Bill McKibben and the Temple of Doom

US Chamber of Commerce building

Jobs? There's one job the US Chamber of Commerce has done better than anyone: warming the planet. Photo: ElvertBarnes via Flickr.

Nobody’s yet accused Tom Donohue of leading a dark cult to enslave the human race like high priest Mola Ram in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But Bill McKibben seems to think that Donohue has cast an evil spell over his country’s young ruler in order to make him do his bidding.

While candidate Obama promised to make climate change one of his two top issues, President Obama has been acting more and more like a minion of Donohue’s outfit, the US Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies on behalf of the nation’s biggest polluters.

Not only did Obama fail to put his muscle behind last year’s effort to pass the most timid possible climate bill, but since then he’s pushed nukes, drilling and mining in a way that would make Newt Gingrich blush. And just two weeks ago, the White House opened up 750 million tons of coal under federal land in Wyoming to mining. “That’s like opening 300 new coal-fired power plants and running them for a year,” says McKibben. “That’s a disgrace.”

Makes the Koch brothers look piddly

When it comes to funding climate-science deniers, if the Koch brothers are “high peaks of corruption, then the US Chamber of Commerce is the Everest of dirty money,” says McKibben. With its office right across from the White House, the Chamber is the nation’s largest lobbying group. It spends more on politics than the Democratic and Republican national committees put together.

The Chamber spent $32 million on the 2010 elections and 94% of that went to candidates who are climate deniers. And that’s because the good folks at the chamber just aren’t that worried about global warming.

“Populations can acclimatize via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations,” the Chamber said in comments to the EPA in 2009.

Physiological changes? McKibben wonders if the Chamber means we’ll have to grow gills.

The science is easy but the politics is hard

With 2010 tied for the warmest year on record, the science is clear: Climate change is real, it’s caused by humans and it’s happening faster than anyone predicted. It’s not a problem for our grandkids. It’s a problem for us.

Scientists agree that the only hope to preserve a climate on Earth similar to the one in which human civilization developed is to cut carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back down to 350 parts per million. It’ll be the toughest thing that humans have ever done, says McKibben. But we already have the technology. What we need is the politics.

Reaching 350 will require the US and other rich countries to act. It’s not enough to have Vanuatu and the Seychelles sign on to cut their carbon pollution. The cuts need to come from countries that really pollute — Europe, China, India, Russia and most of all, the United States.

But the US won’t act as long as there’s so much pollution in Washington — money pollution, that is. Big Oil, Big Coal and other big polluting industries don’t want to cut their carbon because that would eat into their profits. So, working through the US Chamber of Commerce, big polluters pressure the White House and Congress to do nothing about climate change. And so far, it’s worked.

Given the power of this plutocracy, it’s understandable that many people who care about climate, especially those who also care about peak oil, have given up on Washington. They’re just waiting for the place to collapse while they prepare their communities and families for a post-peak world.

It’s one thing to brace for peak oil. But quite another to have any hope to “prepare” for climate change.

Think you can climate-proof your house or your town?

Unless there’s total armed anarchy, family survivalism or community resilience might work out OK to get ready for a world of $10 gas or daily power outages. But there’s nothing you can do in your home or your town to prepare for climate change except move somewhere you think might fare better. And even that’s a crap shoot.

Sure, Canada might become the breadbasket of the world if their climate becomes more like North Carolina’s. But what if, as in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, the Gulf Stream shuts off and the global north is hit by a new ice age that covers every place north of the Mason-Dixon Line in a 200-foot glacier?

It seems even riskier to try to ride out climate catastrophe somewhere in the future than to try to prevent that catastrophe today.

And that means citizens trying to break the stranglehold of big money over climate policy. Of course, it won’t be easy. But what else can we do? As McKibben says,

If you were a betting person you might bet that we were going to lose, because so far that’s what’s happened. But that’s not a bet you’re allowed to make. The only thing that a morally awake person can do when the worst thing that can happen is happening is to try to change those odds.

Watch McKibben’s fiery speech at the Power Shift conference this past weekend.

— Erik Curren

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  1. OldStone50 says

    There is something you can do in your home or home town “to prepare for climate change”: don’t have kids, and strongly encourage friends and family to also not have kids. Our climate/energy problem is not CO2 or fossil resources (water, carbon, et al), it is a human population size so grotesquely larger than required that it imperils the health, happiness and safety – even the very survival – of every individual in it. Plus there’s the impact on all the other worthy life forms on Earth.
    If you love children, don’t have them.

  2. Pauline says

    If the Chamber of Commerce is the villainous scum of the Earth, we need to take them out.
    With all prejudice. They are murdering us.
    And “reducing” carbon levels to 350 ppm is NEVER going to happen in our lifetime.
    Why perpetuate this bold faced lie?
    Science dictates that we are stuck at 400 ppm for 1000 years.
    The oceans absorb CO2 and can only handle so much before completely acidifying.
    I’m disgusted by McKibben’s flaccid response to the murdering of us.
    It’s NOT we who are murdering life on Earth. I am not mountain topping.
    I purchase wind power for my home. And it’s not enough.
    WE cannot divest enough or reduce enough to save our lives.
    A real solution needs to be considered.
    One where the murderous frat boys at the C of C are permanently left toothless and clawless.
    It’s the only way to save a shred of any life on Earth.
    Otherwise, just keep blathering lies about reducing our carbon levels, whining about the evil doers at the C of C, and bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.
    We don’t have long before the famine starts.

    • says

      You’re right Pauline that the climate situation is dire, and that it’s a moral issue. Good for you for using clean energy. Each of us needs to do our part to use it when we can. Meantime, we can all certainly conserve and cut back. Meanwhile, may we also be inspired to have as much passion as you do about the climate crisis. That’s what it will take for us to prevail.

  3. James R. Martin says

    “And “reducing” carbon levels to 350 ppm is NEVER going to happen in our lifetime. Why perpetuate this bold faced lie?”

    It would be interesting to find out what would likely happen if (a) humanity would basically quit fossi fuels almost instantly, and (b) we were to employ all known, available carbon sequestration enhancements, e.g., biochar, while (c) ceasing all deforestation in the world …. and (d) defunding the military, while (b) redirecting “defense” funds into the a giant research and development program/project to discover yet more carbon sequestration techniques and technologies — and perhaps fund other geoengineering efforts (which is scary, I agree).

    “Science dictates that we are stuck at 400 ppm for 1000 years. The oceans absorb CO2 and can only handle so much before completely acidifying.”

    The oceans still function as a carbon sink, though there are limits, for sure. I’ve got too many simultanious research projects going to do them all at once, but I’m really wondering at what point of acidification ocean ecosystems are expected to collapse. When are the coral reefs expected to die off in the various projected CO2 scenarios? It may be extremely difficult to nudge the world out of Business As Usual trajectories, but it’s not fair to anyone to simply assume that we’ll stay on BAU or something similar.

    “I’m disgusted by McKibben’s flaccid response to the murdering of us.”

    McKibben and Co. have done a LOT to raise awareness and begin to build (with others) a global climate response movement (or movements). If you don’t like his approach, why not join with others who are taking what you think might be a more effective approach? Or you could offer a strategic and tactical approach of your own and lead the charge, or help grow another movement. But whatever you do, McKibben should be honored for what he’s done in moving the ball down the court. It’s fine to disagree with him, even passionately. But let your criticism be useful by offering another strategy or something. Please.

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