The Common Good
November 2010

A Problem of Biblical Proportions

by Bill McKibben | November 2010

The summer's weather can safely be described as biblical, in the sense that newspaper writers generally use the word -- that is, loud, scary, and dangerous.

The summer's weather can safely be described as biblical, in the sense that newspaper writers generally use the word -- that is, loud, scary, and dangerous. Seventeen nations set new all-time temperature records (including a toasty 129 in Pakistan that also set the all-time Asia mark); the monsoon clobbered the mountains of the subcontinent with heartbreaking ferocity, setting off floods and landslides that left millions homeless; Moscow, which had never topped 100 degrees in all its history, endured a heat wave so spectacular that the Kremlin cut off all grain exports. Oh, and a piece of ice four times the size of Manhattan broke off the edge of Greenland.

Even less-cataclysmic storms seemed kind of Old Testament. In the Washington, D.C. area, for instance, a July thunderstorm (which meteorologists knew would be bad "even before it hit" because it had been so hot) turned out to be ... well, here's the spokeswoman for Virginia's largest utility, who said the company tracked more than 180,000 lightning strikes on its system in an eight-hour period: "That's pretty phenomenal," she said. "That's more lightning strikes than we’ve ever endured in recent memory." That works out to 6.25 per second. Very Charlton Heston.

The truth, though, is that the weather isn't really biblical, at least in the God-is-angry-and-has-decided-to-vent kind of way. We're not being punished for any of the long list of sins that right-wing preachers generally summon -- gay marriage isn't causing horrible monsoons.

No, we're punishing ourselves, and our actual sin is pretty obvious: burning coal and gas and oil. It turns out that in this particular creation, you produce a lot of carbon dioxide when you do that. And it turns out that in this particular creation, the molecular structure of CO2 traps heat near the planet that would otherwise radiate back out to space. And it turns out that in this particular creation, that extra energy expresses itself in all kinds of ways: mercury-busting heat, increased evaporation and hence increased deluge and downpour, the rapid melting of everything frozen.

In fact, the current climate might well be called anti-biblical. It's our work, not God’s, and we are steadily reversing the course of creation. In midsummer, a landmark study published in Nature showed that warming ocean waters had cut the amount of phytoplankton in half. These are the small marine organisms that undergird the oceans’ food chains. All I could think of was Genesis 1:20 and the very first animals: "And God said, 'Let the water teem with living creatures.'" We're running the movie backwards.

The good news, though, is that since we know what we're doing, we can stop. If we actually cared about slowing down the plague of floods and heat and drought and melt, we would immediately put a high price on carbon. That would make coal and oil and gas more expensive, and spur the transition to wind, sun, and the other non-fossil fuels. But we’re not doing that -- earlier this summer, amidst all the lightning strikes, the Senate decided not even to vote on a bill raising the price of carbon.

When I read that, I thought mostly of the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus and asked what he should do. And Jesus told him: Sell what you've got, give it to the poor, and follow me. And the young man went away sorrowful, for he liked his stuff and didn’t want to sell it.

We like our cheap energy, and so far we’re not willing to give it up, and it's starting to cost us dearly. We know what to do -- we just don’t want to do it. In that sense, our problem is entirely biblical.

Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and author of Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, April 2010).

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