Misguided irrelevance

Bill McKibben calls for a standard activist approach to the climate catastrophe — an approach that demands the state and corporation do the right thing

ATHENS — I have always found Bill McKibben to be an inspiring and committed climate activist, as well as just one of those special people in the world, a truly decent human being. What I have especially appreciated about him, however, is his ability to present a credible balance between realistic possibilities for change while at the same time offering a no-bull assessment of our current climate situation.

But in his otherwise-fine and aptly entitled essay "Global Temps Not Just Off the Chart, But Off the Wall the Chart Is Tacked To, which he recently penned for CommonDreams.org, that skill seems to have momentarily deserted him as evidenced by what he suggests we need to be doing in the face of the dire climate circumstances that he clearly presents in the same piece.

I particularly fear that he, too, may be suffering from an affliction that seems to characterize so many of his fellow citizens: knowing in our heads just how bad our climate situation has become, while at the same time being unable and/or unwilling to translate this knowledge into a heartfelt acceptance of our world so that we begin to respond in creative, imaginative, adaptive, and resilient life-affirming ways that are appropriate to our collapsing civilization.

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M c K ibben begins by laying out our current climate situation. After noting that "a rapid increase in global warming was underway," he goes on to state, "It seems increasingly likely that 2023 will turn out to be the hottest year yet, even though a true El Niño won't be fully underway till late summer or autumn."

"All of this is terrifying," he states, "but far, far worse is the fact that the world isn't reacting rationally to it. The fossil fuel industry and its financial backers are, if anything, backsliding: tearing up their modest promises to make some kind of actual change."

Underscoring just how bleak our situation is, he notes that "Shell Oil this week made clear that it was not going to stick with its pledge to dramatically shrink its oil and gas production over this decade." Rather, "now it plans to stabilize or increase production of hydrocarbons; it's reducing its investments in renewables because they don't generate as high a profit margin."

The final blow, McKibben writes, "in what's quickly becoming the darkest of dark comedies, Big Oil is trying to completely take over the [United Nations] climate talks" by having the head of the Emirates oil company, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, serve as the head of this November's Conference of the Parties (COP) gathering.

The Sultan insists that he has a "game-changing" approach by welcoming oil and gas companies from around the world to participate more fully in the talks. "In other words," as McKibben sardonically observes, "invite the producers of the fuels that cause the majority of global warming as key players in developing a plan to slow the warming."

"These instances make clear that Big Oil, on the sugar high from the record profits in the last year, has no intention of shifting their business model. They are going to burn baby burn." (My emphasis.)

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McK ibben then turns to how we should respond to this very dark picture, and his presentation becomes troublesome.

He calls for the latest version of the kind of activism that he and his nonprofit organization, 350, have long represented: participating in a "March to End Fossil Fuels" in Manhattan this September, and supporting UN Secretary General António Guterres' call for an "acceleration agenda" in which "fossil fuel industry transition plans must be transformation plans that chart a company's move to clean energy - and away from a product incompatible with human survival."

In doing so, McKibben strikes me as being out of sync with the collapsing world he has otherwise so accurately presented.

With all due respect, does he really believe that an action of this kind will have the desired effect of its intentions in light of the oil industry he has just described and a climate that is already collapsing (think record-breaking temperatures, rapid ice melt at both poles, uncontrollable fires and smoke, increasing food and water insecurity)?

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The misguided irrelevance of his call is inadvertently emphasized when he reminds us of "the world's first huge climate march in 2014 in New York, when 400,000 people turned out, that helped pave the way for the Paris climate accords."

For McKibben, this is an unfortunate analogy, for most of the 186 signatories to the 2015 Paris Accord (including, of course, the U.S.) have failed to live up to their commitments.

By making this comparison, he unintentionally underscores the futility of the standard activist approach to the climate catastrophe he is once again promoting - an approach that demands the state and corporation do the right thing when both past history and present experience convincingly demonstrate they have no interest in doing so.

Like so many of us as we go about our daily lives, Bill McKibben appears to have become at least momentarily lost in the past, unable to respond to our current unprecedented reality and its cataclysmic import with an activism, however tentative and exploratory, that is at least grounded in an acceptance of our collapsing world - and is an appropriate response, emphasizing community adaptation, resilience, and preparation.

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