“Climate change is the biggest problem humans have ever dealt with,” Bill McKibben, writer and environmentalist, said to a crowded Call Auditorium as a part of the 2011 Jill and Ken Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecture on Thursday.
McKibben, who has been called the “world’s best green journalist” by Time Magazine, discussed 350.org, his worldwide campaign against climate change, and the dangers of global warming.
The effects of global warming are real and they can be seen, he said, pointing to the year 2010, which had the highest global temperatures to date.
Record highs were reached in more than 17 countries, including Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, he said. McKibben referred to a day he spent in Pakistan when the temperature reached a scorching 129°F. He also said that, in Russia, heat waves of over 100°F created wild fires that swept across the country side.
But fires were not the only disasters caused by the heat, he said. Last year, a series of flood events damaged Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Queensland, Australia.
“When you have heat like that, it manifests in many ways,” McKibben said. “Warm air holds more vapor than cold air, effectively loading the dice for deluges. What we’re seeing here is snake eyes — just look at Pakistan.”
Human activity has sent Earth “profoundly out of balance,” he said. Human actions have caused temperature to rise a collective two degrees Celcius across the globe, he said.
McKibben warned that further temperature increases could have disastrous effects on the planet.
“If one degree melts the Arctic, we would be fools to see what four or five degrees can do,” he said.
McKibben expressed optimism, however, about humans’ ability to curb environmental damage. He described scientific and engineering methods that have shown that humans can make the necessary changes. Wind power is currently the fastest-growing source of electric generation in the world, he said, and biofuels are efficient alternatives for fossil fuels.
“As well as the scientific and engineering methods have worked, [they] just show how badly the political method has worked,” McKibben said.
The reluctance of rich nations to acknowledge climate change has been especially detrimental to poor nations, McKibben said.
He described his experiences in Bangladesh last year during an outbreak of dengue fever, a disease spread by mosquito bites. The rapid and intense occurrence of the tropical disease was caused by an upsurge of the mosquito population in the region — sparked by increasingly warmer temperatures, he said.
“This is not fair that those 150 million people — half the population of the U.S. — have to suffer for our carbon emissions,” McKibben said.
Ironically, the carbon emissions from Bangladesh are so small that they hardly show up on global readings, he said. Instead, he attributed the increased temperatures in Bangladesh to American actions. Although the United States constitutes four percent of the world’s population, it contributes almost 20 percent to global carbon emissions.
“I can’t do the moral math, but those beds of sick people with dengue fever told me that the problem’s on us,” McKibben said.
To prevent further global tragedy, McKibben said he started 350.org in an effort to combat the climate crisis. The website is trying to spark a global grassroots movement, comprised of volunteers from more than 188 countries collaborating together for environmental change. The name 350, McKibben explained, is symbolic to the environmental revolution. Some scientists have said that 350 parts per million is the safe limit for humanity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Currently, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 392 parts per million, he said.
The half-million supporters and volunteers of 350.org from more than 188 countries change the old stereotype of what an environmentalist looks like, McKibben contended. Rather than old, wealthy white men, the environmentalists of the present are a majority black, brown, and Asian youths from poor countries all over the world because, according to McKibben, and they are the ones who experience the effects of climate change the most.
As a part of his 350 campaign, McKibben and his colleagues have mobilized more than 1,400 global actions for climate change. People from India to Australia to Cornell have sent in pictures of themselves with the 350 logo to show that they are making a stand to change.
So far, 350.org has gotten 117 countries — two thirds of the world’s nations — to sign and to support its goal, according to the group’s website. 350.org also convinced Obama to pledge cutting America’s carbon emissions by 80 percent before 2050, McKibben said.
The message of 350.org is that change for responsible climate control needs to come “not from one light bulb at a time, not from one country at a time, but from one planet at a time,” McKibben said.