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Everything Is Negotiable, Except Nature

Posted on Dec 16, 2010
Flickr / Tim Keegan (CC-BY-SA)

By Bill McKibben

This article was produced by TomDispatch.

Editor’s note by Tom Engelhardt:

At the moment, if you live in the American Midwest, where part of the roof of a football stadium just collapsed under the weight of a massive snowfall, or in Europe in the grips of a frigid cold spell, it may seem strange to be talking about warming, global or otherwise, no less vanishing ice. But the long-term trends seem ever clearer as 2010 threatens to be the warmest year on record. With the Midwest blizzarded in, it doesn’t seem as if melting ice should be the story of the hour and yet the ice-face of the planet is morphing and shrinking remarkably rapidly and global ice melt turns out to be—if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor—the canary in the mineshaft of climate change, and so a leading indicator of problems to come. 

In the Himalayas, which contain the largest non-polar ice mass on the planet and whose runoff waters feed 10 major rivers in Asia, the glaciers are receding and scientists, according to expert Orville Schell, fear a “43 percent decrease in land mass covered with ice in these mountains by 2070”; in Argentina, a Greenpeace expedition has just presented evidence that the Ameghino glacier has receded by four kilometers in the past 80 years; of the 150 glaciers that existed in 1850 in what is now Montana’s Glacier National Park, only 25 remain today (and they too are melting away); in Greenland, where a 250-square-kilometer island of ice broke off a glacier this summer, fears about the “rapid disintegration” of the southern part of its vast ice sheet are rising; in the Arctic Sea, recent years have seen the rapid summertime melting of its year-round ice cover, leading toward seasonally ice-free waters; in northern Canada, Hudson Bay was basically ice-free this November, a historical oddity; and even in the Antarctic, covered with ice to a depth of up to three miles in some locations, the melting seems to have begun.

Beyond the vision of rising ocean waters inundating coastal areas (in or near which a significant portion of humanity lives), it’s hard even to take in what this means for us, other than increasingly severe weather and disruptions of every sort, potentially staggering migrations of destitute populations, and the sort of future possibilities that once were restricted to science fiction. It’s in this context that the just concluded global warming conference in Cancún, enmeshed as it was in the usual politics, has proven so expectably disappointing, as TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben indicates below. The author most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, creator of the remarkable, and winner of the prestigious Puffin Prize, McKibben understands that although almost anything on this planet is theoretically negotiable, the rate of ice melt can’t be negotiated with glaciers, nor the rise in sea levels with the oceans of the planet. If only our politicians grasped the same. (To catch a TomCast audio interview in which McKibben discusses various kinds of global-warming denials, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.)  Tom


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You Can’t Bargain About Global Warming With Chemistry and Physics

The U.N.’s big climate conference ended Saturday in Cancún, with claims of modest victory. “The U.N. climate talks are off the life-support machine,” said Tim Gore of Oxfam. “Not as rancorous as last year’s train wreck in Copenhagen,” wrote the Guardian. Patricia Espinosa, the Mexican foreign minister who brokered the final compromise, described it as “the best we could achieve at this point in a long process.”           

The conference did indeed make progress on a few important issues: the outlines of financial aid for developing countries to help them deal with climate change, and some ideas on how to monitor greenhouse gas emissions in China and India. But it basically ignored the two crucial questions: How much carbon will we cut, and how fast?

On those topics, one voice spoke more eloquently than all the 9,000 delegates, reporters and activists gathered in Cancún.

And he wasn’t even there. And he wasn’t even talking about climate.

Barack Obama was in Washington, holding a press conference to discuss the liberal insurgency against his taxation agreement with the Republicans. He said he’d fought hard for a deal and resented the criticism. He harked back to the health care fight when what his press secretary had called the “professional left” (and Rahm Emanuel had called “retards”) scorned him for not winning a “public option.” They were worse than wrong, he said; they were contemptible, people who wanted to “be able to feel good about ourselves, and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are.” Consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he continued: When he started Social Security it covered only widows and orphans. Medicare, at its start, helped only a relative few. Sanctimonious purists would have considered them “betrayals of some abstract ideal.” And yet they grew.

It was powerful and interesting stuff, especially coming from a man who ran on abstract ideals. (I have T-shirts on which are printed nothing but his name and abstract ideals.) I don’t know enough about health care policy or tax policy to be sure whether he’s making a good call or not, though after listening to much of Bernie Sanders’ nearly nine-hour near-filibuster I have my doubts.

