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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Author Bill McKibben talks to IPFW students Thursday. The prominent environmental activist was the featured speaker for the school’s Omnibus Lecture Series.

  • McKibben

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 4:55 pm

Author notices shift in views on climate change

Jamie Duffy | The Journal Gazette

Prize-winning writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben is seeing progress when it comes to fighting global warming.

First, the Keystone XL pipeline was delivered a blow Wednesday when a request to pause a review of the project was denied, likely setting up its rejection by the Obama administration.

And Thursday, the day he was the featured speaker for IPFW’s Omnibus Lecture Series, the New York attorney general’s office announced that an investigation had been initiated to determine whether Exxon Mobil had lied to the public about the risks of climate change.

The largest fossil fuel company in the world had top scientists researching climate change 25 years ago. There is evidence they knew of the impending climate-related problems and still led a campaign of disinformation, McKibben said.

Before he appeared as the evening lecturer, McKibben held a news conference and then spoke to a biology class. His lecture was titled "The Climate Fight Reaches Its Crucial Stage."

In Science Hall, McKibben, who arrived tethered to his cellphone and carrying a backpack, sat on the front table of a lecture hall and answered questions. About 50 biology students listened to McKibben, particularly when he told them about a Rolling Stone magazine article he wrote on climate change – that appeared in the issue with Justin Bieber on the cover – managed to get more hits than any other story in the issue.

At one point during his question-and-answer period, he projected the front page of the New York Times website that led with the Exxon story.

"That’s a very big deal," he told the students. "This story will not disappear. They won’t be able to bury it."

Waking up the public to looming disasters is no easy task. McKibben said he wrote his first book, "The End of Nature," while in his 20s. At that time, it was believed that climate change would come much more slowly, he said.

His writings have had an impact along with groups he has founded or worked with. He founded 350.org, a name that refers to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmophere, in 2009.

"It was the biggest grass-roots global climate campaign," McKibben said, and it showed "the power of students and young people. That’s why I like going to colleges and universities."

McKibben was encouraged by a September 2014 march in New York City that drew 400,000 people speaking out against the accepted status quo on climate change.

He hopes the world will get behind doing something at the next climate change conference in Paris that begins at the end of this month. Six years ago, a similar conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, "failed utterly," he said.

He sees China closing down its coal-fired plants that produced horrendous urban pollution and working as quickly as any country to replace those plants with renewable energy and wind power. India needs to get on board now, he said.

Those who don’t think it can be done should look to Germany, where solar power supplied 80 percent of the country’s power this summer and to Denmark, where wind power has proved so successful that the country has been able to sell its excess to the rest of Europe.

Here in the Midwest, people are as impacted by global climate change as elsewhere in the world. Remember the drought of 2012? The one that brought a heat wave and affected the farmer’s crops?

One of the scariest things about the global warming crisis is the "unpredictability," McKibben said. Farmers from one generation to the next used to be able to count on "growing corn more or less in the same field, but crop patterns are shifting in the world."

Continuing that thought, the Syrian crisis could be linked to climate change. Many of the farmers in that country moved to the cities when a drought forced them off their land. Overcrowdedness brought on some of the violence, McKibben said.

Elsewhere, he said, we are seeing the effects of climate change including the Category 5 hurricane Patricia in Jalisco, Mexico, that recorded the highest wind speeds and the lowest barometric pressure in our atmosphere.

A few days ago, a hurricane in the Arabian Sea dumped five years’ worth of rain on Yemen, a place where hurricanes never occur.

McKibben makes no secret of his Methodist faith and said many of the groups he works with are religious. Some people have made it a political issue, but he hopes people will realize stewardship is what’s important.

"Pope Francis did his best to get it across with his encyclical this summer," he said.

The hardest hit are the most vulnerable, he said, but it will eventually engulf us all with rising sea levels.

jduffy@jg.net