Finding Ways To Mark Earth Day's 40th

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Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben talks about small steps people can take to reduce carbon emissions. Climatologist Kevin Trenberth discusses research suggesting that the Earth's atmosphere is trapping more heat than before, and the mystery of where excess heat is being stored.

IRA FLATOW, host:

It was 40 years ago - boy, doesn't it seem like yesterday - that US Senator Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day. And his goal was to mobilize the nation and Washington to think about the environment.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

Mr. GAYLORD NELSON (Former Senator, Democrat, Wisconsin; Founder, Earth Day): The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures, will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical and financial commitment far beyond any commitment ever made by any society in the history of man. Are we able? Yes. Are we willing? That's the unanswered question.

FLATOW: And that question is still being asked in certain ways today, 40 years later, four decades later. We've had some success. The - that same year, 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed and it was formed under a Republican president, Richard Nixon. And four decades ago, remember the issues were a lot different. We had rivers that were so polluted, they were catching on fire. We had landfills so full of toxic waste that people had to give up their homes and move. And in those days, pollution was very visible. You could smell it, you could taste it.

And these days, environmental issues, of course, are a lot different. Lots of cities have recycling bins for their pollution. People are switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, plug-in cars are around the corner and terms like carbon footprint have replaced acid rain.

But do these little changes add up to anything meaningful for the planet? Are we doing enough? What do you think? Our number, 1-800-989-8255. This Earth Day, how do you think the issues have changed in the 40 years? And also, tweet us @scifri.

My next guest is not quite sure - he's talking about a different kind of planet than it was 40 years ago. We'll talk about why. Bill McKibben has been watching and writing the environment for decades. His new book is "Eaarth." That's E-A-A-R-T-H, eaarth, spelled with two A's. And he will get to talk about why he spells it with two A's. He's also founder of 350.org and he's based at Middlebury College in Vermont. He joins us from Wisconsin Public Radio. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. BILL MCKIBBEN (Author, "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet"): Hey, Ira. Always a pleasure.

FLATOW: We're talking about Earth Day this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Bill, why - am I pronouncing it right? Eaarth?

Mr. MCKIBBEN: Yeah. Pretty good. You sort of say - kind of sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger to make it work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCKIBBEN: Look, it's a - it's because in some sense, we've fail to heed that message from 40 years ago. We did a lot of the things around the edges, but we've ignored what for two decades has been the obvious challenge to really take on climate change. And so we're already seeing real changes. In substantive ways, it's a different planet than the one we were born onto. The atmosphere holds about five percent more moisture. The oceans are about 30 percent more acidic. We just learned from NASA in the last couple of days that we've just come through the warmest 12-month period in history, the warmest winter around the world. 2010 is almost certain to be the warmest calendar year on record.

We're changing very, very fast. And the kind of warning phase, in a sense, is almost over. It's no longer our grandchildren we should be thinking about. It's us. This is breaking over our heads now.

FLATOW: So are you saying that we have reached that tipping point where it's no longer, you know, is the Earth changed, but how has it changed and we have to learn to live with it?

Mr. MCKIBBEN: That's part of it. I mean, it's a little more subtle than that because there are several tipping points, you know? Everything is relative. But, yes, we've built a new planet and we're going to have to figure out some new habits that are appropriate to that new planet. And the most important of those is the one that people started talking about 40 years ago. When people - when the MIT team in 1972 started talking about limits to growth, people went crazy.

FLATOW: Right. I remember that book. Wow.

Mr. MCKIBBEN: When you look at the, you know, when you look at a planet where suddenly the oceans are turning acid, where suddenly the 100-year storm now happens, you know, every five years in a lot of places, when you look at a world like that, you begin to understand that those limits are fast approaching.

And what that means is we're going to have to stop turning to growth as the answer to every question. We're going to have to start thinking much more carefully about how you inhabit a planet for the long run, about what it means to look for stability and security and resilience in place of endless growth.

FLATOW: Forty years ago was my first story as a science reporter, and I remember covering all these different issues, and different phrases come to mind. Speaking of growth, I remember there was a phrase from back then that said, growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of a cancer cell.

Mr. McKIBBEN: That's Edward Abbey, I think, the great desert writer. And, you know, growth has been the way that we've avoided making tough choices. It's done a lot of good for us, obviously, it accounts for much of our prosperity. But the real place where this pinches is not going to be here. It's going to be in the developing world, where people haven't yet really gone through that growth face. And now we have the unhappy prospect of having to say, we filled up the atmosphere for you. We're going to have to figure out some way other than doing what we did, burning all that cheap coal in order to make your ascent possible.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to come back, take a break. 1800-989-8255. Talking with Bill McKibben about his new book "Eaarth." Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Bill McKibben, author of "Eaarth." That's E-A-A-R-T-H. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a few phone calls in.

