Environmentalist Bill McKibben calls for action on climate change


Addressing a packed auditorium at St. Thomas University in St. Paul on February 20, environmental activist Bill McKibben laid out the realities of climate change in stark terms: “What we do, or don’t do, in the next few years will determine what our planet looks like for the next thousand, or hundred-thousand years. This is what in our time we are called to do.”

McKibben, the author of a dozen books on the environment, is the founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org. In 2010 the Boston Globe described him as, “probably the country’s most important environmentalist.” McKibben’s talk was part of a two-day program at St. Thomas University and Macalester College entitled Celebrating and Preserving Winter: Responding to Climate Change in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

McKibben said in his talk that the evidence backing climate change is irrefutable and, going forward, extreme weather events will only increase in regularity. Unless there is enough political resolve to slow down the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, life on earth will be irrevocably altered.

Macalester College Professor Christie Manning said, “As the signals of climate change becomes more obvious, less buried in the noise of normal variations of weather, climate change will become emotionally real and psychologically close.”

Star Tribune meteorologist Paul Douglas pointed out that, within the last year, several weather events have been signs of an altering climate: the unusually mild winter of 2011-2012, record-breaking warm temperatures in March, and the torrential Duluth rainstorm in June.

A recent study by the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee (NCADAC) concluded that trends in warmer average temperatures, more frequent droughts, and more intense rainfalls will continue in Minnesota over the upcoming decades, with potentially devastating impacts on agriculture, wildlife habitat, and infrastructure. Since the early 1980s, the study notes that average temperatures have already risen by between two and four degrees Fahrenheit across the state.

According to the NCADAC, we can expect an additional warming of five degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century. Coupled with warmer temperatures will be a paradoxical weather pattern of prolonged droughts but more rainfall overall. Rain events will be less frequent, and when rain does fall it will be more intense.

How will these changes in the climate alter Minnesota’s landscapes and our overall way of life? First of all, Manning said, the metro region would face major vulnerabilities as a result of new weather patterns:

  • With more frequent and extended periods of drought, cities will need to seek out new sources for their drinking water supplies to keep up with demand and depleted reservoirs.
  • Water quality will also be impaired. Extreme rainstorms will overwhelm municipal sewer systems, resulting in flooding and runoff into local waterways.
  • Roads, bridges, and transit lines will require more regular, costly maintenance, as heat waves and an increase in the number of freeze and thaw cycles degrade local infrastructure.

Statewide, the NCADAC report warns that climate change will have major impacts on two of the sectors that drive Minnesota’s economy, agriculture and tourism. Heat waves, droughts, and floods will work together to decrease the long-term viability of farming in the state. A changing climate will push the range of iconic North Woods species like quaking aspen and balsam fir north into Canada and lead to an increase in invasive species and harmful algae blooms in Lake Superior.

Work around climate change is being done at the local level in the Twin Cities. Minneapolis is in the process of updating its Climate Action Plan and professors at Macalester College are currently working with the city of St. Paul on possible climate adaptation initiatives.

Currently, the Sierra Club North Star Chapter and Minnesota 350 are waging grassroots campaigns at the state capital, demanding that meaningful action be taken by the legislature to reduce contributions to climate change.

Solving climate change will be an uphill battle: there is a finite amount of time to turn things around and the industries opposing action on the problem have vast resources to commit to lobbying elected officials. Bill McKibben reminded the audience that activists are rich in other currency: passion, logic, and data.

Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.