A crisp, cold, blue-sky
Except that last night, as I was preparing to attend a three-day conference on climate change here in Middlebury, Vt., yet another disturbing report on global warming drifted across the net. This one comes from the International Climate Change Taskforce, co- chaired by Stephen Byers, a Tony Blair confidant from the
In another sense, though, the report is actually quite startling. It posits a new number as the climate crisis point: 400 parts per million atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. That concentration, the report says, has a better-than-even chance of eventually producing temperature increases of 2 degrees centigrade — enough to trigger widespread drought, crop failure, and rising sea levels. That 400 ppm number is very low; previously, most crisis scenarios focused on 550 ppm, which would represent a doubling of pre-Industrial Revolution carbon concentrations. It’s as if the American Medical Association suddenly announced that you needed your cholesterol down below 100 or your heart was going to go. This is especially bad news given that the earth’s CO2 levels are already north of 375 ppm and increasing by two parts annually. Clearly we are heading straight past the 400 level. Recognizing that, the report’s authors call on us to limit the amount of time the planet spends above the 400 mark, and to get back below it well before century’s end. Which essentially means: change everything, right away.
None of which will be easy (an understatement underscored by another report that came in overnight, this one showing that China’s economy grew 9.5 percent last year, its fastest increase in eight years). But it does provide a stirring background for the “What Works?” conference that kicked off today at Middlebury College, a semi-closed session designed to figure out why the United States has lagged behind the rest of the planet when it comes to global warming, and how we might catch up.
It’s a conversation that clearly needs to happen. Since climate change emerged as an issue in the late 1980s, the
Conference co-organizers Jon Isham, a Middlebury economist, and Sissel Waage, a former Natural Step analyst, have assembled an interesting cast of characters, concentrating less on the big environmental groups and their funders than on trenchant critics and people with local success stories to tell.
Tomorrow morning, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus will host one of the first face-to-face discussions of their ubiquitously emailed paper “The Death of Environmentalism.” Billy Parish, head of the Climate Campaign will present plans for a large-scale program of civil disobedience. Blue Vinyl producers Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold will show rushes from their in-progress film Melting Planet. And John Passacantando, who ran the most dynamic atmosphere advocacy group, Ozone Action, before taking over the reins at Greenpeace
In that case, it might be best not to pick up today’s edition of The New York Times and read the article datelined “Over the Abbott Ice Shelf,
In the end, it doesn’t matter what anecdote you choose, what precise parts-per-million figure you pick as the threshold of peril. Here’s what we know: The U.S. has wasted the 15 years since climate change emerged as a real problem. Its environmentalists have failed to make measurable progress on the greatest environmental challenge anyone’s ever faced. So we better come up with something new.
Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature and a member of Grist’s board of directors. His latest book is Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age.