How Do You Define Too Late?

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“The problem with climate change is that it’s a timed test,” the writer Bill McKibben says. “If you don’t solve it fast, then you don’t solve it.” Photograph by S. E. Arndt / Picture Press / Redux

I have been reading the reviews, and interviews with the authors of this and two other important recent books covering similar territory. I have stopped worrying about overkill, because this is overkill territory. You cannot get too much perspective on this; the worry is too little, too late:

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Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert on the U.N. Extinction Report

While the political tide could be turning on climate change, both writers worry that it is too late.

After years of languishing far down the list of voters’ priorities—for Democrats and even more so for Republicans—the desire for action on climate change has brought this issue to the top of many voters’ concerns, according to a CNN poll. Now Presidential candidates are competing to establish themselves as leaders on the issue, while children are making headlines for striking from school.

Bill McKibben, whose book “The End of Nature” brought the idea of global warming to public consciousness thirty years ago, tells David Remnick that the accumulation of weather catastrophes—droughts, wildfires, floods—may have finally made an impact. McKibben joined Elizabeth Kolbert in a conversation about the U.N.’s new report on species extinction. It finds that a million species could become extinct within a few decades, and that human life itself may be imperilled. While the political tide could be turning, both worry that it is too late.

david remnick: Bill, you wrote “The End of Nature,” which was really the first popular book on climate change, thirty years ago. What are you seeing now in the current moment that’s different from what you’ve seen before? We’ve had so many missed opportunities.

bill mckibben: What’s different about now? Well, one of the things that’s different is it’s much easier to see precisely what’s going on. I mean, thirty years ago we were offering warnings, even ten years ago. It was still a little hard to make out the precise shape of climate change as it started to affect the planet. Now, I mean, you watch as a California city literally called Paradise literally turns into Hell inside half an hour. You know, once people have seen pictures like that, it’s no wonder that we begin to see a real uptick in the response. In the last six months we’ve seen this rise of the demand for a Green New Deal in the Democratic Party. We’ve seen the Extinction Rebellion shut down London, the center of London, for a week, and the Tory-led Parliament and the U.K. declare a climate emergency. And, you know, most poignantly, we’ve watched a few million schoolchildren following the lead of Greta Thunberg, in Sweden, and walking out of classes. It’s not a good sign that we‘re asking twelve-year-olds to solve the problem for us, but it’s good that they’re stepping up.

Do you think that this had to be the case? In other words, that we had to see, say, Guatemala so affected by climate change that thousands of, essentially, climate refugees come to our borders. Or Syria, in many ways, was a product not only of political rebellion but also climate rebellion, in a certain sense. Did this have to be?…

Read or listen to the whole interview here.

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