A Call to Action

Author bio: Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben
February 11, 2020

So we’ve come to the crux moment.

I wrote the first book for a general audience on climate change—it came out in 1989, three decades ago. In rough terms, that’s how long we’ve had a public debate about global warming. That debate was pretty much a fake: we know now thanks to great investigative reporting (some of it straight out of the Columbia Journalism School) that the fossil fuel companies knew all there was to know about the greenhouse effect in the 1980s, but instead of fessing up and getting to work they sponsored a multi-decade disinformation project. Still, by now even the oil industry concedes we face a crisis. Poor people have been living with the consequences of climate change for a long time already, but we live in the moment when rich citydwellers suddenly find themselves breathing wildfire smoke; when beachdwellers can’t find insurance; when the oblivious affluent find their children suddenly angry and militant. 

And we live, too, in a moment of great possibility—over the last decade the engineers have done their job, dropping the price of a solar panel and a wind turbine by an order of magnitude. The sun and the wind are now the cheapest ways to generate power around the planet; that means that if we choose to seize this moment it really could be transformational. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told us a little more than a year ago that a fundamental reordering would need to be far along a decade hence if we were to have any hope of meeting the targets we set in Paris just a half-decade ago. Specifically, they said we’d need to have cut our carbon emissions in half by 2030. That’s on the bleeding edge of the just barely possible—but given the stakes we have no choice but to try. 

Which is why analysis like that in this volume is crucially important. We’ve never needed policy experts and scientists and economists more urgently—and we’ve never needed them to be more involved both inside and outside the halls of power. In a rational world we wouldn’t need these experts to be engaged in movements, but we don’t really inhabit a rational world. I’ll not ever forget the first time I watched the great NASA scientist (and Columbia professor) James Hansen being loaded into a paddy wagon; of course he should be at his computer, figuring out what the future holds. But of course we needed him—and everyone like him—on the front lines. Because, in the end, this is less an argument than a fight. 

This volume contains the thoughts of some great fighters, old and young. I’m struck by the hopeful line that runs from Dr. Robert Bullard, first loud voice explaining the environmental racism and injustice that now threatens to ruin the planet, to Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, the great young marine scientist. Both have been activists and academics, thinkers and doers—it’s precisely what we need right now. If this issue is to mean anything, its effect will be measured in the willingness of its readers to get more engaged; the planet is miles outside its comfort zone, so we need to be outside ours as well.