‘It’s going to take all of us’
McKibben: Young, old need to band together to fight climate change
LAKE PLACID — Just one day after warm weather and rain made slush and ice out of snow Lake Placid received ahead of the World University Games games, environmentalist and former North Creek resident Bill McKibben reminisced about a time around 35 years ago when the Adirondacks were still a “lair of winter” — when the cold came early, and frosts in Augusts were common. Now, he said, “those days are long gone.”
McKibben — the founder of climate activism group 350.org and author of 18 climate-focused books, including “The End of Nature” and, most recently, “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened” — gave a keynote speech at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts this past Friday as part of the 2023 FISU Winter World University Games’ “Save Winter” world conference, which also featured speakers like Adirondack Council “Forever Adirondacks” Director Aaron Mair, Essex Farm Co-Founder Kristin Kimball and Olympic figure skating gold medalist Nathan Chen.
During his talk, McKibben referenced a study from the University of Waterloo, which found that the only Olympic village in the world that could have enough snow to host a winter Olympics by the end of the century is Sapporo, Japan. McKibben said the warmer alternative to the Adirondacks’ snowy winters is too depressing to imagine: The idea that mud season could spread across the entire winter.
But climate change will deal deeper blows than the loss of winter and winter sports, he said — the climate is on track to continue warming beyond the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommended threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, and McKibben believes the “chaos” of increasingly frequent natural disasters caused by climate change could become too volatile to support human civilization as we know it. Already, billions of people across the globe have been displaced by flooding rains, extended wildfire seasons and droughts.
McKibben highlighted some reasons to be optimistic during his the talk — green energy prices are down 90%, he said, and the U.S. recently adopted the Inflation Reduction Act, which invests $369 in the environment. And though he said humans are at a “hinge moment” in fighting climate change, there’s still some time if the action happens fast.
McKibben didn’t put all of the responsibility of fighting climate change on individual people. He didn’t ask the audience to switch from plastic to metal straws. Instead, he said that the most effective way to fight back against climate change — which he sees as being largely caused by fossil fuel companies like Exxon, which covered up findings from their scientists in the 1980s that predicted the warming effects fuel emissions would have on the planet but continued doing business anyway — is to organize larger group activism efforts that demand the fossil fuel industry stop perpetuating the practice of “setting stuff on fire.”
“The most important thing an individual can do is be a little less of an individual and join together with others in movements big enough to make change,” he said.
McKibben believes that the people who should lead these group activism efforts — and the people he said are often the most reluctant to take responsibility in these efforts — are people of older generations. Younger generations have largely taken up the mantle in the fight against climate change, he said, but they aren’t set up with the same “structural power” to make all the changes necessary. While people of the Baby Boomer generation have around 70% of the nation’s financial assets, McKibben said Millennials have only 5%.
“It helps to have some people with hairlines like mine engaged in this fight,” he said.
He doesn’t know if an organized effort against fossil fuel companies will be enough to turn around the warming trends of the globe in time, but he believes it’s in people’s best interest — and that it’s people’s duty — to try.
“All I’m going to tell you is if we do not fight, it is a settled affair,” he said. “And so we need to fight.”
When it comes to organizing group efforts in rural areas like Lake Placid, McKibben encouraged people to find creative, interesting and funny ways to protest and to rise above the apathy that often deters people from organizing in groups — the apathy runs both ways, he said, because the fossil fuel industry does what it can with money, “not with people.”
McKibben also encouraged older generations to be unafraid of getting in a little trouble. He’s been in jail several times for repeated acts of civil disobedience, but he said he’s got less to lose than a young person who’s trying to build a career and reputation in the world.
“One of the few unmixed blessings of growing older is, past a certain point, what the hell are they going to do to you?” he said.
With a laugh, he encouraged young people to “shame” their elders into leading the charge against climate change.
“You will enjoy having them around, they will enjoy being part of it and we’ll be a model of how we should be doing this work everywhere,” he said, “because it’s going to take all of us to make this happen.”