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McKibben writes: "On Wednesday, the British House of Commons, led by the Conservative Party, voted to declare that the planet was in a 'climate emergency.'"

Bill McKibben. (photo:
Bill McKibben. (photo:

Climate Change Has Its Political Moment

By Bill McKibben, The New Yorker

05 May 19


n Wednesday, the British House of Commons, led by the Conservative Party, voted to declare that the planet was in a “climate emergency.” The day before, a CNN poll found that, in the United States, Democratic voters care more about climate change than about any other issue in the upcoming Presidential election: more than health care, more than gun control, more than free college, more than impeaching the President. Having followed the issue closely since I wrote my first book about climate change, thirty years ago, I think I can say that we’re in a remarkable moment, when, after years of languishing, climate concern is suddenly and explosively rising to the top of the political agenda. Maybe, though not certainly, it is rising fast enough that we’ll get real action.

This is not, in fact, the first climate moment: there have been a few times during the past three decades when it appeared as if our political leaders might seriously engage with the issue. The first was in 1988, when the NASA scientist Jim Hansen’s testimony to Congress took the problem public. People were shocked to learn that the Mississippi River was so drought-diminished that barge traffic had slowed; Time named “Endangered Earth” its Planet of the Year; George H. W. Bush, running for President against Michael Dukakis, promised to battle the greenhouse effect with “the White House effect.”

Another moment came in the mid-aughts, with the release of Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” The film’s graphic findings produced what seemed like a bipartisan groundswell: Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection produced ads pairing political odd fellows, such as Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson, sounding the alarm. In one ad, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi sit side by side on a couch, in front of the Capitol. “We don’t always see eye to eye, do we, Newt?” Pelosi says.

“No,” Gingrich replies. “But we do agree our country must take action to address climate change.”

Neither of those moments, though, produced real change. Bush did nothing; Gingrich, running for President in 2011, called the ad “probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years.” Congress never acted, and the temperature kept rising.

But this third climate moment is rooted in broad movements, not élite opinion, and so it feels different. Right now, a group of young people is touring the country pushing for action on a Green New Deal, the legislation introduced earlier this year by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, which would push for the rapid decarbonization of America’s energy supply. Polls show surprisingly widespread public support for it, and various versions are being introduced in cities and states across the nation, as well as in other countries. The Climate Mobilization Act, the most ambitious plan of its kind in a large city, passed in the City Council, two weeks ago, and Mayor Bill de Blasio signed it into law on Earth Day. Meanwhile, much of central London was shut down for a week by a group called Extinction Rebellion, which camped in the streets, Occupy-style (and had the good sense to eventually leave to fight again another day). And, perhaps most remarkably, school students around the world have been staging daylong strikes, following the lead of Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teen-ager who in recent days has met with the Pope and addressed both the European Parliament and the British Parliament.

Many streams contributed to this tide. Ten years of movement-building, often led by those most at risk, laid a foundation. (The young people of the Sunrise Movement, who have championed the Green New Deal, cut their teeth in the campus fossil-fuel-divestment movement.) Scientists sharpened their analysis. (Last year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was the first to set a deadline—of 2030—for being fully under way with the fundamental transformation necessary to meet the targets set in the Paris climate accords.) Donald Trump’s foolery heightened apprehensions. (One senses that even some of his most loyal supporters doubt that global warming is a “hoax manufactured by the Chinese.”) And nature itself provided the strongest boost: flood after drought after firestorm, in every corner of the planet, pierced public consciousness. Last November, Americans saw a town called Paradise literally turned into hell within half an hour, and suddenly they had a glimpse of what climate change looks like.

So, what now? Movements will continue to ramp up the pressure. Groups such as (which I helped found) are confident that adults will shortly start responding to the calls from Thunberg and her peers to back them up with strikes of their own. That kind of pressure is already getting results; even before the new polling, Democratic candidates were pledging their support for dramatic action. Several, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren, have come out strongly against allowing federal land to be used for oil and gas drilling—a “Keep It in the Ground” stance that, until a few months ago, was mainly the province of activists.

