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The Man Who Sold the World

The Man Who Sold the World

By William Kleinknecht

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Everything Is Negotiable, Except Nature

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

By Bill McKibben

(Page 2)

I do know the one place where the president’s reasonable compromises simply won’t work—a place where we have absolutely no choice but to steer by abstract ideals. That place is the climate.

The terms of the climate change conundrum aren’t set by contending ideologies, whose adherents can argue till the end of time about whether tax cuts create jobs or kill them. In the case of global warming, chemistry rules, which means there are lines, hard and fast. Those of you who remember your periodic table will recall how neat that can be. There’s no shading between one element and the next. It’s either gallium or it’s zinc. There’s no zallium, no ginc. You might say that the elements are, in that sense, abstract ideals.

So are the molecules those elements combine to form. Take carbon dioxide (CO2), the most politically charged molecule on Earth. As the encyclopedia says: “At standard pressure and temperature the density of carbon dioxide is around 1.98 kg/m3, about 1.5 times that of air. The carbon dioxide molecule (O=C=O) contains two double bonds and has a linear shape.” Oh, and that particular molecular structure traps heat near the planet that would otherwise radiate back out into space, giving rise to what we call the greenhouse effect.

As of January 2008, our best climatologists gave us a number for how much carbon in the atmosphere is too much. At concentrations above 350 parts per million (ppm), a NASA team insisted, we can’t have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” We’re already past that; we’re at 390 ppm. Which is why 2010 will be the warmest year on record, almost a degree Celsius above the planet’s natural average, according to federal researchers. Which is why the Arctic melted again this summer, and Russia caught fire, and Pakistan drowned.

So here’s the thing: Just as in Copenhagen, 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.

Why have they been defying the science? The answer isn’t complicated: because it’s politically difficult. As chief negotiator Todd Stern said last year in Copenhagen, “We’re very, very mindful of the importance of our domestic legislation. That’s a core principle for me and everyone else working on this. You can’t jeopardize that.”

In other words, if we push too hard the Senate will say no, and the oil companies will be really, really pissed. So we’ll take the easy way. We’ll negotiate with nature, and with the rest of the world, the same way we negotiate with the Republicans.

It’s completely understandable; in fact, it’s even more understandable now that the GOP has increased its muscle in Congress. In that context, even the tepid text drafted in Cancún goes too far. Four Republican senators sent Obama a letter earlier this month telling him to stop using any foreign aid funds to tackle climate change. If I were Obama I’d want to make some kind of deal, and consider any deal as the start down a path to better things.

The problem, again, is the chemistry and the physics. They don’t give us much time, and they’re bad at haggling. If we let this planet warm much longer, scientists tell us that we’ll lose forever the chance of getting back to 350. That means we’ll lose forever the basic architecture of our planet with its frozen poles. Already the ocean is turning steadily more acidic; already the atmosphere is growing steadily wetter, which means desertifying evaporation in arid areas, and downpour and deluge elsewhere.

Political reality is hard to change, harder than ever since the Supreme Court delivered its Citizens United decision and loosed floods of more money into our political world. But physics and chemistry are downright impossible to shift. Physics and chemistry don’t bargain. So the president, and all the rest of us, had really better try a little harder.  The movement we’ve launched at has spread around the world, but it needs to get much stronger. Because this one time, in the usually messy conduct of human affairs, reaching an abstract ideal is our only hope.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and founder of His latest book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He recently was awarded the prestigious Puffin Prize. To listen to a TomCast audio interview in which McKibben discusses various kinds of global-warming denials, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Bill McKibben


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By SteveL, December 19, 2010 at 12:54 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 18, 2010 at 11:24 pm 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 12:31 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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By rico, suave, December 17, 2010 at 4:53 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 2:28 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 12:06 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 9:41 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 8:55 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 6:22 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 16, 2010 at 11:41 pm 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 8:38 pm Link to this comment

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

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By David J. Cyr, December 16, 2010 at 7:58 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 7:38 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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