By Gwendolyn Craig
For decades, Bill McKibben has been a harbinger of climate change and its impacts. The author and environmentalist continues to be that, on this 50th Earth Day.
A resident of Vermont and frequenter of the Adirondacks, McKibben this spring shared his thoughts with The Times Union of Albany and Adirondack Explorer about the environmental progress the country and local region has made, while warning that threats remain.
What are some of the country’s greatest environmental accomplishments that give you hope since Earth Day began 50 years ago?
We took good care of the visible pollution problems, the stuff you could see. The air over our cities and the water in our rivers and lakes got lots cleaner—we owe the people who kicked off this work our great thanks. But of course they couldn’t have known that we faced a much more difficult problem: the pollution you couldn’t see, carbon dioxide, which is now rapidly warming and degrading the Earth.
What do you think Earth will look like in 50 years? What about the Adirondacks and Northeast?
It will be much hotter and much more prone to bursts of violent extremes: drought, flood, searing heatwave. I fear that the Adirondacks, which I love above all landscapes, will be marked more by extended mud season than by real winter, and that drought may test its reputation as an “asbestos forest.” How bad it gets still depends on how quickly we act to slow emissions.
What do you mean by an “asbestos forest?”
The idea was that the Adirondack forest was so damp it was hard to burn (except through mass logging operations like at the turn of the 20th century). In general it should be getting wetter, but increased heat means that long dry stretches will really dry things out. There are already fires in the Adirondacks—I’ve fought a couple of them over the years—but it could become more of a problem.
What are some of the biggest positive, and biggest negative, environmental changes you have seen in the Adirondacks, since Earth Day began?
The Adirondacks, in general, have continued to get steadily better—one of the few places on Earth you can make that claim for. Acid rain exacted a serious price, but the Clean Air Act means that it has declined dramatically. And of course a series of blights—to the beech, the ash, the hemlock—work their damage. But in the largest sense, having a huge intact forest base has truly paid off, and will continue to do so as the climate warms. Thank heaven for the foresight of our forebears, and for all who work today to make sure the park stays well-protected.
What gets you up in the morning?
The fact that we have, according to the scientists, about a 10-year window of real leverage left. What we do or don’t do over this decade will determine how hot it eventually gets—past a certain point we won’t have much way to affect the outcome, so we should battle now.
What keeps you up at night?
Exactly the same thing.
Do you think New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act will have a lasting impact on greenhouse gas reductions?
Yes—it’s a good start, and we should be so grateful to the activists, especially in the environmental justice community, who led the charge.
What are some things you would encourage readers to do to help the environment and slow climate change?
The easiest, most impactful step for New Yorkers to take would be to besiege Tom DiNapoli, the state comptroller, with the demand that he divest the state pension fund holdings in fossil fuel stocks. By delaying he’s cost the state vast sums—the last number I saw was $17,000 per pensioner—but he also continues to lend credibility to the very companies that are raising the Atlantic and damaging the Adirondacks. Please tell him the day has come to join the other leaders around the world who have divested $12 trillion in one of the most effective campaigns against the industry yet.