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Bill McKibben’s introduction to his electrifying talk, “Notes on the Climate Struggle,” delivered to a packed audience at Carleton University, hit home for his Ottawa crowd. He had been eager, he said, to visit in February because he wanted to go skating on the canal. The canal, however, was closed on that first day of Winterlude and showed no signs of opening soon. Indeed, it had only been open four short days this season and last year, for the first time since its inception, the canal did not open at all. It only underscored, he said, the “ironic aptness” of his talk. It was a talk we all need to hear. McKibben beautifully wove together the grim place at which we’ve arrived (the highest recorded temperatures in 125,000 years, increasing fires, increasing flooding, and other climate calamities around the world), his own history of writing and activism, and what we can do now.
The leitmotif of the talk was that we do not have a lot of time. More specifically: we have five years and ten months. It is too late to stop climate change, he said, but we must act by 2030 to prevent runaway feedback loops from making things irreversibly worse.
It’s possible to do this. Indeed, he noted, the problem is relatively simple. Climate change is the result of carbon emissions. The energy sources that produce carbon emissions, therefore, have to be replaced with renewable energy sources. Happily, renewables have never been more affordable and, in fact, are considerably cheaper than oil, gas, and coal. There is a problem, however: power and money. Specifically, the power and money that the oil and gas sectors continue to wield. They’ve had an outsized influence on the release of carbon emissions and on preventing government policy to curb them. Further, on realizing the danger that burning of oil and gas posed to the world, they doubled down on lying, obscuring, and distracting the public about the danger it posed. They chose profits over ethics. The result is that we are now in a “timed test” to prevent further damage. Had we acted on the knowledge that both climate scientists and, importantly, oil and gas companies had back in the 1980s, the world would not be in this predicament. We now know what to do in response to climate change—replace oil and gas with renewables—and taking action is imperative.
It is simple but it’s not. We may know what to do but there are obstacles to action. The oil and gas sector continues to have a powerful hold on the economy; and it has the power and money to continue to distort information and delay action. How do the small and the many, McKibben asked, stand up to the mighty and the few? His answer is non-violent social movement building. We can all participate in this project and, because time is short, we must begin now. The talk was sponsored by the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Council of Ottawa in collaboration with the College of the Humanities at Carleton University. McKibben acknowledged his debt to Gandhi’s example and legacy throughout his talk, noting that he felt Gandhi was “the most important human being” from the last century, perhaps the last millennia. Inspired by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Bacha Khan, McKibben affirmed the power of the “politics of gesture”—Gandhi’s salt march, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat, Greta Thunberg’s school strike—to move people and motivate action.
Early on McKibben asked: what are the two most critical interventions of the twentieth century? His answer: non-violent social movements; and solar power. For McKibben the two are corequisites. Through non-violent social movements we will get the urgent action we need to quickly arrive at a low-carbon economy.
In closing, McKibben returned to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He noted that Martin Luther King used to end his talks with the oft-cited comment that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But, McKibben told us, we don’t have the luxury of “long.” We have just under six years. The arc of the physical universe is short, he said, and it bends toward heat. What to do then? The most important thing an individual can do, he urged in closing, is to be a little less of an individual and join a non-violent social movement. Ecology Ottawa is one place to start.
Barbara Leckie is a professor in the Department of English and the Institute for the Comparative Study of Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa. She is the author of Climate Change, Interrupted: Representation and the Remaking of Time (Stanford UP, 2022) and Academic Director of Re.Climate: Centre for Climate Communication and Public Engagement.