The State of the Earth, 2010
These days, I see how optimistic and positive disaster and apocalypse movies were. Remember how, when those giant asteroids or alien spaceships headed directly for Earth, everyone rallied and acted as one while our leaders led? We’re in a movie like that now, except that there’s not a lot of rallying or much leading above the grassroots level.
The movie is called Climate Change, and you can tell its plot in a number of ways. In one, the alien monsters taking over the planet are called corporations, while the leaders who should be protecting us from their depredations are already subjugated and doing their bidding. Think of Chevron, Exxon, Shell, and the coal companies as gigantic entities that don’t need clean water, or food, and don’t care much if you do (as you can see from the filthy wreckage in their extraction zones and their spin against the science of our survival).
My recent research into conventional disasters suggests that climate change, despite its unconventional scale, is unfolding in ways familiar from the aftermaths of numerous hurricanes and earthquakes: The ruling elites too often “lead” by creating a second wave of destruction, while the rest of us pick up the pieces and do our best to do what’s necessary. This is a movie whose crisis is upon us and whose resolution is out of sight, but if we are to be saved, I’ll put my money on the small characters mitigating the crisis and getting us through the rough times to come.
The Day the Earth Got Stood Up
Last December, the Copenhagen Climate Summit gave the heads of state supposedly negotiating a future climate-change treaty a clear-cut choice between short-term profits for the few and the long-term survival of practically everyone and everything. As I’m sure you’ll recall, they chose the former. You, the summer ice of the Arctic, about half the species on Earth, the shorelines of quite a few places, the glaciers of Glacier National Park, the birds in the trees, the marmots on the mountains, and the long-term future of just about everything were sold out for the sake of the market status quo, not by all the world’s nations, but by the most powerful among them.
Not all of the elected leaders failed us. President Evo Morales of Bolivia called a people’s summit on climate change which is going on right now, and the most threatened countries did a heroic job of facing up to the world’s most powerful ones—tiny Tuvalu, soon to go beneath the waves, told off China, for example. Thanks to their stand and so their insubordination, Bolivia and Ecuador both lost their shot at State Department funding meant for poor countries which need to prepare for future climate-change disasters.
Bill McKibben offers another compelling plot for this horror movie in his new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Its premise is not that something terrible came to Earth—after all we were the ones, over the last 200 years, who sent all those billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere—but that we ourselves have landed on a strange, dangerous, unfamiliar new planet he calls Eaarth. Think Forbidden Planet without Robby the Robot; think The Tempest with neither Ariel nor Prospero.
We no longer live on the kind, comfortable, stable planet we evolved on, he begins:
For the last ten thousand years that constitute human civilization, we’ve existed in the sweetest of sweet spots. The temperature has barely budged; globally averaged, it’s swung in the narrowest of ranges, between fifty-eight and sixty degrees Fahrenheit. That’s warm enough that the ice sheets retreated from the centers of our continents so we could grow grain, but cold enough that mountain glaciers provided drinking and irrigation water to those plains and valleys year round; it was the "correct" temperature for the marvelous diverse planet that seems right to us. And every aspect of our civilization reflects that particular world.
We built our great cities next to seas that have remained tame and level, or at altitudes high enough that disease-bearing mosquitoes could not over-winter. We refined the farming that has swelled our numbers to take full advantage of that predictable heat and rainfall; our rice and corn and wheat can’t imagine another earth either. Occasionally, in one place or another, there’s an abrupt departure from the norm—a hurricane, a drought, a freeze. But our very language reflects their rarity: freak storms, disturbances.
And then he begins to make the case that this planet, the one we’ve always lived on, no longer exists.
Nobody marshals facts better than McKibben. The first two chapters of Eaarth line up the evidence in a devastating way to show that climate change is not (despite the political rhetoric of the past decade) some horrid thing to be visited upon our grandchildren. It’s here right now, visiting us. Here’s just a sample of our world today:
A NASA study in December 2008 found that warming [of more than a degree and a half Fahrenheit] was enough to trigger a 45 percent increase in thunder-clouds that can rise five miles above the sea, generating ‘super-cells’ with torrents of rain and hail. In fact, total global rainfall is now increasing 1.5 percent a decade. Larger storms over land now create more lightning; every degree Celsius brings about 6 percent more lightning, according to the climate scientist Amanda Staudt. In just one day in June 2008, lightning sparked 1,700 different fires across California, burning a million acres and setting a new state record. These blazes burned on the new earth, not the old one ... In August 2009, scientists reported that lightning strikes in the Arctic had increased twenty-fold, igniting some of the first tundra fires ever observed.
