If you were in the space shuttle looking down yesterday, you would have seen a pair of truly awesome, even fearful, sights.
Much of North America was obscured by a 2,000-mile storm dumping vast quantities of snow from Texas to Maine–between the wind and snow, forecasters described it as “probably the worst snowstorm ever to affect” Chicago, and said waves as high as 25 feet were rocking buoys on Lake Michigan.
Meanwhile, along the shore of Queensland in Australia, the vast cyclone Yasi was sweeping ashore; though the storm hit at low tide, the country’s weather service warned that “the impact is likely to be more life threatening than any experienced during recent generations,” especially since its torrential rains are now falling on ground already flooded from earlier storms. Here’s how Queensland premier Anna Bligh addressed her people before the storm hit: “We know that the long hours ahead of you are going to be the hardest that you face. We will be thinking of you every minute of every hour between now and daylight and we hope that you can feel our thoughts, that you will take strength from the fact that we are keeping you close and in our hearts.”
Welcome to our planet, circa 2011–a planet that, like some unruly adolescent, has decided to test the boundaries. For two centuries now we’ve been burning coal and oil and gas and thus pouring carbon into the atmosphere; for two decades now we’ve been ignoring the increasingly impassioned pleas of scientists that this is a Bad Idea. And now we’re getting pinched.
Oh, there have been snowstorms before, and cyclones–our planet has always produced extreme events. But by definition extreme events are supposed to be rare, and all of a sudden they’re not. In 2010 nineteen nations set new all-time temperature records (itself a record!) and when the mercury hit 128 in early June along the Indus, the entire continent of Asia set a new all-time temperature mark. Russia caught on fire; Pakistan drowned. Munich Re, the biggest insurance company on earth, summed up the annus horribilis last month with this clinical phrase: “the high number of weather-related natural catastrophes and record temperatures both globally and in different regions of the world provide further indications of advancing climate change.”
You don’t need a PhD to understand what’s happening. That carbon we’ve poured into the air traps more of the sun’s heat near the planet. And that extra energy expresses itself in a thousand ways, from melting ice to powering storms. Since warm air can hold more water vapor than cold, it’s not surprising that the atmosphere is 4% moister than it was 40 years ago. That “4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms,” said Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section at the government’s National Center for Atmospheric Research. It loads the dice for record rain and snow. Yesterday the Midwest and Queensland crapped out.
The point I’m trying to make is: chemistry and physics work. We don’t just live in a suburb, or in a free-market democracy; we live on an earth that has certain rules. Physics and chemistry don’t care what John Boehner thinks, they’re unmoved by what will make Barack Obama’s re-election easier. More carbon means more heat means more trouble–and the trouble has barely begun. So far we’ve raised the temperature of the planet about a degree, which has been enough to melt the Arctic. The consensus prediction for the century is that without dramatic action to stem the use of fossil fuel–far more quickly than is politically or economically convenient–we’ll see temperatures climb five degrees this century. Given that one degree melts the Arctic, just how lucky are we feeling?
So far, of course, we haven’t taken that dramatic action–just the opposite. The president didn’t even mention global warming in his State of the Union address. He did promise some research into new technologies, which will help down the line–but we’ll only be in a position to make use of it if we get started right now with the technology we’ve already got. And that requires, above all, putting a serious price on carbon. We use fossil fuel because it’s cheap, and it’s cheap because Exxon Mobil and Peabody Coal get to use the atmosphere as open sewer to dump their waste for free. And today you can see the results of that particular business model from outer space.
Overcoming that will require a movement–a movement that is slowly beginning to build. In 2008 a few of us started from scratch to build a campaign with an unlikely moniker: we called in 350.org, because a month earlier this particular planet’s foremost climatologist, James Hansen, had declared that we now knew how much carbon in the atmosphere was too much. Any value higher than 350 parts per million, he said, was “not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” That’s troubling news, because right now the atmosphere above Chicago and Cairns and wherever you happen to be is about 390 ppm co2. In other words, too much.
At the time, some of our environmentalist friends said that science was too complicated for most people to get–that the only way to talk about these issues was to simplify them. But we thought people could understand, just as we understand when a doctor tells us our cholesterol is too high. We may not know everything about the lipid system, but we know what ‘too high’ means–it means we better change our diet, take our pill, lace up our sneakers. And indeed 350.org has now coordinated almost 15,000 demonstrations in 188 countries, what Foreign Policy magazine called ‘the largest ever coordinated global rally” about any issue.
That’s just a start, of course, and so far not enough to counter the power of the fossil fuel industry, the most profitable enterprise humans have ever engaged in. So we’ll keep building, and hoping others will join us. But the good news is simple: more and more of this planet’s inhabitants are remembering that they actually live on a planet.
We’ve been able to forget that fact for the last ten thousand years, the period of remarkable climatic stability that underwrote the rise of civilization. But we won’t be able to forget it much longer. Days like yesterday will keep slapping us upside the head, until we take it in. The third rock from the sun is a very different place than it used to be.
Bill McKibben is founder of 350.org, the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, and author most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.