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McKibben writes: "This month marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate summit."

Bill McKibben. (photo: Wolfgang Schmidt)
Bill McKibben. (photo: Wolfgang Schmidt)

Where We Stand on Climate

By Bill McKibben, The New Yorker

12 December 20


’ve been writing this column for almost a year now, trying to shine a light on many of the climate crisis’s facets. Once in a while, it’s important to pull back and try to put it all in perspective. Now is such a time: this month marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate summit; we’ve more or less survived the Trump Administration, with an incoming Administration promising a new approach; and we’re less than a year away from what will be the next great global climate meeting, in Glasgow, Scotland. (On a personal note, I’m subsiding into emeritus status at, the climate campaign I helped found, and I turn sixty this week—since I started writing my first book about all this when I was twenty-seven, this milestone means that I’ve spent four-fifths of my adult life wrestling with the climate problem.) Where do we stand? Take a deep breath.

All discussions of the climate crisis start with science, and the science is grim. Despite a La Niña wave cooling the global temperature in 2020, this year will vie for the hottest on record. It’s already seen what could be the highest temperature ever reliably recorded (a hundred and thirty degrees, in California), and devastating wildfires in Australia, Siberia, the American West, and South America, where about a quarter of the Pantanal, the largest wetland on earth, burned. Thirty named storms formed in the Atlantic, leading to a record hurricane season.

But those dramatic moments obscure the more devastating and silent changes. The Australia-based climatologist Andrew Glikson recently catalogued some of them for Arctic News: over the past four decades, the globe’s tropical zones have expanded by about two degrees latitude. The “shift of climate zones toward the poles,” Glikson writes, “is changing the geography of the planet.” June saw the temperature top a hundred degrees in Verkhoyansk, Siberia, likely the highest ever recorded above the Arctic Circle. As northern sea ice melts, the jet stream weakens, allowing warm air masses to penetrate farther north; one result this year has been the fires in Siberia—which began burning the peatlands that hold huge stores of carbon. In Australia, the tropical zone of the north is pushing farther south, and the coastal population centers are ever hotter and drier. The implacable rise of the oceans is accelerating, and some of the most important physical systems on the planet seem at tipping points: in the Amazon, where deforestation is escalating under Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazilian government, researchers say that a twenty- to twenty-five-per-cent loss of forest cover could trigger large areas of the forest to become savannah; at the moment, the figure is about seventeen per cent.

People caused the climate crisis, of course, but the definition of which people gets more precise over time. Research indicates that the wealthiest ten per cent of the world’s population—those with net incomes above thirty-eight thousand dollars a year—account for more than half of all carbon emissions. The wealthiest one per cent produce more than twice the carbon that the poorest fifty per cent do. But the effects of climate change are unjustly reversed: the less you did to cause it, the sooner and harder you feel its effects. Last month, when Hurricanes Eta and Iota hit Central America, the damage was “beyond compare,” Admiral Craig Faller, of the U.S. Southern Command, which was helping relief efforts, told the Times. “There are some estimates of up to a decade just to recover,” he said. Before then, displaced Hondurans and Guatemalans may trek in large numbers to the southern border of the United States, the Times reports, presenting a test for a Biden Administration that “may find it politically difficult to welcome a surge of migrants.” Those migrants would only be, however, part of an advance guard; estimates for the number of climate migrants around the world by 2050 range between twenty-five million and a billion people.

To put it simply, the temperature is increasing steadily and at a pace scientists had predicted. (The latest figures from Columbia University’s James Hansen and other climate scientists suggest an acceleration of warming over the past few years.) “We have entered a new climate,” the meteorologist Jeff Masters, a contributor to Yale Climate Connections, said last week. “Heat is energy and when everything else comes together,” he added, “things are going to go bonkers.”

Given the pace of physical change, the question becomes how fast societies can move to counter it. So far, the signs are not encouraging: emissions of carbon dioxide and methane continued to rise through 2019. They dipped in 2020, during the pandemic shutdowns, but the curve is now back on the upswing. Still, we do seem to be approaching an inflection point—a peak in the burning of hydrocarbons—that the pandemic may have moved forward a little. For a decade, engineers have been steadily driving down the cost of solar and wind power and of the batteries required to store it. This is now the cheapest power in the world, which opens up possibilities that didn’t previously exist for rapid and mass-scale change; electric cars, to give one example, are quickly transitioning from expensive toys to cheaper, better consumer products. Joe Biden, in other words, has far more scope for decisive action than Barack Obama did, just four years ago, though a Senate left in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hands would make acting on that opportunity difficult.

