Bill McKibben Responds To Vaclav Smil

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Last week, we ran a three part series about an interview with Vaclav Smil by the New York Times Magazine. In it, Smil, who is a prolific author, distinguished professor, and noted scientist, took a rather dim view of how humanity is addressing the impending climate crisis it has created. In his latest book, entitled How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going, he writes that energy transitions from water power, to burning wood, to burning coal, to burning fossil fuels, to nuclear energy all took many decades or even centuries to complete, and so the transition to renewables will also take a long time. Therefore, the protestations of world leaders who insist the transition must happen much more quickly is just happy talk that ignores reality.

In his interview, Bill McKibben was referred to as “America’s leading climate catastrophist.” (Actually, he has lots of company, including such notables a Michael E. Mann and Dr. James Hansen.) That barb spurred McKibben to respond in his blog called The Crucial Years, which focuses on the fact that the scientists who contribute to the IPCC climate report suggest the world has only until 2030 to slash carbon emissions dramatically. If that doesn’t happen, the Earth’s environment may pass a tipping point where cascading events lead to an irreversible slide into climate chaos that will threaten the ability of humans to survive on this lonely planet way out on the edge of nowhere.

Bill McKibben On Realism

Vaclav Smil urges his reader to “get real.” Change just doesn’t happen quickly because we want it to or need it to, change happens at its own pace — always has and always will. His thesis is that the 26th UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow last fall said we must reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 as compared with 2010 levels. This is undoable, Smil writes, because there’s just 8 years left and emissions are still rising. People don’t appreciate the magnitude of the task and are setting up artificial deadlines which are unrealistic.

“He’s right,” McKibben says. “It is on the bleeding edge of the technically possible to cut emissions in half by 2030, but it’s almost certainly not politically possible to get all the way there. The momentum coming out of Paris in 2015 was fatally blunted by four years of Trump. With autocracies in control of many key nations around the world, it is hard to imagine change coming as fast as we need it.”

McKibben thinks we should push for the most rapid change possible, but Smil disagrees. “What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional.” To which McKibben responds that scientists and engineers have driven down the price of renewable energy by 90% over the last decade. “We could, if we wanted to, move quickly,” McKibben says.

“And the point is, we have to move quickly. The move from wood to coal could stretch out over a leisurely century because there was no existential question in play. We’d cut down way too many forests, and were slowly running out of timber, but that’s a different kind of threat from what’s happening, say, this week in India and Pakistan, where 10 percent of the human family is enduring truly astonishing levels of heat. Our retreat from fossil fuel has to be a forced march, or else. And that’s where people like Smil end up having to pretend that climate change just isn’t that big a crisis, because if it was then he’d be forced off the bench and into the game.”

In the Times interview, Smil was asked whether the world is in imminent danger. “What is ‘imminent’?” he asked in reply.

“In science you have to be careful with your words. We’ve had these problems ever since we started to burn fossil fuels on a large scale. We haven’t bothered to do anything about it.

“There is no excuse for that. We could have chosen a different path. But this is not our only imminent and global problem. About one billion people are either undernourished or malnourished. The fact of possible nuclear war these days. This is the problem of society today. We cannot do three things at the same time. So who decides what is ‘imminent’?”

McKibben responds that it took centuries to accumulate enough carbon in the atmosphere to cause temperatures to noticeably rise.

“A billion people indeed face food insecurity — which is being made much worse by an ever more unstable climate. (Early reports on this years Punjab wheat crop indicate that the record hot weather is quickly reducing yields). Nuclear war is a threat most immediately because of Vladimir Putin, who can afford his weapons only because of his oil and gas revenues. And so on. In other words, these tired bromides are not wisdom; they are grousing. And they are a great assist to whoever wants delay — in this case self-interested oil companies and intellectually lazy politicians.”

“Realism is often defined as some middle ground between opposing sides,” he writes. “And in controversies between humans, that’s at least a reasonable idea. But the climate crisis is not a beef between two camps of people, ultimately. It’s a beef between human beings and physics. And since physics is implacable, we would be well advised to do everything we possibly can to meet its dictates.”

The Takeaway

McKibben concludes his latest blog post with this thought. “If we mustered all available political will, we could make change very fast, just as we made tanks very fast at the start of World War II. Climate activists, it seems to me, are more realistic than naysaying academics, if only because they know we have very little choice.”

Perhaps a sports analogy is fitting here. A championship team doesn’t quit and get on the bus at half time because they are behind. They go into the locker room, regroup, and come out fired up for the second half. “Your attitude determines your altitude” is a popular locker room expression.

“Go big or go home,” is yet another sports related bromide and yet in this case, if we don’t “go big” we will have no home to go to. It’s time to get our heads in the game and defeat the corrupt politicians who would rather sell their souls to stay in power than address the most critical challenge humans have ever faced.

We need to stop focusing on white male grievance and start focusing on pushing the renewable energy revolution forward as quickly as possible. In this case “or die trying” is not just another empty expression. It is the reality. We cannot and must not fail regardless of how late in the game we have left our push toward the goal line.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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