03 Jun 2008: Opinion

The Tipping Point

New evidence suggests that we have already passed a dangerous threshold for the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – and that the time for taking strong action is slipping away.

by bill mckibben

As the Bush administration starts to pass from the scene and the contenders to succeed him speak with reasonable seriousness about carbon, the question for environmentalists is going to change from: “Are we doing anything about global warming?” to “Are we doing anything near enough about global warming?” Both of those are political questions — but the second one is also a scientific query, for the answer to it depends on knowing how much we need to do.

The shorthand answer to that (and the one number you need to know to understand the 21st century) is: 350, as in 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The longer answer goes like this. Twenty years ago, when we started worrying about what we then called the greenhouse effect, we had only the crudest notion of how much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was too much. The biggest debates were about whether global warming was real, and whether or not it had already begun. It didn’t take too long — half a decade — for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to say yes to both. But the subtler questions — How immediate a problem is this? Where do the thresholds lie? — were much harder.

Early on, scientists contented themselves with calculating what would happen if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere doubled from their pre-industrial levels of 275 parts per million. It was a large enough increment to model with the computers then at hand. And so we all talked about what bad things would happen at 550 parts per million until it became, by default, the kind of psychological red line — a red line that soon showed up on various government charts. I can remember writing an outraged op-ed piece for The New York Times in the mid-1990s when some Clinton administration plan foresaw overshooting 550 — it had for no especially good reason become the target.

But in the last few years it became apparent that the earth was more finely balanced than we’d imagined. So far we’ve increased the planet’s temperature barely a degree Fahrenheit, which 20 years ago we would have said would have just gotten us to the threshold of noticeable global warming — everyone then guessed that the big effects would still be a few decades down the road. But what do you know? One degree was enough to yield major effects in hydrological cycles, in the progress of the seasons, in the spread of mosquitoes, in the rapid melt of glaciers. Which is why, over the last few years, some of the big environmental groups and some European governments began talking about a new, lower target of atmospheric CO2: 450 parts per million, which scientists guessed roughly equated to a global temperature increase of two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

But again, the data for this threshold was scant — it was also psychological, a way of saying, “We need to do more, and quicker.” And it remained, just, within the realm of the possible: at the moment, the planet’s atmosphere contains 385 parts per million CO2, and if you run the numbers just right you can imagine stepping on the brakes hard enough that you just graze 450.

Meltwater pours into one of hundreds of deep holes recently observed in the Greenland ice sheet.
Photo Credit: ©Roger Braithwaite
Meltwater pours into one of hundreds of deep holes recently observed in the Greenland ice sheet.

But here’s the problem. Last fall, the Arctic melted. Not a little, like it’s been melting since the 1970s. But a measured-in-areas-the-size-of-Texas lot, way more than we’d ever seen before. It scared scientists, who were increasingly wary anyway, because the more they come to understand about the paleoclimatic record, the more it seems that small changes in radiative forcings have been enough to trigger awful changes in the past.

If we are at 385 parts per million, and everything is melting, what does that tell you? What it tells you is: This is not a future problem. We’re already past the line, out of the safe zone. We need to be scrambling like offside linemen to get back where we belong before the whistle blows. And the line we need to return to, if we hope to avoid wrenching disruptions from global warming, is 350 parts per million.

It took, as it has so often in the greenhouse story, the leadership of NASA’s James Hansen to really set the stakes in perspective. Speaking last December to the American Geophysical Union, Hansen, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, outlined several areas where we ran the risk of crossing horrible tipping points, a risk that increased each year we stayed above 350. They included the melt of Arctic sea ice, the melt of the great ice sheets over Greenland and the west Antarctic, the shift in climate zones wrecking prime agricultural areas, the drying-up of crucial water supplies as alpine glaciers melt in the tropics, and the acidification of the oceans as CO2 accumulates there.

