The next 10 years will be decisive when it comes to the planet's future
-- what we do (or don't) will play out over geologic time.
could, if we set our minds to it, be the decade when the planet's use
of fossil fuels peaks and then rapidly declines. We've built a movement
that, for the moment, is starting to tie down the fossil fuel industry:
from the tarsands of Alberta to the (as yet unbuilt) giant new mines of
Australia's Galilee Basin, the big players in coal, gas, and oil are
bothered and even bewildered by a new strain of activist. They're losing
on the image front: when the Rockefeller family, the Church of England,
and Prince Charles have begun divesting their fossil fuel stocks, you
know the tide has turned.
with it comes the sudden chance to replace that fossil fuel, fast and
relatively easily. Out of nowhere the price of solar panels has fallen
like an anvil from a skyscraper, dropping 75 percent in the last six
years. Renewable energy is suddenly as cheap or cheaper than the bad
stuff, even before you figure in the insane monetary cost of global
warming. So in Bangladesh they're solarizing 60,000 huts a month
; the whole country may be panelled by 2020.
rapid change wouldn't be enough to stop global warming -- we're already
seeing drastic changes, as anyone living through California's drought
can attest. We'll continue to see record-breaking years (like 2014. And
like 2015 so far). We'll have to deal with record flooding. The ocean
will grow more acidic. But maybe, if we really ratchet up the transition
we'll avoid a challenge of civilization-scale.
course, we could change slowly, the way the Koch Brothers would like.
(And for that matter, most political leaders). We could do nothing out
of the ordinary, and wait three or four decades for solar power to
replace fossil fuel. It would rattle the fewest cages in the short run.
in the long run it would, by most of the computer models, condemn us to
four or five degrees Celsius of global warming -- enough to take the
world utterly out of the rhythms of the Holocene, enough to call into
question our ability to grow sufficient food or find sufficient water.
next decade is decisive because trajectory counts for so much; if we
bend it now, we may slide the car to a halt with just the front tires
hanging off the cliff. But if we sail on for a few more years, it's
pretty clear we're fast and furiously going airborne -- that's what
happens when, say, Arctic permafrost starts to melt in earnest,
releasing clouds of methane.
So it's not too much to say
that the next decade will decide what the world looks like for thousands
of decades to come. We all get front row seats -- but we can all be
actors too, if only we'll join the growing movement to do something
Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, the founder of 350.org
, an international climate campaign, and the winner of the 2014 Right Livelihood Award.