LAST OCTOBER, THAILAND suffered the worst flooding in its history. How bad? The damage was equivalent to 18 per cent of its GDP. That’s almost unbelievable – in percentage terms it makes it 25 times worse than Hurricane Katrina, my country’s worst natural disaster.
Journalist and author Bill McKibben is arrested protesting a pipeline to transport oil across America. Credit: Milan Ilnyckyj (tarsandsaction)
And since something similar happens in one country or another every few weeks now, it helps explain why the pace of climate activism is picking up. I’m a reasonable example – 23 years ago, when I wrote the first book for a general audience about global warming, I thought I’d done my part. Others would take care of the politics. But this past summer I found myself spending three days in Washington’s DC Central Cell Block with some amazing committed individuals from all walks of life.
I was part of the biggest civil disobedience action in the US in almost three decades, a two-week sit-in outside the White House designed to protest plans for a massive pipeline from the tarsands of Canada. Why were so many willing to be arrested over an obscure piece of pipe? Because those tarsands are the second-biggest pool of carbon on the planet. Tap them heavily, warned our premier climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, and “it will be essentially game over for the climate”.
Our months of protest in this case actually produced something – earlier this month President Obama denied the permit the pipeline would have required. It’s not certain his decision will stick – the oil-funded Republicans are doing everything they can to override the decision. And even if we do manage to slow the development of the tarsands, that won’t exactly halt global warming. The world’s nations poured record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere last year, from oil derricks and gas wells and coal mines. Already we’ve raised the planet’s temperature a degree – and we’re well on our way, the climatologists insist, to four or five degrees.
If we’re going to stop it, it will require more than simply changing things in our homes – there’s no way to make the math work one lightbulb at a time. In fact, it will require more than simply changing things in our nations. Australia’s landmark carbon pricing law was surely a boost to all of us working on global warming, but it didn’t tackle what may be the country’s greatest contribution to planetary destruction, its massive coal exports. Just as we Americans worked to oppose Canadian tarsands development, so citizens from around the world have a legitimate interest in how Australia, or any other country, disposes of its hydrocarbons, if only because there’s no wall that can separate one nation’s atmosphere from the next.
I think the best example may be the Amazon. At some point in the last couple of decades, the earth’s scientists recognised that we couldn’t make the globe work if that huge swath of trees was cut down; they truly were the “lungs of the planet”. So we’ve counted on Brazil and its neighbours to do the right thing – and, fitfully and in part, they’ve at least made the attempt. Deforestation has slowed – in fact, Brazil may have cut its carbon emissions more than any country on earth.
In much the same way, we need Canada and the US and Australia to leave their carbon in the ground. If we blow it into the air, then we will choke those lungs.
So far this kind of logic has been too painful for politicians to follow – the financial power of the world’s richest industry has simply been too much. That’s why those of us who reluctantly comprise the climate movement are having to do things we never imagined. We’re learning, since we lack the money to match the oil and coal barons, to use passion, spirit, creativity as our tools. And sometimes we have to spend our bodies. No fun going to jail, but it seemed like the right place to be at a time when there is so much to lose.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and founder of the global climate campaign 350.org
Author: Bill McKibben
Source: ABC Environment