Eric(ph) from New York. Hi. Welcome.

ERIC (Caller): Yes. I'm wondering - my children are just old enough to begin to be thinking about having children and I'm wondering whether my grandchildren will live out their lives they'd be able to. We're probably in the fifth mass extinction of species. We know there's a global warming problem that can cause all kinds of havoc and yet our countries can't begin to agree to do things about them.

We recently had a meeting of countries about a particular fish species that's being overfished. And even though the scientific evidence was clear, there were not agreements that would allow sustained fishing so that fish species will be overfished and the fishery will collapse. Population continues to grow. We have economists who are praying that we (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Well, let me - I get your drift - Eric, I get your drift. Let me see if I can get an answer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCKIBBEN: So Eric has a good point.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. McKIBBEN: Here's the answer, the only good answer. To some degree, the answer is going to be determined by what we do now. If we can re-summon that spirit that Gaylord Nelson was talking about, and it is possible to do it. Last year at 350.org, this global climate campaign that we built from nothing in about 18 months, we managed to pull off on one day in October 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries all around a scientific data point, 350 parts per million CO2, the most important number in the world, the most carbon we can safely have in the atmosphere according to NASA.

Now, that day, which foreign policy called the largest coordinated global rally of any kind, that wasn't enough to carry the day at Copenhagen. We got about 117 nations to sign on to that 350 target, but they were the wrong 117. They were the poorest countries in the world. What we need now is to keep that momentum going.

So at 350.org on October 10th, we're going to have this global work party. Thousands of places around the world, people will be putting up solar panels and digging community gardens, not, Ira, because we think we can solve climate change one project at a time - we cannot, we need national and global legislation - but because we want to send a pointed political message. If we can get to work, you can get to work. If I can climb up on the roof of this school with a hammer and put in a solar panel, you can climb up on the floor of the Senate and actually do your job for once and get the kind of legislation that people were able to pass for a few years in the early 1970s, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, but that we've never been able to duplicate since because we haven't had the movement and the momentum behind it.

FLATOW: The grassroots projects.

Mr. MCKIBBEN: Exactly right.

FLATOW: (Unintelligible). Did - it seems like we had great missed opportunities following the oil embargo, things like that, Jimmy Carter's ideas about energy conservation, which just went away after a while.

Mr. MCKIBBEN: We were very close - one of the most interesting pieces of data I came across in reporting this was a public opinion poll from the late 1970s. And it showed Americans evenly divided on the question of whether we should have more growth in our economy and society or not, as many opposed as were in favor. Now, that seems heretical to us now because we've spent 25 years with a strong bipartisan agreement that growth is all that matters. But I think that's the assumption we're going to need to start questioning.

We're going to have to begin to understand that in a world that's no longer flat, if we've been thinking of ourselves as living on a flat Earth these last few years, we're wrong. It's really an uphill planet now with a lot of friction that comes from these changes, this physical destabilization of the planet. In that world, resilience is going to count more than growth, I think.

FLATOW: We saw a sort of cycling of the environmental movement. They were in great opposition. They were very, sort of very active in the early '70s and '80s and then sort of turned around to say, you know, maybe if we're more cooperative, we can get things done. And I'm sort of detecting a little going back in the opposite direction now.

Mr. MCKIBBEN: I think we're going to have to. We have wonderful, noble environmental leaders in groups, most of them now concentrating in Washington, inside the Beltway. They're trying hard to lobby. They're trying hard to lobby on a climate bill in the Senate this week. But all the senators they go talk to know that they don't really have all that much behind them, that there's not the movement anymore, that nobody is doing the organizing. And so it's, you know, it's a kind of naked bluff. And that's why the climate bill that Senators Kerry and Graham and Lieberman are talking about isn't going to be much of a climate bill at all. It's a kind of Christmas stocking for every utility and energy industry you can think of.

FLATOW: And you think that back - moving back to a grassroots movement will reenergize...

Mr. McKIBBEN: Well, we think it's one of the things that needs to happen, and it was very impressive to see, when we were doing 350.org, what kind of commotion we could kick up without a big organization.

