Bill McKibben’s Ecology-Free Declaration of War on Climate is Dangerous and Wrong
Why does Bill McKibben’s recent sensationalistic appeal for a “War on Climate” make no mention, not even one, of ecology or ecosystems? While understanding Mr. McKibben is trying to call for a rapid societal response at a massive scale to an urgent existential threat, perhaps a better analogy would be demobilizing to make climate peace by cutting emissions and reforesting, as declarations of war often only make things worse.
It is irresponsible and contrary to established ecological science for Mr. McKibben to promote a war on climate focused solely upon techno-optimist industrial solutions. First and foremost, climate change is an ecological issue… I, for one, am much less perturbed that Bill occasionally uses plastic bags for his groceries, than that he apparently has little understanding of the ecological systems that maintain a livable Earth. — Dr. Glen Barry
Earth Meanders, Deep ecology essays by Dr. Glen Barry
Climate policies matter. We have very few chances to get it right before abrupt climate change and related environmental and social issues collapse the biosphere. Yet the solutions being put forth by the leading climate activists—including Bill McKibben, Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Klein, and Michael Brune—are woefully inadequate. In fact, their lack of ecological focus is dangerous and wrong, and virtually ensures failure in limiting global warming to an acceptable level.
In a recent New Republic essay entitled “A World at War”, Mr. McKibben states “We’re under attack from climate change—and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII.” The colorful essay correctly notes the urgency of a dramatic, urgent, and large-scale response to the threats posed by climate change. Yet we are led to falsely believe that a war-like industrial retooling to produce massively more solar panels and wind turbines more quickly will prove adequate to solve climate change. At best this is meaningless jingoism, at its worst it dangerously misdiagnoses climate change’s causes, and does not propose ecologically sufficient climate change solutions.
NOT EVEN ONCE does Bill’s essay calling for a war on climate mention the biological and ecological aspects of our climate change conundrum. In fact, the words ecology, ecosystem, and even environment are not used. How is it that the climate movement’s perceived Martin Luther King type transformational figure has the science and policy behind climate change so dangerously wrong?
Natural ecosystem loss as a cause, and positive-feedback fed result, of abrupt climate change is once again given short shrift. Protecting and enhancing the natural environment are amazingly completely ignored yet again by Mr. McKibben as an element of climate solutions. Instead we are left with war metaphors and further industrial development as a dangerously incomplete climate policy prescription.
What the hell Bill? Where is your understanding of ecology, and your embrace of widespread and connected natural ecosystems as a crucial element of any climate change solution? It’s one thing to make reference to ecosystems and climate in books, and another matter to campaign on the issue. Why doesn’t 350.org actively support and campaign upon ending old-growth forest logging as a central solution to climate change?
Mr. McKibben, climate change is not Hitler, and waging war will not solve it. Climate change results not only from billions of pistons burning fossil fuels, it is also caused by billions of conscious decisions to destroy the naturally evolved world—one tree, or patch of ground, at a time—which through vegetation’s cycling of water, energy, and carbon have sustained a habitable Earth for eons. Of course at some level Bill you must realize this, but why not speak, write, and advocate for protecting and restoring natural ecosystems as a keystone climate change response?
Maintaining natural stores of carbon and the natural carbon cycle between these repositories is of primary importance in limiting abrupt climate change and ensuring it doesn’t become run-away. Mr. McKibben’s vision of a war-like industrial mobilization is myopic and entirely ignores the re-greening of land and waters that must occur. We could end fossil fuel emissions rapidly, and still drown in historical emissions, if there are not ways to remove what has already been emitted from the atmosphere (we are at over 400 parts per million of carbon and the name of Bill’s group —350.org—acknowledges we have surpassed the safe limit). How else but through natural processes associated with plant growth will global ecological balance be restored?
The simple ecological truth is that natural vegetation and their soil hold, buffer, and cycle carbon in a manner that removes carbon from the atmosphere. We know much carbon is released when natural vegetation is cleared or reduced. And that there is tremendous potential to re-vegetate the vast areas of land that have been cleared of natural ecosystems, as nearly 90% of primary forests have been destroyed or dramatically diminished through fragmentation. All remaining old-growth forests must be protected not only as carbon stores, but also for sources of seed and genetic variability for the coming age of ecosystem restoration and climate adaptation, and aided to expand and reconnect. Along with secondary forests undergoing succession into old-growth status, inter-mixed with organic permaculture and forest gardens, expanded natural forest ecosystems have dramatic potential to store carbon and perhaps more importantly keep it cycling. Of course old-growth forests provide innumerable other ecological services including biodiversity, wildlife habitat, soil creation, water sponge, and genetic repository.
