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Climate Change Makes Humankind's Survival Uncertain, McKibben Says

February 18, 2011

Bill McKibben, one of America's foremost environmental advocates, had a mixed message for the standing-room crowd Feb. 17 at the seventh annual Norman Williams Distinguished Lecture in Land Use Planning and the Law at Vermont Law School.Photo of Bill McKibben

"My job is to be a professional bummer-outer," said McKibben, who detailed the escalating impact of climate change on the planet's ecosystems-from melting glaciers to severe heat waves, flooding, drought and sea level rise. But McKibben also gave the crowd hope, detailing the growth of, the global grassroots movement he founded to fight global warming.

McKibben's lecture, titled "The Most Important Number in the World," focused on the massive changes being wrought upon the Earth's landscape, water systems and atmosphere by man-made carbon dioxide emissions. Those changes are radically damaging public health, food production, water supplies and humankind's chances of survival, he said.

When he wrote The End of Nature in 1989, McKibben said the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels were well known, "but we didn't know how fast the big trouble would come," he said. "It's coming faster and on a larger scale than we ever thought." 2010 was a dramatic year for climate change, whose influence could be seen in record-setting heat waves, Arctic ice melting, wildfires, floods, rainfall, he said.

Climate scientists and engineers have done their respective jobs by explaining the causes of climate change and offering alternative energy technology, McKibben said. But politicians have failed to create the laws and regulatory framework for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and bolstering clean energy, he said.

He cited the U.S. Senate's failure to adopt climate change legislation in 2010, the election of Republican climate-change deniers to the House of Representatives and the influence of campaign donations and lobbying by oil, gas, coal and other fossil fuel-dependant corporations.

McKibben said he founded in 2007 when he finally realized that writing and speaking about climate change weren't enough and that mobilizing grassroots pressure on governments was needed. He said he was surprised at how quickly millions of people around the world have come to support, but that he believes such demonstrations eventually will force government leaders to pay attention.

"The truth is we're losing," he said. "It's not enough to keep raising consciousness. We need to change the political system. The reason we're losing is there's too much power" on the side of the fossil fuel industry, their political supporters and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"A betting man would say the odds are against us, but the price of being a morally awake person is knowing you have to do whatever you can to change those odds," he said. "I don't know if we'll win, but there are lots of people who will fight until the very last minute."


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