McKibben: There’s no time to wait on climate change

Author Bill McKibben. Photo by Jennifer Esperanza, courtesy of

Author Bill McKibben. Photo by Jennifer Esperanza, courtesy of

In hastily arranged testimony, Vermont-based climate-change activist Bill McKibben spoke at the Statehouse with the House Natural Resources Committee Tuesday morning. McKibben, founder and chief spokesperson for the organization, told the committee that today’s climate is deteriorating faster than scientists had imagined possible when he first wrote on the issue 23 years ago, and that waiting to act only makes the problem exponentially worse.

That was apparently the message that committee chair Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier) was looking for. Klein opened the committee meeting by saying that he sought McKibben’s help. “I’m very concerned that we have created legislation and policy over the last 10 to 15 years that is meant to move us to a cleaner environment with less greenhouse emissions, and now that the policy is moving towards reality, we hear the cries, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be like that.’ A green community that has walked together, hopefully to a better world, now is fracturing, because I think we are losing sight of the big target. I asked you here to help us regroup and reground ourselves.”

Speaking without notes, and using few numbers, McKibben gave the committee a lucid, 20-minute overview of what’s known about global warming, how that is translating into both droughts and deluges today, what is needed to prevent runaway climate change, and why the need for action is more urgent than for other important issues like health care reform. He rooted some of the testimony in Vermont’s experiences with Tropical Storm Irene, as well as his town of Ripton’s catastrophic floods in 2008.

From the beginning to the end of his testimony, McKibben voiced his frustration with the lack of action out of Washington D.C., capital of the country that historically has contributed one third of the greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere. Because of national-level inaction in the U.S., it’s up to states like Vermont to lead in converting to renewable energy.

McKibben referred at the beginning of his testimony to his 1989 book “The End of Nature,” the first book-length popular treatment of climate change. We’ve known the basic science of what he now calls climate deterioration for decades — but that the consequences have exceeded climate scientists’ expectations. “The story of the last 20 years, and really of the last three or four years, is that it’s pinching much harder and faster than even the most dire predictions would have had it. Everything frozen on earth is melting, so Arctic Sea ice is reduced 40 percent from what it was when NASA was taking those first pictures.  The chemistry of sea water is changing very rapidly.

“Most remarkable, and certainly for Vermont most dangerous, are changes in hydrology. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold. What that means is that with this one-degree increase in temperature [that has occurred so far], the atmosphere is about 4 percent wetter than it was 40 years ago. That is a staggeringly large change in a basic physical parameter, one that we assume has held basically steady for ten thousand years. What it does is load the dice for two things: drought and flood. We get more evaporation in arid areas. The flip side of this is that once that water vapor has evaporated into the atmosphere, it’s going to come down. This means that we load the dice again for deluge and downpour and flood, and we have seen it all over the world.”

McKibben, who commented afterwards that he works in 191 countries, reeled off lists of droughts, fires, and floods in recent years: the current drought in Mexico; the 2010 drought and fires in Russia that caused the world’s third-largest grain exporter to cancel exports; the Texas and Oklahoma droughts and firestorms in 2010; the Khyber Pass rainstorm that dumped 12 feet of rain in a week and flooded a quarter of Pakistan; 2011 floods in Queensland, along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, in Lake Champlain, and from Tropical Storm Irene.

The litany included human consequences of these natural disasters: Russia’s 2010 crop failures and subsequent crop failures around the world have jacked up corn and wheat prices by 60 percent and added a couple hundred million people to rolls of the malnourished and severely hungry; half a billion trees died in the Texas drought; and 20 million people were flooded out of their homes in Pakistan. A few weeks after Vermont’s Irene experience, flooding washed out so many roads and bridges in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua that the president of Honduras said the event wiped out 20 years of development progress.

Knowing the Legislature was looking for action to take, McKibben told them what to do: “Make as rapid a transition as possible off of fossil fuel and on to something else. There is no Plan B. Or the occasional Plan Bs that people try to describe are so crazy that we don’t even want to think about them. Filling the atmosphere with sulfur in an effort to block out incoming solar radiation and compensate for the greenhouse effect. These kinds of mad scientist chemistry experiments are not anything we want to undertake.”

Specifically, McKibben recommended taxing fossil fuels heavily and then distributing the revenues equally to everyone in the population. He said afterwards that such an approach would make 80 percent of people better off. Owners of Learjets would pay more, but that’s a good thing, he said. However, McKibben acknowledged that people in small states with heavy taxes on fossil fuels would purchase more in neighboring states, so this “tax and dividend” approach is more practicable on a national scale.

As legislators elsewhere in the Statehouse grappled with the next steps in creating a single-payer health care system, McKibben contrasted the urgency of a transition to renewable energy with the urgency of health care reform. “It’s almost unique among issues in that waiting is not really one of the options. It’s not like a problem like health insurance, where if you wait a decade, a lot of people have suffered in the meantime, but it hasn’t become exponentially harder to deal with than it was when you began. There’s a certain point past which if you don’t deal with climate change, then there’s no use in even trying, because you will have put enough carbon in the atmosphere and raised the temperature high enough that these changes begin to feed on themselves.”

