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McKibben tells Vancouverites: Help Close the Tar Sands

As part of a free public lecture series, The Vancouver Institute hosted Bill McKibben last weekend. McKibben has been called "the nation's leading environmentalist" by the Boston Globe and "the world's best green journalist" by Time Magazine. and over four hundred people of all ages packed into the auditorium at UBC to hear him.

McKibben is a tan, short haired athletic looking man at fifty who has written about climate change for over 20 years. Everything he and others hypothesized would happen with global warming is happening, except for the pace. Twenty years ago, he said, no one imagined how fast climate change and its effects would occur.

McKibben’s most recent book, Eaarth,  describes the planet on which we live. Earth is a thing of the past. Eaarth has conditions unlike any that have occurred during the presence of primates on the planet. “If an alien were to view human activity from afar and take a guess at what we were trying to do with the planet,” McKibben told his audience, “creating the perfect conditions for a worldwide mosquito ranch would be a viable hypothesis.”

Hot and wet are the order of the day. In 2010, 19 nations set new national heat records. Moscow reached over 38 degrees Celsius for the first time ever, and maintained that temperature for eight days. The heat destroyed the Russian grain crop so stopped all exports, and world grain prices jumped 70%. Citizens in the wealthiest (and most GHG polluting countries) may not have noticed the radical price increase, but in other parts of the world it meant that record numbers are going hungry.

Hot means air holds more moisture and there is four and a half times more moisture in the air. “In Star Trek, Spock had a meter to tell him the moisture level in a planet’s atmosphere because one of the first thing he’d want to know is how the die were loaded for deluge and flood.” Eaarth’s die are very loaded. Pakistan, which usually has 3 feet of rainfall each year, received 12 feet in one week in 2010. The homes of one quarter of the population were underwater, and a quarter million remain homeless. Such deluges result from the one degree increase in temperature worldwide. Because it takes awhile for the atmosphere to fully express heat, another one degree is in pipeline. McKibben put the situation bluntly: “We need to get our act together quickly.”

McKibben had a message for Canada in particular, “speaking fondly as someone who is leaving town the next day.” Although he lived in Toronto as a child and has a deep fondness for Canadian culture, he believes that without a change of direction deadly carbon emissions will be Canada’s largest legacy to the world. There is no way to balance the books until Canada stops the tar sands. The natural gas fracking in BC that fuels the tar sands which produce oil that gets shipped to Asia is, by itself, one of the primary sources of global warming in the world. Enormous coal reserves from Montana and Wyoming, as well as BC, come through BC to be shipped to Asia. “Canada has become the drug dealer for a very addictive substance with very little discussion,” McKibben said. “Don’t worry about the Middle East. If you guys take care of Alberta, others can take care of the rest.”

To Vancouver residents he said, “The City and UBC campus are already showcases. Don’t spend all your time gilding the lily. You can have the best local agriculture in the world but if there’s no rain for 30 days, or only rain for 30 days, it will mean nothing.” In McKibben’s view, it’s vastly more important to engage on climate change nationally and internationally.

 McKibben thinks two of the three elements we need for change are functioning effectively. The scientific method, that dialectic of reproducible results, has reduced immense data into a working consensus. The engineering method has come up with solutions and created the necessary technology in a timely way. It’s the political method that has failed for twenty years and continues to fail now.

Governments around the world have spent the last 20 years doing essentially nothing. BC’s carbon tax, feeble as it is, is one of the brightest stars. In the US, the House of Representatives just defeated a resolution by a vote of 240 to 178 stating that global warming is real and a problem. “Apparently the US government thinks it can amend the laws of nature,” McKibben observed. The question now, he said, is how to make transformational change in the time frame that physics and chemistry will allow.  

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