Fires rage through Southern California. Massive rainstorms drench New Orleans. The Southeast U.S., from Tennessee across the Carolinas and into Georgia, is in the midst of what could be the worst drought on record there. Atlanta could run out of water. While the press does an admirable job bringing us live images of extreme weather, it doesn't explain why these events are happening. What links these crises? Global warming. Two words that have all too often been vacuumed off government Web sites and erased from government scientific studies.
If the press isn't making the connection, Bill McKibben is. In 1989, he wrote the book "The End of Nature," one of the first books to describe global warming as an emerging environmental crisis. Now, almost 20 years later, he is leading a campaign to draft mass grass-roots participation to publicize the potential catastrophe of climate change and to demand federal action to "Step It Up." The first Step It Up day of action, April 14, 2007, organized in local communities through a central Web site, saw 1,400 coordinated activities pulled together in just three months. The second day of action is planned for Nov. 3, organized through the Web site stepitup2007.org.
"What's important to remember and the reason that we spend all our time organizing now, trying to change all this, is that so far human beings have raised the temperature of the planet about one degree Fahrenheit," says McKibben. "The computer modeling makes it very clear that before the century is out, unless we take very strong action, indeed, we're going to raise the temperature of the planet another five degrees Fahrenheit. So, take whatever you see now, multiply it by five, and then toss in all those cascading effects that come, as we exceed one threshold after another."
The cascade effect is what is so important to understand. How could one degree Fahrenheit make such a big difference? One immediate, measurable impact of that seemingly slight temperature rise, according to University of Arizona scientist Tom Swetnam, is the increase in the frequency and duration of large wildfires in the U.S. West. Swetnam and his team have linked a warming, drying trend since the 1980s to the incidence of fires, like the more than a dozen that are raging out of control in Southern California.
The predictions are not good. Trees take in carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, releasing oxygen. In his August 2006 Science article, Swetnam reports that western U.S. forests remove 20 percent to 40 percent of the carbon dioxide in the U.S. As forests burn, McKibben notes, carbon is released into the atmosphere. Fewer trees then remain to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, making warmer conditions, supporting more and longer fires, and so on, creating a positive feedback loop. A central warning of the scientific community is this: At some point, if Earth's temperature rises much more, maybe three degrees, maybe six degrees, an irreversible feedback loop will overwhelm the planet's climate, with cascading impacts leading to a warmer and warmer planet.
Corporate America is feeling the heat. Carbon-emitting industries like the oil companies, chastened by the experience of Big Tobacco and asbestos, see that in the future they might be held accountable-especially since they are funding junk science and "Astroturf" (i.e., fake grass-roots groups) to cast doubt about the effects of global warming. Insurance companies can't afford to ignore the consequences of global warming, as extreme weather causes billions of dollars in damage.
McKibben and the Step It Up campaign lay out three basic demands:
- Green jobs now, for all: 5 million green jobs conserving 20 percent of our energy by 2015. Green jobs are those created by transforming the economy from a coal- and oil-burning one to a sustainable economy built on a new set of energy sources, ensuring that the same people left behind by the last economy are not left behind again.
- Cut carbon 80 percent by 2050: Freeze climate pollution levels now and cut at least 80 percent by 2050, and 30 percent by 2020.
- No new coal: a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants.
McKibben explains: "We need a movement as strong, as willing to sacrifice, as morally urgent, as passionate as the civil rights movement was a generation ago. If we don't get it soon-and we have a real time limit here-if we don't get it soon, then we're not going to be able to force the changes that we need over the power of the very strong vested interests that would like to keep things the way they are, even though it's now destabilizing the planet in the most powerful and most tragic ways."
People are taking action. On Monday, 60 people were arrested in Washington, D.C., as part of the No War, No Warming days of action, linking the war in Iraq, post-Katrina recovery and climate change, and demanding action from Congress, holding elected officials' feet to the fire. Humans are causing global warming. For a short time, we have a chance to limit the damage. But time is running out. Step it up.