Perhaps the most important, in the short run (though it’s like picking which terminal illness you’d most want to contract) is the prospect of rapid melt on the ice sheets of Greenland and the West Antarctic. We used to think these ice sheets were stable on a time-scale of centuries, because how do you even start to melt a mile and a half of ice? I mean, it’s inertia defined. But it turns out that nature may have a method. As temperatures warm, snow at the very top of that ice sheet is turning to water, and that water in turn is finding its way through cracks and fissures to the base of the ice sheets where it can grease the skids for their slide into the ocean.

Meanwhile, rising and warming seas can eat away at the glaciers along the sea’s edge, which serve as corks in the bottle for the inland ice sheets. Add it all up badly enough, and there’s at least the possibility — or so Hansen testified recently in federal court under oath — for five meters of sea level rise this century. Which is another way of saying the end of civilization as we know it, since there’s not enough money on earth to defend our coastal cities or the fertile plains near the sea — the places where the world mostly, you know, lives — from that kind of rise.

So that’s the science. And from it must now flow the politics. Forget the plans we’ve laid so far, which see us slowly easing up on the use of coal, and ratcheting up the use of renewables, mostly by gradual shifts in the price of carbon. That might get us to 550, and it might possibly even get us somewhere near 450. But 350 — well, that means in essence that we have to leave most of the carbon underground that’s now there.

The price of oil is so high — and the dependence so deep — that it’s likely going to mostly get pumped; the real question, according to Hansen’s calculations, is whether we’re also going to burn our planet’s coal, and whether we’re going to develop the exotic sources of petroleum, like tar sands and oil shale. If we do, then we’ll never get back to 350. If we don’t — if we stop building new coal-fired plants now and begin closing the ones we have — then the planet may retain enough carbon-cycling ability to pull us back below the line. It’s like having high cholesterol — if you radically change your diet, it will fall. But you’ve got to do it before you, um, die.

There’s only one possible way to make change on that scale: an all-out World War II style effort to convert our economy away from carbon and towards — well, towards conservation, towards buses and bikes, towards wind and sun. We might even have to consider currently far-fetched schemes to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere (at the very least, we’d need to spend big to see if they’re a real possibility). We’d need to do it with a truly aggressive price on carbon (which, to keep from impoverishing everyone, you’d need to rebate back to individuals through some scheme like the increasingly crucial Sky Trust proposed by Peter Barnes). We couldn’t have a nice, seamless transition; we’d need a Saul-on-the-Damascus-road conversion, where the scales fell from our eyes and we set to work.

And that would be the easy part. We’d then need to figure out how to finance the same transition in the developing world. The Chinese still have a low standard of living, most of them. They’re not going to forego heat and light; they’re going to need something like a global Marshall Plan-equivalent to help them develop without burning their coal. Massive transfer of technology would be required — which means, in truth, pretty massive transfer of resources. Which just maybe is not what the American voter is ready for right now.

Is any of this realistic? That’s the right question, because it forces us to think about the meaning of reality.

So far, the method has been to ask what’s going to work economically and politically and then work from there — that is to say, the “reality” of what you can persuade senators, or Fortune 500 companies, or taxpayers to support has set the tempo. And that is one important definition of reality — in a democracy, in fact, it’s usually the most crucial one.

But in this case physics and chemistry increasingly impose a reality of their own. We find ourselves out of the safety zone in which human civilization has developed and flourished, a safety zone limited by the automatic reaction of the planet’s climate system to an increase in the amount of solar radiation trapped in our atmosphere. That is, almost literally, a higher reality. If we’ve got a chance, the science now has to drive the politics — not the other way round.

In a very real sense, it’s a contest between human nature and nature nature to see which will blink first. Physics and chemistry don’t bluff and they don’t bargain — they just are. If there’s a way out of this box, therefore, it’s up to us.

POSTED ON 03 Jun 2008 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Energy Science & Technology Sustainability North America 



Good report. If the US govt could put all that money and time and resources and personnel into getting men on the moon, and they did it, why can't the govt also put similar effort into confronting global warming head on? We can do it, if there is the political will. I hope many pols are reading your reports.

