“This Should Not Come as a Surprise”: Bill McKibben on Global Extreme Weather from U.S. to Sochi

February 14, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedWhile governors have declared states of emergency from Louisiana to New Jersey due to the massive snow and ice storm, other examples of extreme weather are being seen across the globe. California is facing possibly its worst drought in 500 years. In Russia temperatures have topped 60 degrees Fahrenheit at the Winter Olympic in Sochi. Meanwhile in Britain, gusts of more than 100 miles per hour lashed western England and Wales overnight, and in London the Thames has risen to its highest level in decades. "This is the kind of crazy weather that scientists said will mark the advent of climate change in its early stages," says 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben. "And it should be the warning that we need to actually do something, but so far our leaders haven’t taken up that challenge."



This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: "Do It Now: Sing for the Climate," recorded in August of 2012 by Flemish musicians as part of the Big Ask campaign, a grassroots movement to get industrialized countries to reduce carbon emissions every year. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. And, Juan, I’m glad you got into work today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, the snow was definitely falling more than an inch an hour, I think, this morning.

While governors have declared states of emergency from Louisiana to New Jersey due to the massive snow and ice storm, other examples of extreme weather are being seen across the globe. California is facing possibly its worst drought in 500 years. In Russia, temperatures have dropped—have topped 60 degrees Fahrenheit at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Meanwhile, in Britain, gusts of more than a hundred miles per hour lashed western England and Wales overnight, and in London, the Thames has risen to its highest level in decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now is 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben. He’s joining us from his home in Middlebury, Vermont. His latest book is Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist . You can go to democracynow.org to read the first chapter. Also author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Bill’s joining us by Democracy Now! video stream, as all our guests are, concerned that if they went into a studio, they’d never actually make it there.

Bill, start off by just talking about this extreme weather that both the East Coast is facing with this massive ice storm called Pax, yet the West Coast experiencing a drought like they haven’t seen in some 500 years.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yes, and, of course, the continental U.S. is only about one-and-a-half percent of the surface of the planet. Jeff Masters and his great colleague Christopher Burt at the Weather Underground have done a remarkable job of chronicling what’s going on all over the world. And what happens now is pretty much every day, someplace on this planet, we are breaking records that have stood for centuries, or in the case of California now, we think perhaps millennia.

The situation in the U.K. is really unbelievable. If you go look at the images, this is—people have been keeping records there for a long time. January was the rainiest January by far that they’ve ever recorded. It comes on the heels of year after year like this. One of the mayors of the affected towns said yesterday, "We were told last year that this was a hundred-year storm, a hundred-year flood, we were experiencing, and this year it’s a lot worse."

This is the kind of crazy weather that scientists have said will mark the advent of climate change in its early stages. And it should be the warning that we need to actually do something, though so far our leaders haven’t taken up that challenge.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bill, you mentioned the U.K. flooding and hundred-mile-per-hour winds. British Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday that the government would provide relief grants for homeowners and businesses affected by the recent severe weather.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: I think it’s clear that we are seeing more extreme weather events, and I suspect we’ll go on seeing more extreme weather events, so we need to do everything we can to improve the resilience of our country. Let me repeat again, as I said yesterday, when it comes to this relief effort, money is no object. We’ll spend what is necessary to help families, to help people, to help communities get through this very difficult time. I have to say, things are likely to get worse before they get better, because of the very high levels of rainfall we’ve seen, and we see very serious high winds as we speak here in this House today. But whatever can be done to help will be done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was British Prime Minister David Cameron, who canceled his planned trip to the Middle East because of the weather. Meanwhile, a new report published this week by the National Academy of Sciences says the world needs to invest tens of billions of dollars a year in new shoreline defenses against rising oceans, or we’ll face mind-boggling costs in the decades to come. In a worst-case scenario, the report says, almost 5 percent of the world’s population could be exposed to flooding at the start of the next century, and the damage could surpass 9 percent of future global GDP each year. Bill McKibben, your response?

BILL McKIBBEN: None of this should come as a surprise if people have been paying attention. It’s exactly what climate scientists and climate campaigners have been saying now for the better part of two decades. I mean, I wrote the first book about this for a general audience literally 25 years ago. And these are exactly the sort of things scientists said would happen. They’re happening somewhat more quickly and on a somewhat larger scale, mostly because scientists are, by their nature, conservative and underpredict. But the fear of scientists is palpable. That’s why so many of them are out there getting arrested to stop things like the Keystone pipeline, speaking out in all the ways that they can think of.

We’ve got to not just—as the British prime minister said, "Money is no object. We’ll do what we can to get people back in their houses," well, that’s good and well, but the place where we really need to be spending money and energy and attention is in keeping this problem from getting worse. The climatic disruption you see today comes with a rise in global temperature of about one degree Celsius, 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. If the scientists are correct—and so far they’ve been, as I say, underestimating—then before this century is out, that will be closer to seven or eight degrees Fahrenheit. And every computer model we have shows that the planet then just becomes the scene of ongoing emergency response effort. That’s what civilization will amount to.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, I want to get to the Keystone XL in a minute, but I want to turn to the Winter Olympics. The motto of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is "Hot. Cool. Yours." And temperatures there on Wednesday soared past 60 degrees, making it warmer than some days at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Sunny weather has melted snow, exposed huge patches of grass on ski and snowboard runs. This is part of a report from Sochi by NBC’s Carl Quintanilla.