McKibben dismissed the state’s size as an argument for not taking the lead in the transition to renewables. “Vermont obviously by itself cannot make this happen. By the same token, that argument is true of every single jurisdiction considering this stuff as well. If everyone takes that excuse, then nothing will happen. If some places are wise enough to take a leadership position, not only will they be setting themselves up more wisely for the century now dawning, they’ll also at least be running the possibility of providing the example to others.”

Vermont’s diminutive size is an advantage. “Thank heavens that at least in Vermont the discussion can go on with some kind of level playing field, where the fossil fuel industry doesn’t so dominate every discussion that it doesn’t get off the ground. If there’s any justification for small states and citizen government, this is one of those moments when we really need them to rise to the fore.”

Legislators asked a few questions, mostly about policy options, but mostly they listened quietly to McKibben’s sobering testimony. When Klein thanked McKibben for sharing what he joked was “everything I didn’t want to hear,” McKibben laughed and termed himself a “professional bummer outer.”

The committee is in the final stages of preparing a renewable portfolio standard, which would significantly ramp up the state’s amount of renewably generated electricity over the next decade and half.


Carl Etnier

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Brad Arnold
4 years 11 months ago
McKibben is wrong, because he clearly doesn’t know about this emerging clean energy technology that everyone will switch to quick to save lots of money ( “electricity will be too cheap to meter” per Forbes): There is a new clean energy technology that is one tenth the cost of coal. LENR using nickel. Incredibly: Ni+H(heated under pressure)=Cu+lots of heat. This phenomenon (LENR) has been confirmed in hundreds of published scientific papers: “Over 2 decades with over 100 experiments worldwide indicate LENR is real, much greater than chemical…” –Dennis M. Bushnell, Chief Scientist, NASA Langley Research Center “Energy density many… Read more »
Stephen Saltonstall
4 years 11 months ago

Obviously climate change is a huge environmental issue, but Prof. McKibben and his followers don’t seem to want to discuss the underlying problem: too many people on the planet. Climate change can’t be solved unless the population problem is dealt with. Malthus was right!

Guy Page
4 years 11 months ago
I admit that I am baffled at the seeming inconsistency of those who believe climate change is an immiment global threat AND want to close Vermont Yankee and replace it, practically speaking, with fossil fuel-powered energy. Whatever one’s concerns about VY, it has no smokestacks nor CO2 emissions, and the real-life replacement does. I understand and appreciate the CO2 benefits of renewables and efficiency but find intermittent power of ANY kind counterproductive if it forces the grid operators to rely more heavily on gas and coal-fired plants. I understand that the goal of Mr. McKibben and his supporters is emission… Read more »
Geoprge Plumb
4 years 11 months ago
And the Ehrlich’s were correct also. The population bomb is just going off more slowly than predicted. We must stabilize and then gradually reduce our population size if we are going to really solve not just global warming but all of the other environmental issues as well such as the Six Great Extinction. Adding three million people to the U.S. population each year makes this nearly impossible. However, of more direct concern is the need for all of us to accept our moral responsibility to future generations and all life on Earth. Government action, while important, is only part of… Read more »
Chuck Kletecka
4 years 11 months ago
If the situation is so dire, and I believe it is, then we need ALL options on the table, including nuclear. There’s no way we can ramp up large renewable sources quick enough in the that scale we need. Using existing nuclear sources such as Yankee in the interim is responsible and necessary. Let’s be honest, the waste already produced will be housed there for decades to come. There’s no federal repository for the foreseeable future. And if there is, the operating plants would be the first priority. The additional waste from another 10-20 years of operation wouldn’t significantly change… Read more »
Curtis Sinclair
4 years 11 months ago

Saying “Make as rapid a transition as possible off of fossil fuel and on to something else.” makes that sound easy. It’s like the old joke “How do you fit four elephants into a Volkswagon? Two in the front seat and two in the back.” Try to build a wind farm or nuclear plant and see how many protests you get. Solar panels would have to cover much of the American landscape to generate enough power to meet US energy needs. Solar panels also contain lead, arsenic and cadmium so that’s out.

Stan Shapiro
4 years 11 months ago

Placing wind turbines on Vermont’s mountains will do nothing to address global warming.To claim that any renewable project is justified regardless of the environmental consequences is akin to saying that the Battle of Gallipoli helped the allies win World War I.If I may make a small change in a quote from T.S.Eliot;The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the “wrong” deed for the “right “reason.

