As record temperatures are smashed all over the world, it’s clear we are losing the fight against climate catastrophe, but we must keep fighting.
Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org and ThirdAct.org. His most recent book is “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?.” He also authored “The End of Nature,” “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet,” and “Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.”
Cross-posted from Common Dreams
This piece will be a touch more personal than most, because the past couple of weeks have felt personal.
I wrote the first book on what we now call the climate crisis way back in 1989, and it feels like I’ve spent the subsequent three-and-a-half decades warning that eventually we’d get to this particular July: the hottest day and week and month on record. And long before records too: It seems almost certain that this is the hottest weather on our planet in 125,000 years; Jim Hansen made a quite reasonable case Friday that it is already or soon will be hotter than it’s been for a million years, which is to say before the evolution of homo sapiens.
In other words, this is what climate change feels like—still in the earlier stages since we’re less than halfway to the temperature our current trajectory will produce. But more than enough to, all of a sudden, start understanding that it’s entirely intolerable.
“But this was a different kind of heat. This is magnifying-the-sun-on-top-of-ants kind of heat. This is beyond anything we’ve had before.”
Here’s The New York Times Thursday, reporting on the heat in Laredo where the current hellish spell has killed at least 10 people. One man found his brother dead in a bedroom with two broken air-conditioners. They were used to heat, of course; they’d grown up on the border. “But this was a different kind of heat. This is magnifying-the-sun-on-top-of-ants kind of heat. This is beyond anything we’ve had before.”
And here’s The Washington Post today, reporting on the heat in Phoenix, which will soon break its record of 18 straight days of heat above 110°F. (The average temperature forecast for all next week, across all 24 hours, is 104.6°F, which would crush the city’s previous warmest week on record, which had an average temperature of 102.9°F.) What happens when it gets that hot? People get savage burns when they walk a few barefoot steps across a patio, or let a seatbelt buckle touch bare skin. They scald themselves with water that’s been sitting in a garden hose soaking up the sun.
“On Wednesday, firefighters encountered a man sprawled in the street in north Phoenix…When firefighters arrived, the man was unconscious. There were burns all over his body. His skin was coming off and his internal temperature was 107°F, they said. They delivered him to the emergency room. “Basically, his brain was fried,” said firefighter Brandon Kanae, who responded to the scene.”
When I read things like this, I weep for the people involved, and I also weep at my own failure. I’ve known about this crisis longer than almost anyone on earth, and I’ve done what I can think of to do, and some of it has been useful, but it hasn’t been enough. Others have done more and better, but that hasn’t been enough either. ‘I told you so’ is, in this case, just a different way of saying ‘I couldn’t figure out the right words’ or ‘I couldn’t mobilize enough others.’ Kind people say ‘you tried,’ and I have, but that’s also another way of saying ‘you blew it.’
I couldn’t even keep the crisis off my own damned doorstep. My beloved Vermont was one of many places that took it on the chin this week—huge flooding in Japan and India and China and Spain, but also in Montpelier and Ludlow and Barre and a dozen other places I know intimately. And this weekend, a second round of bucketing rainfall across the Green Mountains unleashed a landslide a half mile from my house; we’re fine, but another family saw their home buried in a roaring wall of mud. They escaped with seconds to spare because the volunteer fire chief of our tiny town arrived to warn them—a more effective warning than I’ve been able to muster.
I understand that this kind of thinking is grandiose bordering on narcissistic, and I won’t indulge myself in such pathos again. Obviously I couldn’t have stopped climate change; it is the ultimate collective problem, with only collective solutions. But to keep ourselves going we indulge in the fantasy that we will win important fights—India freed itself from British rule, after all; the Voting Rights Act passed. And so it’s okay—probably necessary—to mourn when we come up short.
The current horrors are not a reason to stop working. We know from a recent study that every 10th of a degree in temperature rise that we prevent keeps 140 million of our brothers and sisters in habitable zones on this planet. And nothing has changed my basic conviction about the key: We need to keep building huge movements to finally break the political power of the fossil fuel industry and force the emergency conversion to clean energy. When we’ve made progress—the Paris accords, say, or the Inflation Reduction Act—mass mobilizing is how we’ve done it; we have to give good politicians the room they need, we have to give bad politicians the boot, and we have to hold corporations accountable for killing us and our world. We have to keep on changing the zeitgeist.
The next round of mobilizations has got to be bigger and it’s got to come soon; this week makes clear we’re in the gnarly rapids now, and hearing the roar of the waterfall around the bend. The dawning El Niño, which will produce worse chaos than we’ve seen so far, offers what I think may be our last viable political opening to make the large-scale global corrections in time to really limit the heating. Stay tuned for plans for such mass mobilization; we will keep trying because we still have much to gain.
But this week it’s worth acknowledging how much we’ve already lost.
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