The Future of climate justice

by: Deryn Harris with additional reporting from Audrey Kemp

Well-known environmental activists, writers, and scientists discussed global warming within its most recent context  on Feb. 8 and 9 at UC Irvine’s two-day conference, “Fire and Ice: The Shifting Narrative of Climate Change.”

In an introduction to the keynote speaker, Bill McKibben, UCI literary journalism professor Amy Wilentz noted the recognition McKibben’s work has received, including having a then-newly discovered woodland gnat named in his honor by biologists in 2014, called megophthalmidia mckibbeni. McKibben is an activist, leader of the anti-carbon campaign group 350.org and scholar at Middlebury College.

“It seems to me fitting that this great defender of nature should be represented in the zoological record by an insignificant-seeming animal, because the lives of all species, even gnats, are valuable,” Wilentz said.

Bill McKibben, a world-renowned writer on climate change and the environment, published The End of Nature in 1989; His book is regarded as one of the first calling for the masses to unite over global warming.

“[‘The End of Nature’] really kicked off a movement where people tried to engage with, at the time, what they called ‘the greenhouse effect,’” said Associate Director of the literary journalism program, Patricia Pierson.

In addition to his writing, Bill McKibben has received both the Gandhi Prize and the Thomas Merton Prize. In 2014 he was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes referred to as the ‘alternative Nobel prize’ for his work on climate change reform.

During the talk, McKibben discussed the most pressing reasons for the inaction of both the United States and the rest of the world on the issue of climate change, including a slew of misinformation given out by large fossil fuel companies like Shell and Exxon.

“The richest industries on the planet were willing to spend what it took to make sure that we did not change, even at the cost of breaking the planet,” McKibben said.

According to McKibben, Exxon knew about climate change at least as far back as the 1980s. The company even built new oil rigs high enough to compensate for the rising sea level they knew would occur.

“They spent billions of dollars in the most powerful disinformation campaign in human history, the most consequential lie in human history,” McKibben stated.

McKibben’s speech included a sobering video he took on his cell phone during a helicopter ride over Greenland. The video depicted a twelve-story glacier crumbling into the sea in a matter of seconds, creating waves over 50 feet high. McKibben noted that the events he captured on his phone happens every minute, and each piece of ice causes the sea level to rise in small millimetric increments.

McKibben also  discussed his activism;  he along with seven undergraduates at Middlebury College organized a 1,000 person march across the state of Vermont in 2006. They decided to create 350.org, which has grown into the largest campaign on climate change in the world.

McKibben noted many of the people participating in the movement come from impoverished areas. He produced a slideshow of images of 350.org demonstrators from around the world including Ethiopia, the Congo, Bangladesh, South Africa, Wales, the Dead Sea, China, the Maldives, Yemen and India. According to McKibben, individuals living in impoverished areas are more likely to see the effects of climate change including more flooding, wildfires, or droughts. Millions of people around the world have already been displaced due to the effects of climate change.

Despite the direness of the environmental situation, McKibben also mentioned being moved by the generosity of the volunteers.

“They’re not thinking about themselves, they’re thinking about the future, about the larger world, and it was beautiful to see,” he said.

McKibben explained  that climate change is profound because, “it’s the first timed-test that humans have ever encountered. If we don’t get it right very quickly, then we’ll never get it right. There is not a plan to refreeze the Arctic once it’s melted.”

His speech ended on a note of optimism; McKibben believes humans can fight climate change if society moves quickly and makes drastic changes.

After the opening lecture, McKibben joined Nathaniel Rich, Manuel Pastor, and Elizabeth Kolbert in a panel mediated by Jon Wiener, a history professor at UCI.

During the panel, Nathaniel Rich a writer for “New York Times” discussed his article, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” It received the Pulitzer Prize and chronicles the critical years between 1979 to 1989: the decade “we almost [collectively] stopped climate change.”

Jake Silverstein of the “New York Times” said in the piece’s editor’s note that “It will come as a revelation to many readers — an agonizing revelation — to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it.”

Manuel Pastor explained his research on “environmental justice,” the idea that vulnerable communities are much more exposed to certain environmental hazards like toxic air quality and living close to toxic facilities.

“The folks who are at the most risk from climate change are people of color and low income communities,” he said.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a longtime staff writer for “The New Yorker,” spoke about  former UCI professor Sherry Rowland who was awarded for discovering the depletion of the ozone layer that led to worldwide change. She also discussed the dangers of ocean acidification and the consequences that the warming oceans have on the coral reefs.

When asked if she is optimistic about the planet’s future, Kolbert quoted a climate scientist, Kate Marvel, by saying, “We need courage, not hope.” Kolbert continued, “It’s totally irrelevant how I feel and it’s totally irrelevant how we all feel. What’s relevant is what we’re going to do.”