4 years 11 months ago
It is always good to provide a reality check. Germany will serve as an example. Germany will be redirecting its economy towards renewable energy, because of the political decision to phase out its nuclear plants, triggered by the Fukushima event in Japan which increased public opposition to nuclear energy. Germany has 23 nuclear reactors (21.4 GW), 8 are permanently shut down (8.2 GW) and 15 (13.2 GW) will be phased out by 2022.  Siemens estimates the capital and subsidy costs at 1.7 trillion euros ($2.26 trillion) by 2030, or about $125 billion per year. If the US were to… Read more »
4 years 11 months ago
Klein: “A green community that has walked together, hopefully to a better world, now is fracturing, because I think we are losing sight of the big target. I asked you here to help us regroup and reground ourselves.” The reason for the fracture is because people were not told the truth. And those who did tell the truth were ignored/pushed aside by Vermont’s renewables oligarchy and their supporters in state government. As a result laws were passed during the past 10-15 years that APPEARED to do something, but in fact required significant capital to reduce a small quantity of CO2.… Read more »
Ryan Gillard
4 years 11 months ago
Guy and Chuck and others who pose nuclear as our saving grace energy source, I have some questions: Is nuclear a clean, carbon-free source of energy when considering its whole life cycle? Where does the Uranium used at VY come from? What does the extraction process of uranium do to the land and who lives on that land? What carbon emission are embedded in the extraction process? Where will the radioactive waste be stored? Who lives on that land? What would happen to the land and people globally if there were one accident at VY causing a meltdown? Our perception… Read more »
John Greenberg
4 years 11 months ago
Guy Page avers that he’s “baffled at the seeming inconsistency of those who believe climate change is an imminent global threat AND want to close Vermont Yankee….” He goes on to say: “If there is a fact-based rebuttal to my assertion, I’d love to hear it.” Ok, Guy, here goes (not for the first time): 1) It’s incredibly hard to say how much global warming impact continued operations of VY have, but it is clearly NOT zero. Much of the impact, of course, took place when the plant was built, so presumably Guy will argue that’s water over the dam.… Read more »
4 years 11 months ago
John, Thank you for the EE plug. I have on numerous occasions argued for increased EE, but the legislature finds it more profitable to pander to voters and the wind oligarchy to install heavily-subsidized, environmentally-destructive, health-damaging, 459-ft high wind turbines on ridge lines, instead of not having icicles hanging off roof eaves. Your quote: “Remembering that VY’s total production is only 2% of the ISO-New England grid means that existing renewables can and will make up a significant portion of the remaining differences.” If that renewable energy is variable and intermittent it is useless to grid operators, unless it is… Read more »
4 years 11 months ago
Bill McKibben, Reps. Klein and Cheney want a renewables purchase standard, RPS, and have invited you to help out. You rightly state Vermont cannot do it alone, etc. Well, Germany cannot do it alone either. If the US were to disappear, its “CO2 hole” would be filled in about 7 years by others. Siemens estimated the cost of Germany’s efforts at 1.7 TRILLION euros, or $2.26 trillion, by 2030. If the US were to follow Germany’s course, the cost would be about ($14.5 trillion, US GDP)/($3.5 trillion, German GDP) x $2.26 trillion  = $9.36 trillion. It is 100% sure, the… Read more »
John Greenberg
4 years 11 months ago

Post: “If that renewable energy is variable and intermittent it is useless to grid operators, unless it is backed up by quick-ramping gas turbines.”

ISO-NE, the grid operator: “… New England has significant potential for developing renewable sources of energy within the region—primarily from inland and offshore wind resources—and significant potential to expand energy trade with neighboring regions.” p. 47

4 years 11 months ago
John, New England has the potential to have solar and wind energy, but at what cost? Will the high cost of energy in New England be even higher due to renewables and make New England relatively less competitive? Here is my recent comment to Avram Patt. Avram, “So many homes served” is a PR feel-good term that has been discredited in Europe, because of its confusing implications; Europe has a much longer history of wind turbines. I agree ISO-NE gas turbines are currently ramping up and down, 24/7/365, to accommodate DEMAND variations during a day. Adding wind energy to the… Read more »
Fiske Sterling
4 years 11 months ago
I know that many climate-kissers will insist that simply because 2 out of the past 3 Vermont winters have had almost no snow cover means there is something wrong with the planet. They blame “greenhouse gases” from vehicles and emissions from coal, gas, and biomass power plants–conveniently invisible, of course! Couldn’t be further from the truth! It’s like this: snow cover in Vermont is no different than a layer of fat lining the body of a couch potato. As the couch potato starts exercising and loses a few pounds, that’s a good thing, right? Same thing with our newly snow-less… Read more »
Chelsea Sargent
4 years 11 months ago
I think it becomes difficult to regroup. We are wary. If fossil fuels, which seemed so amazing, are slowly killing the planet, what guilt free energy source can we find? I think the goal in making fossil fuels less appealing is to make other renewable energy sources more competitive. Things that use fossil fuels have become more and more efficient over the years, perhaps another energy source will as well. But we are gun shy. I think that it is unreasonable to think that we can have our cake and eat it too. I really think that using less needs… Read more »
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