Bill McKibben: Climate Crisis Needs Urgent Action as Earth Records Hottest Temps Ever
Written by GRB on 08/07/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The world’s average surface temperature has soared to its highest level ever recorded, surpassing record levels of heat measured just one day earlier and the day before that. This week’s string of record-shattering hottest days came as climate scientists warned last month was the hottest June ever recorded, with 2023 on track to become the hottest year in human history.
Meanwhile, a new report in the journal Nature Communications warns changing weather patterns and extreme heat due to the climate crisis will exacerbate the global food crisis, with lower crop yields anticipated in the near future.
All of this has added new urgency for broad government action to address the climate crisis, but much of it has been thwarted by fossil fuel lobbyists, which we’ll talk more about in a minute with The Guardian reporter Oliver Milman.
But we begin with author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org and founder of the organization Third Act, whose new Substack piece is headlined “No Human Has Ever Seen it Hotter: But the sun that’s cooking us could cool us too.” His latest piece for The New Yorker is headlined “To Save the Planet, Should We Really Be Moving Slower? The degrowth movement makes a comeback.”
Bill, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, the three hottest days in human history, some say in 100,000 years. Talk about what’s happening and what needs to happen.
BILL McKIBBEN: Well, good morning, Amy.
On the one hand, there’s nothing surprising about what’s happening. It’s what you and I have been talking about for literally decades now. Scientists have told us that this, as we pour carbon into the atmosphere, is the inevitable result. But we are seeing in 2023 that result come to the fore.
We’ve seen truly startling things. It’s now a reasonable chance that this will turn out to be the hottest year ever recorded. We’ve already had, as you say, the hottest days, the hottest week. We just had the hottest June. If you think it’s bad here, really have some place in your heart for the people living in spots that are beyond hot and unlikely to be air-conditioned. Last night in parts of Algeria, cities in Algeria, the nighttime temperature stayed above 103 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the hottest nighttime minimums ever recorded in Africa.
So, all around the world, we’re seeing remarkable, remarkable things going on. And this is just as the El Niño Pacific warming begins to kick into gear. The next 18 months are going to be a time of chaos and havoc as we go to temperatures that no human has ever seen, no society and no infrastructure has ever endured. We don’t know precisely what will happen, but we can predict that it’s going to be very, very hard. And we can predict, really, too, I think, that this is the last of these moments we’re going to have when the world is summoned to action by events and when there’s still time to make at least some difference in the question of how hot it ultimately gets.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the degrowth movement, Bill?
BILL McKIBBEN: Well, as you know, there’s — ever since the limits to growth in 1972, I guess, there’s been this critique that the world can’t keep growing as it has been, that it will eventually lead to ecological collapse. The eventually seems to be coming true. But it is a very strange moment, because, on the other hand, we understand that we need to increase very, very quickly the amount of green energy and clean energy that we’re producing. And that requires growing at least one thing: solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, so on.
So, my piece for The New Yorker was an attempt to square that circle, to say, “Are there ways that we could use this moment of extraordinary need for technological change to also produce some social change along the way, to build a different kind of world?” We need to make the technological change, and I think we also need to make some really serious social change as we do it towards a different kind of planet.
The good news is that we’re beginning to see — beginning to see — the payoff from some of that technological change. You know, Texas was the center of the heat wave in the U.S. so far this year. This heat dome settled over Texas, and the numbers were astounding. There were cities setting new high temperature records 10 days in a row. But the grid did not collapse in Texas, and it did not collapse, one analyst after another is telling us, because there’s a lot of solar power on that grid, four times more than there was in just four or five years ago. And that power — not surprisingly, solar panels do well in heat waves. That power has been enough to keep Texas going. Of course, and as Oliver will make the case in a minute, the irony is that the Texas Legislature is busy trying to help the fossil fuel industry and close down its renewable industry. But so far, it’s renewables that are doing the job there. And, believe me, utilities around the country are starting to watch, because they understand that not only is this power cheap, it’s truly critical in the world that we’re headed into now.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we’ve been getting reports of hikers and tourists who have died of the heat. A woman died in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park after falling unconscious during an eight-mile hike in over 100 degree Fahrenheit weather. A man found dead in a car with two flat tires, Death Valley National Park. I think the recorded temperature the day before was like 126 degrees. You had a teen and his dad in Texas. But what about workers around the world, as well?
