McKibben’s Longform Power Pitch

The market for electrons is predictable, meaning that solar panels installed on farmland can provide a fairly stable income for farmers. Photograph by George Rose / Getty

Illustration by Álvaro Bernis

If you have not been reading Bill McKibben regularly, or at all, here is as good a place to start as you will find. It is a long, powerful pitch:

In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things

The truth is new and counterintuitive: we have the technology necessary to rapidly ditch fossil fuels.

In 2020, fossil-fuel pollution killed three times as many people as COVID-19 did. Photograph by Artur Widak / NurPhoto / Getty

On the last day of February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most dire report yet. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, had, he said, “seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this.” Setting aside diplomatic language, he described the document as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” and added that “the world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.” Then, just a few hours later, at the opening of a rare emergency special session of the U.N. General Assembly, he catalogued the horrors of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and declared, “Enough is enough.” Citing Putin’s declaration of a nuclear alert, the war could, Guterres said, turn into an atomic conflict, “with potentially disastrous implications for us all.”

What unites these two crises is combustion. Burning fossil fuel has driven the temperature of the planet ever higher, melting most of the sea ice in the summer Arctic, bending the jet stream, and slowing the Gulf Stream. And selling fossil fuel has given Putin both the money to equip an army (oil and gas account for sixty per cent of Russia’s export earnings) and the power to intimidate Europe by threatening to turn off its supply. Fossil fuel has been the dominant factor on the planet for centuries, and so far nothing has been able to profoundly alter that. After Putin invaded, the American Petroleum Institute insisted that our best way out of the predicament was to pump more oil. The climate talks in Glasgow last fall, which John Kerry, the U.S. envoy, had called the “last best hope” for the Earth, provided mostly vague promises about going “net-zero by 2050”; it was a festival of obscurantism, euphemism, and greenwashing, which the young climate activist Greta Thunberg summed up as “blah, blah, blah.” Even people trying to pay attention can’t really keep track of what should be the most compelling battle in human history.

So let’s reframe the fight. Along with discussing carbon fees and green-energy tax credits, amid the momentary focus on disabling Russian banks and flattening the ruble, there’s a basic, underlying reality: the era of large-scale combustion has to come to a rapid close. If we understand that as the goal, we might be able to keep score, and be able to finally get somewhere. Last Tuesday, President Biden banned the importation of Russian oil. This year, we may need to compensate for that with American hydrocarbons, but, as a senior Administration official put it,“the only way to eliminate Putin’s and every other producing country’s ability to use oil as an economic weapon is to reduce our dependency on oil.” As we are one of the largest oil-and-gas producers in the world, that is a remarkable statement. It’s a call for an end of fire.

We don’t know when or where humans started building fires; as with all things primordial there are disputes. But there is no question of the moment’s significance. Fire let us cook food, and cooked food delivers far more energy than raw; our brains grew even as our guts, with less processing work to do, shrank. Fire kept us warm, and human enterprise expanded to regions that were otherwise too cold. And, as we gathered around fires, we bonded in ways that set us on the path to forming societies. No wonder Darwin wrote that fire was “the greatest discovery ever made by man, excepting language.”

Darwin was writing in the years following the Industrial Revolution, as we learned how to turn coal into steam power, gas into light, and oil into locomotion, all by way of combustion. Our species depends on combustion; it made us human, and then it made us modern. But, having spent millennia learning to harness fire, and three centuries using it to fashion the world we know, we must spend the next years systematically eradicating it. Because, taken together, those blazes—the fires beneath the hoods of 1.4 billion vehicles and in the homes of billions more people, in giant power plants, and in the boilers of factories and the engines of airplanes ships—are more destructive than the most powerful volcanoes, dwarfing Krakatoa and Tambora. The smoke and smog from those engines and appliances directly kill nine million people a year, more deaths than those caused by war and terrorism, not to mention malaria and tuberculosis, together. (In 2020, fossil-fuel pollution killed three times as many people as covid-19 did.) Those flames, of course, also spew invisible and odorless carbon dioxide at an unprecedented rate; that CO2 is already rearranging the planet’s climate, threatening not only those of us who live on it now but all those who will come after us.

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Read the whole essay here.

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