What Took Us So Long to Address Climate Change?

Bill McKibben is an environmentalist and writer who founded the international climate campaign 350.org. Twenty years ago, with his book "The End of Nature," he offered one of the earliest warnings about the possible impact of global warming. McKibben's most recent book, "Eaarth," examines the current state of the planet.
  • Transcript


Question: When did we first discover that humans could alter our climate? 

Bill McKibbon: The first person to even come up with the idea was in the late 19th Century, the great Swedish chemist Arrhenius who later won the Nobel for other work did some back of the envelope calculations about what would happen if we burned all the coal that we were at that point beginning to burn. Oddly enough, his numbers come not that far from what the biggest super computers on earth are now cracking out—but really nobody paid any attention until really the 1980s. That’s when we had computers big enough to begin effectively modeling the climate and that was the first point at which scientists really began to sound the alarm. Probably Jim Hanson, the NASA scientist before congress in June of 1988 saying "Global warming is real" is as good a point as any to kind of pick as the starting date for the global warming era. 

Question: If we had addressed the issue in 1988, would we be in the same predicament we are in today? 

Bill McKibbon: We wouldn’t be in the same position. We might still be going to have to deal with some mild effects of climate change, but we would be well on our way now to having made the transition away from fossil fuel. It’s going to turn out to be a great, great historical shame that we didn’t pay attention when we knew what was going on. You know I wrote the first book about all of this 21 years ago in 1989. At the time, I was 27 and believed that people would read the book—which they did, it was translated into 24 languages I think—and then they would act and solve the problem, which they didn’t. 

The only thing we didn’t know 20 years ago when I wrote "The End of Nature" was how fast is this going to happen, where is the red line? Being human we all hoped that it was some ways away, so it would be somebody else’s problem to deal with. Those hopes have been steadily evaporating. For the last 10 or 12 years it’s been very clear that the earth was more finely balanced than we realized and that we were seeing change happening ahead of schedule and on a larger scale than we expected, but I think if you were looking for a date, summer of 2007 when we saw the very rapid melt of sea ice across the Arctic was really the pointed... I spent that summer getting phone calls from scientists I’ve known for a quarter century who have always been worried and concerned, but all of a sudden were panicked, or saying no matter what physical phenomena we look at we’re seeing this kind of violent flux. 

Question: Do you think it’s still possible to avert the worst effects of global warming? 

Bill McKibbon: Everything is relative. We’re not going to stop global warming, obviously. We’ve already warmed the planet a lot. That’s what this new book “Eaarth,” that’s the point it makes. This is already underway and in a big way, but what is bad can always be made worse. If we don’t act soon then the stakes are really civilizational in scale. So far we’ve raised the temperature about one degree with another one degree locked in from the emissions we’ve already put into the atmosphere. One degree has been enough to melt the Arctic. Two degrees will do more damage, but if we don’t act very quickly, scientists are quite clear that the temperature will go up four, five, six degrees in the course of this century and that’s just change of a sort that we’ve never even contemplated.

Recorded on April 13, 2010