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Fight Global Warming Now
The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community
By Bill McKibben
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2007 Bill McKibben
All rights reserved.
MAKE IT CREDIBLE
If people know that something is wrong and dangerous, why don't they organize to do something about it?
One of the most common reasons is the sense that they don't know enough — they have strong points of view, but since they're not experts they fear they won't be able to talk about it clearly or answer every objection. When something seems "scientific" and "complicated" like global warming, those misgivings can be especially strong.
This is understandable. It's also wrong. If you want to do original scientific research about climate change, then you better head to graduate school in chemistry or physics or biology. But if you want to talk about it — to your neighbors, to the media, to your political leaders — then there's no need to know absolutely everything. You just need to be able to speak strongly about the essentials of the issue.
This is true as well about every other issue you can name. You don't have to be an economist to argue for a living wage or a general to address issues of war and peace. In fact, mostpeople wouldn't be frightened away from those topics since they believe in their expertise as workers and as citizens. Unfortunately, when it comes to the science of global warming, it has been easy to confuse the public by throwing around "competing" statistics. So though the most important things you bring to the movement are your passion, your wit, and your energy, you do have to know a little, if only to make the case for organizing against climate change with confidence.
How much information do you need? We have pulled together this primer as a series of answers to the kinds of questions most often thrown at climate change activists.
WHAT EXACTLY IS GLOBAL WARMING?
When we burn fossil fuels, we emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A lot of carbon dioxide — a gallon of gas weighs about eight pounds, and when it's burned in any kind of engine, about five and a half pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) goes out the exhaust pipe. And there's no filter you can put on your exhaust pipe, or most other sources of carbon dioxide, to reduce that flow. Since carbon dioxide is an inevitable by-product of fossil fuel combustion, the only way to reduce it is to burn less coal and gas and oil.
It's important to reduce carbon dioxide because its molecular structure traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. It's like an invisible blanket in the atmosphere, or the panes of a greenhouse. There's always been some carbon in the atmosphere, which is a good thing — without it, the world would get very cold. But ever since the start of the Industrial Revolution, when we began to burn fossil fuels in large quantities, the amount has been increasing. There's more of it in the atmosphere now than there has been for millions of years.
Scientists tell us we have so far raised the average temperature of the planet about one degree Fahrenheit, from roughly fifty-nine degrees to sixty degrees. The strong scientific consensus is that unless we act very quickly and powerfully to reduce the amount of fossil fuel we're burning, we will raise the temperature another four to eight degrees in the course of this century.
YEAH, BUT SO WHAT? ONE DEGREE DOESN'T SOUND LIKE MUCH. AND I LIKE IT WHEN IT GETS WARMER.
One degree doesn't sound like much. But Earth turns out to be a finely balanced place, and already we can see the effects of even that small amount of warming. Everything frozen on Earth is melting — new data show that Mount Kilimanjaro may lose its snowcap inside of a decade. The seasons are changing fast. Scientists say we have both more drought and more flooding. (Drought because warm air holds more water vapor — there's increased evaporation in warmer areas — and flooding because once that water is up in the clouds it's eventually going to come down.) Hurricanes are growing stronger and lasting longer.
And that's with one degree. Five degrees more would make Earth warmer than it's been since long before humans arrived on the scene. In the words of the eminent NASA scientist James Hansen, it would create a "totally different planet." We don't know exactly what this planet would be like, but all the world's leading climatologists and earth scientists have joined together to give us a pretty good idea. They formed a body called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which issues a new assessment every five years of everything we know about global warming from the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Their latest set of reports was issued in the winter of 2007.
Those reports, though written in the dry language of science, tell us many things about that future. Global warming will cause an increase in human deaths, as mosquito-borne diseases like malaria spread more widely. There will be huge increases in flooding and severe droughts across wide areas of Earth. A large percentage of the world's plants and animals — as many as 40 percent — will move closer to extinction, or over the edge altogether. The changes are so large it's almost hard to imagine them: an Arctic without any summer ice, for instance. And yet the data tell us that ice may disappear as early as 2020.
DO WE KNOW EXACTLY HOW MANY PEOPLE WILL DIE AS A RESULT, OR HOW MANY SPECIES WILL BE WIPED OUT?
No, of course not. One of the worst things about the changes we're making to Earth is that we don't know exactly where they'll lead. It's a huge experiment, the largest thing humans have ever done to the planet.
