Environment
5:32 pm
Sun December 30, 2012

2013: A Tipping Year For Climate Change?

Originally published on Sun December 30, 2012 5:55 pm

This year's extreme weather was one for the record books; 2012 is slated to be the hottest summer on record.

The worst drought in 50 years struck the South and Midwest, devastating the U.S. agriculture industry. Deadly floods and superstorms paralyzed the northeast and other parts of the country.

While the public is in shock by extreme weather events that have taken place, environmentalist Bill McKibben and other members of the science community say it is a result of climate change.

"We've already passed all kinds of tipping points," McKibben, the founder of 350.org, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden. "The NASA scientist Jim Hansen was saying, 'There's no other word for where we are now than planetary emergency.'"

Next month, President Obama will be sworn in for a second term, and McKibben is curious about whether the president will take a different approach to the growing problem.


Interview Highlights

On how President Obama can demonstrate his seriousness

"I think the first tell that we're going to get of whether the second term will be different will be the president's decision on this Keystone Pipeline — the huge pipeline to the tar sands of Canada. It's the one thing that's really united the environmental movement and brought people out into the streets. The president will make a decision on it [at] some point in the first half of the year
and if he stands up to the fossil fuel industry for once, it will be, I think, a sign that he may be ready to take climate change with at least a little bit of the seriousness it deserves."

On the biggest environmental issues in 2013

"In this country one of the big questions will be whether we luck out and are able to see some break in this drought or whether it stretches on for another year. Already the Mississippi, which just 18 months ago was in record flood, is now flirting with the lowest water ever measured there.

"Food prices were up 40 and 45 percent around the world because the harvest failed in North America. The world is at a point [where] last year it grew less food than it consumed. We can't keep on with this kind of erratic weather and not pay huge consequence."

On how Germany is leading the way in climate change initiatives

"The clear alternative and the best news from 2012 came from Germany, the one big country that's taken climate change seriously. Their energy minister announced in November that they were going to blow past their targets for renewable power. This is in Germany, mind you. I mean, Munich is north of Montreal, but there were days last summer when they generated more than half the power they used from solar panels within their borders. What they're proving is it's not natural bounty nor technological know-how that holds us back; it's simply political will, one resource we're capable of ginning up if we set our minds to it."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

In all the major news of 2012, let's not forget that one of its most consistent features was the extreme weather. While we bemoaned unbearable heat, livelihoods in the Midwest and the South dried up in the worst drought in 50 years. And then there were the floods and superstorms both intense and deadly.

Author Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, focused on the movement to solve the climate crisis, which he wants to be a top priority for the next Obama administration.

BILL MCKIBBEN: The first tell that we're going to get of whether the second term will be different from the first will be the president's decision on this Keystone Pipeline, this huge pipeline to the tar sands of Canada. It's the one thing that's really united the environmental movement and brought people out into the streets. And if he stands up to the fossil fuel industry for once, it'll be a, I think, a sign that he may be ready to take climate change with at least a little bit of the seriousness that it deserves, the single biggest problem we've ever run into as a species.

LYDEN: Well, obviously, Keystone is huge and international, but beyond that, why is it so important?

MCKIBBEN: It's important in very practical terms as tar sands are the second biggest source of carbon on Earth. But at this point, it's also very important in symbolic terms. The one thing the president and most other leaders have been unwilling to do is leave some carbon in the ground, which we now know every scientist tells us we must do.

We've already passed all kinds of tipping points. Last year, the hottest year in American history, also saw a rapid, rapid melt of the arctic. And so extreme that by its end, the NASA scientist Jim Hansen was saying there's no other word for where we are now than planetary emergency.

LYDEN: Planetary emergency. What issues will we be talking about in 2013 when it comes to the environment? I mean, you just mentioned hottest year, obviously an enormous and devastating drought in the Midwest.

MCKIBBEN: In this country, one of the big questions will be whether we luck out and are able to see some break in this drought or whether it stretches on for another year. Already, the Mississippi, which just 18 months ago was in record flood, is now flirting with the lowest water ever measured there.

Food prices were up 40 and 45 percent around the world because the harvest failed in North America. The world is at a point. It's, you know, last year, grew less food than it consumed. We can't keep on with this kind of erratic weather and not pay huge consequence.

LYDEN: Are we going to see more activism? Are people starting to understand that fossil fuel companies have been a part of the problem?

MCKIBBEN: I think that that's exactly right. There are now students at 192 campuses demanding divestment. It really does put those fossil fuel companies right in the center of the debate. It's not that we don't each contribute to climate change, which everything we do in the course of a day. It's only the fossil fuel industry that's determined to keep the status quo to status quo. And that's why students who after all have 60 or 70 years on this planet ahead of them are really beginning to speak up.

LYDEN: What are the alternatives? I mean, fracking seems to only be on the rise.

MCKIBBEN: Fracking for gas is really just one more way to keep ourselves going down the same path. It's another fossil fuel. The clear alternative and the best news from 2012 came from Germany, the one big country that's taken climate change seriously. There were days last summer when they generated more than half the power they used from solar panels within their borders. What they're proving is it's not natural bounty nor technological know-how that holds us back. It's simply political will, one resource we're capable of ginning up if we set our minds to it.

LYDEN: That's Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and founder of 350.org. Thank you, Bill, for speaking with us.

MCKIBBEN: Jacki, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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