Tufts 1971
Posted by Danny Bloom on 03 Jun 2008

Excellent overview of our situation.

I think that it's clear that "the" challenge isn't related to inventing technology or public policy mechanisms to fight this battle (both of which we have in spades already), but overcoming the conceptual hurdles needed to put those tools to use on the needed scale.

This is why I've long said over on The Cost of Energy that the challenge was to educate and activate the mainstream consumers and voters so they will force our elected representatives to take action. That means overcoming both the educational inertia effect (we're trying to teach people about something many of them have never really thought about in any detail) and the deniers who for financial or ideological reasons will oppose any steps that involve (gasp!) government action.

It's a tough job, but the stakes are so high that failure is not an option, to borrow a phrase.

I also recommend that people check out Bill's project, at 350.org.
Posted by Lou Grinzo on 03 Jun 2008

Is Skytrust the same as "Cap and Dividend"?
Posted by Sam on 03 Jun 2008

Hi Bill,

I remember when you were standing on Bald Mountain in Oregon with Steve Marsden and hoping for a new activism that might matter. That was 20+ years ago at the conclusion of your "The End of Nature." Steve and I and many others went on to fight for the forests. We protected some, but not enough. And now your worst nightmare seems to be arising.

There's a line from "The Man From LaMancha" where Pablo says to Don Quixote, "When the glass and the rock have a fight, it's going to be bad for the glass." If we see this as a simple carrying capacity issue -- people versus nature with inelastic limits -- then Malthus was right and we are in for a die-off just like the off-observed natural dynamic of bloom and crash that governs the populations of other species. As an ecological and environmental storyteller, I used to believe in this narrative. Seeing what appeared as the futility of the human condition, I retired from activism into a delicious life of nature and spirit and beauty in Brazil.

Now I am getting pulled back.

The single thing that was the difference that made the difference for me was not the growing statistics of catastrophe but, rather, the discovery of the BBC Terra Preta de Indíos documentary which strongly suggested that there once was a people that had achieved 100s to 1000s of years of living in balance with their niche in the Amazon basin. No western civilization can make a claim of such harmony or longevity without spoiling the nest. It seemed that the Terra Preta trick was one of turning waste into resource and thus building an agriculture of reciprocity -- a way for human multiplication and wastefulness to increase abundance rather depleting the earth.

I know that much of this is speculative but I'm a "vision-guy" and the draw of this possibility was too great for me to ignore. The possibility of moving from the technologies of depletion toward the technologies of restoration may be the harbinger of moving from the age of scarcity into an age of abundance. I know that we have a long way to go. I know that this is not the history of the industrial age nor the history of the triumphant civilizations of conquest. But I nevertheless hold an ancient-future dream that, once we see beyond the filters of the cheap fossil-fueled industrial age, we will see that Malthus was wrong and that humans can discover a healing and harmonious connection with nature.

That's my shtick.

You can find out a lot about biochar or terra preta at http://beyondzeroemissions.org/

I'm tracking it nowadays from Brazil at http://lougold.blogspot.com

Hugs and blessings,


Posted by Lou Gold on 03 Jun 2008

Nobody talks about the dead elephant in the middle of the living room.

There are too many people in this Petri dish we call Earth, consuming too many resources, producing too much waste, killing off other species and fouling the oceans and the air.

A world population of 3 billion may be sustainable, or may not. A population over 6 billion is certainly not.

Absent population reduction, we can't sustain our environment. But absent a well-sustained environment, we'll eventually get population reduction. It won't be pleasant.

