Today, McKibben’s 350.org is a widespread international campaign, capable of whipping up thousands of coordinated events on a single day. McKibben was named one ofForeign Policy's Top 100 Global Thinkers in December, “for making global warming a people's cause”.
I published the first book for a general audience on global warming almost exactly two decades ago, so I’ve been privileged to watch the development of the debate over the most important issue humans have ever faced. It’s always been difficult. I remember one Harvard expert, way back in the 1980s, describing it as “the problem from hell” because there were so many overlapping and opposed interests. Rich countries and poor, emerging and poor, oil-rich and coal-poor. That hellish knot was evident in Copenhagen—it’s the reason the talks ultimately failed.
But the most important thread of this story has always been the science. Without it, there would be no reason for this impassioned debate. So, it’s worth recalling how that’s changed over the years.
In fundamental terms, we understood the problem 20 years ago: Burn fossil fuels and you emit carbon dioxide. The structure of that molecule traps solar energy in our atmosphere that would otherwise radiate back out to space. It’s why Mars is cold and Venus is terrifyingly hot.
What we didn’t know, however, is how fast this would happen—and the hope, being humans, was that we had many decades to solve the problem. That would allow us to make a gradual, easy, affordable transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. This was the spirit in which, say, the Kyoto accords were negotiated. They called for modest reductions in emissions, and only from developed countries. Even in the few (mostly European) nations that implemented them, the change in daily life was imperceptible, which is how politicians like it.
In recent years, the scientific story has changed dramatically. In the summer of 2007, sea ice across the Arctic melted with extreme rapidity. By the time the season was over, there was 25% less ice than there had been a year earlier. That is a very large change in a basic physical feature of the planet. As scientists looked around, they saw evidence of the same massive flux in other systems: Glaciers were melting quickly in the Himalayas, seawater was turning acidic, and hydrological cycles—drought and flood—were becoming steadily more extreme.
By the winter of 2008, scientists were able to put a precise number on our predicament: Above 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) research team concluded, we couldn’t have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted”. That was scary news, because we’re already well above that level, at 390 ppm. That’s why the glaciers are melting.
This finding raised the stakes and changed the politics, because suddenly, much of civil society became far more outspoken. Some of us built a huge campaign, 350.org, that in late October mounted what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history”, with 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. (Some of the biggest and most beautiful were across India, where campaigners did a remarkable job of communicating a difficult scientific truth.)
Civil society found itself in common cause with a great number of nations who realized that their very survival was at stake. In the past, it had been possible for the great powers to simply promise a few billions in extra aid to poor countries at these negotiations, and they would drop their demands. But they’d come to realize that there was not enough money on earth to help them cope with what was coming: small island states facing submersion, and African countries dealing with endless withering droughts, were demanding deep emissions cuts from the rich world.
The new science, however, hadn’t altered the politics or the economics for the most important of those powerful countries. In the US, the influence of the fossil fuel lobby meant that both Congress and the White House wanted to move slowly, if at all. In China, the success of coal-powered development meant that leaders were reluctant to sign on to any real restrictions on future emissions, especially since there was no real moral obligation on them to do so. (China may have passed the US in total emissions, but it has four times the population, and since carbon lasts a century in the atmosphere, it’s still Americans who are heating the planet.) As a result, as Copenhagen ground to an ungainly close, the powerful countries simply decided to shut off the pesky debate and take the talks into some new forum where they could more easily control the outcome.
India was invited into that elite group, and it chose to accept. Now the onus falls squarely on those countries to produce a plan that grapples with the actual science. The temptation will be to pretend we’re still in the same place we were 20 years ago, imagining we have many decades to make an easy transition. But that pretence is no longer easy to maintain. If COP15 (the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties) established anything, it was a widespread understanding of how difficult this predicament is. Copenhagen couldn’t put us on a path to 350 ppm. Now, Washington, New Delhi and Beijing will have to either take up the challenge, or ignore it and bear the blame for the rest of geological time.