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McKibben writes: "Drought, wildfires, storms, floods - climate change is happening, but the real disaster is our Big Energy-owned politicians' inaction."

The Waldo Canyon wildfire burns as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, 06/27/12. (photo: Galon Wampler/AP)
The Waldo Canyon wildfire burns as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, 06/27/12. (photo: Galon Wampler/AP)

While Colorado Burns, Washington Fiddles

By Bill McKibben, Guardian UK

30 June 12


Drought, wildfires, storms, floods - climate change is happening, but the real disaster is our Big Energy-owned politicians' inaction.

n the political world, this was the week of the healthcare ruling: reporters hovered around the supreme court, pundits pundited, politicians "braced" for the ruling, "reeled" in its aftermath. It provoked a "firestorm" of interest, according to one magazine; it was, said another, a "category 10 hurricane."

But in the world world, there was news at least as big, but without the cliched metaphors. News that can be boiled down to a sentence or two:

You ever wonder what global warming is going to look like? In its early stages, exactly like this.

Global warming is underway. Are we waiting for someone to hold up a sign that says "Here's climate change"? Because, this week, we got everything but that:

  • In the Gulf, tropical storm Debby dropped what one meteorologist described as "unthinkable amounts" of rain on Florida. Debby marked the first time in history that we'd reached the fourth-named storm of the year in June; normally it takes till August to reach that mark.

  • In the west, of course, firestorms raged: the biggest fire in New Mexico history, and the most destructive in Colorado's annals. (That would be the Colorado Springs blaze: the old record had been set the week before, in Fort Collins.) One resident described escaping across suburban soccer fields in his car, with "hell in the rearview mirror."

  • The record-setting temperatures (it had never been warmer in Colorado) that fueled those blazes drifted east across the continent as the week wore on: across the Plains, there were places where the mercury reached levels it hadn't touched even in the Dust Bowl years, America's previous all-time highs.

  • That heatwave was coming at just the wrong time, as farmers were watching their corn crops get ready to pollinate, a task that gets much harder at temperatures outside the norms with which those crops evolved. "You only get one chance to pollinate over 1 quadrillion kernels," said Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions, a Omaha-based commodity consulting firm:

"There's always some level of angst at this time of year, but it's significantly greater now and with good reason. We've had extended periods of drought."

In the markets, all this news was taking its toll: prices for corn and wheat were spiking upwards, rising almost a third on global markets as forecasters suggested grain stockpiles could shrink by as much as 50% as the summer wears on. But in the political world, there wasn't much reaction at all.

The Obama administration said it would grant Shell leases to drill for more oil in the Arctic, and they auctioned off a vast new tract of federal coal land at giveaway prices - even though it's the carbon in that coal and oil that drives the droughts and fires. Even that didn't satisfy the GOP, as Mitt Romney demanded yet more pipelines and wells.

Amid it all, the CEO of the biggest oil company in the world, Exxon, gave what may go down in the annals as the most poorly timed - not to mention, arrogant - speech in the firm's history: Rex Tillerson, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, admitted what his company spent many years denying, that humans were heating the planet. But then he added:

"We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around - we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. And so I don't … the fear factor that people want to throw out there and say, 'We just have to stop this,' I do not accept."

Against the backdrop of the burning Rockies, it's pretty clear this is not an engineering problem. Engineers, in fact, have performed admirably. One day last month, Germany generated more than half its electricity from solar panels. We've got the technical chops to solve our troubles.

No, this is a greed problem. In the last five years, Exxon has made more money than any company in history. For the moment, Exxon and other's desire to keep minting money - and our politicians' desire for a share of that cash - has conspired to keep our government, and most others, from doing anything to head off the crisis.

And unlike the healthcare predicament, this crisis comes with a time limit. If we play politics for a generation, then weeks like the one we've just come through will be normal, and all we'll be doing as a nation is responding to emergencies. As one scientist put it at week's end, the current heatwave is "bad by our current definition of bad, but our definition of bad changes."

Another way of saying that is: there are disaster areas declared across the country right now, but the biggest one is in DC.

