The second element of the sea change, if such it is, consists of a demonstrably heightened awareness and concern among Americans about global warming. The awakening has been energized largely by dramatic reports on the melting Arctic and by fear — generated by the spectacular horror of Hurricane Katrina — that a warmer ocean is making hurricanes more intense.
Politicians are weighing in on the subject as never before, especially with the advent of a Democratic-led Congress. It appears likely, if not certain, that whoever is elected president in 2008 will treat the issue seriously and act accordingly, thereby bringing the United States into concert with most of the rest of the world. Just last week, Senator John McCain of Arizona, a presidential aspirant and the co-author of a bill mandating stronger action, asserted that the argument about global warming “is over.” Back in the day, such words from a conservative Republican would have been unimaginable, even if he were something of a maverick.
I’ve been avidly watching from the sideline as the strengthening evidence of climate change has accumulated, not least the discovery that the Greenland ice cap is melting faster than had been thought. The implications of that are enormous, though the speed with which the melting may catastrophically raise sea levels is uncertain — as are many aspects of what a still hazily discerned climatic future may hold.
Last week, in its first major report since 2001, the world’s most authoritative group of climate scientists issued its strongest statement yet on the relationship between global warming and human activity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the likelihood was 90 percent to 99 percent that emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, spewed from tailpipes and smokestacks, were the dominant cause of the observed warming of the last 50 years. In the panel’s parlance, this level of certainty is labeled “very likely.”
Only rarely does scientific odds-making provide a more definite answer than that, at least in this branch of science, and it describes the endpoint, so far, of a progression:
¶In 1990, in its first report, the panel found evidence of global warming but said its cause could be natural as easily as human.
¶In a landmark 1995 report, the panel altered its judgment, saying that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”
¶In 2001, it placed the probability that human activity caused most of the warming of the previous half century at 66 percent to 90 percent — a “likely” rating.
And now it has supplied an even higher, more compelling seal of numerical certainty , which is also one measure of global warming’s risk to humanity.
To say that reasonable doubt is vanishing does not mean there is no doubt at all. Many gaps remain in knowledge about the climate system. Scientists do make mistakes, and in any case science continually evolves and changes. That is why the panel’s findings, synthesized from a vast body of scientific studies, are generally couched in terms of probabilities and sometimes substantial margins of error. So in the recesses of the mind, there remains a little worm of caution that says all may not be as it seems, or that the situation may somehow miraculously turn around — or, for that matter, that it may turn out worse than projected.
In several respects, the panel’s conclusions have gotten progressively stronger in one direction over almost two decades, even as many of its hundreds of key members have left the group and new ones have joined. Many if not most of the major objections of contrarians have evaporated as science works its will, although the contrarians still make themselves heard.
The panel said last week that the fact of global warming itself could now be considered “unequivocal,” and certified that 11 of the last 12 years were among the 12 warmest on record worldwide. (The fact of the warming is one thing contrarians no longer deny.)
But perhaps the most striking aspect of the 2007 report is the sheer number and variety of directly observed ways in which global warming is already having a “likely” or “very likely” impact on the earth.
In temperate zones, the frequency of cold days, cold nights and frosts has diminished, while the frequency of hot days, hot nights and heat waves has increased. Droughts in some parts of the world have become longer and more intense. Precipitation has decreased over the subtropics and most of the tropics, but increased elsewhere in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
There have been widespread increases in the frequency of “heavy precipitation events,” even in areas where overall precipitation has gone down. What this means is that in many places, it rains and snows less often but harder — well-documented characteristics of a warming atmosphere. Remember this in the future, when the news media report heavy, sometimes catastrophic one-day rainfalls — four, six, eight inches — as has often happened in the United States in recent years. Each one is a data point in an trend toward more extreme downpours and the floods that result.
All of these trends are rated 90 percent to 99 percent likely to continue.
The list goes on.
And for the first time, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the panel reported evidence of a trend toward more intense hurricanes since 1970, and said it was likely that this trend, too, would continue.
Some of the panel’s main conclusions have remained fairly stable over the years. One is that if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, they will most likely warm the earth by about 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century, with a wider range of about 2 to 12 degrees possible. The warming over the Northern Hemisphere is projected to be higher than the global average, as is the case for the modest one-degree warming observed in the last century.
The projected warming is about the same as what the panel estimates would be produced by a doubling of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, compared with the immediate preindustrial age. It would also be almost as much warming as has occurred since the depths of the last ice age, 20,000 years ago.
Some experts believe that no matter what humans do to try to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, a doubling is all but inevitable by 2100. In this view, the urgent task ahead is to keep them from rising even higher.