Such strong steps are clearly required. Having wasted three decades, we now have no choice but to move decisively, cutting our carbon emissions by five, six, seven per cent a year, or more. That will be as hard to achieve as was, say, the retooling of the American economy to fight the Second World War.

Or, actually, harder. We know now that the fossil-fuel companies knew all that was needed to be known about climate change back in the nineteen-eighties. (They even began raising the height of drilling rigs to compensate for the rise in the sea level that they knew was in the offing.) But they didn’t share that news. Instead, they kept the country in a debate about whether global warming was real, even though they knew that to argue otherwise was a lie. And that lie cost us what may have been the crucial three decades.

In recent years, fossil-fuel companies have sidled in the direction of scientific truth, but they’ve continued to fight efforts at actual change. Citizens in Colorado added to last year’s ballot a proposition intended not to block oil or gas drilling but merely to keep new rigs farther from homes and schools. Proposition 112 was well ahead in the polls, but oil and gas companies spent some forty million dollars to defeat it, outspending the other side forty-to-one and turning the referendum into one of the costliest in the history of the state. The industry, of course, also uses its money to support politicians. Koch Industries, part of whose vast holdings are in the coal and oil industries, is the second-largest private company in the country, and last year its PAC was the largest political spender in the sector. It was recently reported that, in the last quarter, Senator Susan Collins’s reëlection fund received five times as much in contributions from fossil-fuel executives in Texas—fifty thousand dollars—as from her constituents in Maine. (She is viewed as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the Senate, heading into 2020.)

Sooner or later, though, the companies will feel enough pressure to make a move—probably when a Democrat takes control of the White House, especially if Republican control of the Senate also begins to wobble. (Perhaps it could even happen under a reëlected President Trump—just a few years ago, he was signing on to ads much like the one Gingrich endorsed.) Whenever it happens, that’s when things will get interesting. The first card that the industry is likely to play—indeed, it has already hinted as much—is support for a modest carbon tax, perhaps forty dollars a ton. In return, it would demand an end to effective regulation from the E.P.A. and liability for the damage its product has already caused. (Microsoft recently put its muscle behind just such a plan, by the Climate Leadership Council, which would give the industry a get-out-of-jail free card.)

A modest carbon tax, had such a deal been struck in 1989, would have mattered a lot. It would have rejiggered a million spreadsheets, nudging the ocean liner that is our economy onto a new compass reading not too far off our heading—but one that, over the years, would have steered us into relatively safe waters. And even at this late date there’s no intellectual argument against putting a price on carbon—most economists are for it. All things equal, it is a good idea. But there’s also no way that such an approach alone can do the trick: were we to rely on carbon taxes to cut emissions at the rate required now, they would need to be so high that no political system could sustain them. (The I.P.C.C. study said that, at the high end, carbon taxes might need to reach five thousand five hundred dollars a ton to squeeze the last drops of fossil fuel out of the economy.)

The oil companies can live with a modest tax because it’s a way to extend their basic business model for a couple more decades, which is, perhaps, the best they can muster in a world in which engineers are cutting the cost of a solar panel by a per cent or two every month. And, for the companies, it’s infinitely preferable to the Green New Deal—not to mention the growing pack of lawsuits from cities large and small, demanding cash to build sea walls; New York City’s plan to divest its pension funds from fossil-fuel companies; and thousands of protesters in kayaks mobbing their rigs as they try to set off to drill in the Arctic.

It would also have appeal for the many politicians who care at least a little about climate change and who have despaired of a deal ever emerging. Their response is likely to be: don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good; you have to start somewhere. The problem is that the ultimate negotiation is being carried out with science, which adamantly rejects compromise. It doesn’t even really negotiate. It’s not interested in who gave what contribution to whom: it just takes the carbon we produce and makes the oceans ever more acidic. To answer that, at this point, means, in policy terms, a Second World War–scale mobilization to deploy renewable energy and a commitment to stop new exploration and development of fossil fuels. It means an explicit acknowledgment that their age is over, and that the transition to clean energy is our top priority.

