WILLIAMSTOWN - "If we don't win the climate fight soon, we don't win."
Environmentalist Bill McKibben repeated that theme during an appearance at Williams College on Thursday.
Climate change is happening faster and in a more damaging fashion than anyone had predicted, he said, and will get progressively worse if people don't dramatically reduce the generation of CO2 into the atmosphere.
The talk, "Outside the Comfort Zone: Working for Change on an Overheated Planet," was among a series of Earth Week activities at the college, and it was part of a thematic year of inquiry called "Confronting Climate Change."
McKibben has been a climate change activist since 1989, when he wrote the first general market book on the topic.
"We didn't know back in 1989 how fast (climate change) was going to come and how hard it was going hit," McKibben said. And the 30 percent greater acidification of the oceans and dying off of reefs was not even on the radar at the time, he said. "It is the evil twin of climate change and a real problem."
McKibben founded the international, nonprofit activist environmental group 350.org with seven undergraduate students at Middlebury College in Vermont.
It was named for the maximum amount of carbon dioxide the atmosphere can absorb without changing Earth into a much less habitable world — 350 parts of CO2 per million parts of atmosphere. Today, McKibben noted, CO2 in the atmosphere is 400 ppm. Before the industrial revolution, there were 275 parts per million of CO2 in the air. Humans are pumping 2 ppm of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.
If unchecked, McKibben said, climate change will lead to steep and irreversible alterations in the environment including rising temperatures, wild fires, deadly storms, floods, drought and rising seas, all of which will result in international unrest, migration, and conflicts over resources like food and water.
"Not a scientist I've ever met who thought we will have a civilization anything like what we have now if we don't act decisively," McKibben said.
It's to the point where dramatic obstruction and protest actions — which have been successful in the recent past — are needed to raise awareness and slow the growth of the fossil fuel industry, he said.
McKibben pointed to actions that stalled and eventually stopped the Keystone Pipeline, until the new president took office. Seaborne protests also helped end Shell Oil's efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic Sea.
"Shell watched the Arctic melt, and then when it melted, said, `Now it will be much easier to drill for oil in the arctic.' The worst kind of insanity, compulsive amorality," McKibben said.
McKibben pointed to effects of climate change that have already affected large swaths of land, leading to political and military conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, including Kenya, the Congo, Somalia and Syria.
And the first victims of climate change are likely to have had the least responsibility for it because they are the poorest.
He showed photos of children in the Haitian city of Les Cayes two years ago who were protesting the use of fossil fuel holding signs saying that what others do will affect them. Since then, Les Cayes has been wiped out by a tropical storm and rising seas.
"I have no idea if these kids are alive today, but they are correct," McKibben said. "That tropical storm wasn't their fault. They had nothing to do with it. It was done to them. They can't stop burning fossil fuel because they don't burn any now."
McKibben also advocated for divestment from corporations that profit from the production and burning of fossil fuels, an effort that has been picking up momentum globally, and one in which the Williams College board of trustees has declined to participate.
"It's not OK to continue being a partner in this enterprise," he said, "which is at the heart of wrecking the only planet we've got."
Reach staff writer Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.