BILL McKIBBEN: Well, I mean, the scale of what we’re doing is astonishing, and you’re very right to point that out. One of the things that the International Labour Organization has told us is that our ability to do work outdoors is already something like 10% degraded and that it will be 30%, 40% by midcentury. That is the number of hours that people can be out working. There are lots of reports. China has just come through — or, is coming through an extraordinary heat wave. And Mexico has been through a heat wave that makes the one in Texas look small by comparison. People waking up at — you know, agricultural laborers waking up at 4 a.m. to get done what they can before it gets too hot to be outside.
We’re changing the world in deeply fundamental ways. We’re not going to be able to stop — we can’t stop global warming at this point. All we can do is try to stop it short of the place where it cuts civilizations off at the knees. And that will require nimbleness and speed that we’ve really never seen before. As you know, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has told us we need to cut emissions in half by 2030 to have any chance of meeting those targets that you reported on in Paris just eight years ago. By my watch, 2030 is six years and five months away. So, the need to move fast has never been clearer, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, does expanding renewable energy necessarily lead to a reduction in fossil fuels? Recent data show fossil fuels accounted for 82% of worldwide energy supply last year, even as record wind and solar came online.
BILL McKIBBEN: We’re going to find out in the next couple years. And it has to. Renewable energy is right now at this takeoff point. It’s suddenly becoming substantial. And it has to reduce fossil fuel use if it’s to matter.
That’s why people were so upset when President Biden, who’s done so much to sponsor renewable energy, also started approving things like the Willow oil project in Alaska or the MVP pipeline in Appalachia or this new string of LNG ports along the Gulf Coast. The politicians are getting better at saying yes to renewable energy, but they’re no better at saying no to fossil fuel than they were before. And that’s because of the extraordinary political power of that industry. They’re clearly willing to break the planet.
It’s why we need more activists and more people out pushing. At Third Act, for instance, we’re training up thousands of people to take on the public utility commissions in state after state after state. These are incredibly important institutions, the public utility commissions. They set rates and help determine what facilities the utilities are allowed to build. But they’ve traditionally been protected by their incredible boringness, and they’ve been captured in almost every case by the utilities that they’re supposed to regulate. So we need lots of people out pushing in places like that, as well as out in the streets or at Wimbledon or wherever it is. If you’re an older person like me, come join us at Third Act and see what we can do.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Bill, it’s beautiful to hear the birds singing behind you in Middlebury, Vermont. Can you talk about the effect of this global heat wave, the hottest Earth ever, on the flora and fauna of the world?
BILL McKIBBEN: It comes at the worst possible time. We already know that because of lots of things — climate change, but also habitat destruction and pesticides and things — the number of animals on this planet is something like 70% lower than it was when I was born. And now we’re being pushed and pushed and pushed.
I think in the next few weeks we’re going to see devastating reports from around especially the oceans of the planet. It looks like something like 40% of the Earth’s seas are now going through what the oceanographers call marine heat waves. That means widespread bleaching of coral. You know, we forget sometimes we call the planet Earth, but if we were being honest, we’d probably call it Ocean, because that’s 70% of the planet’s surface. And the damage there is extraordinary. Sea temperatures are not just a little bit higher than they’ve ever been before. They’re not off the charts. They’re off the wall the chart is tacked to.
So, it’s going to be a brutal period, not just for human beings. And that brutality is going to increase unless we get our act together now.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, thanks so much for being with us, co-founder of 350.org, founder of Third Act. We’ll link to your Substack piece, “No Human Has Ever Seen it Hotter: But the sun that’s cooking us could cool us too,” and your New Yorker piece, “To Save the Planet, Should We Really Be Moving Slower? The degrowth movement makes a comeback.”