Posted by attobuoy on 04 Jun 2008

Examining what the IPCC has published and their methodology I conclude with over 31,000 scientist, 15 times more than support the IPCC that the less than 2% of CO2 as a result of humans is not causing global warming and why is the IPCC still holding onto the hickey puck theory when it has bee debunked? I see this hysteria as another means to erode sovereignty and distract humanity from the real threat to humanity, depleted uranium, endless wars which rob our liberties, GMO foods, the ever growing military industrial complex and biofuels which will cause millions to die of starvation and continue to rise food prices. Global warming is a political movement and contrary to warmist the debate is not over
Posted by Rick on 04 Jun 2008

You said "The biggest debates were about whether global warming was real, and whether or not it had already begun. It didn’t take too long — half a decade — for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to say yes to both. "

That's not quite right. The real questions are "Is the climate change that is happening now unusual?", and "Is the climate sensitive to changes in CO2?" The IPCC have not attempted to answer these. Instead they have collected evidence to support their view.

After examining an aweful lot of evidence I have to say that at the moment I think the answer to both of these questions is no.

I am not the only scientist who thinks this.

Posted by JR on 04 Jun 2008

bill and lou probably were founding members of the club of rome..your science is laughable as is the ipcc. unfortunately you guys will win this war much to my dismay as well as humankind. what flavor is the kool-aid?
Posted by rum on 04 Jun 2008

Ultimately the climate will decide this issue and global temps have taken a plunge. Bill, thats mother nature telling you to think this over.
Posted by Ray on 04 Jun 2008

"As the Bush administration starts to pass from the scene..."
Oh, how sweet that 10 word sentence is to hear.
Sadly, the love of oil that propels CO2 levels into the stratosphere is now looking likely to denude the ice cover; and without the ice cover the oil companies and the governments that serve them will be all over the place like a God forsaken rash.
I hope I'm being overly pessimistic.
Posted by weee recycling on 05 Jun 2008

You say: "One degree was enough to yield major effects in hydrological cycles, in the progress of the seasons, in the spread of mosquitoes, in the rapid melt of glaciers."

A rise of just 1°F (0.6°C) over the period of a century is well inside the range of natural variation. To suggest it is not is scare-mongering, pure and simple.

The "major effects" you mention are in fact minor and cannot be ascribed to global warming, much less to anthropogenic causes. References would be helpful if you have them.

You also say: "As temperatures warm, snow at the very top of that ice sheet is turning to water, and that water in turn is finding its way through cracks and fissures to the base of the ice sheets where it can grease the skids for their slide into the ocean."

This phenomenon occurs every year, in a season we call spring. You see, after the winter, the temperature increases up to summertime levels. During this period some of the ice at the edges melts. But when the winter returns, the ice on top of the ice sheet cannot melt, since it is far too cold. Even during summer, most of the surface of the ice sheet fails to melt.

Note the use of "can" grease, etc. There is no evidence of sustained increased velocity of ice towards the sea. The ice sheet is not, of course, sitting on "skids".

If the mechanism of "greasing" is actually important, why have the ice sheets survived warmer periods in the past? Why are the ice sheets still there?

I admire your enthusiasm for global warming, but I must question your grasp of the science.

The Greenland ice sheet is growing, that is to say, its mass is increasing. That could not be happening if it was melting, do you see?

There's a nice little story about the World War II aircraft that crash-landed on the ice near the end of the war. People went back recently to retrieve them and were forced to dig down 90 feet (ninety feet!) of solid ice. That's how much had accumulated over the planes in only 50 years.

The moulins draining melt water are nothing new. Only the scientists are new, arriving each summer to observe the melt and exclaiming: "oh woe, oh woe!" Each winter the melt stops.

The Greenland ice sheet has lost a little ice over the last few years, around the edges, but there was still a net gain in ice. The loss at the edge is likely caused by higher sea surface temperatures than higher air temperatures. And that's most likely due to changed polar ocean currents, not global warming.

Fascinating, isn't it?

Hansen's testifying to a "possibility" of 5 metres of sea level rise this century is no more authoritative than any other guess on any other topic. I don't know if Hansen debases the scientific method with his alarmism or simply reveals a great love for the planet. A love which is prepared, strangely, to sacrifice his fellow man for the good of the planet. How can he think to remove most of the means of producing energy from developing (or any other) peoples? Why save the planet and doom mankind?

