Carbon dioxide increases offer bleak outlook for region

Act now or our world will be vastly different within the next century. That was the message that environmentalist, writer and Sunday school teacher Bill McKibben delivered at the Faculty Club in a lecture entitled “The Environment as Moral Challenge” on Wednesday. The lecture was part of the W. Ford Schumann ’50 Visiting Professorship in Democratic Studies. Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State, will visit the College on May 2 as the next speaker in the series.

McKibben is the author of The End of Nature, a book that details global environmental problems. His book has been translated into 16 different languages, largely because it was the first book that explained the severity of the world’s ecological problems, particularly climate change, in layman’s terms. Before writing his book, McKibben worked at The New Yorker writing columns, general interest articles and humor pieces.

McKibben said that in 1989 scientists knew little about the causes or effects of climate change. However, within the next five years, scientific focus shifted to climate change; scientists began analyzing satellite imagery, soil changes and sea levels to determine exactly how the world was changing.

“By 1995, climatologists were ready to say that human beings were hurting the planet and that [climate change] was going to be a serious problem,” McKibben said. Although multiple factors can contribute to climate change, the biggest — and the one that McKibben focused on — is the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

McKibben used a barrage of facts to support his point and emphasize how different our world will be within 50 to 100 years.

In the past century, McKibben said, the average temperature around the world increased by only one degree. Despite the apparently small size of the temperature increase, he said, there have certainly been side effects, some obvious and some subtle.

“It’s clear that the world is becoming stormier,” McKibben said. Recently, the number of storms that drop two or more inches of rain has been 20 percent higher than average.

“Every major glacial system is in retreat. Glacier National Park will have no glaciers by 2030,” McKibben said. He also explained that the ice in the Arctic ice cap is 40 percent thinner than it was 40 years ago. Interestingly, Arctic data was collected by the U.S. Navy, which has been operating nuclear submarines underneath the ice for decades.

At first glance, the changes that humans see may seem largely cosmetic; glaciers will disappear and ice will melt. However, McKibben argued, the full effects of all these changes are much greater.

“All that water in the Arctic is fresh. When you melt it, you send a huge pulse into the ecosystem. . .there’s a lot of very sobering [computer] modeling about what’s happening [in the Arctic].”

With so much ice melting and larger storms dropping more water, McKibben said that some low lying countries that rely heavily on flood plains are also experiencing the effects of rising water levels. In Bangladesh, where over 100 million people inhabit a geographical area roughly the size of Wisconsin, people are completely self-sufficient; the fertile land surrounding Bangladesh’s main rivers allow the country to produce enough food to avoid purchasing food from abroad.

“They’re able to work their land very carefully,” McKibben said. “It’s an amazing place. The problem is, because it’s a river delta, it’s only a few feet above sea level. As the sea level rises, it blocks rivers from draining, which puts a lot of the country under water” and does not allow farmers to use their rice paddies. Although farming has only been seriously hurt a few times, McKibben said that countries such as Bangladesh may eventually become uninhabitable if sea levels continue to rise. He mentioned that small island nations may have to be completely evacuated as the sea level rises enough to engulf them altogether.

Ultimately, the cause of rising sea levels is a rise in temperature. Indeed, in the course of the next century, the temperature of the world will rise between five and 11 degrees. The lower temperature estimate is if the United States actively intervenes and initiates stronger carbon dioxide regulations, and the 11-degree estimate represents temperature change without any new regulation.

While Williamstown residents may sometimes lament the bitterly cold winds that whistle through town, McKibben said the temperature changes will assure that “winter as we know it [may] not exist in 50 to 100 years.”

A recent climate report released by the University of New Hampshire claims, McKibben said, “that unless we do something drastic, the climate in Boston will be like that of Richmond or Atlanta in 50-plus years.”

Though average snowfalls have remained roughly the same in the last century, there are also differences. McKibben said that winter has drifted in the last 30 years, coming nine days later and ending seven days earlier.

The changing temperatures will also affect local industries. The sugaring season, when maple syrup is made, will disappear completely as maple trees are overrun by oaks and hickories — trees that one normally finds in Georgia and other warmer, more southern states.

And as the maple trees disappear, so too will the fall foliage that attracts visitors from the south and other areas of the country, where their trees turn dull brown colors instead of the vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges of a New England fall.

Finally, higher temperatures allow mosquitoes — well known for their ability to carry deadly diseases such as malaria — to thrive in places where temperatures previously prevented their survival. In Bangladesh, for example, there have already been outbreaks of diseases that were hitherto unknown in the region.

After detailing all the problems that climate changes have and will cause, McKibben discussed possible solutions to the problems. He noted George H. W. Bush’s pledge in 1990 to have no carbon dioxide emissions increases between 1990 and 2000. However, according to McKibben, the U.S. has increased carbon dioxide output by 15 percent since Bush’s pledge. “We not only didn’t cut carbon dioxide production, we increased our market share [in terms of output vis-à-vis the world]. The question about how to turn that around is a vexing one,” McKibben admitted.

Perhaps, he said, in the wake of Sept. 11, environmental issues will be dealt with from a new perspective that will benefit his cause. For instance, the 800-mile long oil pipeline that runs through Alaska, McKibben said, is entirely indefensible, as are the country’s natural gas pipelines and 104 nuclear power plants.

“We begin to sense after Sept. 11 that we can’t go alone in the world,” McKibben said. “It took George Bush about 20 minutes to decide that after the attacks. For instance, we ask Bangladesh for troops, but they have other concerns too, such as the fact that 60 percent of their country will be under water by the end of the century.” And the cause of Bangladesh’s problems, McKibben argued, is U.S. carbon dioxide output.

McKibben pointed out that the U.S. can also look toward other sources
of power that are environmentally-friendly, such as wind power, which is now common throughout Europe. Instead, McKibben said, Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy panel and his energy plan make all the wrong moves by calling for as much drilling as possible. The motivation behind Cheney’s report, McKibben said, is the fact the energy companies have strong lobbies and realize that they are in trouble as the rest of the world turns to cleaner and increasingly less expensive energy options.

Only a strong public lobby can answer a strong energy lobby and the wants of constituents will eventually win, McKibben said. But before politics change things, Americans can individually start helping the environment. The single worst problem McKibben sees today is America’s desire for big, fuel-inefficient sport utility vehicles.

“We’re past the point where it’s amusing to see a Ford Explorer with an American flag,” McKibben said. “That’s not a patriotic act. A Toyota hybrid can have an American flag on it with a lot less irony.”

“Decisions like ‘what car should I buy?’ and ‘what candidate should I vote for?’ are the really important [ones to ask now]…It isn’t that [the U.S.] doesn’t know how to solve these problems,” McKibben said. “The problem is that there’s not enough demand for it to happen.”