Given how many natural terrestrial ecosystems have been lost, it is vital to avoiding willful ecocide that we stop logging ancient old-growth forests, allowing them to recover and expand.
I assert with absolute certainty, as a trained ecologist after a lifetime of study and nurturing of ecological intuition, that there is no possible solution to climate change that does not include large natural forests covering the majority of Earth’s land mass.
So why are Mr. McKibben and 350.org not calling for an immediate end to old-growth forest logging and a massive program to protect and restore native forest ecosystems along with all those solar and wind factories? Tree nurseries, planting, and care provide jobs too. In what can only be called willful negligence, essentially the entire climate change glitterati including Mr. McKibben refuses to publicly support in a major way protecting and restoring old-growth forests as part of the climate change solution, despite being repeatedly called upon by myself and others to do so for over a decade.
Why could this possibly be? Is it ignorance? Is the climate movement’s leadership out of their element? Does a Journalism degree from Harvard qualify someone to craft planetary ecological solutions? Why is it that the largest, most well-funded voices on climate are not only a journalist by training; but the others are an accountant, a philosopher, a politician, and an actor? Why are none of the leading climate spokespersons who are espousing technology focused climate policies trained in ecological science? Is raising money and being glamorous more important than substance in terms of crafting ecologically informed climate policy?
Is it possible that, however well intentioned, a climate change movement led by those without ecological training is missing the crucial link between intact and connected natural ecosystems and a functioning climate and biosphere? Could a sense of hubris and self-importance have led some to miss this crucial universal truth, long known by indigenous peoples and ecologists, that natural vegetation and an operational climate are tightly coupled and intricately dependent upon each other? Has posing and earnest self-importance become the focus rather than truthfully diagnosing and responding to the climate change emergency?
Could the Earth System be a living organism dependent upon natural ecosystems to cycle carbon and Bill, Leo, Mike, Naomi and Al wouldn’t know it?
Perhaps the climate change leadership’s funding sources have an interest in continued destruction of natural ecosystems. 350.org is primarily funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, also a long-time funder of “sustainable old-growth forest logging”, the same pile of ill-gotten fossil fuel money that has long funded the lie put forth by the Forest Stewardship Council and other logging apologists that old-growth forests can and should be logged sustainably. Two decades ago it looked like primary forest logging was waning and would end, then along came a false solution based upon bad science, and we now have questionably sourced unsustainable old-growth forest toilet paper and lawn furniture certified as being beneficial for the environment. We know it is good because the Rockefeller funded stamp of approval says so. After a decade of prodding by EcoInternet, some progress has been made at getting the FSC out of the business of certifying old-growth forest logging, but it is still not clear what effect if any their pledge to protect “endangered forest landscapes” is having.
We have known for over 100 years, since John Muir’s prescient preservationist warnings, reinforced by modern science, that logging old-growth forests can never be done sustainably. Ecological function, structure, composition, and diversity are forever diminished. Contemporary planetary boundary science makes clear more natural forest ecosystems have been lost than the climate and biosphere can bear.
My own peer-reviewed ecological science research indicates that at 66% loss of natural ecosystems, the global biosphere percolates and loses critical connectivity required to sustain terrestrial ecosystems and thus the climate and biosphere in the long-term. At least 50% has already been lost, indicating further that planetary ecological boundaries have been surpassed and we are living precariously in a state of ecological overshoot.
Climate change could be solved tomorrow and soil erosion, ecosystem loss, nitrogen and phosphorous deposition, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, emergent disease, toxic synergies, ozone pollution, mass extinction, ocean decline, water scarcity, over-population, inequity, perma-war, and any number of other social and environmental issues could still decimate and perhaps end humanity. Climate change is a symptom of a larger human sickness, deeply entwined with deeper maladies, which will not be successfully addressed in isolation; and clearly it is not a matter of simply powering the status quo with renewable energy, which while important, is far from enough.
There are many elements of sufficient climate policy other than natural ecosystems given short thrift by a techno-optimist vision overly focused upon industrial production of renewable energy. Some can happen right away with the same urgency as ramping up renewable energy. What of energy conservation? Reduced meat diets based upon local organic production? Foregoing personal automobiles and flying less? Others are more long-term but must start immediately and be maintained if there is any hope for global ecological sustainability. What of reducing inequity to ensure all of humanity’s basic needs are met? Having fewer children as we care better for all those we have? And perhaps most importantly, working to demobilize standing armies (as has occurred throughout history except in the last 100 years) and codify world peace in international law.
