“The End of Civilization As We Know It”

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The Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association (with several co-sponsors) brought environmentalist Bill McKibben to speak at our annual conference in Chicago on June 24, 2017. It was a terrific presentation, and I will try to relay some of the high points from my notes and discussions.

McKibben is the author of the first book on global warming, and the founder of 350.org, a grassroots network now in 188 countries. 350.org acts to limit climate change by mobilizing support for alternative renewable energy sources while closing down all fossil fuel energy generation. 350.org works to ban fracking, and supports the movements against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. The organization works to cut financial support to the fossil fuel industries, and supports divestment campaigns. 350.org supports climate justice, and listening to the communities hit hardest by climate change. Leadership of the movement must come from the people who are on the front lines of resistance, often the indigenous and the poorest people in the world.

The number in the name refers to the safe limit of carbon parts per million in the atmosphere, a number that might have been possible to maintain when the organization was started in 2008. But sadly, we have now passed 400 parts per million. The name 350.org was picked because it was understandable in all languages.

Bill McKibben said that in the past he misunderstood what was going on in the national debate on climate change. We had won the scientific argument but lost the fight against established power and money, greed and self-interest of the few at the top. Writing books was therefore not enough, and by the fall of 2009, the network sponsored a Global Day of Action of 5200 demonstrations in 181 countries. He showed some very inspiring slides from that day, taken in various countries around the world.

He said that we don’t have any time left, and we need worldwide action. The fight against the Keystone Pipeline shows that it is possible to stand up and win, and this has had a ripple effect for struggles everywhere. He noted that we stopped Shell from drilling in the Arctic. McKibben said that old people need to get arrested. They have a lot less to lose than young people. He told us that “There is not the slightest thing radical about what we are asking for.” Rather, the radicals are in the oil companies and in Washington, DC.

McKibben told us that this is the first crisis with a time limit, and that we could not have guessed how far and fast climate change would happen. It was recently 129 degrees in Pakistan, and 116 degrees in Oman. These are temperatures at the limit of human survival. We have lost half of the sea ice in the Arctic. An iceberg as large as Delaware will very soon break off in the Antarctic. (It did break off the week of July 12th.)   Bill McKibben noted that at the rate we are going, we can expect 7-8 degrees F rise in the next 100 years, which would mean “the end of civilization as we know it.”

He also said that we could not have guessed how slowly the world would react. Engineers at Exxon knew of the problem in the early 1980s, but it was against corporate self-interest to act on this knowledge. The corporation instead shut down its climate research and started a very successful campaign to deny the science. The US is the climate change outlier in its denial. The rest of the world accepts the science and many efforts are succeeding. The cheapest forms of energy are now sun and wind. Denmark is producing one-half of its power through wind!

One way for individuals to mitigate their own greenhouse gas emissions is to contribute money to support renewable energy projects such as wind farms, solar power, or biomass energy. Individuals can calculate how much carbon and other greenhouse gases they emit into the atmosphere through air travel or other transportation, and then contribute an appropriate amount to a non-profit organization that will use these funds to support such projects. These contributions are called “carbon offsets,” and it is easy to make these calculations online. Although McKibben said that these carbon offsets are only a drop in the bucket, he uses the organization NativeEnergy for his offsets.

McKibben also advocated support for the indigenous organization Honor the Earth, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Green for All.

When asked about the value of a carbon tax, he said that it might have been useful in the past, but now the problem is too big. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need a public campaign to spread alternative energy.

Al Kagan is the Chair of the International Responsibilities Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association


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