One of the points I make at the end of "Eaarth" is that one of the wild cards we have is the sudden advent of this new technology, the Internet, and it allows us to organize in much more grassroots ways. You don't need to march on Washington. You can have, as we did, 5,200 rallies all over the planet and hook them together to make them something larger than the sum of their parts.

We owned Google News for 36 hours. It was the dominant story on the planet. It was about a kind of obscure scientific formula, a parts per million measurement of CO2. And we did that without any real money...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. McKIBBEN: ...and just a few of us. This is the kind of movement we've got to build.

FLATOW: You - in Vermont, you were very successful politically, were you not?

Mr. McKIBBEN: Well, that's where we all started, a crew of us from Middlebury College, where I teach, and seven students. And we started in Vermont and then we did a big thing across the U.S. and then this global business. It's accelerating. The question is, can we make it happen fast enough? Nobody - everybody...

FLATOW: Well, what do you do about all these people who deny global warming?

Mr. McKIBBEN: Well, I mean, at some level, what you've got to do is - I mean, there's always going to be 20 or 30 percent of people who aren't ready to deal with what's going on. But we've got to take the people who do have some sense of what's happening and make them much more active. I mean, look at this last year. Look how easy it was to distract the media and everybody else with this Climategate stuff. It was like, you know, a father dangling the car keys above the crib so the baby would turn its head.

As it turns out, there's nothing there. This past week, we have two big inquiries reporting back on Climategate saying the science was sound and the scientists were doing pretty much the right thing. But don't look for that so much on Fox News or even in the newspaper.

FLATOW: All right, Bill. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. McKIBBEN: Thank you so much. Have a happy Earth Day.

FLATOW: And stay there with us because we're going to bring on another guest. We've talked about global warming, but where exactly is the heat from global warming going? It's not just surface temperatures heating up on the Earth. In fact, average global temperature in 2008 was the lowest it has been for almost a decade. So how do you explain that? The extra energy must be going somewhere else, right? But the question is, where is it going?

Well, my next guest is on the case. He has a paper out in the Journal of Science this week and following on that detective story. Kevin Trenberth is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, at NCAR, and he's the head of the Climate Analysis Section there. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. KEVIN TRENBERTH (Senior Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research): Yes. Thanks, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Where - what is this missing heat that you're looking for?

Dr. TRENBERTH: Well, one of the things we've been looking at for some years now is what we call the flow of energy through the climate system. And we have satellites at the - you know, above the Earth looking down, measuring the radiation that's coming in and going out of the Earth's system so we can measure the net energy that's flowing into the system. And then, the question is where does it go?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. TRENBERTH: And so, if we do the sums of all of the places where it goes: the heat that goes into the ocean, the heat that goes into melting glaciers and ice sheets, sea ice, there's small contributions that go into warming the land and, of course, the atmosphere itself. You add all of those things up and it looks like, you know, we have a reasonably satisfactory picture of that from about 1993 to 2003, although we didn't have the measurements at the top of the atmosphere then. But since then, things have fallen apart in the last four or five years where these things don't add up.

90 percent of the heat we expect is going into the ocean. And the ocean heat content has not risen as much in the last few years as the top of the atmosphere measurements would suggest, suggesting that there's some energy missing somewhere.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And your job, this mission, have you taken on to find that energy?

Dr. TRENBERTH: Well, certainly, we think some of it may be hidden in the ocean somewhere. Some of it could be at greater depths than the probes that are in the ocean are measuring. There's a whole new set of probes -that's one of the interesting things - called Argo floats that are sampling the top 2,000 meters of the ocean. And also, there are parts of the ocean at very high latitudes, for instance, under the Arctic sea ice and things like that that are not sampled. And there are quite a surprising number of groups now that are analyzing all of these data. Unfortunately, they all get slightly different answers.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. TRENBERTH: And those discrepancies among those, highlight that maybe we've got a little bit to learn, something on how to process the data.

FLATOW: Well, could - let me just play devil's advocate and ask, could the figures from 2008 just be an anomaly in the decade of, you know, the warmest decade on record?

Dr. TRENBERTH: Well, we know in 2008, you know, 2007, 2008, there was a substantial La Nina phenomenon that developed. So that's certainly very cold over a big hunk of the tropical oceans and that had an imprint around the world. At the same time, precisely because it's so cold, it tends to suppress clouds in the tropical regions, which means the reflective character of clouds is less so that more heat comes into the system and the oceans warm up. And of course, that's one of the things that helps to lead to the next El Nino.

