07.19.10

The Real Environmental Disaster

The last three months have been the warmest on record and we need to bring the same urgency to climate change that we did to stopping the Gulf oil spill, says Bill McKibben.

So—whew—the bleeding seems finally to have been staunched, three months after BP stabbed its hole in the bottom of the sea. It’s disgusting that it took that long to stitch it up, but there’s every sign that after the first few weeks everyone was working it, stat. BP tried “junk shot” and “top kill,” skimming ships and low risers; the feds went with daily briefings, multiple Cabinet secretaries, retired admirals. Some 17,500 National Guardsmen, 1,900 ships. Twenty billion dollars. “From the beginning,” said the president, “we have worked to deploy every tool at our disposal to respond to this crisis.”

Which was only right—every day that passed saw more oil spew into the Gulf. Time was of the essence.

You don’t compromise with a blown-out oil well, and you don’t compromise with the molecular structure of carbon dioxide. They don’t do compromise.

But here’s the thing: Over that same period, if you add up all the carbon being burned in all the cars and factories and power plants, we had the equivalent of at least 5,000 Deepwater Horizons pouring carbon into the atmosphere, every minute of every day in every corner of the world. You couldn’t see it—CO 2 is invisible. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of an emergency. In fact, during the three months the spill was leaking:

• A host of federal agencies announced that the planet’s temperature was higher than in any six-month period we’ve yet observed. April, May, and June—the spill months—were the warmest April, May, and June on record, all over the world. Last month in Pakistan, they measured an all-time Asia temperature record: 129 degrees. (I can set my oven for 129 degrees).

• Scientists reported that higher ocean temperatures—all around the world—were killing off the coral reefs that harbor a quarter of the sea’s life at a record pace. In the words of a federal researcher, “this is a really huge event and we are going to see a lot of corals dying."

• Record rainfall and flooding events—of the kind tied directly to climate change by every climate model—claimed scores of lives around the world. Some, ironically, were close to the Gulf: in Nashville, in Arkansas, in Oklahoma City, along the Texas/Mexico border. But there was no live webcam, so the stories passed in a day or two.            

Together, the importance of these stories is clear: Staunching the flow of carbon into the atmosphere is every bit as urgent as staunching the flow of oil into the Gulf. We used to think that global warming would take a long time to bite, that it was a problem measured in decades and centuries, not days and months. But in fact it’s breaking over us right now, right this minute. Time is the enemy here, too. Every day that passes makes it harder to deal with.            

Time, in fact, is the key variable with global warming right now. We’re already crossing options off the list because they won’t make progress fast enough. For instance, Congress has proposed funding “biomass energy” generators for electricity on the theory that it’s better to burn wood than coal. But if you chop down a tree to make power and it takes you 50 years to grow its replacement, you’ve sent a pulse of carbon into the atmosphere that you won’t soak up for half a century—by which time climate change will be past the point of no return. That’s why Massachusetts this month took wood burners off the list of clean-energy sources.            

Political time is in short supply, too. So far, of course, Washington has done nothing—the Senate is currently considering a watered-down version of a watered-down bill, one that would only apply to electric utilities and only cause the slowest of changes, and even that has not persuaded President Obama to knock heads. He’ll go after BP, but not the GOP—the bill’s great champion, John Kerry, summed up the prevailing strategy for winning votes: “We believe we have compromised significantly, and we’re prepared to compromise further.” Claire McCaskill, the Democratic senator from Missouri, quickly explained why that’s her tactic, too: "You know, it took 50 years on health care.”            

Full coverage of the oil spillGlobal warming is not like health care—it’s not a slow evolutionary transformation of public opinion. You don’t compromise with a blown-out oil well, and you don’t compromise with the molecular structure of carbon dioxide. They don’t do compromise. They do damage—hour after hour, day after day. The oil well may be plugged, but the biggest environmental crisis we’ve ever faced flows on unabated. Right now, right this second.

Bill McKibben is the author of Eaarth and more than a dozen books, including The End of Nature, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, and Deep Economy. He is the founder of the environmental organizations Step It Up and 350.org, a global-warming awareness campaign that is planning a Global Work Party on climate change for 10-10-10.