Richard Treadgold
Climate Conversation Group

Posted by Richard Treadgold on 05 Jun 2008

If one degree C over a centuary is terrifying,what would you care to say about the 2.2degree c increase over the 36 years between 1696 and 1732???? Look at the central england thermometer records,.But of course they didnt have our world press to run around telling everyone that the sky was falling,so I guess they just had to get on with it.Get over it,mate,and find something else to worry about.
Posted by ian aitken hilliar on 06 Jun 2008

Yes we are fast approaching a tipping point, as the figures suggest even though CO2 continues to incessantly march upwards yet the temperature continues to go in the opposite predicted direction, the belief in the Theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming is becoming as dead as the DoDo. No amount of spin can excuse the failure of computer modelling in predicting our current 10 year cooling trend and that with the collapse of the "Consensus" by the release of the Petition signed by 31000 scientists against AGW theory shows we are at the begining of the the end of this politically inspired lunacy. Tipping point indeed!
Posted by Terry R on 08 Jun 2008

So, are we in a normal warming trend or are the temperatures actually going down? If deniers get their story straight, we might be in trouble. They might even give a formidable challenge to the hickey puck (sic) theory.
Posted by Russell Beckley on 08 Jun 2008

The most effective - safest, most commercially practical, biggest bang for the buck - method of CO2 reduction (assuming it's even necessary) is to greatly increase the number of nuclear power plants to supply electricity, reducing dependency on burning coal.

Are you in favor of this?
Posted by Jeff Perren on 08 Jun 2008

Our planet can support a finite number of humans.
With sufficient study, we can know what resources are needed for a number of humans.
We are far beyond that number today.
Biosphere changes will effect adjustments to human population.
The political will of our civilization determines what number will survive.
As our planet environment changes, the number supportable also changes.

Adam and Eve as prophecy.
Posted by Richard Pauli on 17 Jun 2008

There is a theory that wraps up all of this – Zero Waste. It is NOT a theory of reusing waste (an extremely wasteful and inefficient idea) but one of not creating waste in the first place. In our standard designs, waste represents the laziness of politicians, industrial designers and ordinary citizens and consumers who are so used to the easy road of discard that they refuse to even think about a world which could be redesigned to not produce any chemical wastes (pollution); uranium wastes (radioactives); combustion wastes (carbon dioxide) or consumer wastes (garbage). So we hear constantly the “comforting” assertion that “there will always be waste”, without one shred of scientific support for that claim (2nd Law thermodynamics does not apply in the wide open system that we live in).
If we began to take responsibility for the abuse of available resources (all of them – metals, fuels, water, grown products etc.) we could apply a new principle to design. All products – and processes – must now be designed without including any discard. Then we would apply that to power generation as just one more application of the principle. The idea of cavalierly producing carbon dioxide and tossing it irresponsibly out into the atmosphere would become anathema.
On the other hand, if we insist on viewing these crises piecemeal we will be so far behind the curve of planetary deterioration that we will have no chance of ever climbing back. Along with this article on spewing CO2 waste into the atmosphere, we have an article on the waste of water. Future issues will surely include articles on the waste of agricultural residues as they leave the soil without ever renewing it. Meanwhile desperate seekers after an extension to our current. wasteful energy practices continue to designate agricultural excesses as a valueless waste to be exploited for fuel. In fact we need to redesign agriculture to avoid any waste creation by closing the agricultural cycle.
Soon we will have shortages of copper, cobalt, indium, nickel and complex organic molecules as well as other minerals and metals to deal with. We already are wasting our planet’s biological diversity. There is no resource which is present in increasingly abundant supply.
Lou Gold gets it wrong when he says “the Terra Preta trick was one of turning waste into resource”. This is the error of the recyclers. Once you create waste, your high function, crafted products, become low level garbage that no one takes responsibility for. The CO2 is already escaped. The water is already polluted. The garbage is already crushed in a dump. And we have lost the game.
Look for more at www.zerowasteinstitute.org.