If the concentrations were to triple, and even if they just double, there is no telling at this point what the world will really be like as a result, except to speculate that on balance, most of its inhabitants probably won’t like it much. If James E. Hansen, one of the bolder climate scientists of the last two decades, is right, they will be living on a different planet.
It has been pointed out many times, including by me, that we are engaged in a titanic global experiment. The further it proceeds, the clearer the picture should become. At age 71, I’m unlikely to be around when it resolves to everyone’s satisfaction — or dissatisfaction. Many of you may be, and a lot of your descendants undoubtedly will be.
Good luck to you and to them.Continue reading the main story
Bill is a frequent contributor to various magazines including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Orion Magazine, Mother Jones, The New York Review of Books, Granta, Rolling Stone, and Outside. He is also a board member and contributor to Grist Magazine.
Here are links to some of Bill's articles and to various interviews for magazines and radio programs. Note that the links take you off this site, to the source's own website.
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Obama and Climate Change: The Real Story | Rolling Stone
The president has said the right things about climate change – and has taken some positive steps. But we're drilling for more oil and digging up more carbon than ever. [December 17, 2013]
X-Ray of a Flagging Presidency| TomDispatch
Will Obama Block the Keystone Pipeline or Just Keep Bending? [Oct 27, 2013]
Movements Without Leaders | TomDispatch
What to Make of Change on an Overheating Planet. [August 18, 2013]
It's Time to Stop Investing in the Fossil Fuel Industry| The Guardian
It makes no sense to pay for one's pension by investing in companies that make sure we won't have a planet to retire on. [May 30, 2013]
Will Democrats Destroy the Planet?| Salon
Their inability to take a firm stance on issues like the Keystone XL pipeline helps enable global warming. [Apr 8, 2013]
After Sandy, a Climate Change Conversation? Dream On | New Republic
One reason we make so little progress is that we keep waiting for our political leaders to lead. [October 30, 2012]
Global Warming's Terrifying New Math| Rolling Stone
Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe - and that make clear who the real enemy is. [July 19, 2012]
It's Time to Fight the Status Quo| Solutions Journal
My solution is: get outraged. [May, 2012]
Too Hot Not to Notice? | TomDispatch
A Planet Connected by Wild Weather [May 3, 2012]
The Great Carbon Bubble| Huffington Post
Why the Fossil Fuel Industry Fights So Hard. [February 7, 2012]
The Cronyism Behind a Pipeline for Crude| The New York Times
When the State Department picked a consulting firm to help carry out the environmental impact statement on the Keystone pipeline, it chose a company called Cardno Entrix that listed among its chief clients...TransCanada. [October 3, 2011]
The Keystone Pipeline Revolt: Why Mass Arrests are Just the Beginning| Rolling Stone
Inside the growing movement to shut down the environmentally devastating tar-sands project. [September 28, 2011]
Canada and Its Tar Sands: What the Country Can Learn From Brazil About Protecting the Environment| New Republic
Shouldn’t Canada feel the same kind of responsibility to keep carbon safely in the ground that Brazil feels to keep its trees rooted? [June 27, 2011]
Can China Go Green?| National Geographic
No other country is investing so heavily in clean energy. But no other country burns as much coal to fuel its economy. [June, 2011]
The Only Way to Have a Cow | Orion Magazine
A call for America to divest its heart and stomach from feedlot beef [March/April 2010]
Washington's Snowstorms, Brought to you by Global Warming | The Washington Post
You want to hear my winter weather story? No, really, I know you do. [February 14, 2010]
As the World Waits on the U.S., a Sense of Déjà Vu in Denmark? | Yale Environment 360
Twelve years ago in Kyoto, the world was poised to act on a climate treaty but looked for a clear signal from the United States. Now, with the Copenhagen talks set to begin, the outcome once again hinges on what the U.S. is prepared to do. [November 30, 2009]
Why 350 Is A Magic Number | New Matilda
Facing climate disaster, African countries are calling for a fast greenhouse gas reduction to 350 parts per million ahead of the global climate protests this Saturday [October 20, 2009]
First, Step Up | Yes! Magazine
At any given moment we face as a society an enormous number of problems. But there’s only one thing we’re doing that will be easily visible from the moon. That something is global warming. [Spring 2008]
Remember This: 350 Parts Per Million | Washington Post
This month may have been the most important yet in the two-decade history of the fight against global warming. Al Gore got his Nobel in Stockholm; international negotiators made real progress on a treaty in Bali; and in Washington, Congress actually worked up the nerve to raise gas mileage standards for cars. But what may turn out to be the most crucial development went largely unnoticed. [December 28, 2007]
The Power of the Click | Los Angeles Times