You can tell that something’s shifting, because a variety of leaders—in politics and business—have begun making new promises. “2050” has become a rallying cry, as in, “by 2050, we’ll be net zero” or “by 2050, we’ll be carbon-neutral.” China made such a pledge this fall and, though it chose 2060 as its deadline, that was nevertheless a huge change in policy. But both timelines are too slow. Since physics sets the terms of this debate, we need scientists, not politicians, to tell us the pace we need to hit, and here the numbers are stark. In Paris, in 2015, the world committed to trying to hold the increase in global temperature to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization said that the current rise stands at 1.2 degrees, with at least a one-in-five chance that we will see an annual average above 1.5 degrees before 2024.

Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that, to have any chance of meeting that Paris target, we’d need to see a “fundamental societal and systems transitions and transformations” of energy systems by 2030, which it defined as cutting emissions by half. 2030 is now nine years away. That’s thirty-six quarters of a business cycle, one-and-a-half Senate terms in Washington, or nearly two five-year plans for Beijing; new data show that to meet that target our fossil-fuel production has to drop at least six per cent a year. But our leverage over where the earth’s temperature will eventually settle dwindles with each passing year, because feedback loops beyond our control are starting to intervene. For example, America’s emissions from transportation fell sharply during the pandemic, but that entire decline has been erased by the carbon released in the brutal fires in the West.

So the right metaphor for where we are now is a race—one that we are losing. We can’t actually win it, in the sense that we’ve already done so much damage, and far more is locked in for the future. But, if we act with daring and haste in the decade ahead, we can still achieve a world in which the temperature rises by two degrees Celsius or less, instead of by three or four or more—and that could easily make the difference between a civilization that survives and one that collapses.

The key contestants in this race are the fossil-fuel industry and the movements that have arisen to stop it. The balance of power between them determines how bravely politicians will act and how fast investment will switch to renewable energy. There’s no doubt about the eventual outcome: economics will dictate a switch to renewable power. But waiting for economics to take its course guarantees that we will not make our deadlines. That’s precisely why activists have been fighting so many battles on so many fronts. Some of the most important, I think, include the fights to prevent new fossil-fuel infrastructure, such as pipelines. There was a win on that front last week, as Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, joined other officials in opposing the North Brooklyn fracked-gas pipeline. And there was a setback, as the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission gave the go-ahead for the Canadian Line 3 tar-sands pipeline crossing the state; campaigners led by indigenous activists blockaded that work last Friday.

There are also crucial fights to cut off the financing to the fossil-fuel industry: Stop the Money Pipeline (a campaign that I helped launch) has had some initial success in pressuring big banks, asset managers, and insurance companies to cease underwriting coal and oil and gas. (Bank of America just became the last of the major U.S. banks to declare the Arctic off-limits for oil lending.) The fossil-fuel divestment campaign has seen some major victories, too: on Wednesday, the New York State comptroller announced plans to divest the state’s pension fund, one of the largest in the world. There are also campaigns for a “fossil-fuel non-proliferation treaty,” which just last week scored a success, when Denmark announced that it would not license any new drilling in the North Sea. And there are efforts to persuade ad agencies and public-relations firms to stop green-washing the industry. All these campaigns are most pointed in Europe, but they are spreading around the world.

Frontline communities and indigenous groups are in the lead, and the surge of youthful energy has defined this push: from the Sunrise Movement to the Fridays for Future student strikes, it is those whose future is fully on the line who have emerged as the most talented spokespeople—and the most demanding. (Greta Thunberg greeted Denmark’s news that it would forgo future North Sea oil wells by pointing out that the country is going to keep pumping the ones already in place; many of her colleagues issued a manifesto proclaiming, “World leaders have no right to speak about net-zero by 2050 targets as if this is the height of ambition. Limiting our ambition to net-zero by 2050 is a death sentence for many.”) This pressure aims, at heart, to do one thing: to shift the zeitgeist, so that the sense of what is normal and natural and obvious changes and, with it, the decisions of politicians and investors.

There are signs that it is working. This summer, BP said that it would cut its production of oil and gas by forty per cent over the next decade. That amount won’t be enough (and the announcement came with endless caveats), but the decision still represents a new outlook for an industry that had grown steadily since the first oil well was drilled, in the nineteenth century. Last week, Exxon announced that it will write down the value of its oil and gas fields by twenty billion dollars, essentially conceding that those fields will never be pumped. It also said that it would cut spending on fossil-fuel exploration each year through 2025: instead of the thirty billion dollars it planned to spend in 2021, it will budget sixteen to nineteen billion. As recently as 2013, Exxon was the largest company in the world; this year, its market cap was briefly topped by Next Era Energy, a Florida-based renewables company.