According to the [National Sea Ice Data Center]’s Mark Serrenze, the new data "is reinforcing the notion that the Arctic ice is in its death spiral."
Then he mentions that a trillion tons of Greenland’s ice melted between 2003 and 2008, a mass ten times the size of Manhattan. Someone recently pointed out that the term moving at a “glacial pace” makes no sense any more, not now that Greenland’s ice sheet is pitted and undercut by rushing torrents of meltwater and the glacial landscape of mountaintops from the Andes to the Rockies is changing with almost blinding speed.
Weird stuff is happening everywhere: Since McKibben’s book went to press, numerous news sources reported that a two-mile-long island in the Bay of Bengal, long fought over by Bangladesh and India, is no longer a bone of contention. The rising waters have erased it.
McKibben doesn’t say a lot about himself in the book, except for some New England anecdotes to which the Massachusetts-raised Vermonter was a witness. Too bad, since he himself could star in the movie you should be watching, the one about the low-key writer-guy who, upon realizing that his excellent writing on climate change isn’t waking us up enough, takes to dashing around the planet to do the job as an activist.
Mr. Smith Goes to Copenhagen. (People eager to suggest that flying is carbon-intensive should check themselves; the world is not going to be saved by individual acts of virtue, only by collective acts of change of a kind that would lead to China and the United States radically revising their energy policies.) In recent years he seems to have become one of the figures I’ve run across occasionally in my own activism: someone so filled up with purpose they’ve become a conduit for change, and a lot of the personal—like ease and comfort—get washed aside for the sake of the mission. He’s achieved remarkable things. Notably with 350.org.
350 Degrees of Inseparability
A word about that number, 350. For a long time, McKibben relates, the premise, or pretense, was that the parts per million of atmospheric carbon we needed to worry about was 550, double the historic concentration. As it turns out, it was also a random figure, easy to calculate, not too alarming. We weren’t anywhere near there yet, which is why we could frame global warming as some terrible thing that was going to happen way down the road—the grandchildren theory of climate change.
Then the scientists got more data and so more precision about where peril lay: In December of 2007, NASA climatologist James Hansen announced at the American Geophysical Union that 350 was about the upper limit at which life on Earth as we know and like it was likely to continue.
We’re now at about 390. We don’t get to go up dozens of more degrees before the peril strikes. We need to go down now, dramatically. Imagine that change of numbers as like shifting from worrying about whether the butter on your toast was going to clog your arteries way down the road to worrying about whether you’d just swallowed a dose of really creepy industrial sludge and should start puking. The crisis was, in fact, in the past, and the future was upon us.
”The day Jim Hansen announced that number was the day I knew we’d never again inhabit the planet I’d been born on, or anything close to it,” McKibben writes in Eaarth. So he co-founded a grassroots organization, 350.org, with a posse of younger activists he’d met through a climate-change campaign in Vermont.
That small team proved something important: that we could respond to what’s happening on our planet with a speed nearly commensurate with the growing danger. The group’s numerical name, with its crystal-clear target, worked in every imaginable language on Eaarth as words would not have.
A year after Hansen’s announcement, McKibben sent me an e-mail:
What we need is a rallying cry, an idea around which to coalesce. That's why we're running 350.org, and why we'll do a huge global day of action on Oct. 24. We need a measuring stick against which to critique Copenhagen, and 350 ppm CO2 is the best one we're going to get. It implies dramatic and urgent and apple-cart-upsetting action, but it comes at it from a position of strength, not defensiveness. Our hope is that a huge worldwide outpouring on Oct. 24 will set a bar to make any action in Copenhagen powerful.
It Happened One Day
At this point, let Climate Change, the movie, zoom out from following our protagonist to pan the amazing October 24 visual spectacle of groups of all sizes around the world pushing the number 350—spelling it out (and into our consciousness) with their bodies for overhead photographs, holding signs in tribal villages, schoolyards, and urban plazas, everywhere from Madagascar to Slovakia. In one poignant case, a lone girl in Babylon, Iraq, who—you might think—had enough to worry about already, held up her hand-drawn 350 sign for a photographer who somehow managed to send the picture in to the organization. (I did my own little bit for the day, getting a few writers—Diane DiPrima, Ariel Dorfman, Barry Lopez—to contribute 350-word pieces they’d written to spur on the participants.)
There were more than 5,000 actions in 181 countries, which is to say, in most parts of the world. I’ve asked some groups and it’s clear that quite a lot of people now know what the number 350 means. So did a lot of politicians and policy-makers by the time Copenhagen came around. The action mattered. Things changed.