Bill McKibben: A united effort needed to tackle climate crisis

bill mckibbenPhoto/Ken McGagh

Bill McKibben delivers remarks at Brandeis on March 30, 2023.

There were some big headlines dominating the news when Bill McKibben visited Brandeis on March 30. But none of them were the most important thing to happen every single day, the environmental activist and author said.

"Donald Trump got indicted this afternoon, the Red Sox lost their home opener 10 to 9, a lot of things happened today," McKibben said. "A lot of things happen every day. The most important thing that happens every single day, though it's never the single most important thing that happened in a given day, is this ongoing destruction of the planet's climate system."

A scholar at Middlebury College, McKibben visited Brandeis as part of “Beginning to End the Climate Crisis,” a daylong conference in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Center for German and European Studies. Along with McKibben’s keynote, the conference featured an array of climate-oriented events, including a lecture on climate adaption strategy, a panel discussion on climate justice, and a talk with German climate activist Luisa Neubauer and sociologist Alexander Repenning about their new Brandeis University Press book "Beginning to End the Climate Crisis: a History of our Future." Joining Neubauer and Repenning were McKibben, and professor Sabine von Mering, director of the CGES. The conference was created in coordination with the Year of Climate Action initiative at Brandeis.

McKibben was introduced to the audience in Sherman Function Hall by Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz, who appointed McKibben as the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury when he served as the college’s president in 2010.

“I had the honor and fortune to watch Bill do his magic at Middlebury College …  in terms of his remarkably effective activism and education,” Liebowitz said. “In addition to being the author that he is, he organized many groups to effectively approach climate change – and really affect change.”

On a day where the top headlines in mainstream media were dominated by the indictment of a former president and baseball scores, a paper was published in the journal Nature that examined the impact of melting ice in Antarctica.

"It is already slowing the overturning currents that are one of the single, most important features of the earth. The thing that allows the spread of heat back and forth from the equator,” McKibben said. “It's precisely what we would have expected, but it is one more powerful reminder of the fix that we're in. Let's just think for a moment about what we've done, because it's by far the biggest thing that our species has ever done. We have, in very short order, managed to raise the temperature of our earth so far more than a degree.”

The warming of the earth is already impacting the habitability of places around the world, McKibben said, pointing to flooding in Pakistan last year that left more than 2 million people homeless. Pakistan is only responsible for about 1 percent of the world's carbon emissions, compared to over 25 percent by the United States.

“The wealth that we have built by burning all that fossil fuel helps insulate us a little bit from the shock of the changes in the earth around us, but it doesn't do any good for people in places like Pakistan,” McKibben said. “And here's the difficult part. We're still fairly near the start of this, not the end.”

The earth’s temperature has risen about one degree, but it remains on a path to rise about 3 degrees, McKibben said. Such a change is estimated to result in as many as 3 billion refugees and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

While the forecast is bleak, technology is now available to change mankind's worst energy consumption habits, McKibben said. Over the past 10 years, advancements in engineering have reduced renewable energy costs by about 90 percent, McKibben said. In recent years the price of wind and solar power became cheaper than the price of non-renewable energy sources.

"We're used to thinking about clean energy as 'alternative energy.' It's kind of viewed as the Whole Foods of energy. But, in fact, that's wrong," he said. "It's now more like the Costco of energy."

But switching to cleaner, more sustainable energy faces stiff opposition from the fossil fuel industry, and time is of the essence, McKibben said.

"The economics of sun and wind will prevail eventually, 40 or 50 years from now we're going to run the planet on this stuff, but if it takes us 40 or 50 years to get there, the planet that we run on sun and wind is going to be a broken planet,” he said.

To make the move and do it fast enough to avoid the most catastrophic possibilities requires more than lifestyle changes, he said: it requires activism on the part of every generation. He pointed to the success of things led by younger people, like the fossil fuel divestment movement, the sunrise movement that led to the Green New Deal, as well as Third Act, a movement co-founded by McKibben that mobilizes the Baby Boomer generation.

“We need everyone engaged in this kind of work. Yeah, it's important to get a heat pump in your house, an electric vehicle in your driveway…but the most important thing an individual can do is be less of an individual and join together with others in movements large enough to really change the ground rules. We gotta do it.”

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