The Symptoms of a Damaged Planet

Our civilization is going to be forced to change dramatically as a result of global warming.
  • Transcript


Question: What symptoms of climate change will we soon see? 

Bill McKibbon: Well think about things we’re already seeing. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold. The atmosphere has about 5% more moisture in it than it had 40 years ago, which is an astonishingly large change in a basic physical parameter. That means that we’re seeing huge increases in the amount of deluge and downpour and flood. There is a record rainfall and flood event someplace around the world almost every week now. The hundred-year storm comes to many places every three or four years. It’s taking a great toll on infrastructure, on human life. You know, this spring we watched hundreds of people killed in Rio, in the middle of Rio de Janeiro in mudslides after the largest rainstorms they’d ever recorded in that city. Look at the chemistry of seawater. The ocean is our metaphor for vastness on this planet, but that hasn’t stopped it from changing in profound ways. Seawater is 30 percent more acidic than it was 40 or 50 years ago because the oceans are absorbing so much carbon from the atmosphere. Everything frozen on earth is melting. Glaciers are melting with great rapidity all over the planet. Some of them have disappeared in the western US, in the Andes. You can go on for many days just listing the effects we’ve already seen. If we don’t do things quickly, the effects that are coming as the temperature gets hotter and hotter will be even more dramatic. The latest studies indicate that by the mid- to latter part of the century we could be seeing grain yields for corn and soybean and wheat fall 20, 30, 40 percent. That would be trouble of an all-encompassing sort. 

Question: How will our civilization change? 

Bill McKibbon: New planet, we need new habits, new ways of going about things. The biggest habit on our planet at the moment is a kind of addiction to economic growth and to the idea that growth will solve every problem that we face. That’s a habit of mind that we’re going to have to get out of. We’ve reached those limits to growth that people started talking about in the 1970s. When you melt the Arctic that is a pretty good sign that you’ve gone too far and so we’re going to need to figure out instead how to build a world that is stable, secure, kind of hunkered down, that’s built for endurance, not for speed. I think that means more and more that our economies will need to become more localized, less sprawling, less vulnerable, more resilient. We can see that starting slowly to happen. The number of farms in the United States increased the last five years for the first time in a century and a half and it’s because there is this local food movement that is building up that kind of resilience in place after place.

Recorded on April 13, 2010