‘Stress the excitement of how fast we can move’: How we can survive the climate crisis

A wind turbine is seen against a backdrop of transmission lines and a yellow sky as a bank of low clouds rolls in.
With public opinion now on the side of climate action, the next step should be greater investment in renewable energy, Bill McKibben says.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Most Americans understand that climate change is happening. Now they must persuaded to act on it, but they may be surprised by how quickly major progress can be made, environmental author Bill McKibben says.

McKibben‘s books — including “The End of Nature” — argue that protecting the environment is both urgent and doable. He made a similar pitch in a virtual talk with San Diego 350 and the North County Climate Change Alliance last week.

“We’re in a huge race,” he said. “We don’t know what the outcome of that race will be. We obviously are not going to stop global warming, but stopping it from cutting civilization off at the knees is our job.”

The good news, McKibben said, is that most Americans now accept long-established scientific research demonstrating that the Earth is warming due to fossil fuel combustion, after decades of misinformation sought to cast doubt on those facts.

“We have successfully shifted the zeitgeist” of public opinion, he said, noting that increasingly severe storms, heat and wildfires continue to make that case. “Mother Nature is now doing her best to reinforce that message all the time.”

That’s also the bad news. Climate effects that were once statistical models are now manifesting as natural disasters — and they disproportionately strike disadvantaged populations, particularly in places like Africa.

“In Somalia, the Horn of Africa, we have missed five straight rainy seasons,” McKibben said. “People are dying now.”

Those catastrophic climate effects are out of scale with Africa’s contribution to the problem, he noted. The continent produces just 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“The level of unfairness that represents is just incredible,” he said. “This really is a global fight, and justice is very much at its heart.”

Building up renewable energy supplies could also defray geopolitical conflicts, since fossil fuels drive many international conflicts and create political instability, McKibben said.

“Fossil fuel is intimately linked to authoritarianism,” he said, noting that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is funded by Russian oil, while Europe‘s response has been impaired by dependence on it.

Developing renewable resources would help break that dependence, he said, and he argued it could be accomplished more quickly than may be expected.

For instance, he argued for invoking the Defense Production Act to produce electric heat pumps for distribution in Europe, as a failsafe against any Russian oil shortages.

Fortunately, he noted, the price of renewable energy has declined faster than expected.

With public opinion now on the side of climate action, the next step should be greater investment in renewable energy, McKibben said. “Stress the excitement of how fast we can move,” he said. “Do you know what really polls well? Solar panels.”

Contrasting hope with calamity, McKibben framed the fight against climate change as a global action story, with his audience as combatants in the battle.

“We’re winning some serious victories,” he said. “We don’t know if we’ll get there in time. The outcome of this drama is up for grabs.”