Transcript: Bill McKibben, 06 January 2009

Bill McKibben, environmentalist, author of "Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future" explains how we have passed the safe limit of 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, which means a freaking emergency.

Thom Hartmann interviews Bill McKibben, 06 January 2009

[Thom Hartmann]: Well a couple of weeks ago the American Geophysical Union had their annual meeting in San Francisco. Some truly scary statistics were presented in scenarios there which we have discussed on this program. Jim Hansen, in the last piece he wrote, which I think was about a year and a half ago, although he had a piece for the AGU meeting, talked about literally keeping planet Earth habitable for humans and all other sophisticated lifeforms. Odds are we will never nuke all life on Earth. There are microbes that live in the rocks below the ocean's surface that might end up re-seeding the Earth if we really blow this thing up. But things are really serious.

Bill McKibben is with us, the American environmentalist, the author of numerous books, including his latest, "Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future". Scholar in residence at Middlebury College in my old state, Vermont, and co-founder of Bill, welcome to the show.

[Bill McKibben]: Tom. Good to be with you! It's a beautiful day in your old stomping grounds, here in Vermont.

[Thom Hartmann]: I miss it. I miss it. You know, I love Portland too, but I also--I love Vermont.

Hey, we’re past the carbon tipping point. Time to freak out and yet on the right wing websites, you know, Drudge for example, in the last couple of days running a big headline about, "There is more arctic ice that there was 26 years ago, everything is fine, It’s nothing to worry about." What's the...

[Bill McKibben]: You remember that Mr. Drudge was convinced that John McCain was going to win an overwhelming victory too. Look, the science on this is settled. I wrote the first book about global warming 20 years ago. At the time it was a hypothesis, this idea that we were pouring enough CO2 into the atmosphere to warm things in a real way. But that hypothesis unfortunately has not only turned out to be true, it's happening faster and on a larger scale than we would have ever have guessed 20 years ago. And the most compelling proof of that was the very rapid melt of Arctic Sea ice the last two summers. You know, viewed from outer space, the Earth looks entirely different then it did. I mean those pictures from Apollo 8, or whatever they were, the first pictures of the Earth, you know against the black backdrop of space, those pictures are as out of date as my high school yearbook photo. In fact, in the same ways; there is less up top than there used to be.

[Thom Hartmann]: [laughter!]

[Bill McKibben]: The Arctic is an entirely different place and changing enormously fast. This year for the first time in human history and long before human history there was a successful ice-free navigation of the Northwest passage. And what scientists are now saying is that we are on the edge, not of global warming, but of all kind of out of control, runaway global warming that we won't be able to arrest. We're beginning to kick off a series of potent feedback loops, methane from beneath the tundra and beneath the ocean -- things like that -- that will just accelerate this beyond anyone's ability to deal with it.

[Thom Hartmann]: Well, and in fact the measurements, this was one of the things that came out of the AGU meeting, is the methane measurements in the seawater around the tundra in Siberia are truly scary right now. The permafrost is melting. Here's the thing that concerns me, Bill. I see all these right wing websites and they go off about how there’s all this sea ice accumulating right now and we're going to have a very cold winter. And it might end up being one of the coldest winters in a long, long time. And they're all going to claim that this is proof that global warming is a HO-AX, as many of them like to call it.

My concern is that all this fresh water coming down off Greenland and coming out of the Arctic might be diluting the salinity of the water 200 kilometers south of Greenland where the great conveyor belt drops down to the floor of the Atlantic and if it shuts down that great conveyor belt, that flow of warm Pacific water that comes around South around the coast of Africa, comes up along the coast of South America, we call it the Gulf Stream as it passes the Gulf of Mexico and Florida and the East Coast of the United States and then goes out into the Atlantic and settles--that Gulfstream, that great conveyor belt puts into the atmosphere the heat that keeps Europe from being covered with ice. I mean most of Europe--certainly Western and Northern Europe--is at a latitude that is not that different from Central Canada that's covered with snow most of the year, and it could render 800 million people incapable of growing food. Is it conceivable, is my most paranoid fear conceivable that one of the reasons we're seeing these severe cold events – that we had a foot and a half of snow here in Portland last week and it was snowing yesterday, again, is because the great conveyor belt is sputtering?

