The Crunch

I write this on the fifth day of January in the year of our Lord 2007. Here in Vermont we’ve just come through the most snowless and warmest December in our history. The lakes are wide open, and the radio just forecast sixty degrees and pouring rain for tomorrow.

Norman Thomas, the great democratic socialist leader of the twentieth century who ran six times for president, used to say, “There are no lost causes, only causes not yet won.” Which has always struck me as a useful credo. And indeed, Thomas saw most of the outlandish ideas of his youth (Social Security, the eight-hour day, the five-day week) eventually enshrined not only in law but in conventional wisdom as obvious common sense. As Martin Luther King often observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Sometimes, too, King would quote James Russell Lowell’s “Once to Every Man and Nation”:

Truth forever on the scaffold
Wrong forever on the throne
Yet that scaffold sways the future
And behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.

It’s been essential to reformers, this confidence that even though the short-term odds are always against those fighting for change, the long-term victory is assured. King again, on the eve of his death, in Memphis: “He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything.”

Paul Hawken provides the best current statement of this conviction in the peroration to his forthcoming book, destined to be an instant classic, about the emerging global movement for ecological sanity and social justice, Blessed Unrest: “I believe this movement will prevail. . . . The thinking that informs the movement’s goal to create a just society conducive to life on earth will reign. It will soon suffuse and permeate most institutions, but before then it will change a sufficient number of people so as to begin the reversal of centuries of frenzied self-destruction.” He’s right — I can feel it in every bone of my body. Just as, in a much more minor key, last fall’s congressional elections made me feel like I was actually part of the country I was living in.

But still, what if, this time out . . . we lose?

This is the dark mood that comes from spending your life thinking about global warming. From knowing that humanity has wandered into a horrible trap. Simply by doing something that seemed both normal and relatively benign — burning fossil fuel — we have begun to set off cascading and dangerous changes. And here’s what makes global warming different from most other issues that most other reformers have faced over the years: there’s a time limit. An unbelievably short time limit.

In fact, any intellectually honest person needs to at least consider the possibility that we’ve waited too long to get started — that the gloomy rain out my window today is the inevitable future. James Lovelock, for instance, has published a new book, The Revenge of Gaia, in which he argues that we’ve stepped across several thresholds, gone through one-way doors. He talks about methane escaping from beneath the Arctic tundra and shifting deep-ocean currents and the rapid drying of the Amazon forest. During his book tour he told reporters he thought only a few hundred million humans would survive what’s to come, and then only if creative and charismatic leaders figured out how to move them near the northern pole. He’s not speaking gospel, of course — truth be told, he’s done little in the way of actual climate science. On the other hand, he’s thought as much as any person on Earth about the way the planet’s systems interact with, regulate, and amplify each other. His words sent a (hot) chill down my spine, as did Jim Hansen’s recent calibration of the time we have left to prevent, say, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Ten years, said Hansen, whose NASA lab has been at the forefront of climate research for decades — and he said it eighteen months ago. If by that time we haven’t reversed the flow of carbon into the atmosphere, he predicts we’ll be forced to live on “a totally different planet.” You know things are desperate when you’re rooting for the guy who gives you less than a decade before the Earth is wrecked.

That time crunch is the difference between dealing with climate change and dealing with, say, civil rights, or women’s rights, or almost anything else. You can (and we did) have slavery for generations, and Jim Crow for generations after that, and still in the end do the right thing. Endless people suffered in the meantime, but the possibility for change was always still there. Inertia didn’t close off the option of future action. But if we don’t somehow bring the planet’s careening systems under control right now — and by right now, I mean, speaking technically, right freaking now — then the chance for progress on everything else evaporates. All we’ll be doing is trying somehow to cope with the myriad subcatastrophes: hurricane after drought after flood after inundation. There won’t be enough money, enough volunteers, enough sandbags, to cope with the effects of an unraveling climate. We’ve got to do something about it now.

And that something is, inherently, political. Without intervention from the center — from both Washington and the nebulous center of international politics — there’s no chance for a transformation large enough and rapid enough to change the computer models that Lovelock and Hansen are pointing to. The only way to force that change is to force it. In September I helped lead a march of a thousand people fifty miles across Vermont to demand that our federal candidates pledge to take swift action. It was lots of fun, and it met its goal, but it was also pathetic — the thousand people we assembled marked the largest single rally on climate change yet held in the United States.

We have to break that record, and break it fast. On April 14, a group of us intend to hold hundreds of simultaneous rallies around the country to make the same demand: that Congress pass legislation calling for 80 percent carbon cuts by 2050. Our plan is to link those rallies with the new electronic tools like YouTube — to, in essence, coordinate the most spread-out political demonstration in American history, by people in iconic places from the top of Mount Rainier to the levees above the Ninth Ward to coral reefs off Key West. The message is simple: after two decades of effective bipartisan action to accomplish nothing, it is time to step it up. We’ve got to slow global warming.

One reason is so we can go on making the world a better place. The physical stability of the planet is the ground on which all beauty and human meaning are built; we act now to preserve possibility.

Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty  thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.