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By SteveL, December 19, 2010 at 1:54 am Link to this comment

I agree with Sasquatch’s post but the main problem is that most of the U.S
politicians would not touch logic with a 10-foot pole.

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By Sasquatch, December 19, 2010 at 12:24 am Link to this comment

It is amazing that politicians that get so upset at
the effect of deficits on our children have so little
concern of a deteriorating environment on future
generations. There may be a window still for the
greedy to line their coffers but eventually the
consumption of resources and the depleted livability
will come back to haunt them and we will all have to
live a grim third world reality. The people who
already live that existence at least won’t have to
adjust. What is needed is for everyone to get on the
same page and agree to peace and saving the earth at
all costs. Anything else is going to result in a grim
reality for future generations, no matter what their
religion or politics may be. Why can’t we choose
shared livability instead of a short-lived chance at
riches that will end in everyone living in despair.

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By SteveL, December 18, 2010 at 1:31 am Link to this comment

Author Bill McKibben obviously has not been around enough Harvard graduates. 
They think that diploma trumps everything even nature, science, physics, good
sense, history and you name it.  That’s why we are in trouble on so many fronts

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, December 17, 2010 at 5:53 pm Link to this comment

For a sober look at our response to climate change, check out the November 27 issue of The Economist.

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By alturn, December 17, 2010 at 3:28 pm Link to this comment

The error in separating climate issues from human issues is that everything is interconnected.  Obama seems to believe that we can keep beating the crap out of the poor and enriching the few and there will be no adverse consequences to society or nature.  We will soon find out how deadly wrong he is.

“My plan is this: to place before mankind the alternatives of sharing and death. No-one in truth could for mankind choose the latter, for that death would be shameful and bitter indeed, unlike your blackest fears. My friends, there is a way of Hope. There is a way into the Light. That simple way lies through Brotherhood and Love. Many times before have you heard this.
Nevertheless, mankind yet awaits its fulfilment.”
- Messages from Maitreya the Christ

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By ray, December 17, 2010 at 1:06 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It has taken the public far longer than I expected to see the revelations of who we really elected.
Today’s 39% approval rating for O will become the ‘good ol days’ this time next year if O has not compromised this country to the point of irreversible & climate change is non-negotiable.
I donated beyond my comfort zone for obama as well as campaigning for the miserable gutless political pimp.
obama supports obama- get used to it.

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By SoTexGuy, December 17, 2010 at 10:41 am Link to this comment

The majority of opposition to real policy agreements that could halt changes in
our atmosphere and possibly reverse climate damage may be simple
pragmatism. What we have now is working in the short term for very many
people and industries.. And despite the science and the protest there are no
easy answers.

Oh sure there are real bad guys who are in the fight to stifle change and new
technologies for personal profit. Plus demagogues seeking power and
influence.. and of course lots of plain ignorant folks..

But look around.. I have been.

Current energy policy, transportation choices, power grids, pipelines, banking
and financing (and a huge list of things that would fill volumes even if I could
name half of them!) All mesh together to form one sprawling integrated (even if
imperfectly so) mechanism/organism..

The carbon economy employs people and makes sums of money that if
comprised of $100USD bills stacked one on another would reach to the moon
(or some such unbelievable but true statistic).. Everything depends on it.. and
no one knows how the huge food-deserts of modern cities and metropolitan
areas could survive for more than a few days if the oil/coal/gas spigot were to
be turned off.

More than that.. government takes a slice of the pie at every step. At the pump
in sales and excise tax. Pipeline and lease taxes and assessments. Indirectly
through payroll taxes (again, many more ways than I could know or list) ..
Government and the carbon industry are codependent .. and mutual facilitators
in their dysfunction! How are those monies to be replaced? More than any
individual or group government is not going to tinker with it’s own source of

And here’s more reality.. everyday more iron and aluminum is clawed from the
earth, more combustion engines are manufactured, more soil is paved over for
more roads and highways.. more people get into more cars and trucks (and
buses) to clog more and more of the roadways.. and they have to! The way our
towns and cities are laid out there is no alternative, even for the rare individual
who would freely give up their car or SUV.