CARL QUINTANILLA: We’re on the gondola heading up the mountain. We’re on track for the warmest weather in the history of the Winter Games. That’s what you get when you hold the games in a subtropical area. Up at the very summit, there is some snow, obviously, but on the way up, a lot of what you see is just bare dirt and rock. Where there is snow, the warm temperatures tend to soften the snow, melt it. That changes the skiers’ strategy, even the types of skis they use.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an NBC report from Sochi. Meanwhile, more than a hundred athletes competing in this year’s Winter Olympics have called on world leaders to take action on climate change in advance of next year’s U.N. climate talks. They issued a letter written by U.S. Ski Team member Andrew Newell saying, quote, "time is definitely something we do not have on our side." In related news, a new study finds just 11 of the previous 19 Winter Olympics host cities will be cold enough to reliably host the games by mid-century, and only six will be viable sites by 2100, if global warming projections prove accurate. So, Bill McKibben, talking about activism, you rarely hear athletes weighing in in this way, and yet a hundred have signed on to this statement.

BILL McKIBBEN: This is an existential problem for winter athletes. You know, I’ve been, for many years, the faculty adviser to the Nordic ski team here at Middlebury College. And, you know, there are young people that I watched come up who are skiing over there in Sochi. The reports are unbelievable. They’re having to pack their race suits with snow to stay cool enough to keep competing. The cross-country racers are turning into kind of a farce, because the course is so sloppy, the snow kind of turning to oatmeal.

This is—winter, which we’re all busy complaining about at the moment in the States because we’re having a big snowstorm—winter should be a part of life on this planet. But it won’t be, going forward, past a certain point. When the temperature is high enough, events—you know, the sort of freezing of the water at the latitudes we’re talking about will become a rare event instead of a normal one. And if you’re a skier, a skater, a snowboarder or someone who just cherishes some of those moments when friction disappears for a little while, then you’re going to be out of luck, along with all the rest of creation that depends on cold stretches.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bill, I want to ask you about the response of some government officials, both federal and local, to the continuing extreme weather. For instance, after Superstorm Sandy here on the East Coast, there are billions of dollars being planned by the federal government, New York, New Jersey, to build barriers against rising sea levels, which means, obviously, the taxpayers are going to have to pay for this, rather than pressing to have corporate—corporations and the private sector reduce emissions and reduce the amount of climate change that is occurring. But they seem to be willing to spend the billions of dollars, again, of taxpayer money to—as barriers or prevention against rising sea levels.

BILL McKIBBEN: Politicians, as a rule, enjoy big construction projects more than they enjoy standing up to big interests. At this point, we have no choice but to build defenses. But we also, and even more pressingly, have to stop pouring carbon into the atmosphere, because if the planet, as I say, keeps warming on the trajectory it’s on at the moment, there won’t be seawalls high enough to protect most of the Earth. And that’s why it’s so appalling that at the same time that we see these effects firsthand in the United States, we’re busy—well, I mean, in the Obama administration, in the eight years of the Obama administration, we’re going to apparently double domestic oil production. We’re exporting coal at record levels to the rest of the world. As you know, we’re on a binge of building natural gas facilities and fracking across the U.S. None of this is compatible with a planet that took climate change seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a key teaching moment. The entire country in the United States, and, as you point out, in many parts of the world, is paying attention to the weather, tuning into television, radio, going online to see, well, what can we expect? I was watching television all last night. I did not see—and I’m not saying I saw every channel by any means, but in the national broadcasts, while the weather was the discussion non-stop—a mention of the issue of global warming or climate change.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah, look, climate change has never been the media’s finest hour. And even when they do talk about it, they’ve for years portrayed it as a, you know, question of doubt, even as the incredibly strong scientific consensus has emerged.

The good news is that people are figuring it out on their own. The polling data shows a huge percentage of Americans understand that we’re changing the climate and want us to do something about it. The latest a couple of days ago from Yale, a poll showed that 81 percent of Americans thought the government should be taking aggressive action, even if it came at economic cost.

The bigger problem is in Washington and in the state capitals, where people are in bed with the fossil fuel industry. You can tell, in Washington, when you look at projects like Keystone. You can tell in the states, when they—in cities, when they continue investing retirement money in the very companies that are making sure no one will have a safe place to retire to. A few brave cities, in fact, more and more all the time—Seattle, San Francisco, Providence—have divested those holdings in fossil fuel companies. Maybe after events like this, a few more will step up. We sure hope so. There’s a vote soon in the Massachusetts Legislature that might make it the first state in the country to divest its funds. Let’s hope that they’re paying attention in Boston today as the snow comes down and the wind whips the Bay State coast.

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,400 public television and radio stations worldwide. The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard honored Goodman with the 2014 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence Lifetime Achievement Award. She is also the first journalist to receive the Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the 'Alternative Nobel Prize' for “developing an innovative model of truly independent grassroots political journalism that brings to millions of people the alternative voices that are often excluded by the mainstream media.” She is the first co-recipient of the Park Center for Independent Media’s Izzy Award, named for the great muckraking journalist I.F. Stone, and was later selected for induction into the Park Center’s I.F. Stone Hall of Fame. The Independent of Londoncalled Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! “an inspiration.”

Tags: climate change, extreme weather, fossil fuel extraction, sea level rise