The Internet is more than a campaign fundraising tool; it's creating a political force. [October 16, 2007]
Can Anyone Stop It? | New York Review of Books
During the last year, momentum has finally begun to build for taking action against global warming by putting limits on carbon emissions and then reducing them. Driven by ever-more-dire scientific reports, Congress has, for the first time, begun debating ambitious targets for carbon reduction. [October 11, 2007]
The Race Againts Warming| The Washington Post
We're in a desperate race. Politics is chasing reality, and the gap between them isn't closing nearly fast enough. [September 29, 2007]
Carbon's New Math| National Geographic Magazine
The CO2 from fossil fuels lingers in the atmosphere, so global warming can't be undone. But catastrophe can still be averted. [October 2007]
Everybody's Organizing [PDF] | elephant journal
Waylon H. Lewis of elephant journal interviews Bill McKibben on intersection of the environment and local economies and how Bill's recent trip to Tibet influenced Step it Up 2007. [Summer 2007]
Bill McKibben on Deep Economy| KQED's Forum
Forum talks with Bill McKibben about his recent work challenging things purchased, eaten and used and the money that pays for it all. [March 2007]
Reversal of Fortune| Mother Jones
The formula for human well-being used to be simple: Make money, get happy. So why is the old axiom suddenly turning on us? [March/April 2007]
Energizing America| Sierra Magazine
Fossil fuels burned brightly in their day, but now it's time to make the leap to safer, cleaner, climate-friendly alternatives. [January/February 2007]
Bill McKibben on Greening Corporations| Mother Jones Radio Broadcast
Is corporate social responsibility for real, or is it just "greenwashing." [December 2006]
Bill Blakemore talks to Bill McKibben| Desmogblog Radio
Bill Blakemore, senior correspondent for ABC News, asks McKibben a few questions about climate change and where we're headed politically. [October 2006]
State of the Planet 2006| Seed Magazine
Whether this or future Earth Days help solve any particular environmental problems won't matter a bit, unless we tackle the biggie—climate change. Bill McKibben reviews the damage and points the way forward. The x-factor in preventing catastrophe, he says, will be whether the American public—with its financial and cultural power to move mountains—sort of gets it, or really gets it. [April/May 2006]
What a Real, Living, Durable Economy Looks Like| Powell's Books
Original essay written for Powells on global economy.
Meet the New Loss| Grist Magazine
Bill writes about Hurricane Katrina and how it brings a foretaste of environmental disasters to come. [September 7, 2005]
Climate of Denial| Mother Jones
One morning in Kyoto, we won a round in the battle against global warming. Then special interests and pseudoscience snatched the truth away. What happened? [May/June 2005]
Environmental Writer Bill McKibben 'Wanders Home'| National Public Radio
NPR's Alex Chadwick speaks with the environmental writer about his new book, Wandering Home—A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape: Vermont's Champlain Valley and New York's Adirondacks. [April 11, 2005]
We Are Plenty Good Enough| Sierra Magazine
Bill talks with Sierra Magazine about "brash plans to tinker with our genes." [November 2003]
Small Change: My Mileage is Better Than Your Mileage| Orion Online
An all-American idea for getting Americans to take gas consumption seriously. [January/February 2003]
It's Easy Being Green| Mother Jones
George W. Bush doesn't get it yet. But renewable energy is no longer the stuff of noble visions and pipe dreams: It's available, inexpensive, and increasingly—normal. [July/August 2002]
An End to Sweet Illusions| Mother Jones
America must open its eyes to the rest of the world. [January/February 2002]
An Alternative to Progress| Mother Jones
Bangladesh, despite all its problems, holds the promise of a kind of self-sufficiency not imagined at the World Bank. [May/June 2001]
Across the Disappearing Finish Line| Outside Magazine
Searching for the keys to endurance, a ski racer pushes his body and heart to the limituntil his father's sudden illness changes all the rules. [November 2000]
Hundred Dollar Holiday| Enough!
Bill writes about the Hundred Dollar Holiday program and about some real reasons to change your holiday experience. [Winter 1999]
Cross-Country Ski Your Way to Shining Health, Renewed Vigor, and Everlasting Happiness!| Outside Magazine
Life got you down? Feeling morose, slaggardly, low on essence? Ah, dear friend, you need the curative powers contained within a pair of skinny racing planks (and, OK, 12 months of diligent effort). Skeptical? Just listen to one winner's remarkable story. [February 1999]
A Special Moment In History| The Atlantic Monthly
The dangers of overpopulation, the dangers of climate change, the dangers of pollution—we've been hearing about all these dangers for years, and yet doomsday still hasn't come. But what if we have already inflicted serious damage on the planet? And what if we have only a few decades left in which to salvage a stable environment? These questions, the author argues, are not hypothetical. [May 1998]
New York Review of Books
Links to Bill's introductions and book reviews on the New York Review of Books site.