Winds of Change

The Texas Observer talks with environmentalist Bill McKibben about global warming


As I write these words, Hurricane Wilma has just walloped South Florida. Jaded Floridians who anticipated a Category 1 on the Saffir-Simpson scale with maximum wind speeds of 95 miles per hour or a Category 2 (96-110 mph) stayed at home expecting minimal damage. Instead, Wilma roared onto the west coast of Florida a robust Category 3, with winds up to 125 mph, and maintained its strength for a 7-hour sprint across the peninsula. The storm left millions of Floridians without electricity—most likely for weeks—and 10 dead from a hurricane that claimed a total of 29 lives in three countries.

Wilma was the 21st storm of the 2005 season, which doesn’t officially end until November 30. It was the last name left on the National Hurricane Center’s list of future storms. On its heels came Tropical Depression Alpha. At one point, out in the open ocean, Wilma was a Category 5 with winds of 175 mph, the most intense storm on record in the Atlantic basin. This latest hurricane is unfortunately a sign of things to come.

In the past several months, climatologists in two separate studies reported that the number of hurricanes rated Category 4 (131-155 mph) and 5 (winds greater than 155 mph) worldwide has nearly doubled since 1970. The spike in intensity, they agree, is the result of an increase of more than 1 degree Fahrenheit in average tropical sea surface temperatures during the past 35 years. (Existing records from the 60 years prior to 1970 had shown stable temperatures.) Hurricanes draw their power from the heat in the top meters of the sea’s surface. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico were higher this past August than at any time since 1890.

Welcome to life in a globally-warmed world.

Global warming occurs as the byproduct of burning fossil fuels—carbon dioxide and other gasses—that trap heat in the atmosphere, hence the greenhouse effect. More severe storms are just the beginning of the climate-related horrors scientists have discovered in recent months. Weather fluctuations are increasing. This past September was the hottest month recorded on the planet Earth since 1880. Effects large and small are beginning to be felt. We may get less rain, but the downpours will be more severe. The heat has triggered a massive die-off of pinyon pines in a drought-ravaged Southwest. Carbon dioxide is also turning the oceans acidic, threatening small, shelled creatures that undergird the marine food chain. The World Bank is expecting an increase in malaria and dengue fever as climate change intensifies. For the fourth consecutive year, the Arctic ice cap has shrunk. Scientists are worried that germs and viruses buried in the ice for millennia will be unleashed on a world without immunities to them.

This might be a good time for Bill McKibben to say, “I told you so.” In 1989, McKibben published The End of Nature, one of the first popular treatments on global warming. The naysayers who dismissed the book as a doom’s day scenario are still with us today although they are considerably fewer in number. In the 16 intervening years since the book first came out, neither a Democratic nor a Republican administration has done much to reverse the effects of global warming. Yet despite outright opposition from the Bush White House, McKibben believes change on the local level is coming nonetheless. And some in corporate America are also taking note. Mutual and hedge fund managers are speaking out. Insurance companies are starting to squeal. Damages for hurricanes in 2005 are already topping $60 billion. The Observer caught up with McKibben recently at his home in Ripton, Vermont, where he is a visiting scholar at Middlebury College, to talk about global warming, its effect on Texas, and what can be done.

The Texas Observer: What do you think the future of the Gulf Coast is in a globally-warmed world?

Bill McKibben: As they always say on the bottom of the mutual fund advertisements, past performance is no guarantee of future results. What people need to understand is that the Gulf—along with every other place on the planet—is now different than it used to be. Actuarial and historical data shouldn’t provide people with much comfort that this is just some passing phase. The planet is getting much hotter, and it is getting much hotter fast. The combination of these things means that all bets are off, in particular in the Gulf.

You will never produce a hurricane called Hurricane Global Warming. You will never be able to say “this particular storm,” but we can say that the likelihood is stronger storms. When you raise the temperature of the planet, you raise the level of the oceans. Eventually, this will happen because we are melting ice that’s over land in Antarctica and Greenland but [even now it is happening]. Warm water takes up more space than cold water because of the thermal expansion, enough to raise the sea level, a foot in the next 40 to 50 years. A foot doesn’t sound like very much. On the other hand, consider your average Texas beach. I haven’t been down to Galveston in a while, but my memory is that the barrier islands slope in at a gentle rate. If your beach slopes in at one degree, a rise in sea level of a foot brings the ocean 90 feet farther in. You can begin to figure out what that means for future hurricanes, storm surges, and on down the list. I think it’s very clear that we are going to have to reconsider how we imagine where it’s a good idea to live and to build oil refineries and so forth.

