Will We Kill the Earth?
This was supposed to be a review of Bill McKibben’s excellent – and terrifying — new book on global warming, Falter/Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? And it will be. But it must also, in the end, be a plea for sanity and political action. One cannot read this book without recognizing that the fate of the planet rests in our hands and that the 2020 election may mark the point of no return.
McKibben was one of the first to fully acknowledge the dangers of global warming in The End of Nature (1989). Thirty years later, in Falter, he is reduced to screaming at the top of his lungs that while we still can save our world, we have to act immediately and dramatically.
Writes McKibben, “It’s not that we will never have a world that runs on sun and wind. We will – free energy is hard to beat, and seventy-five years from now that’s what we’ll use – but if we tarry along the way, that wind and sun will be powering a badly broken planet. [Fossil fuel interests] happened to be in a place where they could use their power to slow us down precisely at the moment when we needed to speed up, at the moment when one more burst of carbon would break the planet. And so, they’ve become permanently powerful. Millennia after they’ve lost the ideological fights, the sea will still be rising.
“The particular politics of one country for one fifty-year period will have rewritten the geological history of the earth.”
As we watch the green trees in our yards blow in the breeze, we find it difficult to imagine the disaster McKibben describes. But let’s try. After diligent reporting and years of research, this, he says, is our likely future.
- By 2100 the world’s oceans may become hot enough to disrupt photosynthesis in phytoplankton, stopping oxygen production. Since two-thirds of our oxygen comes from phytoplankton, the likely result would be mass mortality of humans and other animals.
- “If we just burned a little bit of fossil fuel, it wouldn’t matter. But we’ve burned enough to raise the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 275 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the course of two hundred years. …The extra heat that we trap near the planet because of the carbon dioxide we’ve spewed is equivalent to the heat from 400,000 Hiroshima-size bombs every day, or four each second.”
- “In November 2017, fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a stark ‘warning to humanity.’ [Their warning and charts] depicted everything from the decline of fresh water per person to the spread of anaerobic dead zones in the world’s seas. As a result, the scientists predicted we face ‘widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss’; soon, they added, ‘it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.’” A NASA-funded study also found that global industrial civilization could collapse in the coming decades.
- A World Bank study predicts that by 2050 continued global warming will displace as many as 143 million people from Africa, South Asia and Latin America. The median estimate from the International Organization for Migration is 250 million climate refugees by 2050.
- “A team of economists predicted a 12 percent risk that global warming could reduce global economic output by 50 percent by 2100 – that is to say, there’s a one in eight chance of something eight times as bad as the Great Recession.”
- Food becomes less nutritious when grown in high carbon dioxide environments. McKibben quotes a researcher as saying, “We are completely altering the biophysical conditions that underpin our food system.”
How can we avert this disaster? By a massive effort to switch from fossil fuels to wind and solar power. According to a study by Mark Jacobson at Stanford University, “every major nation on earth could be supplying 80 percent of its power from renewables by 2030, at prices far cheaper than paying for climate change.”
Jacobson notes that in Alabama there are 59.7 square kilometers of residential rooftops that are “unshaded by trees and pointed in the right direction for solar panels.” Energy expert Dave Roberts said that the problem gets solved if wind and solar keep doing what they’re doing, keep getting cheaper.
America would have to produce 6,448 gigawatts from renewable sources to completely replace fossil fuels. That would require 295 solar factories the size of the new Tesla solar panel factory in Buffalo, NY. Think that’s undoable? We did it in 1942 when we entered World War II. Within six months of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we built what was at that time the world’s largest factory under one roof and soon it was producing a B-24 Liberator bomber every hour. And this need is more urgent.
Writes McKibben, “When auto companies stopped making cars for the duration of the fighting, General Motors found it had thousands of 1939 model-year ashtrays piled up in inventory. So, it shipped them to Seattle, where Boeing put them in long-range bombers headed for the Pacific. Pontiac made anti-aircraft guns; Oldsmobile churned out cannons; Studebaker built engines for Flying Fortresses; Nash-Kelvinator produced propellers for British De Havillands; Hudson Motors fabricated wings for Helldivers and P-38 fighters; Buick manufactured tank destroyers; Fisher Body built thousands of M4 Sherman tanks; Cadillac turned out more than ten thousand light tanks. And that was just Detroit. The same sort of industrial mobilization took place all over America.”
What holds us back? Mostly a concerted effort by the fossil fuel industry to create doubt about the very real science of climate change. Exxon’s scientists told the company’s management in 1977 about the effects of burning fossil fuels and releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Exxon took action: it starting building taller drilling platforms so it could operate in rising seas and began planning for five months of drilling in the Arctic instead of two.
“Global warming turns out to be the perfect example of too much leverage,” writes McKibben. “The men who gained ideological power beginning in the Reagan years, a great many of them directly connected to the oil and gas industry, were in control at precisely the right moment when they could do the most damage.”
By 1990 the fossil fuel industry was engaged in a massive campaign to produce fake science and disseminate misinformation. It poured enormous amounts of money into political races and completely disrupted our political process – from the Alabama legislature to the White House. Between 2012 and 2016, even as the scientific case for climate danger grew, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal published 303 opinion pieces on climate change, 287 of which were misleading and debunked. “Or put another way, roughly 95 percent of what he published ‘disagreed with roughly 97 percent consensus among climate scientists.’”
In short, the fine people at Exxon and Koch and Chevron and Fox News, etc., all appear to agree with John Milton’s Lucifer, when he said in Paradise Lost that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” They would make a hell of our paradise so they can rule it.
McKibben spends a good deal of time on the late novelist Ayn Rand and her influence on the Kochs, their billionaire brethren and the Republican Party in general. As a kid I thought The Fountainhead was great and Howard Roark was a hero like all great artists, giving his life to his uncompromising architectural vision. I was extremely young. Even so, not long after finishing the book I remember thinking: “This Objectivism stuff is crap. We are not a collection of individuals, we need each other.”
Rand’s philosophy has led a lot of our nation’s richest people – some of whom serve in Trump’s cabinet — to proclaim that Rand was the greatest influence on their lives, writes McKibben. They share Atlas Shrugged and the understanding that a human’s value is directly tied to net worth.
Even so, it might seem that this Randian influence is only a problem among a small group that can be easily outvoted. That, sadly, may not be true; the billionaires’ misinformation campaign has had a broad influence. I was eating at one of my favorite breakfast haunts a year or so ago when another customer — wearing a fraying, dingy white polyester short-sleeved shirt and a tie — sat next to my table and proclaimed loudly to his Bible-carrying companion the virtues of Rand and how his discovery of her in high school changed his life. He blathered on about “The Individual” and conservatism.
I ate my grits as he talked and my mind wandered to Dostoyevsky and another book title, The Idiot. But getting mad will not save us. We must act.
If we don’t get out and vote in 2020 for candidates who view climate change as an existential threat, who understand that by 2100 the oceans could be a roiling stew and our grandchildren could see Soylent Green played out on the Nightly News, then we will have to live with the knowledge that we have placed the fate of our planet in the hands of people like that crackpot at the restaurant.