While the USA has experienced heat records, droughts, unprecedented hurricanes like Sandy in this years environmentalist Bill McKibben is predicting further damage due to the escalating climate change until the end of this century. The question would only be how big the damage will be. In a widely distributed article for the magazine Rolling Stone McKibben researched that the fossil fuel industry has 2800 giga tons of carbon in form of oil, gas and coal in its books and plans to burn them. This would mean the end of the planet as we know it, says Bill McKibben. The global grassroots climate movement 350.org has launched a campaign fordivestment from the fossil fuel industry to stop the climat havoc.
Bill McKibben: Environmental Journalist and Activist, Founder of the grassroots global warming movement 350.org, Author of "The End of Nature", Middlebury, USA
Fabian Scheidler: Welcome to Kontext TV. This summer the Midwest in the US experienced the heaviest droughts since the 70ies. The crop failure let to a global increase of food prices. The wildfires in Oklahoma and the hurricanes at the East coast set new records. 2012 will be the warmest year in the United States on record.
David Goessmann: Dozens of Americans died during the heat wave. In spite of the alarming situation the word climate change or climate didn’t occur once in the TV debates between Obama and Romney during the campaigns. The presidential candidates rather outbid the other on who is going extract more fossil fuels out of the American soil in the future.
Fabian Scheidler: Our guest is the renowned American author and environmental activist Bill McKibben. His book “The End of Nature” published in 1989 is regarded as the first book on climate change for a broader audience. McKibben gained global popularity as founder of the international climate change movement 350.org. Time Magazine called McKibben once the “best green journalist of the planet”. Kontext TV met Bill McKibben in his office at the Middlebury College in Vermont in August.
David Goessmann: Bill McKibben, I want to start off with the weather today or in recent months. What do the wildfires in Colorado or the hurricane Debbie we've seen, also the draughts in the mid-west. What do they tell us about the state of climate change or global warming we're in right now?
Bill McKibben: The US this summer is getting a little taste of what the early stages of climate change look like. As you know, we've raised the temperature of the earth about a degree and that's been enough to kick off some very big systemic changes. There is 40% less sea-ice in the arctic and the ocean is 30% more acidic and we see also that because warm air holds more water vapor than cold air, the atmosphere is about 5% wetter. That loads the dice for this draught and this flood and so someplace we see it all the time, whether it's in Pakistan in 2010 with horrific flooding, Russia that summer with an epic heatwave and drought and on and on and on. This summer it's the US's turn and it's extraordinary the scenes that we are seeing across the country. We think that the grain harvest, as of today, 50% of the corn in the most fertile grain belt in the world there is, is rated as poor or extremely poor. It's too hot for it to fertilise, it can't grow. This is with one degree of temperature increase. The same scientists who told us this would happen, tell us right confidently that unless we change, unless we get off fossil fuel very very fast, faster than any government is currently planning, that one degree will be four or five degrees before we know it.
David Goessmann: What would that mean?
Bill McKibben: Four or five degrees would be science fiction. I mean, it might not literally be hell but it would be roughly the same temperature.
David Goessmann: In a recent article for the Rolling Stone you laid out what you call global warming's terrifying new math. Please explain these terrifying numbers and what they mean.
Bill McKibben: Sure. I wrote a piece for Rolling Stone this summer that went strangely viral, most shared piece they ever put out, apparently, even though it's somewhat technical. And I think the reason is, because it makes clear exactly what fix we're in. The world governments have agreed that we shouldn't raise the temperature more than two degrees. Everybody signed on to that, the Germans, the Americans, the Chinese, even the United Arab Emirates. They all signed on. The scientists tell us how much more carbon we could emit and have some chance of staying below that. In fact the German scientist Malte Meinhausen did the original calculations. Something like 565 more gigatonnes of carbon we could put into the atmosphere. The trouble is, and this is the new number and the scary one, a group of financial analysts in the UK, last year discovered that the fossil fuel industry already has about 2800 giga tons of coal and gas and oil in their reserves. They know where it is, it's still below ground, but it's economically above ground, it's what's setting their share price, they're borrowing money against it, it will get burned unless we figure out how to stop them. So, there's nothing theoretical about the trouble we're in. It's all down in black and white. It has all been declared to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the other financial watchdogs. They've told them how much reserves they have, they're planning to wreck the world and they will unless we stop them.
David Goessmann: But how could we stop them ?
Bill McKibben: I am not sure we can stop them. I mean if one was betting one would say we won't stop them, but we gonna try - hard. 350.org which is the first big kind of global grassroot climate movement is gonna try and launch a campaign to urge divestments from endowments, colleges, churches, pension funds and things from the fossil fuel industry over the next year. The hope is, that we can do something like the movement that grew up to fight Apartheid in South Africa 25 years ago. Now clearly the South Africans themselves played the most important role in their own liberation, but when Nelson Mandela got out of prison, one of the first things he did was to come to college campuses in America to say "Thank you" for helping with this by forcing the divestment of stock in those companies. This is an even bigger target, but we're gonna try.
David Goessmann: That would mean that the fossil fuel industry has to give up profits, huge chunks of profits, billions. We're talking about billions.
McKibben: Yes, the fossil fuel industry would have to give trillions in profits, but in some sense it's false profit. You have to always remember that the fossil fuel industry has a special break that no industry on earth gets, alone among industries: It's allowed to dump out its waste for free. So, if you run a restaurant in Berlin, the cheapest way for you to deal with your trash at the end of the day, your garbage, would just be to dump it out in the middle of the street. Your profit would go up, right, because you just take all the Bratwurst left at the end of the day, just pour it out in the street. Not a good idea, though, because pretty soon the street would be overrun with rats and you would be dealing with Leptospirosis or plague or whatever. That's why in civilisations we make people clean up after themselves. The one exception there is, is the fossil fuel industry. It's allowed to pour what now is the most dangerous waste probably in the world, carbondioxide, into the atmosphere for free. And until that changes, until we reach national an international agreements that make the fossil fuel industry pay the price for the damage they're causing, it'll be harder than it should to move to renewable energy.
David Goessmann: You already talked about it. You founded the climate movement 350.org, named after the estimated safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere...
Bill McKibben: ...which we're already well past...
David Goessmann: The planet is currently 390 ppm...
Bill McKibben: ...394, yes...
David Goessmann: So what does that mean ?
Bill McKibben: it means we're too high, but you don't even need me to tell you that, just look at the icecaps.
David Goessmann: How could we get that back on track?
Bill McKibben: If we did everything absolutely right, if we moved as fast as ever we could to get off fossil fuel, it's still gonna take till the end of the century to get back down below 350 and a lot of damage will be done in the meantime. There is not one of the options at this point is not stopping global warming, ok. The only question is how much damage will be done and how far down this path we're gonna go. And so we're doing everything we can at 350 to try and slow that down.