Paul Palmer ’66 PhD

Posted by Paul Palmer on 23 Jun 2008

What everyone who is seeking to dismiss the phenomenon of global warming as part of normal climate cycles is missing is that yes, global temperatures do fluctuate naturally, but the problem is when, through human actions, we create forces which intervene in that cycle and push temperatures higher than they would normally rise or fall to on their own. People are simply too lazy and selfish and would rather deny the scientific consensus than change their lifestyles. Kai Thaler '09
Posted by Kai on 24 Jun 2008

“In a world where matters of faith seem so often
and so tragically to divide us, there is no issue
which aligns us more deeply than our shared
dependence upon and sacred responsibility to
this tiny planet, enfolded within its fragile
atmosphere, spinning in the vastness of time
and space.”

      Kyoto and Bali agreements calling for
worldwide reductions in CO2 emissions are a
critical step in the world challenge to reduce our
dependence on our diminishing world oil
supplies. Yet according to current research,
even if the nations of the world adopt the
protocols, they will be insufficient to counter the
growing impact of climate change in the current
century. (Pew Foundation: Beyond Kyoto:
Advancing the International Effort Against
Climate Change)

      It is time to start thinking outside of the
diplomatic box. With all due respect to the
Lieberman-Warner Climate Bill in the U.S.
Senate and the hoped-for policy change it
would bring, it is time to challenge both our
country and world populations to take steps
beyond legislation and diplomacy to begin to
transform our daily lives in ways that can impact
this rise in CO2.

       I recently spoke at the British Embassy
at a panel on Faith and Climate Change. It was
part of a Washington, D.C. symposium on
Climate Change and Security for all the US
British consulates around the country. I applaud
them for seeking leaders of faith communities to
voice their concerns with diplomats. I served on
a panel with a Christian Evangelical
environmental leader, Rev. Richard Cizik and a
young Muslim woman known as “Sanjana,” who
started a “DC Green Muslims blog.” The British
consulates sought voices from the faith
community because they realize that the issue
of climate change will demand a populist
response beyond diplomacy. Faith leaders can
and must inspire and mobilize their communities
on this urgent issue

      People of faith on this planet number in the
billions. Teaching people of faith basic
environmental values and practices can have an
immense impact. Our religious
traditions all share a spiritual mandate for caring
for a Godly creation. Reaching religious leaders
and their communities on this issue could not be
more critical. Indeed, responding to climate
change has become the most significant moral
and spiritual issue facing humanity today. Our
ancient religious traditions are concerned with
protecting life and creation in the broadest
sense. In a world where matters of faith seem
so often and so tragically to divide us, there is
no issue which aligns us more deeply than our
shared dependence upon and sacred
responsibility to this tiny planet.

      I experienced this common faith when I
served as a UN delegate representing many
Jewish organizations at the Kyoto talks in 1997.
At that time I spoke along with eight other
religious leaders at the largest Buddhist Temple
in Kyoto as a part of the conference. We
concurred that people of diverse faith traditions
have a spiritual and moral responsibility to act

      As a religious leader involved in climate
change issues now for many years I believe we
need a gradual paradigm shift in our very way
of life.

Posted by Rabbi Warren Stone on 25 Jun 2008

Mr. Treadgold, Your essay is consistent and
even in your final argument, you show your lack
of reading and understanding, to construct an
argument that makes false a position opposite
to your own... Meaning you have made it
obvious that your opinions against your
opponent are not based on any actual
knowledge of your opponent.

If you had read more, you would have
discovered that your premise, that those who
love the planet do not love their fellow man and
are willing to doom them to save the planet is

If I love my planet, I love everything that it is.
Everything that this balance of millions of years
has made it, and ultimately, I am a product of.
So you can appreciate then that the people in
the developing world have lived for thousands of
years in harmony with their surroundings and
community. Your concerns for providing energy
to the people of developing countries as a
means to save them from inevitable death is
false because as we all know, the balanced
manner with which the people of past (and
currently modern developing country
humankind) lived with their faming technique,
and population growth management and self
identification of their role in their environment,
i.e. the world; was sustainable.

