TELLURIDE, Colo. - Seen on the streets of Telluride, Bill McKibben might easily be mistaken for a local who had arrived in the 1970s. Lanky, his short-cropped hair greying, he wears blue jeans and tennis shoes, even when speaking to 400-some people at a packed conference hall at Moving Mountains, the opening session of Telluride Mountain Film. You try to imagine a tie around his neck, but the picture doesn't congeal.
McKibben, who in fact lives in the mountains of Vermont, has become one of the most notable writers and activists of our time. Good enough at the keyboard while still in college to attract the attention of the New Yorker editor William Shaw, McKibben was initially unimpressed.
"He was 75, and I told him to fuck off," McKibben remembered at a breakfast session in Telluride on Saturday morning.
Later, McKibben did become a staff writer for the New Yorker , the ultimate dream job in the writing world, but did not stay. Instead, he has moved broadly in the world, and in 1993 wrote the ground-breaking book, The End of Nature , which took the dire warnings of Jim Hansen and other climatologists and spelled out the ultimate in environmental disasters.
Sixteen years later, a trickle of evidence in support of the warnings of McKibben and Hansen has become a flood. Actually, it turns out that they were probably too conservative. Breakup of the Arctic Sea ice in 2007 occurred at a rate not expected until perhaps mid-century. Meanwhile, accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions has accelerated.
McKibben still writes prolifically. He's a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and also National Geographic . But he devotes most of his time to what he calls "this almost constant organizing."
That task is to accelerate the response to climate change. With the support of Hansen, he created 350.org, a simple goal fraught with a world of complexity. Accumulations of carbon dioxide, which before the industrial revolution were at 250 parts per million, have now reached 387 parts per million. While unabated use of fossil fuels would push that to 900 parts per million by century's end, climate scientists have been saying those accumulations must be contained at 450 to 550 parts per million.
That seemed an impossible task. Now, with the evidence of accelerated climate instability, Hansen and many others say that atmospheric accumulations of CO 2 must be cut back to 350 parts per million - a difficult task, in that once in the atmosphere, CO 2 stays in the atmosphere for a century before slowly dissipating.