The status quo is a huge interlocked mechanism or organism.. it doesn’t work
right and produces too much waste and many losers as well as winners.. BUT
IT’S TOO BIG TO STOP.. at least without radical changes and adjustments. Ideas
and actions way off the map of proposals by any but the most ardent cave-
dwelling nature huggers (of which I may well be one!). The kinds of changes
that elected officials, especially those funded by the whole poisonous process,
are not going to accept or propose.

It’s worth pointing out that even in nature no system is permanent and no
organism is limitless or unchanging.. so it seems major changes will come one
way or another.. I have not made up my mind on whether I want to be around
to see it.


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By Gordy, December 17, 2010 at 9:55 am Link to this comment

I read this while stuck in my house due to extreme snowfall.

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By Dan Robbins, December 17, 2010 at 7:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A few flaws in the article and its intro:
the inclusion of the words “remarkably” (not really);
“seems” (meaning “It is not proof positive”);
itty bitty weather events like a stadium roof falling in;
43% decrease in ice in the Himalayas?  That’s a guess, that is all; and 42% is ok?
“potentially staggering migrations of destitute populations”—this is fearmongering, not science, and rising oceans don’t happen that quickly for ‘staggering migrations’ of people to flee coastal areas.
Now, on to the actual article: in fact, we are negotiating with nature, Bill.  Your magic number of 350 is a negotiation.  Not 349 (too odd, perhaps?), not 347 (too prime?). 350 is a negotiation point—where, if we aim for and reach it, all will be well?
We’re always negotiating, either from denial, or anger, or concern or fear.  We are part of nature, and we’re always negotiating with ourselves.

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By Conden, December 17, 2010 at 12:41 am Link to this comment

Obama is scum.  And indeed, the excusing propaganda spread about his corrupt inaction and actions displaying clear right wing policies is sickening.  You can’t make some pathetic “compromise” among your little clique of elite right wing politicians, leaving out the billions of people in the world who see that climate change, that fossil fuels need to be STOPPED if we are to survive.

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By Queenie, December 16, 2010 at 9:38 pm Link to this comment

The enemy of Nature is Capitalism. Unbridled, unregulated and greedy. It is killing us.

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, December 16, 2010 at 8:58 pm Link to this comment

QUOTE (Bill McKibben):

“Obama’s delegation in Cancún has been arguing for an agreement that would limit atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 450 parts per million, and the cuts they’ve been proposing might actually produce a world of about 550 parts per million.”

In his January, 2009 inauguration speech, Obama said, “We will restore science to its rightful place.” He didn’t say which century he would place it way Right back into.

Why is Obama ignoring science? Well, that’s because profiting from pollution is the “progressive” stimulus banksters require for the next bubble; and the profits from the Final Solution of climate wars are sure to be most “historic” ... in that final chapter of “civilization’s” history of violence.

Obama should get another preemptive “Peace” Prize for those climate wars (that will end all wars) that his environmental policy now will make “necessary” soon.

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By gerard, December 16, 2010 at 8:38 pm Link to this comment

One massive step toward educating ordinary people on climate change is to break through to Protestant ministers, preachers, etc., and in a “non-threatening” way.  That is, don’t try to “convert” them or tell them they are wrong. Try to educate them on the dangers of preaching against climate change and for the “end times.” 

This will be hard, because the “end times” myth is not only “authenticated” by religious legend but is a powerful way of urging people to “be good,” to obey religious stictures etc.  Likewise, there is need to make the necessity of saving the planet a RELIGIOUS task as such.  “This is the land which God made and gave to us for our keeping,” etc. etc. “For centuries people have lived creating and advancing technologies dependant upon “dirty” energy. But now that dirty energy has caused an irreversible change in earth’s environment.

“Those changes are signs that God wants us to take care of His earth, not destroy it. Only recently have people discovered changes that make clear what is happening on a vast scale—changes that within 100 years or less will make it impossible to inhabit large areas and people will have nowhere to go.  God is speaking now through these changes—warmer climates everywhere, leading to water shortage, etc. etc. etc.  In this way He is showing us what we need to do, etc. etc.”

Understand—this is not a “LANGUAGE” that appeals to me personally, but I know a lot of people who will only listen to statements if they are couched in these terms.  I know this way of talking is repulsive to scientists, but ... scientists are not the ones who need to be convinced. And scientific language is repulsive to religious people, whose generally widespread problem is lack of sufficient education. But we can’t ignore them, or criticize them because it’s NOT their fault. The problem of “language” here has to be addressed and if we can reach the religious leaders, they’ll do the rest. 

Your thoughts?

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