Our current model is not.

The point of your opponent is to educate you,
and others like you, on the need to change our
way of looking at our life in this world. We are
consuming and growing at an unnatural rate.

Every organism alive in this world, exists in
balance. Balance is crucial. As a doctor, I know
that the number of various microbial organisms
on your body, exceeds our world population.
However, you continue to thrive and live
everyday without dis-ease. But when one
organism multiplies at an exponential rate, your
balance will soon let you know by letting you
experience dis-ease. So a normal inhabitant of
your body, can become the cause of your end.

Humans are but one of the organisms on this
planet. We have multiplied at an exponential
rate. You cannot argue that this point is not

So we are consuming resources of this biologic
petri dish we call earth, at an exponentially
growing rate as well. But even if you exclude
the population growth issue, you must also take
into consideration the fact that within our society
we are constantly advocating an ideal of more
consumption, per individual, per year, i.e. the
NYSE etc.

Take this point into consideration and you will
see that despite all of your references of your
opponent as an alarmist, you are the person
who is advocating the end of humankind. By
supporting the current blind, and inane way of
life, you are actually saying you support dis-
ease. Dis-ease of the planet, which if untreated
(and as in medicine) not rapidly, will kill the
host. (Kill refers to end of life as we understand

Those who are trying to awaken the rest of the
world to the false sense of reality that they
currently live in, particularly in our beloved
United States Of America, are actually trying to
ensure the continued life and well being of not
only those are living now, but those who may
come to enjoy it in the future. Compassion and
direct action to save the world, and thus
humankind and it's continued well being, is the
only way to be. It is disturbing to see so many
people like you, who are so skilled in
communicating and conveying the message for
the good of others, are actually conveying the
wrong message.

Maybe you should as the author of the article for
a reading list to educate yourself before you out
so much energy into drafting an article that can
mislead so many to their demise.

I anticipate your predictable response.

Dr. Ali Sadrieh
Posted by Dr. Ali Sadrieh on 26 Jul 2008

The previous post was in response to Richard
Treadgold's post in response to Bill McKibben's
article The Tipping Point.
Posted by Ali Sadrieh on 26 Jul 2008

Dr Sadrieh,

If you read my post and thought my main point was in my final paragraph then I did not make the point clearly enough and I apologise.

You said: "… your premise, that those who love the planet do not love their fellow man and are willing to doom them to save the planet, is false." This is incorrect. I was referring solely to Dr Hansen.

The word "doom" referred to imposing very low living standards on third world populations, standards we're not ourselves willing to revert to. It did not mean their deaths.

In fact, my main point was repairing the damage McKibben's article did to the debate on the dangerous anthropogenic global warming (AGW) hypothesis. He prattles on about promoting an apparent "goal" of somehow reducing the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million by volume (ppmv) (the present level is about 385ppmv) while giving neither evidence nor reasons that make that figure necessary.

Along the way he makes outlandish claims such as "last fall, the Arctic melted" and a temperature increase of only 0.6°C has caused "major effects in hydrological cycles, in the progress of the seasons, in the spread of mosquitoes [and] in the rapid melt of glaciers."

None of those things have happened, or at least nothing has happened that is outside the natural range of climatic behaviour. McKibben's alarmism is exceeded only by his reluctance to ascertain the facts.

You make a well-expressed argument for environmentalism, relating our care of the planet in all its aspects to a love of life and of humanity. I couldn't agree with you more!

However, you make the common mistake of conflating doubt about the truth of the dangerous AGW hypothesis with lack of concern for the planet, when nothing could be further from the truth!

Many things that man does and emits damage the planet, mostly locally but occasionally detectable globally. But emitting carbon dioxide is not one of them. CO2 is a trace gas, vital to life, which moves annually between the great natural reservoirs in gargantuan quantities, of the order of 200 billion tonnes, to which our activities contribute a mere 3 percent. It boosts plant growth, even in the ocean. It has not been proven to contribute much to global warming—according to IPCC, less than 0.6°C over 100 years.

