Politics and Climate Change

Hurricane Irene passes through the Bahamas. Lynne Sladky / AP

As Hurricane Irene bore down on the East Coast, I was standing outside the White House with hundreds of others protesting. For seven days we staged daily sit-ins and were hauled away to the police station. I spent two nights at Central Cell Block in D.C. (which is precisely as much fun as it sounds) for the crime of standing on the sidewalk protesting the Keystone Pipeline, which will connect the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico—and in the process spew carbon into the atmosphere.

But the largest civil-disobedience protest in the recent history of the environmental movement did take the day off on Sunday. Not because of the police but because of Irene, busily ramming her way up the Eastern Seaboard. When we resume this week (climate star James Hansen plans on getting arrested), it will be with one more reminder of why we must act on climate change.

You’d think by now we’d get the message on global warming. We know, of course, it didn’t cause Irene, that it has to do with the spin of the Earth and waves of weather rolling off Africa. But one reason the East Coast went on red alert was that there was unusually warm water all along the Atlantic Seaboard. Usually, says Jeff Masters of Weather Underground, it’s difficult for hurricanes to keep their strength much past North Carolina because ocean temperatures plunge below the 79°F level that can generate those strong winds. Not this year: “Sea surface temperatures 1° to 3°F warmer than average extend along the East Coast from North Carolina to New York.” In fact, in all the years of record keeping, only one summer has had warmer water—last year.

Which means if your oceanfront condo turns into an ocean-dwelling condo, you’ve got global warming in part to thank. We’ve always had hurricanes—and droughts and floods. We’ve just never had so much crazy weather all at once. Even before Irene, the U.S. had already set a record in 2011 for the most billion-dollar weather disasters. Recently, JFK airport marked its all-time rainfall record, on the same day that many Southwest cities set new records for most days above 100°. As carbon traps more heat in the atmosphere, it expresses itself in ever more violent weather. If you don’t believe the scientists, then ask the insurance industry. Munich Re, one of the world’s largest insurers, summed up its record payouts from the record-hot year of 2010: “This rise cannot be explained without global warming.”

Which makes it paradoxical that as the great storm was steaming up the coast, the State Department released an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the most contested energy project in years, the Keystone Pipeline. The Alberta tar sands are the second-biggest pool of carbon on the continent; if we seriously tap into them, says premier climate scientist Hansen, it’s “essentially game over for the climate.”

But the EIS does not even mention the effect on the climate from ramping up the exploitation of this Saudi-scale ocean of carbon. The Obama administration mostly stopped talking about climate change years ago, except to focus on green jobs or clean energy. The president was widely expected to approve the pipeline, but that may have changed in the last week. Many of the demonstrators were arrested wearing their “Obama ’08” buttons—a reminder of the faith environmentally conscious voters placed in a president who said that his term would see “the rise of the oceans begin to slow and the planet begin to heal.” In this case, the president doesn’t even need to consult Congress; he can veto the project all by himself. If he doesn’t, Mike Brune of the Sierra Club may have put it best: “It will be increasingly difficult to mobilize the environmental base and to mobilize in particular young people to volunteer, to knock on thousands of doors, to put in 16-hour days, to donate money, when they don’t think the president is showing the courage to stand up to big polluters.”

Whatever happens with Irene, maybe it’s a powerful enough storm to help blow our politics in a new direction.

McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and organizer of tarsandsaction.org.