Bill McKibben: We Can't Wait for the Politicians, We Have to Create the Future that We Need Ourselves
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The following was a speech Bill McKibben gave at the Powershift 2011 conference in Washington DC.
Very, very few people can ever say that they are in the single most important place they could possibly be, doing the single most important thing they could possibly be doing -- that's you, here, now. You are the movement that we need if we are going to win in the few years that we have. You have the skills now, you are making the connections, and there is no one else. It is you. That is a great honor and that is a terrible burden. There is no one else.
The science is the easy part of this -- grim, but easy. 2010 was the warmest year on record -- and it was warm. We were on the phone one day with our 350 crew in Pakistan and one of them said, "It's hot here today." And I was surprised to hear him say it, because it's usually in Pakistan in the summer, and he said, "No, it's really hot. We just set the all-time Asia temperature record -- 129 degrees." That kind of heat melts the Arctic. That kind of heat causes droughts so deep across Russia that the Kremlin stops all green export. That kind of heat causes the flooding that still has 4 million people across Pakistan homeless tonight.
It's tough, it's grim, but the good news at least is that it's clear, the science. We have a number -- 350 parts per million. 350 -- the most important number on Earth, as the NASA team put it in January 2008. Any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed, into which life on Earth is adapted. Getting back to 350 parts per million will be very, very tough -- the toughest thing human beings have ever done -- but there is no use complaining about it. It's just physics and chemistry. That's what we have to do.
But if the scientific method has worked splendidly to outline our dilemma, that's how badly the political method has worked to solve it. Think about our own country, historically the biggest source of carbon emissions. Last summer, the Senate refused to even take a vote on the tepid, moderate, tame climate bill that was before it. Last week, the House voted 248-174 to pass a resolution saying global warming wasn't real. It was one of the most embarrassing votes that Congress has ever taken. They believe that because they can amend the tax laws, they can amend the laws of nature, too. But they can't. I am awful glad a few of you of you went up to the Visitor's Gallery to talk some sense to them last week. Even the White House -- two weeks ago, the Interior Secretary who spoke here two years ago, Ken Salazar, signed a piece of paper opening 750 million tons of coal under federal land in Wyoming to mining. That is like opening 300 new coal-fired power plants and running them for a year. That's a disgrace.
But you know what? We know why we are in trouble. We understand the physics and chemistry of political power. In this case, it's not carbon dioxide that rules the day, it's money. Many of you are in the District of Columbia for the first time, and it looks clean and it looks sparkling. No -- this city is as polluted as Beijing, but instead of coal smoke it's polluted by money. Money warps our political life, it obscures our vision, but just like with physics and chemistry there's no use whining. We know now what we need to do and the first thing we need to do is build a movement.