An OpEd by author and environmentalist Bill McKibben in the Jan. 23 Bangor Daily News probably attracted more readers than it would have had it not appeared on the heels of a Jan. 20 statewide forum sponsored by the University of New England Center for Global Humanities and the Maine Humanities Council.
In “Burning America’s Future,” McKibben, 51, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, criticized a report by the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce detailing the quantities of oil, natural gas and coal available in the United States — enough to last hundreds of years. Were that much fossil fuel actually burned, McKibben learned from his research, it would generate 1.8 trillion tons of carbon dioxide, enough to increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the current 392 parts per million to 650 ppm.
The 80 people who gathered Jan. 20 at libraries in Houlton, Belfast, Bangor, Lewiston and Portland and the audience of about 1,000 at Westbrook Performing Arts Center understand the significance of those numbers. They heard McKibben explain the effects of increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere as he described his worldwide campaign to encourage people to help reduce the concentration to 350 ppm, a number set by NASA climatologist James Hansen as “the maximum atmospheric concentration compatible with maintaining the planet on which civilization developed and to which life is adapted.”
The audiences learned, if they did not know already, that warm air holds more moisture than cool air, and the extra warmth created by excessive burning of fossil fuels is changing the planet permanently. Even at 392 ppm the earth has experienced unprecedented drought, rainfall, icecap melting and other extreme weather events. McKibben describes the effects of an increase to 650 ppm as “the stuff of science fiction.”
Titled “Local and Global: Notes from the Frontlines of the Climate Change Fight,” McKibben’s Jan. 20 lecture in Westbrook was live-streamed to the five libraries as part of a pilot project to enlarge the audiences for a series of lectures dedicated to the study of human destiny sponsored by UNE’s Center for Global Humanities. Through a partnership with the Maine Humanities Council, each site offered discussions before and after the talk led by a facilitator, and audiences were able to post questions directly to the speaker by computer.
Houlton participants did not have time for the latter option and decided to disconnect from the live-streamed question-and-answer period in order to have time to discuss McKibben’s message. It was a sobering one reinforced by years of research, yet a message laced with McKibben’s conviction that it is not too late to “prevent what we can’t imagine.”
Maine viewers saw photos of people in all parts of the world, many of them poor people, demonstrating that they embraced the goal of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 ppm or lower, a target promoted by 350.org, a global grassroots movement dedicated to social and political changes that will slow global warming. Almost all the photos were taken on a single day — Oct. 24, 2009 — when 5,100 demonstrations were held in 181 nations. CNN called it “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”
Founder of 350.org, McKibben has been working to raise awareness about the dangers of global warming since publication of his book “The End of Nature” in 1989, considered the first book on the topic for a general audience. Since then, he has written a dozen other books, and the most recent — “Eaarth” — provided background for the Jan. 20 program. (The additional “a” in the title distinguishes today’s planet transformed by climate change from the more stable Earth of the past.)
His prescription for action focuses on locally grown food, alternative sources of energy and transportation, neighborhood-based problem solving and an end to the drive for continuous growth. He would replace entities “too big to fail” with ones “small enough to make sense” and is encouraged by reports that farmers’ markets are the fastest growing part of our food economy.
McKibben views the power of the fossil fuel industry over the U.S. Congress as a major obstacle to the world’s effort to solve problems created by climate change.
“We can only do so much,” said one of the 15 people who braved snowy weather in Houlton to hear McKibben at Cary Library. “It’s not just greed that has gotten us where we are. We can’t wean ourselves from petroleum soon enough.”
“What makes us change?” asked another participant, identifying how she came to reject imported foods.
“New knowledge like we have heard tonight,” was one response to the question.
“Maybe we need more extreme events closer to home,” was another response, referring to weather-related catastrophes that dramatize the effects of warmer air and surface ocean temperatures.
The group enumerated actions they could take as individuals to contribute to a solution — from shopping at local businesses and farmers’ markets to installing solar panels and wood stoves. They wondered whether, as resources dwindle, people will become more cooperative or more competitive. Without an audible answer, they seemed to agree they would not want to be in a big city.
A video of McKibben’s speech may be viewed on the UNE website at http://www.une.edu/. Look under the Spotlights icon.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.