However, attempts to restrain emissions of this harmless substance will wreck economies everywhere. That is what I want to prevent, because I, too, love humanity.

You speak eloquently, even beautifully, about the organisation of both the planet and the human body; but when I dispute that man-made CO2 is responsible for melting the Arctic, I am not saying we should waste the earth's natural resources! That is a different issue.

It is remarkable that you reply at such considered length to a post on global warming without once mentioning it. You have not, Dr Sadrieh, addressed the point.

One thing seriously concerns me amongst your assertions: "… as we all know, the balanced manner with which the people of past (and currently modern developing country humankind) lived with their faming technique, and population growth management and self identification of their role in their environment, i.e. the world; was sustainable. Our current model is not."

This line of thought may teach us more how to live in harmony with our environment, but it is not an excuse to send our society backwards, nor condemn native people to live in poverty, nor is it reason to say that people don't belong on the planet or are in any way unnatural. I would ask you to be cautious with this argument. It's important to acknowledge that it is not our desire for native people to have power; it is their desire—they want to be free of cow dung and traipsing hours each day just for water, no matter how little it harms the world.

You write well and you impart interesting information, but you spoil this by making assumptions about my thinking, to the point of asserting I will reply predictably, yet we have never before met. How astonishing. It's strange you should begin by accusing me of ignorance of my "opponent" when you display a similar ignorance of yours. But then, are we truly opponents?

Richard Treadgold,
Climate Conversation Group.
Posted by Richard Treadgold on 02 Aug 2008

I would amend this sentence:

It's important to acknowledge that it is not our desire for native people to have electrical power; it is their desire—they want to be free of burning cow dung and traipsing hours each day just for water, no matter how little it harms the world.

Posted by Richard Treadgold on 02 Aug 2008


Nice article!

Two points to consider:

1) You make the conversion away from fossil fuels sound incredibly daunting. It isn't that difficult, and we can increase our individual and collective prosperity by going green. My house is grid-tied, but our solar panels produce as much electricity as we consume. Our house is passive solar with wood backup. My wife and I built this place is the 1990s living on $15,000 a year. I am shooting for 100% solar in the house I am presently building, so that it will not be dependent on firewood. We will buy an Air Car when they come on the market. It is neither difficult nor expensive to go green.

2) Pick up a handful of topsoil. The dark brown or black color of the soil is organic carbon, extracted from the atmosphere by plants. Plowing exposes soil to air, oxidizing carbon back into the atmosphere. Through desertification the land loses its protective vegetative cover, allowing the soil to blow away and oxidizing gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. Look at the deserts rapidly spreading across Asia, America, and Africa. How much of the planet's topsoil have we lost already? Half? (I'm guessing.) Global warming climate models do not necessarily account for oxidized soil carbon from desertification, which may be a primary reason why the effects of global warming are happening much faster than the models predict.

I suspect that we could end our use of fossil fuels tomorrow and still not halt global warming, because desertification might be a bigger contributor to the problem.

Fortunately, desertification is also easily reversed. These issues, and more importantly, the reasons why we struggle to recognize the problems or the solutions, are covered in greater depth in my book Roadmap to Reality.

Keep up the great work.


Thomas J. Elpel
Posted by Thomas J. Elpel on 07 Nov 2008

Who has an idea on what occurred to defeat and reverse the previous 3 (6?) CO2/temp.dev spikes sitting like an 800 lb gorilla on the IPCC ice core data charts?
Posted by Jeff Snyder on 09 Nov 2008

This article is both interesting, and chilling (excuse the pun). The most alarming part is how strongly we were taken by surprise when considering the speed of the ice melting - what else will happen before we even realise that it could happen?

Posted by Jimmy G on 25 Nov 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
bill mckibbenABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. His The End of Nature, published in 1989, is regarded as the first book for a general audience on global warming. He is a founder of 350.org, a campaign to spread the goal of 350 parts per million worldwide. His most recent book is American Earth, an anthology of American environmental writing.



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