to compromise further."

And even that was not enough. They were left out to dry by everyone — not just Reid, not just the Republicans. President Obama wouldn't lend a hand either.

The result: total defeat, no moral victories.

So now we know what we didn't before: Making nice doesn't work. It was worth a try, but it didn't work. So we'd better try something else.

Step 1 involves actually talking about global warming. For years now, the accepted wisdom was: talk about anything else — energy independence, oil security, beating the Chinese to renewable technology.

But the task at hand is to keep the planet from melting. We need everyone, beginning with the president, to start explaining that basic fact at every turn.

It is the heat, and also the humidity. Because warm air holds more water than cold, the atmosphere is about 5% moister than it was 40 years ago, which explains the freak downpours that seem to happen someplace on this continent every few days.

It is the carbon. That's why the seas are turning acid, a point Obama could have made with ease while standing on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Energy independence is nice, but you need a planet to be energy independent on.

Step 2, we have to ask for what we actually need, not what we calculate we might be able to get. If we're going to slow global warming in the very short time available to us, we don't actually need an incredibly complicated legislative scheme that gives door prizes to every interested industry. We need a stiff price on carbon, set by the scientific understanding that we can't still be burning black rocks a couple of decades hence.

Asking for what you need doesn't mean you'll get all of it. Compromise still happens. But as David Brower, the greatest environmentalist of the late 20th century, explained amid the fight to save the Grand Canyon: "We are to hold fast to what we believe is right, fight for it, and find allies and adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or them to win, then let someone else propose the compromise."

Which leads to the third step in this process. If we're going to get any of this done, we're going to need a movement. For 20 years, environmentalists have operated on the notion that we'd get action if we simply had scientists explain to politicians and chief executives that our current ways are unsustainable. That turns out, quite conclusively, not to work. We need to be able to explain to them that continuing in their current ways will end something they actually care about: their careers. And because we'll never have the cash to compete with Exxon, we better work in the currencies we can muster: bodies, spirit, passion.

We're not going to get the Senate to act next week, or maybe even next year. It took a decade after the Montgomery bus boycott to get the Voting Rights Act. But if there hadn't been a movement, then the Voting Rights Act would have passed in — never. We may need to get arrested. We definitely will need disciplined, nonviolent but very real anger.

Mostly, we need to tell the truth, resolutely and constantly. Fossil fuel is wrecking the one Earth we've got. It's not going to go away because we ask politely. If we want a world that works, we're going to have to raise our voices.

Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and the author, most recently, of "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." He's a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. A longer version of this piece appears at tomdispatch.com.

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