John Mott-Smith Credit: Davis Enterprise

This regular column by John Mott-Smith, a member of Cool Davis, is reposted from the Davis Enterprise

Bill McKibben, founder of the movement, spoke at the university on Monday. The place was packed, with all 400 seats full. McKibben is a writer and author of “The End of Nature” one of the first, if not the first, book warning about climate change.

As I took my seat, I noticed a mom with her young daughter on her lap, their attentive profiles a picture capturing the generational significance of what McKibben was there to talk about: the urgency for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This problem affects all of us.

I looked around some more; the audience was young, mostly college students taking time from their class schedule to hear a powerful message. This is encouraging to an old goat like me. As McKibben pointed out, the climate change issue is not simple; fossil fuels are at the very root of our economy and culture and change will not be easy.

And then McKibben started to talk. He made several points, some of which I summarize here, and he addressed a couple of key questions that I have about how to address global warming but upon which I remain unresolved. I found his comments sobering but realistic, not offering a guarantee of success for efforts to keep greenhouse gases in the atmosphere below dangerous levels but promising a good fight.

He pointed out that the picture of the Earth that we all have in our heads, the photograph taken from space by astronauts, is as out of date as his (or my — 1967) high school yearbook picture. We live on a different planet, one with much more acidic oceans and a very much more turbulent atmosphere where weird weather is becoming the norm.

One open question for me is whether it’s more important (effective?) to approach the issue at the grassroots level or from the top down; encourage individual action or, for example, require higher mpg standards for cars? He indicated that efforts on the individual and community scale are very important but they are not enough.

McKibben gave a lot of credit to Davis and its residents for the Cool Davis Initiative and for the political leadership to champion bike lanes, climate action plans and renewable energy. But, again, he said these are not enough.

In his view, the problem is bigger, time is short and we also need action at the national and international levels, two policy arenas where the fossil fuel industry appears to have stymied action. In short, keep doing what you are doing in Davis, but organize for the bigger picture.

He argues for the creation of a “movement” that encourages more individuals to make changes in their lives and in their communities, but also multiplies the effectiveness of this more widespread participation through focused political influence.

His activities over the past few years have been targeting that goal, and this year, on May 5, the effort will continue with events planned in communities around the world on the theme of “Connecting the Dots”; encouraging people to not view their weird local weather in isolation, but to see it as a pattern of global change.

It is those in the fossil fuel industry who are changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere who are the radicals.

McKibben advocates that every person participating in a public demonstration “wear a necktie or a dress” to convey that this is not a radical movement; rather, it is those in the fossil fuel industry who are changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere who are the radicals.

He advocates for a creative and fun approach to public events that makes a point and captures the public’s (and media’s) imagination. For example, taking a page from NASCAR where drivers wear suits with labels identifying their sponsors, his group is sewing coats and jackets with logos of fossil fuel companies and presenting them to members of Congress who don’t support efforts to reduce emissions.

Overall, McKibben painted an exceedingly bleak picture and called for urgent action, but not all actions. He addressed the second of my unresolved issues in response to a question about whether nuclear power should be a part of the answer to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

He basically said the question is moot; nuclear power is too expensive (“it’s like burning $10 bills to produce electricity”) and is not a realistic choice. Instead, he argued for energy efficiency, saying this should be easy for us in the U.S. because we waste so much it wouldn’t require much sacrifice to use less.

Once we’ve reduced energy consumption to a more reasonable level, McKibben thinks we should greatly increase “solar thermal” for our hot water needs. He pointed out this is not new, technically difficult, or expensive and that Jimmy Carter had installed a solar hot water system on the White House when he was president (removed by President Reagan).

Most importantly, we should pursue “distributed generation,” a wonkish term for rooftop or community-scale solar for our electricity needs. In his view, larger-scale projects that are “too big to fail” are really just too big. Their size creates vulnerability by essentially elevating a problem (failure of a solar panel on a roof top) to a catastrophe (a nuclear plant melting down or even just going off-line).