Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
St. Martin's Griffin, 2014
288 pp., $15.99
In 1989, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, the first book explaining global warming to a general audience. Even then, climatologists held consensus that it was unacceptably dangerous to flood the atmosphere with heat-trapping pollutants. In his latest book, McKibben describes his reaction at seeing The End of Nature become a bestseller: "I assumed, like most people, that reason would eventually prevail—that given the loud alarm sounded by scientists, governments would take care of the problem." The following 20 years taught him that power trumps reason. As findings from climatologists grew more dire, as freak disasters such as Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy became more frequent, politicians continually failed to respond.
It's been well documented why climate change is, in scientific terms, a nasty bugger of a problem. While humans react most effectively to threats with a face (say bears or Al Qaeda), climate change is a faceless enemy. Its effects are delayed and distant, striking first at the world's least powerful people (such as farmers in Bangladesh, Sudan, and Syria). And we can't say that climate change caused any particular storm, drought, or heat wave, even though we know it makes these events more frequent and severe.
But the key reason climate change has eluded solutions is the enormous profitability of selling fossil fuels. ExxonMobil posted $44 billion in profit in 2012, more than any other American company. When Congress voted to approve the Keystone XL pipeline in 2012—a project that would link the carbon-intensive Canadian tar sands with global markets—it was quickly revealed that the "yes" votes had taken $42 million from the fossil fuel industry.
That kind of money, McKibben concluded, would always outcompete scientific white papers for the attention of politicians. This became fully clear to him in 2009, when a decidedly modest climate bill failed in Congress, and international climate negotiations crashed in Copenhagen. ...