Opinion

Opinion | Bill McKibben

The clock keeps ticking in the fight to save the planet

Youth holds a sign during a demonstration against climate change on March 15, 2019 near the Pantheon in Paris. - The worldwide youth protests were inspired by a Swedish teen activist who camped out in front of parliament in Stockholm last year to demand action from world leaders on global warming. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images
THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images

Thirty years ago I published “The End of Nature,” which is often called the first book about global warming for a general audience. I was 28 — a young man, newly wed, with a thick head of hair. I’m 58 now, my daughter has just announced her engagement, and the top of my head has turned shiny. I’m a little wistful about some of those changes, but they are natural, normal — the proper progress of time.

Over the same period, the planet has changed at least as dramatically: More than half the sea ice in the Arctic is gone. Sea water is far more acidic, rainfall is far more intense, and temperatures and humidities are routinely reaching levels we’ve never recorded before. But none of this is natural or normal — unlike humans, the earth is not supposed to change profoundly in the course of a few decades. In hundreds of millions of years of history, we’ve seen change anything like this only a few times — say, when a giant asteroid strikes.

No story, no issue, no fact approaches significance greater than this one: The basic stability of our planet has been upended in our lifetimes. Unless we act quickly, the changes we’ve seen so far will be mild by comparison with what comes next. Science, as I point out in the just-published sequel to that original book, makes clear that without an emergency transition away from coal and gas and oil, we can expect such rapid shifts that our ability to maintain civilizations will be in doubt. Famines, floods, chaotic mass migrations have already begun — striking hardest, of course, those who have done the least to cause them.

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The disruption has reached a level where we’re forced to pay attention. When wildfire turns a California city called Paradise into a literal hell inside of a half-hour, denial grows harder; when Houston records the greatest deluge in US history, fear begins to stalk even the center of the hydrocarbon economy. From student protests that empty schools around the world to the Green New Deal roiling American politics, it’s clear we’re suddenly in a climate moment — maybe the last best chance we’ll have to head off the worst possible future. So to help people navigate it, let me condense a lifetime of thinking about this issue into the three vectors that will, I think, determine the outcome of the most important battle in human history.

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First is the plummeting cost of renewable energy. Unlike politicians, engineers have done their job, and so, over the last decade, sun and wind power have gone from expensive to cheap: New data published last month show that even with the (fast-dropping) price of storage batteries figured in, wind and solar energy is as cheap as coal or natural gas. A massive program to convert to renewables, as envisioned by the Green New Deal, is both possible and affordable.

The second force is the power of the fossil fuel industry. From great investigative reporting in the last five years, we’ve learned that the oil companies knew what was going on. Their scientists, by the early 1980s, were telling company executives how much and how fast the planet would warm. But instead of sharing this warning, the companies instead shared the most consequential lie in human history: Their billions were invested in front groups and phony think tanks designed to raise doubt where none existed. The proof of their success is clear — where three decades ago George H.W. Bush promised to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect,” the White House is now occupied by a man who believes climate change is a hoax and is doing all in his power to serve the agenda of the fossil fuel industry. Unless the industry’s political power can be broken, the transition away from fossil fuel cannot happen at the pace that physics demands.

The third force is the rise of a climate movement. For many years, there wasn’t one; most of us assumed we were engaged in an argument and that if we produced enough books, reports, and journal articles our leaders would act. But eventually we figured out that, even having won the argument, we were now in a fight, and that the money of the oil companies would have to be matched by people in power. That force has been building: It’s blocked pipelines, put huge parts of the earth off limits to fracking and drilling, and prompted the divestment of trillions of dollars from the stocks of energy companies. But it must quickly grow bigger still if it’s going to change the outcome.

Because it’s all too easy to look 30 years into the future. On current trajectories, economics alone mean we’ll be building a lot more solar panels and wind turbines, but not fast enough to really alter the violent pace of global heating. Unless we goose the pace with government action, the world that we some day power with clean energy would be a dirty world, a broken planet. I do not want to turn 88 on that earth, and I definitely don’t want anyone turning 28 on it. That’s why we fight.

Bill McKibben is the founder of the global climate campaign 350.org and a distinguished scholar at Middlebury College. His new book is “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?”