The Earth has already begun to react to our hubris. Freak weather unleashed deadly tornados in Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. It has triggered wildfires that have engulfed large tracts in California, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. It has brought severe droughts to the Southwest, parts of China and the Amazon. It has caused massive flooding along the Mississippi as well as in Australia, New Zealand, China and Pakistan. It is killing off the fish stocks in the oceans and obliterating the polar ice caps. Steadily rising sea levels will eventually submerge coastal cities, islands and some countries. These disturbing weather patterns presage a world where it will be harder and harder to sustain human life. Massive human migrations, which have already begun, will create chaos and violence. India is building a 4,000-kilometer fence along its border with Bangladesh to, in part, hold back the refugees who will flee if Bangladesh is submerged. There are mounting food shortages and sharp price increases in basic staples such as wheat as weather patterns disrupt crop production. The failed grain harvests in Russia, China and Australia, along with the death of the winter wheat crop in Texas, have, as McKibben points out, been exacerbated by the inability of Midwestern farmers to plant corn in water-logged fields. These portents of an angry Gaia are nothing compared to what will follow if we do not swiftly act.
“We are going to have to adapt a good deal,” said McKibben, with whom I spoke by phone from his home in Vermont. “It is going to be a century that calls for being resilient and durable. Most of that adaptation is going to take the form of economies getting smaller and lower to the ground, local food, local energy, things like that. But that alone won’t do it, because the scale of change we are now talking about is so great that no one can adapt to it. Temperatures have gone up one degree so far and that has been enough to melt the Arctic. If we let it go up three or four degrees, the rule of thumb the agronomists go by is every degree Celsius of temperature rise represents about a 10 percent reduction in grain yields. If we let it go up three or four degrees we are really not talking about a planet that can support a civilization anything like the one we’ve got.
“I have sympathy for those who are trying hard to figure out how to adapt, but they are behind the curve of the science by a good deal,” he said. “I have less sympathy for the companies that are brainwashing everyone along the line ‘We’re taking small steps here and there to improve.’ The problem, at this point, is not going to be dealt with by small steps. It is going to be dealt with by getting off fossil fuel in the next 10 or 20 years or not at all.
“The most appropriate thing going on in Chicago right now is that Greenpeace occupied [on Thursday] the coal-fired power plant in Chicago,” he said. “That’s been helpful. It reminded people what the real answers are. We’re going to see more civil disobedience. I hope we are. I am planning hard for some stuff this summer.
“The cast that we are about is essentially political and symbolic,” McKibben admitted. “There is no actual way to shut down the fossil fuel system with our bodies. It is simply too big. It’s far too integrated in everything we do. The actions have to be symbolic, and the most important part of that symbolism is to make it clear to the onlookers that those of us doing this kind of thing are not radical in any way. We are conservatives. The real radicals in this scenario are people who are willing to fundamentally alter the composition of the atmosphere. I can’t think of a more radical thing that any human has ever thought of doing. If it wasn’t happening it would be like the plot from a Bond movie.
“The only way around this is to defeat the system, and the name of that system is the fossil fuel industry, which is the most profitable industry in the world by a large margin,” McKibben said. “Fighting it is extraordinarily difficult. Maybe you can’t do it. The only way to do it is to build a movement big enough to make a difference. And that is what we are trying desperately to do with 350.org. It is something we should have done 20 years ago, instead of figuring that we were going to fight climate change by convincing political elites that they should do something about this problem. It is a tactic that has not worked.
“One of our big targets this year is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is the biggest front group for fossil fuel there is,” he said. “We are figuring out how to take them on. I don’t think they are worried about us yet. And maybe they are right not to be, because they’ve got so much money they’re invulnerable.
“There are huge decisive battles coming,” he said. “This year the Obama administration has to decide whether it will grant a permit or not for this giant pipeline to run from the tar sands of Alberta down to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. That is like a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet. We have to figure out how to keep that from happening. The Obama administration, very sadly, a couple of months ago opened 750 million tons of western coal under federal land for mining. That was a disgrace. But they still have to figure out how to get it to port so they can ship it to China, which is where the market for it is. We are trying hard to keep that from happening. I’m on my way to Bellingham, Wash., next week because there is a plan for a deep-water port in Bellingham that would allow these giant freighters to show up and collect that coal.
“In moral terms, it’s all our personal responsibility and we should be doing those things,” McKibben said when I asked him about changing our own lifestyles to conserve energy. “But don’t confuse that with having much of an impact on the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. You can’t make the math work one house or one campus at a time. We should do those things. I’ve got a little plaque for having built the most energy-efficient house in Vermont the year we built it. I’ve got solar panels everywhere. But I don’t confuse myself into thinking that that’s actually doing very much. This argument is a political argument. I spend much of my life on airplanes spewing carbon behind me as we try to build a global movement. Either we are going to break the power of the fossil fuel industry and put a price on carbon or the planet is going to heat past the point where we can deal with it.
“It goes far beyond party affiliation or ideology,” he said. “Fossil fuel undergirds every ideology we have. Breaking with it is going to be a traumatic and difficult task. The natural world is going to continue to provide us, unfortunately, with many reminders about why we have to do that. Sooner or later, we will wise up. The question is all about that sooner or later.
“I’d like people to go to climatedirectaction.org and sign up,” McKibben said. “We are going to be issuing calls for people to be involved in civil disobedience. I’d like people to join in this campaign against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It’s very easy to sign up. If you don’t own a little business yourself, you probably shop at 10 or 20 of them a week. It’s very easy to sign those guys up to say the U.S. Chamber doesn’t speak for me. We can’t take away their [the Chamber’s] money, but we can take away some of their respectability. I would like people to demonstrate their solidarity with people all around the world in this fight. The next big chance to do that will be Sept. 24, a huge global day of action that we’re calling ‘Moving Planet.’ It will be largely bicycle based, because the bicycle is one of the few tools that both rich and poor use and because it is part of the solution we need. On that day we will be delivering demands via bicycle to every capital and statehouse around the world.
“I wish there was some easy ‘end around,’ some backdoor through which we could go to get done what needs to be done,” he said. “But that’s not going to happen. That became clear at Copenhagen and last summer when the U.S. Senate refused to take a vote on the most mild, tepid climate legislation there could have been. We are going to have to build a movement that pushes the fossil fuel industry aside. I don’t know whether that’s possible. If you were to bet, you might well bet we will lose. We have been losing for two decades. But you are not allowed to make that bet. The only moral action, when the worst thing that ever happened in the world is happening, is to try and figure out how to change those odds.