[Bill McKibben]: People worried more about that a few years ago than they do now. It's certainly conceivable that that will happen but there is no great sign that it has happened. And in fact, you know viewed as a whole, it's not a particularly cold winter. The Earth is on course to be considerably warmer than it was last year and last year was the ninth warmest year on record. I mean all ten of the warmest years on record now have occurred since President Clinton took office. We're in a period of enormous warmth.

[Thom Hartmann]: Then why the extra sea ice in the Arctic right now that all these websites are talking about? Are they just making it up?

[Bill McKibben]: There isn't any extra ice in the Arctic. I mean anybody can check out the weekly extent of ice on the National Sea Ice Data Center website. And in fact, there's been quite a bit of melt even over the winter in the Arctic this year. The Antarctic has about 1% more ice than the kind of historical norm. We think that that's probably because of a kind of lingering effect of our last environmental folly, the hole in the ozone layer which produces a kind of vortex which keeps winds circling the interior of the Antarctic, that keep it cooler.

But if you go to places like the Antarctic Peninsula, the temperature has risen there faster perhaps than any place on Earth and we are seeing huge melt there as well. So, you know, outside of the kind of fever dreams of right wing websites, the science isn't in dispute. What's in dispute is whether we're actually going to do anything about it or not. And if so, what that should look like.

[Thom Hartmann]: Okay. So let's get back to 350. This is an absolutely brilliant website. You've got a couple of graphics here that people can see up at the top that within 5, 10, 15 seconds, immediately educate people as to the situation. 350 being the critical number of the parts per billion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, if I'm remembering…

[Bill McKibben]: Yeah. It's a tough number, unfortunately.

[Thom Hartmann]: Or is that parts per million?

[Bill McKibben]: Parts per million. You know, before the industrial revolution there were 275 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. That's sort of Earth normal, at least as far as humans are concerned. We began burning coal and gas and oil and putting more CO2 in the atmosphere but nobody ever really knew where the “redline” was. And we until a few years ago thought that we still had a little wiggle room left, you know. That we were getting close but that there was still... well, when the Arctic melted in the summer of 2007 our best scientists went back to work and Hansen's team at NASA, he's a federal government scientist working for the moment for George Bush, produced this very powerful paper saying both the historical climate data and current observation makes it clear that we're already past the danger point. That the safe upper bound is 350 parts per million CO2 -- we are at 387 now.

So we launched this campaign,, which is really the first global grassroots climate change campaign, in an effort to make people understand that what had been a big problem has become a freaking emergency. You know, capital-F, capital-E.

And that we have got to get to work on it right away. Our actions are focused mostly on the upcoming, 11 months from now, summit in Copenhagen where the world is supposed to come up with a successor to the Kyoto Treaty and we desperately need it to be much tougher than negotiations are aiming at at the moment.

[Thom Hartmann]: We have a half minute left. Bill McKibben,, the website. Bill, what can the average American do? What can people do right now?

[Bill McKibben]: Look--you know all the things you could do in your house. Change the light bulb, but we’re not going to solve this one light bulb at a time. The only real way to solve it is to get politically involved. That's why we've got And it has just the framework that one needs to take action on a global scale.

[Thom Hartmann]: Okay. So get in contact with your legislators, tell them that this is urgent to you, to all of us, that this is not some abstraction, this is not just science wonk. We need action right now.

[Bill McKibben]: Amen! Amen!

[Thom Hartmann]: And visit Sign up for the alerts. Pass it along to your friends. Start a 350 Action Group. -- the website. Bill McKibben, one of the founders. for his great work and your new book, "Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future."

Bill, thanks so much for dropping by.

[Bill McKibben]: Thom! Thank you so much. Take care, brother.

[Thom Hartmann]: Keep up the good work, my friend. 16 minutes past the hour.

Transcribed by Caleb Burns.

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