And then, this past winter, we've been dominated by El Nino conditions in the Tropical Pacific. This is a very warm Tropical Pacific. And one of the challenges for us as researchers is to see whether we can fully track the energy that developed in that El Nino and whether some of it was missing for a while and then came back to haunt us, so to speak, or - and so this relates to the adequacy of the observing system and our analysis methods. And, you know, if they are not adequate, then we need to get them...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. TRENBERTH: ...to a point where they are adequate because this missing energy has consequences.

FLATOW: Wait, let me just give a little reminder that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking presently with Kevin Trenberth. And does this give climate deniers fuel for their saying, you know, this is Climategate again, you know? Where is that heat? It's not there.

Dr. TRENBERTH: Well, this is ironic, because I was one of the scientists who had a number of emails that were hacked out of the University of East Anglia as a part of Climategate, over 100 and - because I was a lead author in the last IPCC report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, with Phil Jones at the University of East Anglia.

And one of my emails that went viral was one where I said that it was a travesty that we don't have a better observing system and it related to exactly this question. There's over, last time I checked, there were over 110,000 stories on the Internet related to this. It's rather incredible. And 90 percent of those misinterpreted it completely and said that I was saying that there was no global warming. In fact, I was saying that the observing system was simply not quite adequate for tracking global warming.

FLATOW: So we must find a better way, a better observing system.

Dr. TRENBERTH: Well, that's right. And El Nino is one example. So this is not just for, you know, global warming but also for natural variability, things like El Nino and other things that are going on in the oceans. And also, one of the things we mentioned in the article is prospects of geo-engineering. Boy, if we want to take that on at all, then we had better know what we're doing to the system.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. Happy Earth Day to you next week.

Dr. TRENBERTH: Yes. Thank you. And same to you and all the listeners. Thanks.

FLATOW: Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at NCAR in Boulder, Colorado, head of the Climate Analysis Section there. Also with us is Bill McKibben, author of "Eaarth," founder of 350.org. Interesting stuff going on there, huh, Bill?

Mr. McKIBBEN: Yeah. It's completely interesting. Kevin has been one of the absolute lead researchers - I quote him a good deal in "Eaarth" discussing, among other things, some of the other expressions of this extra energy, the increased ferocity of the largest storms at sea, for instance. What he said that I think was really powerful was that extra heat that we can't account for, it has consequences. It's going to express itself. And it's - that we've already - I mean, here's the thing. Even with what has already happened, even without taking all that heat out of the ocean yet, we've already changed the planet in substantial ways, made the air warm enough to hold a lot more water vapor.

So far, we've increased the temperature of the planet about a degree Celsius. There's probably pretty close to another degree already in the pipeline because of what he's describing. All what we're playing for now, as we try to deal with global warming, is not stopping global warming, not preventing it. What we're playing for now is seeing whether we can arrest it short of such a large scale that chaos is the only result.

FLATOW: Hmm. And there are even efforts to try to come up with global warming prediction like weather forecasting.

Mr. McKIBBEN: Yes. And there are, as he points, out, efforts to come up with geo-engineering schemes, which 20 years ago, when I was running the end of nature, we thought of...

FLATOW: Yeah. That was science fiction, right?

Mr. McKIBBEN: We thought it was crazy.

FLATOW: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKIBBEN: It's still crazy. The only thing is that the experiment we're conducting is so insane that we may at least need to - I mean, what the geo-engineers all say to a man is if you're even going to consider this stuff, job one is cutting down the carbon emissions quickly, maybe we can provide you with a little bit of bridge. But it's a last resort, not a first resort. The first resort is Copenhagen, and we're not taking it.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, it reminds me of phrases I heard years ago - I mean, two or three years ago from climate scientists saying, I'm afraid to tell you, actually, how bad I really think global warming is.

Mr. McKIBBEN: This was for me - you know, in the summer of 2007 when the Arctic was melting so rapidly, I was getting a lot of late-night phone calls from researchers that I had known for a quarter-century. And they'd always been worried and concerned and sober. And now, they were kind of panicked, because whatever physical system you looked at, the flux was violent enough that it was beyond the bounds that we really thought possible at this level of CO2 in the atmosphere. The Earth is changing and hence we need to change. And that message hasn't sunk in yet.

FLATOW: All right. Well, hopefully, reading your book, "Eaarth," E-A-A-R-T-H, "Eaarth" by Bill McKibben might make it sink in also. Thank you, Bill.

Mr. McKIBBEN: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend. Bill is also...

Mr. McKIBBEN: And a good Earth Day.

FLATOW: Good Earth Day to you. He's also the founder of 350.org based in Middlebury College in Vermont. That's about all the time we have today.

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