This is a guest post from Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and author of a dozen books, most recently The Bill McKibben Reader. McKibben serves on Grist’s board of directors and is cofounder of 350.org.
There have been moments in the last few weeks when it seemed like the world was ending. “Financial Meltdown!” the headlines screamed. Bad as it has been, however, it’s nothing compared to the real meltdown now underway across the planet — our home planet, the one we share whether we’re rich or poor, American or African, or, for that matter, human or plant or animal.
Which is why we’re launching a big campaign this fall to remind the presidential candidates that this election is about Ohio, and Florida, and Pennsylvania — and Bangladesh. That the battlegrounds include New Hampshire and Nevada — and Nairobi. That bailing out Wall Street is about pumping money into the credit markets — and figuring out a way to wean our economy off the gas pump.
What the next American president does or doesn’t do about global warming will go a long way toward determining what kind of a planet we live on.
Some of us spent last year coordinating a massive nationwide campaign that staged 2,000 rallies in all 50 states, calling for big cuts in American carbon emissions. That work here at home has to continue. When Congress begins a new session in January, we’ll need to push for the first real federal legislation on climate, after two decades of waiting. Not “drill, baby, drill,” but “insulate, baby, insulate.”
But just as important, either Barack Obama or John McCain will need to reengage the United States in the international process for reaching a global agreement on climate change. If we don’t, we can cut as much as we like out of our carbon emissions and it won’t do much to slow the planet’s warming. Even as the financial markets struggle, we have the capital and the technology to make a crucial difference. After all, Americans are the biggest per capita polluters of all, but we’ve played no role in the global climate talks over the last eight years. That must end. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said last year that we have until 2012 to make huge changes as a planet or it will be too late.
Luckily, there’s a process in place. In December 2009, the leaders of the world are scheduled to come together in Copenhagen to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto agreement. If there’s any chance of that meeting providing a real breakthrough, though, there’s much groundwork that needs to be done beforehand. In December 2008, after the American election but before Inauguration Day, the world is meeting in Poland to prepare for the Copenhagen climate talks. The winner of November’s presidential election could rivet the world’s attention on these negotiations if he flew to Poland in December and declared that the United States is back in the game.
To make that happen, we at 350.org and Grist are cooperating on a campaign to let people all across the planet issue invitations to the president-elect. Just by going here, you’ll be able to compose an invite to McCain and Obama. And if you’re even the tiniest bit tech-savvy, you can add a video version of your invite for our nifty interactive globe. You can also — and this is really key — alert friends all around the world so they can do the same. We want McCain and Obama to know that on every corner of the globe, people are hoping against hope that America is ready to lead again.
The new president needs to bring a clear message with him to Poland, of course — a message that the next administration understands the ever-more-pressing challenge to get the planet’s atmosphere back below 350 parts per million CO2 so that we can slow the melting of the ice caps and ward off massive increases in sea level, so that we can rein in the spread of mosquitoes and avoid climatic upheavals like the failure of the monsoons. McCain or Obama will need to bring plans and policies to mitigate damage that it’s too late to avoid, and to spread the technology that will let China, India, and the rest of the developing world grow without burning their coal. But most of all, our next president will need to bring the spirit of cooperation that’s been missing for so long. Just showing up in Poland would be a good start.
All of us in America will be focusing on the swing states and the key precincts for the next few weeks. But here’s an easy way to remember we’re not just Americans. We live on a planet. We’re earthlings too.
• Compare McCain and Obama on climate change and other environmental issues.
• McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin talks to Grist about climate and energy.