That's one of the reasons that some of the first nonscientists to get really worried about climate change hailed from the insurance industry, the people charged with analyzing risk in the economy. A recent study sponsored by the world's largest insurance firm, Swiss Re, and Harvard Medical School predicted big increases in diseases such as malaria, higher risk of crop failures, and repeated devastation from floods and storms. It concluded that such changes will make economic growth in poor countries steadily more difficult, and that even in affluent countries like the United States many regions could "experience developing nation conditions for prolongedperiods as a result of natural catastrophes." And one disaster piles on top of another, so pretty soon it's hard to recover. New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina appears to be our first real taste of this phenomenon.
COULDN'T THIS JUST BE A NATURAL CYCLE? AFTER ALL, WEATHER DOES CHANGE ALL THE TIME.
Weather does change all the time, and so the first question that scientists tackled when they started worrying about global warming was whether the current heating fell outside the normal range. It took them a little while to analyze all the data, but by the mid-1990s the scientific consensus was that there was nothing natural about this new heat — the only possible cause for most of it was the carbon we were pouring into the atmosphere.
That confidence has grown stronger with each new year of scientific research. In May 2007, IPCC's new five-year report stated a scientific consensus, based on tens of thousands of studies: there is virtually no possibility that the heating we're seeing can be explained by anything other than human causes.
WHERE WILL THESE CHANGES BE FELT FIRST?
The impact of global warming is already being felt around the world. Arctic cultures, from the world of the Inuit to the world of the polar bear, are being turned upside down — villages have been evacuated and old hunting traditions are disappearing. For a number of technical reasons, the planet's temperature rises most quickly at the poles.
Over time, there will be even larger effects in the most populated parts of the world — the coastal plains of the tropics. Billions of people live on and depend on food from land near the sea. Many will simply have to leave — the United Nations predicts hundreds of millions of refugees by midcentury. But of course if a person is forced to leave Bangladesh, it's not at all clear where he or she will move to — there's not a lot of empty land in the neighborhood. Already some small island nations have begun relocating residents to higher land in nearby countries, including New Zealand.
For people concerned with social justice, this is especially sad news. People in these tropical countries are among the poorest in the world, and they have done nothing to create this problem — the 140 million people in Bangladesh hardly produce enough carbon dioxide to measure.
Even close to home, poor people and minority communities in coastal areas are bearing the brunt of the warming planet (think again of Hurricane Katrina). This is one of the reasons that many religious and human rights groups have become involved in efforts to fight global warming. Environmental justice advocates are working side by side with traditional environmental, religious, and youth groups to ensure that the coming green tide is, as our friend Van Jones puts it, "strong enough to lift all boats."
WILL ANYTHING HAPPEN WHERE I LIVE?
Yes. In recent years, scientists have developed models that can better predict the localized effects of climate change. Most parts of the United States have been studied, and the results are disturbing. In New England, for instance, the models show that over the course of the century, winter will become shorter and shorter and eventually disappear altogether. The forests of birch, beech, and maple that turn such glorious colors in the fall will not be able to reproduce in the warmer temperatures. We won't even have maple syrup season in the spring.
In the Pacific Northwest and California, winter snowpacks are expected to become much smaller — which means much less water being stored behind dams for use in the dry summers. Water will also be a problem in the Southwest, where warmer temperatures will mean less flow in rivers like the Colorado. Heat waves across the Great Plains may cause big trouble for agriculture, and storms are on the rise. In the Southeast, exposure to fiercer and more frequent hurricanes will exact a toll. Disease vectors like ticks and mosquitoes will spread steadily farther north. And if you live near the coast, water will rise ever higher. Everywhere extreme heat will become more likely and, with it, the danger of wildfires.
THE LOCAL EFFECT
Bring the climate change issue home for your community.
Find a local climate change expert who can discuss the predicted effects of global warming on your region or community. Your local college or university is a good place to start.
What specific changes will most affect the daily life of your neighbors? If it's flooding, ask how high the coastal waters will likely rise or how many more hurricanes are likely to hit. If it's hot-weather droughts, ask how much less water will be in the region's aquifer. The local expert won't answer with specific numbers but may be able to give you a range.
Always ask if you may call on the expert as a speaker, guest writer, or media source in the future.
WILL COASTAL CITIES REALLY BE SUBMERGED?
The short answer is, we don't know. Sea levels rise for a couple of reasons. One is because warmer water takes up more space than cold. This effect alone should cause sea levels to rise at least a foot this century.
