Bill McKibben: Winning Slowly Is the Same as Losing

The technology exists to combat climate change — what will it take to get our leaders to act?

Rolling Stone
RollingStone
Published in
13 min readDec 1, 2017

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A Houston interstate after Hurricane Harvey in August. Credit: Richard Carson/Reuters

By Bill McKibben

If we don’t win very quickly on climate change, then we will never win. That’s the core truth about global warming. It’s what makes it different from every other problem our political systems have faced. I wrote the first book for a general audience about climate change in 1989 — back when one had to search for examples to help people understand what the “greenhouse effect” would feel like. We knew it was coming, but not how fast or how hard. And because no one wanted to overestimate — because scientists by their nature are conservative — each of the changes we’ve observed has taken us somewhat by surprise. The surreal keeps becoming the commonplace: For instance, after Hurricane Harvey set a record for American rainstorms, and Hurricane Irma set a record for sustained wind speeds, and Hurricane Maria knocked Puerto Rico back a quarter-century, something even weirder happened. Hurricane Ophelia formed much farther to the east than any hurricane on record, and proceeded to blow past Southern Europe (whipping up winds that fanned record forest fires in Portugal) before crashing into Ireland. Along the way, it produced an artifact for our age: The warning chart that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency issued shows Ophelia ending in a straight line at 60 degrees north latitude, because the computer program never imagined you’d see a hurricane up there. “When you set up a grid, you define boundaries of that grid,” a slightly red-faced NOAA programmer explained. “That’s a pretty unusual place to have a tropical cyclone.” The agency, he added, might have to “revisit” its mapping software.

In fact, that’s the problem with climate change. It won’t stand still. Health care is a grave problem in the U.S. right now too, one that Donald Trump seems set on making steadily worse. If his administration manages to defund Obamacare, millions of people will suffer. But if, in three years’ time, some new administration takes over with a different resolve, it won’t have become exponentially harder to deal with our health care issues. That suffering in the interim wouldn’t have changed the fundamental equation. But with global…

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