Noted author brings somber news

Global warming activist Bill McKibben honors land conservancy’s 25th year

HARLEMVILLE — The weather couldn’t have been more pleasant for the visit of Bill McKibben Tuesday afternoon, June 21, pleasantly warm and sunny, which didn’t seem quite right given his credentials. And though he acknowledged at the outset that it is “usually my custom to deeply depress people,” his message to nearly 300 people gathered under a tent top on a lawn behind the Hawthorne Valley School started on a decidedly upbeat note.

Mr. McKibben, the author, professor, activist and Methodist Sunday school teacher dubbed by the Boston Globe “probably the country’s most important environmentalist,” was here to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Columbia Land Conservancy. And he began by lauding the local farm economy exemplified by Hawthorne Valley Farm, a place he described as “the cradle of the movement when it wasn’t clear it was going to be a movement.”

He said he sees no more hopeful sign than the recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the number of farms in the United States has begun to increase, a phenomenon not experienced in this country for a century and a half. But as positive as that trend may be, there is one force threatening, even likely to derail this progress — the rapid and severe impact of global warming.

Citing a series of facts that spiraled inward from general to regional, Mr. McKibben talked about 2010 having been the warmest year since records have been kept, how the unprecedented heat wave that gripped Moscow and other parts of Russia last year led that country to cease exporting grain and contributed to food price increases around the globe. He said the essential fact of global warming — that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases the amount of water the air can hold — was known by 1989 when he wrote his first book, “The End of Nature.” More moisture in the air leads to droughts some places and huge floods elsewhere, as in Pakistan, where four million are still homeless after last year’s floods; and this year the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are more swollen than ever. Then there’s Lake Champlain, close to his home in Vermont, which has been at flood stage for seven weeks.

All these ominous signs appear when the overall temperature around the globe has risen by only one degree. Scientists predict that the temperature will rise four to five degrees over the century at the rate carbon dioxide (CO2) is increasing.

As a writer, Mr. McKibben said he seeks to find ways of interpreting the data, and one of the most straightforward is to connect climate change with food. The mounting evidence shows that every one-degree increase in overall temperature causes a 10% reduction in grain yields. This has less of an impact here, where there are surpluses. But in poor countries shortages quickly translate into to higher food costs and then to hunger that affects people whose lifestyles do not contribute to global warming.

Just writing about these dilemmas was not enough for Mr. McKibben, who has turned to direct, peaceful action to mobilize people around the world to press for meaningful steps to reduce and, ultimately, reverse global warming. He believes in the power of numbers, and in particular “350” caught his attention. NASA scientist Robert Hansen and other experts have calculated 350 as the highest concentration in parts per million (ppm) that can sustain human life as we know it into the foreseeable future. The current atmospheric concentration is 390 ppm.

Mr. McKibben founded an organization five years ago called 350.org (also its web address) and has used the organization and the Internet as organizing tools. Although the group’s first efforts bore modest results, a coordinated series of demonstrations around the world in 2009 was described by CNN as the generating the most widespread political activity in history, he said.

That action also contradicted claims by critics that concern over environmental matters was largely an activity of well-to-do white people in the West with little better to do. The majority of people around the world who sought change that day were poor people of many skin colors and national origins.

In this county, Mr. McKibben singled out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as the single most effective force working against efforts to reduce global warming. But he and others at this week’s event repeatedly stressed that the national Chamber was not connected to local chambers like the Columbia County Chamber, which actively supports local agriculture.

As he closed his remarks in front of the appreciative crowd, he warned his listeners that the effort to slow global warming caused by human activity would be very difficult. What’s more, he said, “There’s no guarantee that any of this will work.”

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