On the the 40th anniversary of Earth Day [April 22], this warming planet we live on is posing serious new challenges to human civilization: increasingly severe droughts, floods, and storms across the globe, and slowly rising ocean levels.
Author, educator and environmental activist Bill McKibben offers some advice in his new book on how to live on what he calls our "tough new planet."
When Bill McKibben wrote "The End of Nature" 20 years ago, he thought that if he simply pointed out ecological problems, people would do something about them."I was a 27-year old and more than a little naïve. I completely failed to understand the depth of the kind of cultural transformation that we were going to have to make it we were ever going to deal with climate change."
Since that time McKibben has written a dozen books that address climate change from many different angles. His latest is "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." He spells Eaarth with an extra letter "a," to make a point.
"The planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists." It's a place, he says, "where the atmosphere holds more water moisture, where the poles are melting, where we seeing the oceans acidify, not for our grandchildren, but for us. It will get a lot worse if we don't get our act together, but it's already started."
The United Nations estimates that 300,000 people die each year from the effects of global warming.
Climate change is driving higher rates of migration and civil conflict while also fueling increases in poverty, disease, and hunger. McKibben wants the United States, the world's greatest polluter behind China, to do more.
He notes that the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. The bill would require the nation's industries to reduce their carbon emissions by 83 percent over the next four decades. But the measure has stalled in the Senate.
Paying the price
McKibben believes that, ultimately, a price must be put on carbon. "If coal and gas and oil had to pay the price for the damage that they did, we would use a whole lot less of them. That would mean that we would have to find other ways to do things."
McKibben says the move to a new and greener economy won't happen overnight. While demand for renewable energy is growing, those supplies currently meet just seven percent of world energy needs.
"We're going to have to change some habits because those energy sources are fundamentally different. They are diffuse, dispersed, spread out instead of concentrated the way that fossil energy was. We'll want to have centralized power stations. We'll want to have an endless spread out Internet for power systems, with all kinds of people pushing power from their rooftops down the grid."
McKibben says we must stop focusing economies on growth and start thinking about survival. He lists three essentials for life on this tough new planet: food, energy and the Internet. He advocates small scale agriculture, neighbors generating power for neighbors and communities empowered by the Internet.
"I think it's the one wildcard we've got going forward. We are going to need more local lives. We are going to need to learn to live in our own economies. But in the past that has always meant a kind of parochialism. Not necessarily anymore. The Internet offers a constant window on the rest of the world. We can keep discussion of all kinds alive, new ideas flowing."
McKibben notes that the debate on climate change in the United States has been highly charged and focused not solely on science, but on ideology. "One good piece of news from my travels around the world is that that polarization is mostly confined to this country. Other places have adopted a more sober and mature attitude when thinking about climate than we have."
Despite what he sees as a failure of the global community to come to an agreement at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December, McKibben says international cooperation on climate change is critical.
"The thing that stands in the way of a global agreement is the incredible inequity and the gulf between rich and poor which makes the future look very different, depending on where you live. We need to figure out some way to transfer resources, mostly in the form of technology, north to south, so that countries like India or China or continents like Africa have some decent shot at development without having to go through the fossil fuel era."
McKibben says he's encouraged by the growth of grassroots activism around the globe, especially among young people. He believes they will create the political will to help us save the planet — and ourselves — from disaster.