TO: I know you’ve traveled extensively throughout the world and most recently to China. How does the rest of the planet view this issue and our position on it?

Bill McKibben BM: The U.S. is the only remaining world capital in denial about what’s going on. If you look at the regard for America around the world, the point at which it started to steeply drop was not at all our misadventures in Iraq. It was before that. It was when, a few weeks after taking office, George Bush declared that we were not going to have anything to do with the Kyoto Protocols. People around the world were taken aback by this. Four percent of us who live here produce 25 percent of the world’s CO2 and we just said, “This is not convenient for us to do anything about so we are not going to.” And that was the moment in which people just started to scratch their heads, a scratching that has become only more pronounced as the years have rolled along. And that is especially true in Western Europe and Japan and the rest of the developed world.

China is clearly expanding its use of energy dramatically. They are adding 64 gigawatts to their electric capacity this year or more than all of New England consumes in electricity in any given year. That said, the average Chinese uses about one-ninth as much energy as the average American. When China passes us in 2030 or so as the world’s largest carbon emitter, they will be producing one-quarter as much carbon per capita as any of us. So we are not in a very great position to announce to them that they should do something else, especially since this is how we got rich. We filled up the atmosphere, which is why the Chinese can’t use it to get rich too. It seems unlikely that they will respond well to an announcement from us that we got there first, sorry, since the atmosphere by its nature belongs to all of us. The only way to square this circle internationally is for us to take some portion of the wealth that we have built up over the last 100 years filling the atmosphere with CO2 and figure out a way to transfer it in the form of renewable energy technology to those parts of the world that are going through their own growth spurts.

TO: Why isn’t this a more central part of the national conversation?

BM: The momentary cause is that it is dominated by Texans with deep roots in the oil industry for whom going along another five or ten years and continuing to reap the enormous profits of doing things the way they have been doing them for the last century is worth the price in the incredible damage to the planet. There is clearly no area where the particular culture of Texas and Texas businesses has had more effect on the world stage than this. The particular set of habits of mind and networks of acquaintances that dominated commercial life in Texas for a long time now dominate the White House, at least temporarily, and it is not too much to say that they are reflected now in changes in wind speed and changes in sea levels and changes in all sorts of other things. It’s an enormously big problem and a wasted opportunity and we will forgive you if you send us someone better next time.

But only part of the blame can be laid at the feet of Dubya on this one. Bill Clinton and Al Gore didn’t really do anything about it either. U.S. carbon emissions went up 15 percent during their presidency. The biggest reason is that we are the country that is most thoroughly addicted to cheap energy. We’re most reluctant to entertain any move away.

TO: You talk about the need for a new environmentalism. What do you mean by that?

BM: For a very long time environmentalism has largely been about worrying about the things that we shouldn’t do—which has been important. But it is probably at least as important now for it to be kind of aspirational as well. Trying to imagine a world where we weren’t doing bad things but where we are instead doing useful things that are in the end more pleasurable than what we are doing now.

For instance, I’ve been doing lots of work on local farming lately, largely for environmental reasons. Here in the East Coast if we get one calorie of lettuce from California or Texas it takes about 95 calories of fossil energy to grow it and bring it out to us. That’s not a very good ratio. There is also the fact that when it gets here it’s just Iceberg lettuce anyway. It doesn’t taste like anything and it’s undercutting our local farming communities and our neighborhoods. That’s what’s behind the fact that farmers’ markets have tripled in the last 10 years around the country, growing faster than any other part of the food sector. So I think we clearly need to be doing more than scaring each other as we think about the environment—although it’s pretty important to have some sense of just how deeply we have managed to undermine the physical stability of the planet.

TO: Yet your statements like “we need to upend the entire way we go about powering our lives,” make change seem like a steep mountain to climb.