But sea levels will also rise if the great ice sheets above Greenland and of the West Antarctic begin to melt. Scientists used to assume this would take a very long time. Now many are starting to say it could happen much more quickly, because melting ice is falling to the bottom of these ice sheets and greasing the skids for their slide into the ocean. If that happens, it's bad news; sea levels could easily rise twenty feet by the end of the twenty-first century.
This is the most controversial part of climate forecasting. The rest — the five-degree rise, the flooding and drought, the spread of mosquitoes, the death of trees, the end of winter — are widely accepted as likely to happen. Let's hope the scientists discover that these ice sheets won't melt, because it's one more horror we don't need, on top of everything else.
HOW CAN WE STOP ALL THIS?
Unfortunately, we can't stop all of the effects of global warming. The one degree the world has already warmed is here to stay, and scientists think we have already released enough carbon into the atmosphere to add another degree and a half to global temperature. But that's still a lot less than the four-to-eight-degree increase we will be facing if we don't act dramatically — and the difference between a difficult future and a catastrophic one.
The IPCC — the international group of climatologists — said in May 2007 that if we act decisively now we should be able to hold temperature increases below the level at which the ice sheets are guaranteed to melt. If we act quickly, we may be able to shave two or three degrees off Earth's eventual temperature and slow down the heating of the planet.
Half measures won't do the trick. Occasionally, opponents of action on global warming say that even if the United States had joined the Kyoto treaty, global warming would have been delayed only a little bit. This is true: designed in the 1990s, the Kyoto treaty was an unambitious first step. Since then, we have learned a great deal more about how to slow global warming and developed new strategies and technologies. The scientists tell us that in America we need a plan to cut carbon emissions at least 80 percent by 2050 — that's why we made it our message for Step It Up.
BUT AMERICA CAN'T DO THIS BY ITSELF, CAN IT? WHAT ABOUT CHINA AND INDIA AND THE REST OF THE WORLD?
Indeed, we can't solve global warming without the participation of the fast-growing developing world. But if we're going to get that cooperation we need to realize the basic facts.
The United States has been and still is the biggest source of carbon dioxide. The 4 percent of humans who live in America produce nearly a quarter of the world's CO2. Perhaps as early as this year, China will pass the United States as the largest annual emitter of carbon dioxide, but when it does China's per capita emissions will be just a quarter as large as America's. (Per capita emissions are the only way to think about solving this problem — otherwise, a country like China could "reduce" its emissions just by dividing itself into four separate nations.) Not only that, but carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere a long time, which means that Americans' many decades of CO2 production will cause most of the world's problem for many years to come; it may be forty years before China is responsible for as much of the global warming problem as the United States, and even then each Chinese resident will be only one-quarter as much to blame as each American.
So if U.S. leaders are going to persuade the Chinese, the Indians, and others to help solve the climate problem, they are going to have to approach them a little humbly and with the offer to transfer the technology necessary to develop without adding to global warming. There are signs that these countries might be willing to strike a deal — China, for instance, has stiffer mileage standards for its cars than the United States does — but we have to get back to the negotiating table. Think about how Americans appear to the rest of the world — producing more carbon dioxide than other people and then letting our leaders ignore the problem. Until we come up with a credible plan for taking care of our own emissions, no other country is going to give us the time of day. That's one of the biggest reasons it's so important for Washington to act now.
WILL IT COST TOO MUCH TO DEAL WITH THIS PROBLEM?
The price tag is one reason some American leaders have refused to take serious action on global warming. The George W. Bush administration has maintained that it would seriously harm the U.S. economy if the government enforced reduced carbon emissions. Opponents claim it could cost hundreds of thousands of jobs or wipe out whole industries.
If we take cutting carbon emissions seriously, it will damage certain industries — coal mining, for one, since coal is the fuel that produces the most carbon when it's burned. But the number of coal miners is relatively small, and they can (and should) be retrained for other work — including repairing the horrible damage that mountaintop-removal mining has caused in their own southern Appalachians. As some economic sectors are hurt, however, others will flourish: many Americans will find jobs building or installing solar panels, manufacturing new energy-efficient technologies, or establishing new, more local methods of distribution for commodities such as food, which often travels thousands of miles.
Excerpted from Fight Global Warming Now by Bill McKibben. Copyright © 2007 Bill McKibben. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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