Bill McKibben is scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and the author of "The End of Nature, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities" and the "Durable Future and Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." He is also the founder of, the global climate campaign that has been actively involved in the fight against natural gas fracking. your social media marketing partner


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+25 # bluepilgrim 2012-06-30 19:53
"That heatwave was coming at just the wrong time, as farmers were watching their corn crops get ready to pollinate, a task that gets much harder at temperatures outside the norms"

Let's hope those poor Monsanto-resist ant corn borers don't go hungry when they run out of corn to eat.

Of course, that won't leave for people, but Mom Nature is already given up on keeping humans alive, I guess. Maybe we will also get droughts, or nasty storms which blow away both corn and borers. Double whammy, triple whammy, quadruple whammy -- end up in limbo dance: how low can we go?

"Not with a bang but with a whimper"? Or maybe some of both. How about toss in an antibiotic-resi stant bacteria for good measure? And some radiation? As well as a few more wars -- now in progress.

Sit right here next to the mad hatter, my dear, and have some tea, along with some nice three-eyed fish and black shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico.

I know, I know... why spoil a nice day by thinking about these things?
0 # carolsj 2012-07-09 11:57
Just wondering, can you eat corn borers?
+16 # Street Level 2012-06-30 22:34
This seems like Katrina, Deepwater Horizon and every other disaster we've had in recent times.
The greedy corporatists in congress are too busy making a stink over health care reform and dividing up the Artic's oil reserves.
When will the public get it? There are few left in Washington that give a crap and it's time to vote the greedy out.
The social contract in this country hasn't just eroded, it's dismantling was planned and carried out.
+6 # Holmes 2012-07-01 02:16
RE fires - "Smokey the Bear" lied. The attempt to stop all fires in forests merely results in fuel buildup and bigger fires next time. You will get at least one ignition that may start a fire from lightening every 5-15 square miles per year over most of the USA. Native vegetation is adapted for that level of burning. Burn too much or too little and you will damage the system. That was before climate change began to bite.

To underfund public good systems of forestry management, deregulate building regulations in fire prone areas, and generally think that we are the Lords of Nature is futile.

Time for some serous long term financing fire researchers, managers and community education.

Note: Nature Bats Last!
0 # nirmalandhas 2012-07-01 05:18
Ok. So if it is greed then how is it generated and how can its generation be turned off. Shouting at its victims will not help. The processes that generate this greed must be identified and shut down. Bill my boy..are you ready to get down to this task? or are you and Hansen and all others in the know...going to take the sheep onto the road...where they will be slaughtered. I expect better from you old chap...wake up!
+1 # RobertMStahl 2012-07-01 06:52
It is distressing to see James Lovelock, sensible about this from the start, start to go back on his assessment, reflecting that the oceans have some magic in them that has been protecting us from the oncoming onslaught, caught in an interview with msnbc recently. Unlike Chomsky, who is flanking the psychological issues like Gregory Bateson, properly, with a pair of notions that nuclear threats and drug wars are leading to an Armageddon of a real sort, provoked now by the US with Canada on the remaining Americas about the drug wars, they having boycotted a meeting of the western nations with complete duplicity just to contain their compliance with the destruction the US, mainly, has done elsewhere in this hemisphere, blah blah blah. The calibration of this gestalt is given by the late Francisco J. Varela, and it boils down to Darwinism, no pun intended.
+2 # dick 2012-07-01 07:49
I drive a bit below the speed limit on the freeway & huge SUVs & Super-Sized pick-ups roar past me. Big Oil is consumer driven. People run air conditioners when it is in the 70s & low 80s. Why? Voters DEMAND cheap fuel to WASTE; politicians go along to survive. I assume most RSN readers conserve gas, but maybe slowing others down across multiple lanes may be necessary.
+7 # ruttaro 2012-07-01 07:52
McKibbon, Hanson and all the other prominent climate scientists know very well that the problem lies not in questioning the science. That is settled. It is a political issue and as long as the moneyed interests especially of major oil, gas and coal industries are allowed to stuff the pockets of corrupted Congressmen and State Representatives , any discussion leading to policies that would begin the transition to a new energy platform will be blocked. This is why, as McKibbon points out, the Obama administration has opened more drilling rights. And this is from a President who knows the science, knows the security threat climate change represents as stated in the Quadrennial Pentagon Report, knows the need to move on this issue, but also knows that Congress will not allow the policy formation. If he tries, the Republicans and the fossil fuel lobby will use their money to portray him (or any politician for that measure) as anti-American, anti-capitalism , etc. It is clear by any objective analysis that until we remove money from politics not only will true representative democracy continue to be removed from the people but our collective future survival on this incredible planet will also be significantly jeopardized. They are intimately related and yet not even being discussed in the election. Think about it: a major security threat and not being discussed in the campaigns, presidential, congressional and states. Lets look at our children and then try justifying inaction.
+8 # Helen 2012-07-01 08:59
We sorely need a new political system and an honest media that can put the scientific realities of global warming ahead of private greed. When the victims of our increasingly violent floods, fires and tornadoes finally see the connection, it may be too late to rescue future generations.
+7 # brianf 2012-07-01 10:44
Collectively, we are in deep, deep denial about this problem. Those who still try to deny that global warming is happening have taken denial and ignorance to the insanity level. But even those who admit the problem is real are almost all in deep denial about what what we need to do about it, and how quickly.

