‘Why I believe Irma is a warning sign’

Devastated: Hurricane Irma has left around six million people without power in Florida. © Getty
by Bill McKibben

The author of The End of Nature, one of the first books about climate change, and an environmental campaigner. He is a founder of 350.org, a climate change movement which has staged 20,000 rallies around the world.

The last seven days in North America have seen multiple hurricanes, immense forest fires, and record temperatures. A leading campaigner argues that we must act fast to stop climate change.

For the sake of keeping things manageable, let’s confine the discussion to a single continent and a single week: North America over the last seven days.

In Houston they got down to the recovery from the most expensive storm in US history. Meanwhile, San Francisco not only beat its all-time high temperature record, it crushed it by 3°F.

That same hot weather broke records up and down the west coast, except in those places where a pall of smoke from immense forest fires kept the sun shaded.

It’s not mysterious. It’s not bad luck. It’s not Donald Trump. It’s not hellfire sent to punish us. It’s physics.

That same heat was causing a “flash drought” across the country’s wheat belt of North Dakota and Montana. In the Atlantic, of course, Irma was barrelling across the islands of the Caribbean. The storm is currently battering the west coast of Florida, and could easily break the 10-day-old record for economic catastrophe set by Harvey.

Oh, and while Irma spun, Hurricane Jose followed in its wake, while in the Gulf of Mexico, Katia spun up into a frightening storm of her own.

Every one of these events jibes with what scientists have spent 30 fruitless years telling us to expect from global warming.

Because we have burned so much oil and gas and coal, we have put huge clouds of CO2 and methane in the air; because the structure of those molecules traps heat, the planet has warmed; because the planet has warmed, we get heavier rainfalls, stronger winds, and drier forests and fields.

It’s not mysterious. It’s not bad luck. It’s not Donald Trump (though he’s obviously not helping). It’s not hellfire sent to punish us. It’s physics.

Maybe it was too much to expect that scientists’ warnings would really move people. Maybe it’s like all the health warnings that you should eat fewer chips and drink less soda, which not many of us pay much mind. Until, maybe, you go to the doctor and he says: “Whoa, you’re in trouble right now, today. It looks to me like you’ve already had a small stroke or two.”

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are the equivalent of one of those transient ischaemic attacks – yeah, your face is drooping oddly on the left, but you can continue. Maybe. If you start getting your act together.

That’s the stage we’re at now – not the warning on the side of the pack, but the hacking cough that brings up blood. But what happens if you keep smoking? You get worse, till past a certain point you’re not continuing. We’ve increased the temperature of the Earth a little more than 1°C so far. We’re going to go somewhere near 2℃. That will be considerably worse than where we are now, but maybe it will be expensively endurable.

We have to seize the moment we’re in right now – the moment when we’re scared and vulnerable – and use it to dramatically reorient ourselves.

We could do it. It’s not technologically impossible. But everyone everywhere would have to move with similar speed, because this is in fact a race against time. Winning slowly is just a different way of losing.

Winning fast enough to matter would mean, above all, standing up to the fossil fuel industry. It would mean postponing other human enterprises and diverting other spending. That is, it would mean going on a war-like footing: not shooting at enemies, but focusing in the way that nations usually only focus when someone’s shooting at them.

And something is. What do you think it means when your forests are on fire, your streets are underwater, and your buildings are collapsing?

This is an edited version of Bill McKibben’s article in The Guardian. Follow the link under Become An Expert for the full text.

You Decide

  1. Should countries spend less money on some things (like education, defense, or health) in order to pay for fighting climate change?


  1. Draw a diagram which shows how burning fossil fuels causes global warming.

Word Watch

Expensive storm
According to the weather forecasting company AccuWeather, the damage from Storm Harvey could end up costing the USA around $190 billion. This is due to the damage to houses, water and oil supply chains, and businesses in Houston. The storm is also responsible for the most rainfall in US history.
On September 1st, San Francisco reached 106°F, or 41°C. The previous record was 103°F in June 2000.
Forest fires
After a forest fire somehow managed to jump the Columbia river from Oregon into Washington, residents of the Pacific Northwest reported that the ash was falling so thickly from the skies that it reminded them of the day Mount St Helens erupted in 1980.
CO2 and methane
The two most common greenhouses gases released by humans. While CO2 (ie, carbon dioxide) is released in larger quantities, methane’s effects on global warming are more powerful.
Transient ischaemic attacks
Also known as a TIA, this is the medical name for a form of mini-stroke.
Average global temperatures were around 1℃ higher than pre-industrial levels for the first time in 2015.

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