UNDERCURRENTS S AV I NG THE E ARTH
What Comes Next?
We have a tiny window of oppor tunity to save something of the magnificence of the Ear th so let’s all grab it, writes Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org
Asked to name the biggest thing that’s happened over Resurgence’s 45-year career, I think I’d have to say the melt of the Arctic. When this magazine began publishing, there was 40% more summer sea ice in the Arctic. Viewed from space, in those first pictures from the Apollo spacecraft, the planet looked very different than it does now. In recent summers both the north-west and the north-east passages have opened, allowing sailors to circumnavigate the Arctic through waters that no one thought, even a decade ago, humans would ever navigate.
Or maybe I would pick the rapid acidification of the planet’s seas – they’re 30% more acid than they were in 1966. Which means that the small creatures at the base of the marine food chain are having more trouble forming their shells, and that coral reefs – already stressed by warming waters – have a new trauma to deal with.
Another possibility: the Earth’s atmosphere is about 4% moister than it was 45 years ago, simply because warm air holds more water vapour than cold. This loads the dice for deluge, downpour, flood – it’s not surprising that we’re seeing record rainfall and unprecedented floods. Nor, since that water has to come from somewhere, should increasing drought and desertification come as much of a shock.
Here’s what I’m trying to say: when Resurgence began its run, we were still in the Holocene. Humans had altered much of the planet’s natural environment. We had dirty rivers and dirty air, spreading toxins and endangered species. But the basic operating system of the planet was running pretty much the same as it had for the 10,000 years of human civilisation.
Sometime in the intervening decades we moved out of that comfortable and remarkably stable world, and began the transition to What Comes Next?
Any date would be arbitrary, but if you wanted to pick one, you could say 1988. That was the year NASA scientist Jim Hansen warned the US Congress that global warming was indeed real – and it was the year that we passed the benchmark of 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere.At the time we didn’t know it was a benchmark – it was 20 years later that scientists, again led by Hansen, declared that 350ppm was the absolute upper limit if we wanted a planet “similar to the one on which civilisation developed and to which life is adapted”. If we wanted, in other words, that older world we were born onto.
I could list at some length the various woes this new world is already causing: we see rising sea levels displacing farmers across the deltas of Bangladesh, and Aedes aegypti expanding its boundary and spreading dengue fever like wildfire. Speaking of wildfire, we see record amounts, in part because of more heat and drought, and in part because insects (once kept in check by cold weather) are now spreading. We see millions still homeless from last year’s flood in Pakistan, and billions struggling to pay for food because a string of crop failures that began with last summer’s Russian drought have increased grain prices by 70–80%.
And I could list at even greater length the woes we expect as the century grinds on. After all, we’ve only raised the temperature about a degree so far, and the climatologists tell us to expect four or five unless we stop burning coal and oil and gas much faster than any government currently plans. Temperatures like that will guarantee the melt of Greenland; according to the agronomists they will cut grain harvests by a third or more; they’ll make current shortages of water seem barely worth mentioning.
But for the moment don’t think about consequences, current or future. Just think about the enormity of what we’ve managed to do: we’ve altered the most basic operations of the one planet we’ve got.
The air is profoundly different, the heat balance with our sun profoundly altered. It’s by far the biggest thing humans have ever done or ever contemplated doing, and were some alien watching from a great distance she’d be scratching her head-like appendage. It’s our head-like appendage that’s responsible, of course. That big brain turned out to be incredibly clever, and its cleverest trick was to figure out that buried carbon could make life easy. Everything that we know around us – the whole modern world – derives from that discovery. Much of it is good. But now we’re threatening to take down the good, and much else with it.
So here’s the question for the next 45 years of Resurgence: can the big brain bail us out?
It’s already provided us with the warnings we need, warnings that would not have been available at any other moment in human history. The scientific method, one of the