Political reality is always important, but in this case there’s something more crucial—call it just plain reality. It dictates that every step we take from here on pay heed to the underlying science, above all to the shrinking time we have left to make any real difference. After thirty years of standing still, baby steps won’t do us a bit of good, and a misstep may cost us our last chance.

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-5 # janie1893 2019-05-05 14:15
+1 # economagic 2019-05-05 19:23
Then please get out of the way and let those of us who believe otherwise--INCL UDING McKibben, who knows perhaps more than anyone besides James Hansen about the issue, see what we can accomplish.
+2 # lorenbliss 2019-05-05 16:03
Trouble is, Mr. McKibben, the fatal "misstep" was taken 14 June 1954.

That's when the United States officially declared itself a zero-tolerance Christian theocracy by adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.

As intended, the capital "G" specifically defines this god as ONLY the misogynistic, ecocidal, genocidal, infinitely sadistic male tyrano-deity of the Abrahamic religions -- none other.

Every U.S. act of oppression since then – all the assassinations and political murders; the renewal of the Crusades; the elevation of Christianity to the de facto state religion; the replacement of democratic process with zero-tolerance tyranny; the terminal emergence of ChristoNazism – all this is directly traceable to the exceptionalism affirmed 14 June 1954.

As a result, progressive change in the U.S. is now forever impossible.

Meanwhile the Brits have proven themselves civilized, while we continue to prove ourselves worthy of no label other than Evil. Given our vast array of doomsday weapons, we are unquestionably the most barbarous humans ever to have lived.

Sorry, Mr. Kibben; I've watched this fight since I was pre-pubescent, covered it as a journalist since my late teens, and at age 79 can no longer be dissuaded from realization the malevolently greedy, fanatically Christian U.S. has already (knowingly and deliberately) doomed our species to extinction and damned our planet to insectoid toxicity.
+1 # economagic 2019-05-05 19:44
Sorry Loren, I don't buy it. Even in this country people are beginning to "get it," as McKibben points out and as I have recognized for a decade or more. The increase in awareness EVEN here suddenly began increasing exponentially after Gore's book (which should have been titled "Earth OUT of Balance"). Actually it has probably been on that trajectory since Hansen's 1988 testimony or before. That is the nature of exponential growth: The "lily pads" brain teaser, the "king's chessboard" legend, and the rise in atmospheric CO2 itself all illustrate the fact that many people are unable to grasp, that starting from zero, exponential increase is invisible until it suddenly becomes unavoidable. Europe may be able to hold the fort until the fossil fools here get caught in a California wildfire.

I tried to send a response to your recent "resignation," but your ISP thought it was spam, perhaps because I said some things that "everybody knows." I will see if I can whitewash it and try again.
0 # lorenbliss 2019-05-06 11:38
Of all people, economagic, you should know that even if 100 percent of the U.S. population "got it," nothing would change.

This is not a democracy, not even a charade democracy; it is the United States,imaginin g itself divinely ordained conqueror of the world, and its politicians -- save for an elderly gentleman and two women -- don't give a flying rat's ass what we the people want.

See for example

That's a pre-Trump report; we the people have infinitely less power today.

Yes we now have a few attention-getti ng progressives in Congress.

But attention-getti ng is all they're good for, and in bitter truth they are tolerated -- allowed by our overlords to live -- only because their existence reinforces the ultimate Big Lie of USian "democracy."

Change? As we learned with Obama, in the U.S., progressive change is impossible because those who would foster such change will always be co-opted, betrayed, neutralized and defeated.

Our masters have set their course -- shock-doctrine weaponizing of climate change to reshape human society into Neoliberal utopia -- and with the Soviet Union dead, there is no force on this planet sufficient to force them to alter their direction.
+2 # economagic 2019-05-05 17:37
"Such strong steps are clearly required. Having wasted three decades, we now have no choice but to move decisively, cutting our carbon emissions by five, six, seven per cent a year, or more. That will be as hard to achieve as was, say, the retooling of the American economy to fight the Second World War."

