McKibben says global warming clock ticking
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau | January 11,2007
TOBY TALBOT / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Bill McKibben, an environmental author and professor at Middlebury College, speaks to lawmakers Wednesday in Montpelier. McKibben accompanied 40 middle school students to the Statehouse.
MONTPELIER — In the midst of an unusually mild winter, the air outside the Statehouse was cold and biting Wednesday morning when the man who wrote the first best-selling book on the subject spoke to state lawmakers about global warming, an issue that could dominate this year's legislative agenda.
Bill McKibben, a professor at Middlebury College, said it's only by changing how we live and move around the planet that humans can avert a massive change in global temperatures. It's also the only way to avoid fundamentally altering Earth's ecology.
While this winter's warm temperatures and the scarcity of snow might seem like evidence of global warming, actually they have little to do with it, McKibben told lawmakers.
It's true that humans are drastically affecting the earth's climate by burning fossil fuels, he said. But it's shorter-term phenomena that are responsible for the area's recent warm weather.
"This year we have a strong El Nino going on in the Pacific," McKibben said. If temperatures were to turn colder in the coming weeks, and Vermont weather were to return to normal, "it wouldn't mean anything about the larger phenomena of global warming any more than the last three weeks means it's all over and we might as well give up," he said.
Still, the warmest winter in more than a century is a "kind of gift" because it foreshadows what winters in Vermont could feel like if global warming continues, he said.
Global warming might have been a hypothesis in 1989, when McKibben wrote "The End of Nature," one of the first books for a popular audience on the subject. But today it is proven, testable, scientific fact.
Climatologists and other experts are learning surprising — and disheartening — things about global warming's speed and impacts, said McKibben and Alan Betts, an atmospheric researcher from Pittsford and president of the Vermont Academy of Science and Engineering.
The Greenland ice sheet, for instance, is melting and falling apart more rapidly than would naturally be expected, they said.
"It's a two-mile sheet of ice. You would think it would take a long time to melt," McKibben said. But the water from the melting ice "greases the skids" and is helping to send ice into the ocean.
"Pretty much everything frozen on earth is now melting" McKibben said.
Betts said it is not entirely clear when the Greenland ice sheet will become fundamentally unstable.
"When it goes it will go fast," he said.
And there are other, somewhat surprising consequences of growing releases of carbon dioxide, the molecule responsible for climate change. For instance, the oceans are becoming more acidic as they take in about half of the carbon dioxide mankind produces. That makes them increasingly hostile to corals and other sea life, Betts said.
"They won't be able to make it in a few decades" he said.
In addition, with an increase of several degrees in the average temperature of the earth, there will be an increase in storms, rains, heat waves and other severe weather patterns. Some of those problems already are being felt, McKibben said.
Only through large-scale changes in their living habits can Vermonters and Americans reduce the impact of climate change, he said.
"There is no silver bullet, there is a lot of silver buckshot," McKibben said. "There is no easy technical solution."
He encouraged Vermonters need to drive less, buy their food and commodities from closer to home and use less energy.
There is little time, McKibben said. The country's leading climatologist said more than a year ago that humans had about a decade to make major changes, and little has happened on the federal level since then, McKibben said.
"Progress in Washington has been fundamentally blocked," he said. "There has been a profound, bi-partisan effort t do nothing and it has succeeded remarkably well."
The Hydro-Quebec dams and Vermont Yankee Nuclear plant supply about two-thirds of Vermont's power, so the state's electricity use produces relatively low levels of harmful emissions. But that may change when contracts for that power begin to expire in the next decade.
Vermonters are among the nation's most high-mileage drivers. McKibben, like most of the people who crowded the largest committee room in the Statehouse, drove to Montpelier deliver his talk Wednesday.
And many Vermonters own older, warm-air-leaking houses that they heat with gas and oil, contributing to the emissions problem.
In terms of its anti-global warming policies, Vermont is about in the middle of the spectrum of states, McKibben said. Although it was the first to sign on with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Vermont lags far behind California and other states in some important areas, he said.
But that can change, McKibben said.
"I think we are finally, really at the point where we can take some real and significant steps," he said.
He has the attention of Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin and other lawmakers.
"Our children and grandchildren are going to have to focus most of their resources to undo the mistakes made by us and those who came before us," he said.
McKibben was the first in a series of speakers on climate change who will address four committees of the House and four committees of the Senate.
He offered comfort to those Vermonters warming themselves over wood stoves. Because the carbon in wood has been there a short time, compared with the carbon in oil and coal, and because trees quickly replace themselves if managed properly, "more or less, wood burning is a perfectly good thing to be doing," he said. "In terms of global warming, burning wood is part of the solution."
Contact Louis Porter at firstname.lastname@example.org.