McKibben on Our Uncertain Future

By: Alton C. Thompson

William E. McKibben, better known as Bill McKibben, has been engaged in perhaps the most important writing and activism of any American—of any human, in fact—during the past few decades. Currently the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College (in Vermont), Bill’s website lists the 14 books he has authored since 1989 (The End of Nature being his first book), along with the numerous articles that he has written (to which links are provided). Over two decades ago Bill had the foresight to recognize the most important problem faced by us humans at present—what is commonly referred to as “global warming,” or “climate change”—and ever since has been writing about this problem, and engaged in activism to alert the public to this threat. In 2009, for example, he led the organization of, which involved “5,200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries.” (“ takes its name from the research of NASA scientist James E. Hansen, who posited in a 2007 paper that 350 parts-per-million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere is a safe upper limit to avoid a climate tipping point.”)

Bill’s most recent article—“Global Warming’s Terrible New Math”—was published in Rolling Stone magazine, on July 19, 2012. In this article McKibben discusses three important numbers related to global warming, the first being 2° Celsius—equivalent to about 3.6° Fahrenheit. He notes that (a) the Copenhagen climate conference of 2009 “formally recognized ‘the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.” To date (b) the earth’s mean temperature has been raised (by human activity) by almost 0.8° C.—so that we have almost gotten half way to that point. And (c): “’Any number much above one degree involves a gamble,’ writes Kerry Emanuel of MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], a leading authority on hurricanes, ‘and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.’” Thus, some experts believe that 1° C. is a more reasonable number to accept as a “safe” increase—meaning that some climate scientists believe that we are now very close to the danger point.

McKibben also notes, however, that “computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees [Celsius], as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere.” This is a profoundly disturbing fact, for two reasons:

  • It implies that although we have not yet reached the 1° C. temperature rise that MIT’s Kerry Emanuel has identified as the critical temperature, it is inevitable that we will reach, and pass, that point—even if “we stopped increasing CO2 now.” Which won’t happen, of course.
  • If the more “liberal” 2° C. is taken as the critical point, a 1.6° C. increase is inevitable, and given that we humans show no signs of ceasing to “contribute” carbon to the atmosphere, it seems inevitable that a 2° C. will occur.

When it will occur is a matter of conjecture; but that it will occur seems to be inevitable. Two years ago McKibben wrote Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough Planet, inventing the term “Eaarth” to indicate that the planet that we are living on is a new one—one unlike the one any of our ancestors lived on. Today, there is no reason not to believe that Eaarth will be changing even more—perhaps at an accelerating rate—and may very well change so much as to be uninhabitable by us humans (to say nothing of many other species).

The second number that McKibben discusses is 565 gigatons: “Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees.” But the problem here is that “study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year—and at that rate, we’ll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today’s preschoolers will be graduating from high school.” Note here that the 565 gigaton number is premised on a 2° C. rise in temperature being “safe.” If a “safe” rise is just 1° C. (as is argued by MIT’s Emanuel), the implication is that that level will be reached in 8 to 10 years. Whether we reach—and pass—the “safe” point in 10 years or 16 years, the fact of the matter is that there is very little time left before the “safe” point is reached, and surpassed.

The third number given attention by McKibben is 2,795 gigatons: This “number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number—2,795—is higher than 565. Five times higher.” Thus, if 565 gigatons represents the “safe” amount of carbon that can be transferred to the atmosphere—a number that Kerry Emanuel of MIT would dispute—and our plans, as humans, are to continue to use fossil fuels, it’s clear that we humans are on a suicidal course. 

We won’t be able to burn up all of the fossil fuel that we are planning to burn, of course, for the simple reason that at some point in time after we cross the “threshold” of safety—whether it is at 1° C. or 2° C.—our society will collapse. Other societies will also collapse, but the high degree of specialization that characterizes the American economy makes it especially susceptible to collapse. It collapsed after the “crash” of 1929, but only relatively; the sort of crash that occurs in the future will be an absolute one—one which will take a massive toll in human life, and change the way that survivors (if there are any!) live. It is, of course, impossible to know exactly what the future has in store for us humans, but it’s, clear that even if living is possible, it will be difficult; and that those with the best chance to survive will be those who have made plans for the future, and have begun to act on those plans. The fact that planning is anathema for most Americans suggests that even if human life is still possible in, say, 50 years, few Americans will take advantage of the opportunities for survival that do exist—and will thereby commit suicide, in effect (i.e., will perish for one reason or another as global warming increases in severity).

McKibben states:

People perceive–correctly–that their individual actions will not make a decisive difference in the atmospheric concentration of CO2; by 2010, a poll found that “while recycling is widespread in America and 73 percent of those polled are paying bills online in order to save paper,” only four percent had reduced their utility use and only three percent had purchased hybrid cars. Given a hundred years, you could conceivably change lifestyles enough to matter–but time is precisely what we lack.

McKibben is correct in stating that most people recognize that their individual actions—as inmates of the Existing Order, I would add—have little relevance for global warming; the problem with many in our society, however, is that they fail to recognize the impact of the members of our species as a collective unit—or even deny that global warming is occurring: Somehow they are unable—or unwilling—to “read the handwriting on the wall,” i.e., the signs of global warming that are evident even now. Because of this, few in our society are doing anything to prepare for the future—including contacting their Representative or Senator, urging them to act.

McKibben seems to place his hope for the future in the development of a Movement of some sort, and states: “A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies.” What enemy can be identified? The “planet does indeed have an enemy—one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”

But does our “salvation” lie in identifying the fossil-fuel industry as the enemy? I perceive several problems with McKibben’s thinking:

  • He doesn’t seem to recognize the implications of reaching, and then crossing, the “tipping point”—the point of no return. He seems to recognize that we will cross this point, and do so within a few years, but doesn’t seem to recognize that the disruptions that will thereby be occurring in our economy will be such as to cause not just hardship for many, but violence, deaths on a massive scale—and an eventual collapse of our society, which “event” will be followed by even more deaths.
  • Making the fossil-fuel industry “Public Enemy No. 1”—which is not likely to occur anyway!—will do nothing to prevent the tipping point from occurring—for the simple reason that nothing can prevent it from occurring (including some sort of technological “fix”). Trying to initiate a movement that will identify this industry as the “enemy”—which it is, of course—is akin to “fiddling while Rome burns”—an utter waste of precious time.
  • Given the disruptions that will be occurring in our economy as a result of global warming, food will become not only increasingly expensive (e.g., the price of what we call “corn” in this country—maize in other countries—will be going up given the drought that has been gripping much of the United States), but increasingly difficult to obtain, period. That fact will result in violence and starvation—and will eventuate in societal collapse.

Those able to perceive what is “on the horizon” for us humans will realize that one’s only hope for survival is plan how one will adapt to the changes that will be inevitably occurring, and then act on one’s plans—ASAP. As I have offered many comments relative to this in previous essays on this site, I will say nothing further here on the matter.

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.