McKibben is perhaps the most sober and realistic commentator on this issue, having been at it full bore longer than almost anyone. But here he is pulling punches, perhaps to avoid creating despair. To reduce anything to 5 percent of its current value in 30 years requires a reduction of about TEN percent per year. (If you don't understand that calculation ask a numbers geek, as it would take the better part of 1500 characters to explain.)

And while reliable numbers are impossible to obtain at this point, The mobilization that will likely be needed is on the scale of WW II (when no new civilian vehicles were built for more than three years) ONLY if the Manhattan Project (to build the "atomic" bomb), the Berlin airlift (when allied air forces, mostly US, flew in from France all supplies for the 3/4 of Berlin not controlled by Soviet Russia for nearly a year), the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, and the rebuilding of Japan, are included. Some people would add to those the Apollo Project to put a man on the moon in a decade, starting when earth satellites were the size of basketballs.

It would have been ten times easier to do it in 60 years than in 30 as an emergency.
+1 # economagic 2019-05-05 18:39
Here is a relatively intuitive way to estimate the annual percentage decline of a quantity to 5% of its initial value in 30 years. You can do it on any calculator that has the "hat" symbol (^). There is a formula, but it's easier to do it by "brute force" unless you have the formula and know how to use it.

Start with McKibben's middle number, 6% = 0.06. (It does. Really.) At the end of year 1 the quantity will be 94% (= 0.94) of its initial value. In year 2 it will decline another 6% of THAT number. Since "of" means "times" (usually), at the end of year 2 it will be 0.94x0.94 times its initial value or about 0.88 = 88% of that value. For each year the quantity at the end of the year is 0.94 times its value at the beginning of the year.

We can multiply by 0.94 30 times, but that invites errors. Instead, enter .94^30 and the calculator does it for us. Press "=" and get about 0.156 (= 15.6%). That's not close enough to zero for atmospheric CO2, so we need to try a larger annual percentage decline.

I've done thousands of such calculations so can make a reasonable guess, but blind luck helps. I started with a 10% annual decline, which happens to be just about right. If the quantity declines by 10% in year 1, at the end of the year the quantity remaining is 90% of the initial value. Enter .9^30= and the result is 0.042+, just over 4% of the initial value regardless of what that number was. To make it smaller, increase the annual rate of decline. (Try 14%.)
+1 # Wise woman 2019-05-05 19:45
This is way out of my league mathematically but I understand it spiritually. As Mr. Bliss points out, the day that God was given a male gender in any religion, was the day that that belief took over much of the planet to the detriment of people every where including men. It has to be difficult to be the school yard bully every day of your !ife! Whenever I say the pledge, I omit "under god" and glance around the room. I'm always amazed at how many folks are doing the same thing.
+1 # moreover 2019-05-06 09:56
I heard Bill McKibben in Boulder two weeks ago (a recording is here: )
He expanded on the power of movements to effect change. Not that it might necessarily be fast and broad enough but definitively worth trying.
+1 # tidyidy 2019-05-06 18:51
How many human beings will it take to destroy Earth?
That number has yet to be determined.

How many human beings will it take heal Earth?
All of us working together.

How many human beings will it take to destroy the Universe?
That number is untold.

L&B&L&L& . . .
0 # DongiC 2019-05-09 02:44
And, there are some spiritual elements to be factored into the equation. The Second Messiah is on the earth ready to go into action. Before summer is over, he will be hitting national headlines with a series of interventions that will rock the country and literally scare the devils out of the GOP. Secondly, another member of the Blessed Trinity is making ready for a long visit to His favorite planet. He is sort of pissed over the capitalists who have so despoiled His lovely creation with their insane and incessant drive to make money. He will work closely with the other sacred person mentioned above. Events will be working much more swiftly now!!

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