A narrow focus upon vilifying the fossil fuel industry, a product that virtually every global citizen depends upon through no fault of their own, even the climate glitterati, will only get you so far. At some point, calls for shared sacrifice, equity, and justice will be required to stabilize the climate. Yet climate leaders such as Leo DiCaprio won’t even give up their profligate emissions for leisure on private jets and yachts. On an over-populated, inequitable world that has already overshot ecological limits, it is wrong and dangerous to suggest we can continue conspicuously overconsuming electricity generated through industrial scale renewable energy.
It is irresponsible and contrary to established ecological science for Mr. McKibben to promote a war on climate focused solely upon techno-optimist industrial solutions. First and foremost, climate change is an ecological issue.
The gross inadequacy of calling for a declaration of war on climate goes further. People are murdered in war, Bill, in large numbers, ruthlessly and wantonly. The jettisoning of moral and ethical standards implicit in war jargon enables a war on drugs to target the poor and minorities, as the war on terror justifies remote control murder, including innocents and even American citizens without due process. And we know drugs have won their war, and that militant nationalism breeds terror. “Wars” declared on behalf of policies have seldom if ever been effective, and usually make things worse.
A much richer vision of the urgent resolve to cut emissions fast would be to call for climate change demobilization and waging of climate peace. History is replete with examples of ending war and the beating of guns into plowshares as an opportunity to redirect societal resources. How many solar panels and windmills could be crafted from nearly $2 trillion in global military spending a year, if the world returned to its pre-911 course of establishing international laws and reducing military expenditures? It is long past time humanity make peace with the natural world and stop destroying her ecosystems and releasing buried carbon stores.
Let me make it clear. Bill McKibben and the rest are heroes who have done much for the climate change movement. But the collapse of the climate, ecosystems, peace, and the human family’s one shared biosphere are so massive in significance that it dwarfs any one individual and requires a truthful and truth-filled universal response. Clearly Bill and 350.org are not the only, most qualified, or longest serving players. And sometimes, such as with their abject resistance to addressing natural ecosystem loss as a keystone response to climate change, they are simply plain wrong. Stopping a pipeline here and there, and ramping up renewable energy, will not stop climate change alone. Bill McKibben and other climate luminaries must broaden their scope or we perish.
Tragically, both 350.org and other foundation-fed climate bureaucracies like the Sierra Club make little effort to engage with their critics. This is not the first time they have been challenged to address natural ecosystem destruction as a root cause of climate change, and embrace policies of protecting and restoring terrestrial ecosystems including old-growth forests as a keystone policy response. Despite being personally asked numerous times to clarify 350.org’s position on old-growth forest logging, Bill has chosen to remain silent, as have the others (even the Sierra Club under Mr. Brune, certainly causing John Muir to roll over in his grave).
Bill and company, from their position of power, privilege, and prestige, have chosen to stonewall and directed their surrogates to vilify critics. When challenged, those feeding themselves from the trough of public money meant to solve climate change have refused to engage in a healthy debate, or even respond to critics, which could lead to more diverse and sufficient climate change policy responses. Many of their supporters, and funders, portray asking questions regarding 350.org’s ecology-free climate pronouncements as somehow betraying the movement, rather than ensuring all of the correct and sufficient science-based climate actions are identified and implemented at once in all haste.
Is this the type of climate change movement we want and need? Is it enough to win?
Recently Bill wrote in the New York Times of his outrage that right-wing stalkers from the fossil fuel industry were following him, observing his lifestyle. It is time for Bill to man up, and recognize as a public figure, scrutiny of his private actions and public statements are justified. He has tasked himself with crafting and demonstrating personal and societal climate change responses that are sufficient to avoid global ecological collapse, and he must be held accountable.
I, for one, am much less perturbed that Bill occasionally uses plastic bags for his groceries, than that he apparently has little understanding of the ecological systems that maintain a livable Earth.
In closing, I call upon Bill, Leo, Al, Naomi, and Mike to immediately support and begin working for a global ban on industrial scale old-growth forest logging and for widespread natural forest ecosystem restoration; and if not, to explicitly and specifically say why. Soon it will be too late. Otherwise each is a legitimate target for further protest as they continue their charlatan demagoguery hocking inadequate ecology-free climate solutions.
I implore the vast climate movement and its donors, that in crafting sufficient polices to limit abrupt climate change (and the myriad of related environmental and social crises threatening biosphere collapse), it is time for more ecologically inspired voices to be heard and supported. That is if the big boys (and girl) have left any space or funding in the climate movement for sufficient deep ecology informed solutions.