There are lots of people coming through town lately. The Dalai Lama and his entourage of fabled musicians climbed the Syracuse University Hill to the Carrier Dome to laugh and sing for peace. Bill Clinton stopped in to give a shout-out on behalf of Dan Maffei’s congressional campaign.
Sandwiched between these two distinguished visits was a less heralded appearance by a tall, thin, soft-spoken man: Bill McKibben, author of the environmental classic The End of Nature (Anchor Press, 1989) and more recently, the 2010 book Eaarth (that’s not a typo, readers; Henry Holt and Co.). If what McKibben had to say at SU on Oct. 10, if what he has been saying over the past year as he travels the world is even partially true, his visit may have been the most important of anyone to stop by Syracuse this season.
McKibben is not an alarmist but he did come to sound an alarm. His message, laid out in detail in Eaarth, is that due to our consumption of fossil fuels, we no longer inhabit the planet we were born on. In just 40 years, says McKibben, we have melted half the Arctic ice cap. We have increased global temperature by one full degree Celsius; international consensus is that a two-degree rise would be ruinous. The ocean is measurably more acidic than it was 40 years ago.
In this year of endless numbers being dumped on us in debates, McKibben makes the case that he has come up with the most important number in the world. It’s not Mitt Romney’s tax rate plan or Barack Obama’s deficit reduction plan or even the time it took Paul Ryan to run a marathon. It is 350, as in 350 parts per million. That number, according to McKibben, is the highest level of atmospheric carbon dioxide compatible with the maintenance of the planet on which civilization developed and thrived.
But we have already exceeded 350. That number is now 395 ppm and so, the thin man contends, our planet is no longer the same as the one we were born to. He says we have to think of ourselves not as tinkerers working a problem on familiar turf, but as aliens landing on a new planet. He calls what we are doing to the planet today through the burning of fossil fuels “Genesis in reverse.” (I presume he is referring to the Bible, not Phil Collins.)
We have so altered the climate already that the odds of a heat wave like we experienced this summer occurring somewhere on earth at a given moment have gone from 1 in 200 to 1 in 10. Extreme rainfalls and withering droughts will become the norm in more parts of the globe.
McKibben assembles evidence from scientists, most notably James Hansen of NASA, to indicate that we are on a much more rapid path to a climate-changing tipping point beyond which recovery is impossible. Our only hope, he says, is a global movement to demand that we halt the burning of fossil fuels.
Here’s his other number: 565 gigatons. That’s the amount of carbon we can burn if we want to have a chance to keep that temperature increase below 2 degrees. The problem is that oil, gas and coal producers are poised to harvest and sell fossil fuels that would lead to us depositing six times that amount into our skies.
Which is why listening to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney answer questions about the price of gas is nothing short of infuriating. Romney sounds like he goes to bed dreaming of oil pipelines and wakes up to a cereal bowl full of coal. Obama, smitten with hydrofracking and invested to some degree in renewable energy, talks about an “all-of-the-above approach,” a kind of energy smorgasbord. But if McKibben is right, that smorgasbord contains a few vitamins and proteins and a whole lot of bacon.
Global warming, says McKibben, can’t be seen as a problem for our grandkids: It’s a problem that should have been dealt with by our parents. McKibben has whole chapters devoted to solutions, but they can’t begin to be implemented without a major shift in how we view the problem. Meanwhile, the candidates (locally, Maffei and Buerkle echo the presidential candidates while only Green candidate Ursula Rozum sounds like McKibben) are afraid to give us the bad news. They don’t want to treat us like adults, and so the problem only gets worse and worse.
So, says McKibben, who leads a worldwide movement called 350.org, it’s up to us to let them know that we’re not afraid, we can handle the truth, and we can change. We have to.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.