• Looking for new viability
    February 01,2013

    The commentary “A dark night in Brookfield with Bill McKibben” flows from an eloquent observer, Jules Rabin, and deserves our riveted attention.

    McKibben, a Middlebury College visiting scholar, has become the world’s canary in the mine, speaking out about the dangers of climate change. Carbon dioxide-caused global warming, a phenomenon first identified at the close of the 19th century, stands as the primary cause for a 1-degree (Celsius) rise in global temperature over the last century and a half. Countless publicly funded international studies in the last 30 years link this human-caused global warming to today’s devastating climate change events. In the past decade McKibben has delivered his compelling warning to dozens of Vermont audiences. I first heard his call for action at the Thetford First Congregational Church in 2001.

    Each time I listen to McKibben the climate change science becomes stronger, the predictions more dire and precise. I’ve heard several McKibben talks at energy efficiency conferences in Burlington. In the fall of 2010 my wife and I listened to McKibben in Washington, D.C., the night before we joined over 100 others to peacefully protest on the White House sidewalk the pending approval of the XL tar sands pipeline. Last October in UVM’s Ira Allen chapel, we joined a standing-room-only crowd to hear his rousing launch of a nationwide campaign, Do The Math, urging universities to divest of their endowment funds tied to fossil fuels. The spellbinding images and hard science of that Brookfield speech, the subject of Rabin’s haunting commentary, linger in my thoughts as the most frightening and compelling of McKibben’s calls to arms.

    In the past human ignorance propelled the worldwide precursors of climate change. Today, fully versed in the causes and cures of climate disruption, humans hesitate to launch the life-changing discomforts that might assure a viable planet for our grandchildren. Any citizen in the developed world knows a lifetime in a fossil fuel energy bonanza — a one-time, vanishing billion-year-old gift from Mother Nature. Ironically, the waste from our comfortable, high-energy lifestyle — carbon dioxide — today overwhelms the earth’s capacity to absorb it. To preserve a livable planet we must dramatically reduce our use of CO2-producing fossil fuels: oil, coal and natural gas.

    Our excuse for inaction may lurk in not fully understanding the threat or, if we do, selfishness about prolonging a cozy energy-rich lifestyle, or, perhaps, that easy yet unsettling stance that tells us we’ll be long gone when things really get bad. The lack of a focused legislative response to date stems in part from the political ineffectiveness of waffling unorganized individuals, while the complete stonewalling of any policy progress rests largely in the hands of corporations. The giant petroleum, natural gas and coal industries, abetted by conservative think tanks and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pour millions into lobbying and direct political contributions to “climate deniers” in the U.S. Congress. This coalition, driven by greed and the belief in unending economic growth on a finite planet, effectively beat back any meaningful legislation to slow the march of climate disruption.

    Farsighted Vermonters banned the ugly clutter of billboards. Fair-minded Vermonters legalized gay marriage. Wise Vermonters created Act 250, while compassionate Vermonters enacted Dr. Dynasaur. Today thoughtful, courageous Vermonters of every political stripe must lead once again, helping pioneer a lower-energy way of life that will preserve a viable natural world for future generations.

    Erik Esselstyn lives in North Montpelier.

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