‘Coping with Calamity’ at Aspen Environment Forum
ASPEN – Environmental warrior Bill McKibben doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the world has become an increasingly disaster-prone place.
Many of the natural disasters that plague the globe aren’t so natural in his view. With the exception of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, he said, human fingerprints are all over the cataclysmic events.
There is a common bond between killer tornadoes, devastating drought and overwhelming floods hammering the U.S. this spring with recent epic flooding in Pakistan and Australia, rains that have wiped out cropland and infrastructure in Colombia, last year’s heatwave that ruined Russia’s grain harvest and current droughts threatening crop failure in Europe. That bond is global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels, he said.
McKibben doesn’t contend that any individual event can be directly tied to global warming or that one of the deadly tornadoes in the U.S. was more intense because of global warming. His point is that global warming is creating conditions ripe to produce more cataclysmic events.
“The world we’re building is a more violent and dynamic place,” said McKibben, founder of the environmental organization 350.org and a Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. The warmer atmosphere sucks more moisture from the earth, creating large areas of drought, and dumps extraordinary amounts of rain and snow on other areas, creating floods. The warmer climate is also a wetter climate, about 4 percent wetter than just 30 years ago, he said.
Global warming also places more energy in the system. “It loads the dice for all sorts of events,” McKibben said.
McKibben will be a member of a panel Monday at the opening session of the Aspen Environment Forum. The annual conference presented by the Aspen Institute and National Geographic will explore the consequences, challenges and opportunities of the swelling world population. The conference will continue through June 2, with most events at the Aspen Meadows Campus.
In the opening event Monday evening, the panel will discuss “Coping with Calamity: The Art of Looking Ahead.” The premise, according to a description of the event, is that humankind is more vulnerable than ever to disasters because the swelling population has forced sprawl and development in places where it’s not so wise (think of nuclear reactors on tsunami-prone parts of the Japanese coast). Events like tornadoes and floods have a greater likelihood of hitting populated areas because of the development patterns of the last five decades, the theory goes.
McKibben said from his Vermont home Thursday that development is a contributing factor to the world becoming more disaster-prone, but not the root cause. He will offer a different twist to the panel discussion. There is potential for more disasters of greater magnitude because global warming is projected to increase another 4 degrees Celsius before this century is finished, he said. That is about four times the amount it warmed over the last century. Climate modeling suggests that level of warming will be accompanied by an increased number of cataclysmic events.
McKibben said humankind needs to respond in a couple of ways. First, it needs to build more resilient systems that aren’t as prone to disaster. An example, he said, is the local food movement – supporting food production in or near your community.
Second, and more importantly, is reducing global warming. “We have to prevent it from warming so much that we can’t deal with it,” McKibben said.
Population growth as a sole factor doesn’t concern him because most of the growth will occur in areas that contribute little to global warming. He is more concerned with potential lifestyle changes in existing populations that could accelerate global warming. Changes in China, for example, threaten to drastically increase that country’s greenhouse gas emissions, he said.
McKibben founded 350.org to start a worldwide movement to build awareness of the stakes of global warming and to cut carbon by 80 percent by 2050. More information about the organization is available at http://www.350.org.
While population growth per se isn’t McKibben’s primary concern, it is the focus of much of the Aspen Environment Forum. Panel discussions and presentations Monday evening and over the following three full days will focus on how the Earth’s finite resources can sustain expanding human needs.
The general pass for the four days is $1,500. Discounts are available for nonprofit employees, government employees and students. Day passes are also sold. More on those tickets and the program is available at http://www.aspenenvironment.org.
Single event tickets are available to one big event each day. More on those opportunities are available at http://www.aspenshowtickets.com.
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