Obama is a good example of a man in partial deep denial. He does not deny that global warming is a serious problem, and he has been doing some good things to promote green energy, better mpg for vehicles, etc. But at the same time he has vastly expanded fossil fuel extraction. It's similar to his health care solution: fix some of the worst symptoms while expanding the root of the problem (for-profit health insurance).

We can fix health insurance later on. But global warming can't wait. It's not just that each year we wait makes the fix much more expensive and difficult. It's also that at a certain point a fix will not be possible, and we don't know when that is.

Some scientists think that point is only a few years away. If they are right, even a worldwide effort like that made in World War II starting now might not be enough to prevent a mass extinction. If they are wrong, we will probably need a similar effort within a few years to prevent worldwide famine later.

Best case: things will get a lot worse before they get better. This is not the time to delay.
+7 # rockycherry 2012-07-01 16:04
Bill, you didn't mention the pine beetle, which has also played a role in this due to global warming. The beetles have killed a lot more trees in the past decade in part because they haven't been killed off by winter freezes. That slight warming has led to greater survival by the beetle, and as a consequence, fuel loads in the forests have also increased - dead trees being more prone to catching on fire than live trees.
+2 # cordleycoit 2012-07-01 21:37
Look at what we get for years of inaction. Disaster. The world is dynamic place and it does not wait for the stupid to get smart. Politicians are not waking up so we the collective people must suffer for our stupidity in electing wooden headed idiots to public office. It looks like yet again the lesson is going to be pounded into our heads by our inaction.
+1 # 2012-07-02 12:54
What really gets me is all of the mindless fools i see day in and day out who leave their engines running either while they're in their cars being mindless,or when they're out of their cars in stores purchasing items.I cannot count on twenty hands the amount of fools who i see day in & day out who leave their engines running while they're pumping gas,then paying inside.My understanding is that some places in Europe you will be fined $200. if your an idiot committing such acts.If they imposed fines here for this kind of ignorance we'd be out of debt in one week!And how about all of those smart folk who start their engines up,then load their groceries in the rear of their vehicles while all of those noxious fumes are spewing.There's no hope for us!
0 # tomo 2012-07-02 19:59
I've known people to say they won't "believe in global warming" till they've seen the evidence. How would the evidence present itself? Surely the evidence is embracing us!
0 # 2012-07-03 10:22
Tomo....You can stick a UFO in a nonbeliever's face and they'd still deny they had seen one.It's called blind faith. People dont want to be inconvenienced. Better a thousand dead trees than no new Walmart in a more convenient location.We're a mindless society Tome.Surely anybody who has any sense of intelligence about them knows this.It's horrible the damage we do on a daily basis just to be convenienced.We are going to pay for it........ We already are!

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