“From future threat to present emergency”: Boulder panel on climate change

At a panel on climate change this morning at Chautauqua’s rather pompously named “Grand Convergence,” Bill McKibben joined five of Boulder’s brightest minds on climate change to strategize together about energy use, global warming, and what ordinary people can do about it.

McKibben was joined by retired physicist Al Bartlett, who has done a lot of work on population control; Kevin Trenberth of NCAR, a lead author for IPCC (and a Nobel Prize winner); Brian Toon, cloud expert and chair of atmospheric science at CU, whose grad adviser was Carl Sagan; Diane McKnight, engineering professor who works on the biogeochemistry of lakes and streams; and Bob Henson, meteorologist who wrote The Rough Guide to Climate Change.

Moderator Richard Brenne, cracking jokes, got right down to business with his first question: “Is civilization a good idea?” To which Bill McKibben replied, to applause,

Do we have a big enough heart to go with the big brain?

McKibben explained that the scientific method (as seen in the IPCC) has worked in addressing climate change, but the political leadership has failed. Which is why McKibben is organizing 350 Day on October 24, an international day of grassroots climate action. The number 350 represents the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that scientists think is sustainable. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the usual concentration was 275. We’re already way past the recommended limit, at 390. And 390, as we can see already, is high enough to melt the Arctic—which is compounding the warming problem. McKibben explained:

There is so much methane in the permafrost that if we melt the Arctic, we could stop all the cars in the world, and it won’t stop the CO2 increase.

Talk turned to the enormous obstacles—economic, political—to changing course.  McKibben stated the size of the challenge:

Addressing climate change means turning off the coal industry within twenty years. I mean, ExxonMobil just made more money last year than has ever been made in the history of money—

At which point a protester mounted the stage and interrupted loudly. The moderator jumped up, and half a dozen audience members escorted the man off the stage while the audience shouted over him, “Please leave the stage! Please leave the stage!”

Which turned the discussion to how to bring those who disagree on board—and some frustration at the shrill tactics of the naysayers. Bob Henson offered a compassionate suggestion, to applause:

It’s important to remember that everyone is coming from somewhere; everyone has their own point of view. It’s important to remember people’s humanity.

There was a litany of the places in the world who have not created the global warming problem but are set to suffer most from it—the Maldives archipelago, which sits a scant two meters above sea level at its highest point, or Bangladesh—but water specialist Diane McKnight brought the conversation right back home:

We have to realize that climate change has already impacted our water supply—right now. Metal concentrations and acidity in water are going up because of climate change. That’s happening right here, now.

She added that 80 percent of Boulder’s water use goes to water lawns:

We’re chlorinating the whole region with our water practices.

Al Bartlett added to the conversation the problem of runaway population growth:

Any fraction of global warming can be attributed to human actions, and that alone is proof that human population has exceeded earth’s carrying capacity.

Panelists agreed that empowering women is a huge first step in reducing population growth—a step that has no downside, “unless you’re a misogynist,” added the moderator.

But most of the conversation centered on fossil fuels. Said Bill McKibben:

Fossil fuel defines modernity. Getting off it will be the biggest task we’ve ever attempted.

Al Bartlett added that food policies will have to be drastically altered:

Think about agriculture—how much energy is required to put food on your plate. That energy used to be person-energy. Person-energy on farms has been replaced by petroleum energy. For every unit of food on your plate, it’s estimated that ten units of petroleum have been expended.

And then there’s the sheer destructive power that we have unleashed since the Industrial Revolution. Said Brian Toon,

This is first time human beings have changed the planet on a geologic time scale: CO2 stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years. It’s an insidious problem. The CO2 lifetime is so long that by the time we see it’s a terrible problem, it’s already too late.

The grand convergence of the panel, if there was one, centered on the sheer emergency we face. Said Bill McKibben,

We need to change our understanding of climate change from future threat to present emergency.

What can ordinary people do? The list was only begun by the panel:

  • Reduce energy use.
  • Educate children about global warming.
  • Provide political will for elected officials. Even well-meaning presidents can’t lead too far ahead of the public will. Show elected leaders the public is ready to take emergency measures to reduce fossil fuel use and address global warming.
  • Get involved on 350 Day.
  • Support slower population growth by making sure every child is a wanted child.
  • Work to empower women. 

And one final suggestion by Diane McKnight:

Encourage environmental empathy. Encourage empathy for communities around the world. Foster empathy.

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2 Responses to “From future threat to present emergency”: Boulder panel on climate change

  1. Thanks for reporting on this.
    It’s scary though how often humans-in-mass can’t be moved to action until a crisis is absolutely upon them.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 28, 2009 at 6:18 pm

      Yes, grasshoppa, we seem to be pretty slow, don’t we?