There are a thousand other battles under way, of course: from arcane fights about carbon-accounting rules to plans for helping farmers sequester more carbon in soils; from writing new building codes requiring energy efficiency to schemes for assisting coal miners and oilfield roustabouts in finding new jobs in renewable power. But the central battle, at least for the next few years, is between Big Oil and Big Hope and Anger. We’ll get a better read on the state of play next November, when nations gather in Glasgow. The pledges on the table will reflect, with unflinching accuracy, the balance of power between the fossil-fuel industry and the movements that challenge it.

Passing the Mic

Maria Lopez-Nuñez is the deputy director for organizing and advocacy at the Ironbound Community Corporation, working for local development in a working-class neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, and a leader in the successful fight to pass S232, the strongest environmental-justice measure in the United States. Signed by Governor Phil Murphy in September, the law protects overburdened communities by requiring the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate permits based on cumulative impacts of pollution. Lopez-Nuñez and her colleagues’ advocacy is also the subject of a new documentary, “The Sacrifice Zone.” (Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Describe what it was like growing up in your part of New Jersey. When did you realize that Newark was overburdened with polluting industries?

One day, at the Ironbound Community Corporation, we smelled something pungent. Wherever you pass over the Ironbound, the main sight will be smokestacks. My whole life, I had smelled this smell. It was nauseating if I stopped to think about it. My colleagues said we had to call it in to the Department of Environmental Protection. That was when I started realizing that I’ve known that smell my whole life but never thought of it as a problem. That smell made me realize the difference between neighborhoods like Newark and the suburbs, where there are all these trees and the air actually smells clean. Racial justice has always been a part of my life, but at that moment I realized how insidious environmental racism truly is.

It’s taken a long time to get this new law passed. What made it worth the fight?

The New Jersey environmental-justice law is the first such law with rejection powers built into it. If an industry is coming into a neighborhood that is already overburdened—as in the case of Newark’s Ironbound district, which has a sewage-treatment plant, a fat-rendering plant, two power plants, a garbage incinerator, and a Superfund site—the state rejects that permit. This law mandates that protection, which is what makes it groundbreaking. Giving the state the power to say no—and, by extension, our community the power to say no—to dirty industry is hope for a better future. Without it, we continue being sacrifice zones. We continue being dumping grounds for what privileged people will not accept in their own neighborhoods.

Do you think polluting industries will be located in wealthier, whiter communities, or do you suspect that industries will now figure out how to do their work with less pollution?

We don’t want to be in the position where toxic industry moves from our community to another. We never want to be hurting anyone else. We want to improve the whole system and improve the way that all industry operates, to reconcile the needs of the earth and the needs of people with business desires. We’re moving New Jersey and, hopefully, the whole country forward in phasing out toxic industries and transforming them into industries that are more renewable and sustainable. The goal of this bill is to make sure that we’re all protected, and it starts by protecting the most vulnerable first.

Climate School

Companies such as Amazon and Nike say that they’re serious about fighting climate change, but they remain part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is working hard to elect two Republicans to the U.S. Senate from Georgia—which, in turn, would guarantee that Mitch McConnell remains Majority Leader.

The Yale Center for Business and the Environment analyzed three “pollinator-friendly solar farms” in Minnesota, which plant native grasses and wildflowers amid rows of solar panels. The study found an array of benefits, including “higher energy output, from panel efficiency gains attributed to the cooler microclimate created by perennial plantings.”

Sophie Yeo has a well-researched piece in HuffPost that turns the conventional wisdom on its head—if you want really resilient sources of power during an emergency, renewables are probably better than more centralized generation.

We live in a new world in which subscribers underwrite the kind of great journalism that once depended mostly on ads. This newsletter is free, but a subscription to The New Yorker supports it—and gets you access to the finest periodical writing in the English language. (And it gets contactlessly delivered to your house, even when there’s no pandemic.)


The number of low-income homes, mostly on the East Coast, that are susceptible to flooding will triple by 2050, owing to rising seas and heavier rains.

Student researchers from Cornell, the University of Chicago, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Cambridge spent the COVID summer and fall on a useful project—creating a database evaluating the climate-policy commitments of a hundred and ninety-three countries. It’s remarkably granular—and quite pointed. As they write, students have “fewer institutional constraints” than international organizations, which have to please member nations, so they so can more easily hold “large greenhouse gas emitters accountable through research.”

Southeast Alaska is always wet, but it’s never been this wet. There was record rainfall in Juneau and Haines, where a truly massive landslide wiped out homes.

A new analysis from Health Affairs makes clear that we’ve been dramatically underestimating—by perhaps forty per cent—the health-care costs associated with air pollution. Which means that stopping it makes even more economic sense than we thought. your social media marketing partner
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