TELLURIDE, Colo. - Seen on the streets of Telluride, Bill McKibben might easily be mistaken for a local who had arrived in the 1970s. Lanky, his short-cropped hair greying, he wears blue jeans and tennis shoes, even when speaking to 400-some people at a packed conference hall at Moving Mountains, the opening session of Telluride Mountain Film. You try to imagine a tie around his neck, but the picture doesn't congeal.
McKibben, who in fact lives in the mountains of Vermont, has become one of the most notable writers and activists of our time. Good enough at the keyboard while still in college to attract the attention of the New Yorker editor William Shaw, McKibben was initially unimpressed.
"He was 75, and I told him to fuck off," McKibben remembered at a breakfast session in Telluride on Saturday morning.
Later, McKibben did become a staff writer for the New Yorker , the ultimate dream job in the writing world, but did not stay. Instead, he has moved broadly in the world, and in 1993 wrote the ground-breaking book, The End of Nature , which took the dire warnings of Jim Hansen and other climatologists and spelled out the ultimate in environmental disasters.
Sixteen years later, a trickle of evidence in support of the warnings of McKibben and Hansen has become a flood. Actually, it turns out that they were probably too conservative. Breakup of the Arctic Sea ice in 2007 occurred at a rate not expected until perhaps mid-century. Meanwhile, accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions has accelerated.
McKibben still writes prolifically. He's a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and also National Geographic . But he devotes most of his time to what he calls "this almost constant organizing."
That task is to accelerate the response to climate change. With the support of Hansen, he created 350.org, a simple goal fraught with a world of complexity. Accumulations of carbon dioxide, which before the industrial revolution were at 250 parts per million, have now reached 387 parts per million. While unabated use of fossil fuels would push that to 900 parts per million by century's end, climate scientists have been saying those accumulations must be contained at 450 to 550 parts per million.
That seemed an impossible task. Now, with the evidence of accelerated climate instability, Hansen and many others say that atmospheric accumulations of CO 2 must be cut back to 350 parts per million - a difficult task, in that once in the atmosphere, CO 2 stays in the atmosphere for a century before slowly dissipating.
McKibben calls that a "stern time limit" and insists that radical action must be accomplished within just the next few years. The environmental movement, he said, has never geared up for such a big battle. At issue is the very foundation of the global economy: fossil fuels. And never has that economy been so big. "Last year Exxon Mobil made more money than any other company in history," he pointed out.
Dependency upon globalized fossil fuels has created an American dream that has allowed us to be hyper-independent. "We're the first generation that can coexist without real need of our neighbours." Even so, he says, surveys have revealed the average American to be far less satisfied than 50 years ago.
Coming months look to be pivotal. Representatives of 180 nations are scheduled to arrive in Copenhagen, Denmark later this year to assemble to create a successor to the largely ineffectual Kyoto Treaty.
In an effort to influence America's policy going into those new negotiations, McKibben's organization plans a major event on Oct. 24. Among other publicity efforts, mountain climbers around the world will proclaim their worries from far-flung summits. This will be part of a variety of less lofty but no less important actions. "The point is you need to tell them how much they need to do, to set the bar," said McKibben.
Much hope lies with President Barack Obama, whom McKibben credits with accomplishing more in three months than his predecessor did in eight years. "Granted, the bar was set remarkably low," he added.
McKibben admits that his work as an organizer has been largely about striking fear. But he also admitted to hope. A prior effort, called Step It Up, staged a national event that he believes had profound consequences. Within three days, the two leading Democratic candidates then, Obama and Hillary Clinton, revised their energy platforms to call for an 80 per cent reduction by 2050.
The global warming story is one that is maddeningly global and local, both in causes and consequences. Implications of both are being increasingly sorted out.
In Telluride, one potential real estate buyer over the weekend confided that he was interested in Telluride precisely because of its higher location. Increased temperatures everywhere will make a higher elevation of value, even if powder skiing becomes more rare.
Food supply presents an entirely different challenge. Our meals in the last 50 years have become global in their origins, all of them requiring vast amounts of fossil fuels. Food has also become industrialized in production. A world with sharply more rationed energy supplies will accommodate neither, necessarily requiring more localized production and ultimately limits on menus. Right now, grocery stores constantly have fresh vegetables and fruits, no matter the season, among their 46,000 items.
But hope springs eternal. And this spring, leaders in Telluride began examining their options for bold action. Despite efforts to shrink their carbon footprint in line with the Kyoto Treaty, vows amplified through commitment to the Mayors' Agreement on Climate Change, both Telluride and adjacent Mountain Village have seen their carbon footprints grow.
A hopeless cause? Not so, decided Telluride Mayor Stuart Fraser and Mountain Village Mayor Bob Delves. Consulting renewable energy experts and utility managers, they decided to announce their intentions of securing 100 per cent of electricity for the Telluride area from renewable sources by the year 2020.
The two mayors announced the goal on Saturday, with McKibben by their side.
It's a daunting task. Telluride, first as a mining town and now as a resort, uses vast amounts of electricity, far more than the average. Almost none of it is locally produced - something they believe will be important to change.
Ironically, Telluride was the site of the world's first locally produced alternating electrical current, from a hydroelectric plant south of town. In turn, it became the first town anywhere to have electric street lights.
Fraser, who is 65, says the goal almost certainly will not be attained while he is mayor, and perhaps not in his lifetime. Still, he says, ultimately it is the right thing to do.
Is this impossible? As every ski-town resident understands, mountains are climbed one step at a time. But first there must be intention, a goal of getting there.
Increasingly, the world community is uniting in that goal. McKibben made that point indirectly, talking about being in Tibet several years ago. It was a remote place, and he went out with a local villager, climbing up to the snout of a glacier. The glacier was fast receding. McKibben says he asked the local man if he understood the cause.
"He looked at me like I was from Planet Stupid," said McKibben. "He said, 'that's global warming.'"
And that, added McKibben, is just one degree of hotter. Much more is almost certain. If fundamental changes have not been made in our use of fossil fuels within three or four years, he predicted, we may not be able to slow this freight train.
He could be wrong, but then again, McKibben was mostly on target with his 1993 book.