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Bill McKibben: Time Is Not on Our Side

Sandy from Space

NASA image of Hurricane Sandy from space

When it came to climate change in 2012, the operative word was “hot” (with “record” a close second).  The continental U.S. broiled.  Drought struck with a passion and, as the year ended, showed no sign of going away any time soon.  Water levels on the Mississippi River fell so perilously low as to threaten traffic and business on one of the nation’s busier arteries.  Meanwhile, it’s estimated that record greenhouse gas emissions were pumped into the atmosphere.  And just in case you were thinking of putting those words “hot” and “record” away for a while, the first predictions for 2013 suggest that, drearily enough, they are once again likely to be much in use.  None of us should really be surprised by any of this, since the ill effects of pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere have for years been outrunning the predictions of sober climate scientists.

Surprising numbers of Americans, from the Jersey shore to the parched Midwest, have met the effects of climate change up close and personal in these last years as billion-dollar “natural” disasters multiply in the U.S.  As a result, there seems to be an increasing awareness that it isn’t some vague, futuristic possible disaster but a growing reality in our lives.  On the TV news, however, “extreme weather” — a phrase that sounds awful but is meant to have no larger meaning — has come to stand in for examples of the climate-change-induced intensification of global weather patterns.  After all, no point in drawing too much attention to a dismal reality.

That’s perhaps why, as last year ended, the only “cliff” we heard about ad nauseam was the “fiscal” one, which would prove a very flexible part of the American landscape.  For a while, in mixed-metaphorical fashion, it “loomed” endlessly, and then it proved to be erasable or moveable — in reality, something closer to a “fiscal bluff,” with whatever double meanings you care to read into that.  But why no emphasis on the “climate cliff” in a year in which, as George Monbiot recently wrote in the Guardian, “governments turned their backs on the living planet, demonstrating that no chronic problem, however grave, will take priority over an immediate concern, however trivial”? 

Whatever your mixed metaphor for it might be — melting glacial vortex, drought abyss, or maybe just hell (in the burning sense) — climate change certainly deserves some imagistic attention in a world in which, as TomDispatch regular and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben suggests, time is not on our side. Tom

Obama Versus Physics Why Climate Change Won’t Wait for the President
By Bill McKibben

Change usually happens very slowly, even once all the serious people have decided there’s a problem. That’s because, in a country as big as the United States, public opinion moves in slow currents.  Since change by definition requires going up against powerful established interests, it can take decades for those currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses.

Take, for instance, “the problem of our schools.” Don’t worry about whether there actually was a problem, or whether making every student devote her school years to filling out standardized tests would solve it. Just think about the timeline. In 1983, after some years of pundit throat clearing, the Carnegie Commission published “A Nation at Risk,” insisting that a “rising tide of mediocrity” threatened our schools. The nation’s biggest foundations and richest people slowly roused themselves to action, and for three decades we haltingly applied a series of fixes and reforms. We’ve had Race to the Top, and Teach for America, and charters, and vouchers, and… we’re still in the midst of “fixing” education, many generations of students later. [cont’d.]

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

An American environmentalist and writer, Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, an international climate campaign. This October 10, 350.org is organizing the second annual 350 International Day of Climate Action, with thousands of events planned at iconic places around the world. Bill frequently writes about global warming, alternative energy, and the risks associated with human genetic engineering. Beginning in the summer of 2006, he led the organization of the largest demonstrations against global warming in American history. McKibben is active in the Methodist Church, and his writing sometimes has a spiritual bent.