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Environmental author Bill McKibben addresses the climate crisis at GVSU forum

September 26, 2012

Last night, Grand Valley State University hosted a talk by nationally known environmental author and activist Bill McKibben. McKibben is the author of numerous books, most recently Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet. The talk was done via Skype, in the Eberhard Center on the downtown campus of GVSU.

McKibben began by talking about how long he has been writing about global warming and that based on the age of the audience, his first book came out before many of them were born. His first book was The End of Nature, which was first published in 1989.

The author/activist then talked about the seriousness of the crisis by talking about what is happening now in the Arctic Circle and the drastic changes to that ecosystem. However, McKibben take the opportunity to talk about the proposed drilling by oil companies in that part of the world or the resistance by groups like Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd.

Another major change for those of us in the US is that the climate is actually much wetter than before, which means that more water evaporates to create drought conditions and when it does rain it tends to be more intense than what we have traditionally known.

McKibben said that the urgency of the climate crisis is not just the assessment of environmentalists, even insurance agencies are acknowledging major changes in the climate that must be due to global warming.

In Michigan, McKibben noted that the early frost destroyed a great deal of the fruit grown in the state. Other states out west were engulfed by wildfires and yet other states have been confronted by high winds, which compounded the drought conditions. One result of this years’ climate has been a 65% increase in the price of basic grains, which for many around the world is devastating.

The scientific community is now telling us that if we do not end our use of fossil fuels like coal, oil ad natural gas there is no way to avoid a catastrophe for life on this planet.”

McKibben then talked about the creation of the group 350.org, which in many ways was based on the research of NASA scientist James Hansen. 350 comes from the idea that “to preserve our planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 392 parts per million (“ppm”)to below 350 ppm. But 350 is more than a number—it’s a symbol of where we need to head as a planet.”

The group, which was made up mostly of college students, also made it a goal for their effort to be a global campaign. McKibben talked about the first major action, which consisted of nothing more than groups all around the world making statements or images reflecting the message of 350.org. Grand Rapids participated in this symbolic action in 2009.

The educational efforts, according to McKibben, were not enough however, “so we knew that we needed to up the ante and take more action.” 350.org organized a massive action of civil disobedience last fall in front of the White House to pressure the US government to not support the Keystone XL Pipeline, what are known as the Tar Sands.

McKibben said that they result was that the Obama administration said they would not make a decision until after the election. The people at 350.org took it as a victory, but they recognize that they don’t know how this will “play out.”

The next major effort they plan to engage in is a 20 – day tour across the country, beginning the day after the election, called the Do the Math Tour. The goal of this tour is to educate people about the power that the fossil fuel industry has. The want to take on the industry and expose them for the amount of influence they have had on the energy policy of this country.

McKibben said that this tour will target universities and colleges, since he believes that young people will be the leaders of this movement for climate justice.

He ended his talk by saying that despite all the efforts of recycling, biking, LEED certified buildings, etc, all of which is good, it’s not enough to avoid catastrophe. We need to make structural change and that means to dismantle the fossil fuel industry. He referred to his Rolling Stone article and the harsh data it contained, which stated that the crisis is even greater than what was believed in previous years in terms of how serious global warming truly is.

There was a brief Question and Answer period, but what was worth noting to this writer was McKibben’s support for energy efficiency in the form of newer cars coming out of Detroit. It doesn’t seem that continued support of the auto industry will seriously challenge the fossil fuel industry’s power, but McKibben also acknowledged that there is no “silver bullet” or easy answer to surviving the climate crisis.

After McKibben signed off there were some brief presentations from local environmental groups, a GVSU student group, Ban Fracking Michigan and Mutual Aid GR.

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