BM: It is to some degree but it’s not as if it’s completely impossible. Here is a useful statistic. Your average Western European uses one-half as much energy as your average American. It’s not because they live in caves or something. It is possible to argue that the average Parisian has a life almost as elegant as the average resident of Plano or wherever. And it is not because they have some magic technology. It is because they have lives that are much more community-oriented than ours, less hyper-individualistic, hence they can actually bring themselves to do things like ride on the bus or the train with other people—a concept that has become very close to un-American.

TO: How do we break the paralysis? Do we have to wait for the next series of horrific storms?

BM: That will do part of it, there is no question. We are reasonably close. I think over the last 15 years there has been a strong network of people around the country who have taken these issues seriously and in an almost subterranean way they are devising all kinds of good policies, networks and things like that. Since there is no possibility for action in Washington at the moment, the action has moved to the state level.

For the first time California is going to regulate CO2 as a pollutant along with sulfur and nitrogen. California has special powers through the Clean Air Act. They are the only state that can make their own stricter laws, although other states can then join them once they have done it. And so both Gray Davis and Schwarzenegger have signed laws passed by the legislature that would nix CO2 output and would in effect allow Sacramento to do what Washington has never done: Raise gas mileage standards considerably. Now of course Detroit is suing and they are suing with the help of the Bush administration to block this—the Bush administration with its usual commitment to federalism is trying to prevent this from happening. I think there is actually a pretty good chance that California will win on this in the long run because CO2 manifestly is a pollutant, and that will be a good start. New York and several northeastern states have already joined in [the lawsuit]. In fact there is a kind of an arc of states around the northeast, the top of the country and the West Coast that are behaving more or less as if they were trying to meet the Kyoto Accords and are being semi-European in their approach to energy use because there are strong advocates in these places.

You know as well as I do that it doesn’t take 50 percent of people to have an unstoppable political force. It’s more like 10 or 12 percent of people who are willing to do the work—that’s more than enough. Especially on a thing like this, where the only opposition—and it’s not to be underestimated but it doesn’t come from other citizens—it just comes from oil and coal barons.

TO: Is this, to some degree, a conflict between urban living and suburbia?

BM: Suburbia turns out to be the single most inefficient way to organize your life if you are thinking about energy. The biggest reason that the Europeans [emit less CO2] are that they live more densely than we do. And the single reason for that is that they have kept their cities really nice. People want to be near them instead of allowing them to become so disgusting that they magnetically repel people out ever further.

The exemplar in some ways in this is the SUV. It seems to me that the SUV age more or less came to an end on that day when everybody evacuated Houston. When thousands of Explorers and Navigators and other proud-sounding vehicles were sitting in the breakdown lane run out of gas because they get 11 miles to the gallon or 14 miles to the gallon or whatever it is. That was about as pathetic a sight as it was possible to imagine.

TO: You were somewhat involved in the Howard Dean campaign. Where are the Democrats on this issue?

BM: Democrats have almost as much trouble negotiating their way through labor and the politics of West Virginia and yada, yada, yada. John Kerry was not forthright about this stuff in his campaign and neither, tragically, was Al Gore. There are a few maver
cks who do take
t seriously and one of them is John McCain who has actually been very good on climate stuff since he ran for president. In 2000, he was sort of converted to this issue. But I think it is probably going to be more important to have an increased amount of citizen activity. And some of that is going to happen as a natural result of this kind of peak oil rise in prices. There is a kind of potentially good perfect storm brewing there, with heightened environmental awareness and heightened prices.

TO: What can an average citizen do?

BM: Anybody with a house can quickly figure out how to cut their energy expenditure a lot. The first set of things that you do already have pretty quick positive paybacks. Strong insulation. Changing your thermostat. Double-glazed windows. It depends on where you live what your particular challenge is. Whether it’s air conditioning or heating. If the average American takes 14 car trips a week, if you cut it down to 12, just by consolidating errands some, suddenly you are starting to get into big numbers and that is before you change technologies. Trade in your SUV and get a hybrid. I drive a Honda Civic hybrid. I live at the top of a mountain in a cold wintry part of the world on a dirt road so I suspect that if I can survive with a Honda Civic hybrid, and survive in style, then 95 percent of the residents of Texas can do likewise. It’s just like driving a normal car except that I get 56 to 57 miles to the gallon. It costs $20,000. It costs a lot less than a lot of the crap that we have been driving around.