This article was originally printed in the Barton Chronicle. We thank the Chronicle and author Elizabeth Trail for their kind permission to reprint it.
—by Elizabeth Trail
“We all want the places we live in to remain unchanged,” writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben told a crowd of about 200 people at a Sterling College open house on Saturday, February 18. “But all over the world now, there are people paying enormous prices for our energy use.”
Mr. McKibben was answering a question about large-scale wind development. Behind him through the picture windows at the back of Simpson Hall, his audience could see the college’s new array of solar panels that were being dedicated that day.
Up to 100 million people are expected to die by 2030 as a result of climate change, Mr. McKibben said.
And he said that most of them are poor people in developing countries — people who have done nothing to contribute to the problem.
“Vermonters have a debt to the world, and we should be willing to make sacrifices,” he said.
But Vermont itself is not going to be unscathed by climate change. Mr. McKibben said that computer models project cross-country skiing and snowmobiling becoming extinct in Vermont by the mid to latter part of this century due to lack of snow. And the forests that are the glory of the state will be sadly changed.
“If we want these things to survive, we have to do everything we can,” he said.
Mr. McKibben believes that changes to local views and threats to ridgeline habitat caused by wind turbines pale in comparison to the changes and habitat loss that will be brought on by climate change.
He went through a list of signs of the progression of climate change.
Satellite photos document shrinking glaciers and polar ice caps.
“Remember the blue planet picture that the early astronauts took from out in space?” he asked. “That view of the world is now obsolete.”
Climate change is in part driving the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, he said. The ground under Mexico City is subsiding as water levels drop. And dams in California are threatening to collapse from catastrophic rain.
“It’s pinching harder and worsening faster than anything we imagined,” Mr. McKibben concluded.
And Vermont won’t be exempt.
Hurricane Irene was probably a phenomenon of rising global temperatures, he said. Warm air holds more water than cold.
“Ask any superintendent of public works,” he said. “They’ve spent the last ten years pulling out eight-inch culverts and replacing them with bigger ones.”
The problem hits farmers, too. Farming has always depended on the weather, but the size and intensity of both drought and flooding is increasing.
“Young farmers like you can see their fields turned to sand and gravel in half an hour,” he told the room full of Sterling College students, prospective students, and parents.
Mr. McKibben said that it’s too late to stop global warming, at least in the short term. But he had some positive thoughts as well.
“It’s not too late to mitigate some of the effects,” he said. “And if we can make changes now, some of the worst of it may start to reverse in the future.”
That would be generations down the road, he admitted. And that type of thinking is hard for people to do.
But Sterling students have the skills that people are going to need in the future, Mr. McKibben said.
There may come a time when knowing how to grow and preserve food, how to produce energy, and how to harness animal power may become survival skills.
And in the meantime, the college’s values —like community and cooperation — are going to become increasingly important.
At the same time, Mr. McKibben said that the time was past when personal action alone could achieve the kind of change that has to happen.
“We aren’t even close to catching up to the physics of this thing,” he said. The world is putting carbon into the air at a rate that will take hundreds of years to dissipate.
Dealing with climate change is going to take governmental action from every country on the globe, Mr. McKibben said. “The question is why we’re not doing more,” he said.
The Danes, for example, already generate half of their energy from renewable sources.
A lot of it goes back to the role of big energy interests in this country, he said. “Exxon Mobile knew everything there is to know about climate change 30 years ago. We’ve seen their reports.”
The big oil companies used their information to plan their business strategies and harden their drilling rigs against severe weather, but the last thing they wanted was for the public to start cutting back on their use of fossil fuels.
“We’ve wasted a quarter of a century,” he said.
Mr. McKibben believes that the only way to counter big money and its role in politics is with people. Lots of people.
The environmental group 350.org started at Middlebury College, where Mr. McKibben teaches, although he denies being the actual founder.
“We have groups in every country around the globe except for North Korea,” he said.
He credits activism for recent successes in getting colleges to divest their investment portfolios of big energy stocks, and at least holding off the completion of the XL pipeline for several years.
President Drumpf recently reactivated work on the pipeline.
And three-quarters of a million people marched in Los Angeles recently. “It’s hard in LA to get anyone to walk anywhere,” he quipped.
He refused to be discouraged by President Drumpf’s appointment of Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. As attorney general of Oklahoma he sued the EPA many times.
Oklahoma has become the most seismically active place in the country, Mr. McKibben said. And like many scientists and environmentalists, he blames the upswing in earthquakes on fracking for natural gas.
And that’s the kind of situation that is likely to inspire people to protest, he said.
“One way we know it’s working is that the other side is fighting back so hard,” Mr. McKibben said.
He urged people to participate in upcoming citizen climate marches on April 29 — locally if people can’t go to Washington, D.C.
“How should we deal with climate change deniers?” someone asked.
“About 70 percent of people know that climate change is real,” Mr. McKibben said. “That means about 30 percent are deniers. But then about 50 percent of the people in this country think that Elvis is alive.”
The problem with a lot of the 30 percent is not that they’re studying the issue and aren’t convinced. It’s that they have other beliefs in place of the science that might lead them to understand climate change.
“They’ve been listening to Rush Limbaugh for 30 years,” he quipped.
He doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about how to convince the dwindling number of people who refuse to believe in climate change in the face of all evidence.
“The thing to do is to get that 70 percent active,” he said.