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Climate change event celebrates 'traditional' Minnesota winter — before it’s too late

Climate change event celebrates 'traditional' Minnesota winter
Author Bill McKibben calculates that we can put about 565 gigatons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have a reasonable chance of holding global temperature increases to less than 2 degree Celsius.

“This is Minnesota — snow defines us,” proclaimed meteorologist Paul Douglas at a climate change event held last evening at the University of St. Thomas. “And when we don’t have it, something is missing.”

For cross-country skiers like me, that something was definitely missing last winter. The snowless winter blues hit hard — anti-depressants rather than marshmallows bobbed in my hot cocoa.

But it was tougher yet on all the people up north who depend on winter recreation to make a living. You can run a bowling alley, movie theater or an indoor golf range in any weather, but snowmobiling, ice fishing, cross country skiing, etc., require an act of God: snow, and the kind of cold that makes ice. How does one factor an act of God into a business plan?

Part of climate change discussions is whether the Earth has a “tipping point,” a point at which conditions will change rapidly. There are far more critical issues at stake in a warming globe than a viable winter recreation economy, but for those who love snowy, icy outdoor sports, the tipping point for the winter blues is about 32 degrees.

Author Bill McKibben, keynote speaker for last night’s “Celebrating and Preserving Winter” event, lives in Vermont and has a love for life on skinny skis. He noted an EPA study for northern New England that stated that by the middle part of the century, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing will be, as he put it, “extinct” in that area of the country.

McKibben bemoaned the cruel irony that cross-country skiing — “my great vice in the whole world” — would be so acutely threatened by the thing that he has spent much of his adult life writing about and fighting against: climate change.

McKibben longtime voice of concern

After college, McKibben wrote much of the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker, but in the late 1980s he began to write about global warming. Since then he’s become a leader in the climate solutions movement. And five years ago, he and a few students from Middlebury College founded (of which I am a member). 350 is the number of parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that leading scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide. Anything higher than that and the Earth will substantially or drastically change, depending on the level.

Time magazine called McKibben “the world’s best green journalist,” but his piece, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” in the July issue of Rolling Stone was more of a fiery red. In it McKibben calculated that we can put about 565 gigatons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have a reasonable chance of holding global temperature increases to less than 2 degree Celsius. That’s a generally accepted upper threshold, but there are many who believe 2 degrees is too much: NASA scientist James Hansen calls that amount of increase “a prescription for long-term disaster.”

Author Bill McKibben
Creative Commons/School of Natural ResourcesBill McKibben

But we haven’t even gotten to the terrifying math yet! McKibben cited data showing that the amount of carbon contained in proven oil and gas reserves is about 5 times the 565-gigaton limit. Those reserves are money in the bank to fossil-fuel companies, and it seems unlikely that they’ll be interested in just leaving them there. Smoke ’em if you got ‘em.

McKibben went on a nationwide “Do the Math” speaking tour to publicize this issue, and since then, students on 256 college campuses have been pushing for their institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The question of whether divestment is a real solution or merely a symbolic gesture was the subject of a recent New York Times “Room for Debate” piece.

Minnesota winters changing

At the University of St. Thomas’ Anderson Student Center, Douglas set the table with a detailed description of how climate change is unmistakably altering Minnesota winters. He became convinced by the data in the mid-1990s, but for personal reasons, it hasn’t always been easy for him to be the messenger. “I’m an evangelical Christian, I’m a moderate Republican, and I am concerned about climate change,” he told the audience, “which all makes me the equivalent of an albino unicorn, the kind with arrows sticking out of his back.”

Paul Douglas
Paul Douglas

McKibben followed and talked about and the difficult novelty of trying to start a worldwide environmental movement. Showing photos of people from around the world protesting against climate change (including one where a group of Yemeni women in black burkas formed the “0” in a group that spelled out “350”), he noted that this isn’t what the press or the world was expecting to see. “Environmentalism used to be what rich white folks did when they had taken care of the rest of their business,” McKibben explained.

As McKibben sees it, the genie has been let out of the bottle and she’s putting on weight: Current carbon dioxide levels are at 393 ppm. There’s no guarantee she can be put back in, but if she can, by his assessment, it will require an intense, sustained and global grass-roots effort.

“And young people shouldn’t be the only people carrying this fight,” he told the audience. With a nod to the legal implications of practicing civil disobedience, and a 2011 Washington, D.C., protest of the Keystone pipeline where over a 1,000 protesters were arrested, McKibben added with a chuckle, “Past a certain age, what the hell can they do to you?” He noted that has asked that protesters interested in being arrested wear a necktie or a dress, to show civility and to prove a point: “There’s nothing radical about what we’re asking for [a healthy planet].”

McKibben will be speaking again Thursday at Macalester College from noon to 2:30 pm. In the evening, he’ll be speaking at the Park Theater in Hayward, Wis., where the American Birkebeiner ski race runs Saturday. McKibben will be skiing “the Birkie” with Paul Thompson, co-founder of a local climate solutions group called, which helped sponsor these three events. This will be Thompson’s 33rd Birkie, so he has experience with long, arduous tasks.

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Comments (3)

Bill McKibben and

have been at the forefront of blocking the Keystone XL Pipeline and the continued development of the Alberta Tar Sands. McKibben has been arrested and jailed in these protests. This article points out that McKibben is not blind to the fact that the Tar Sands are not the only fossil fuel whose use threatens to destroy human life on this planet. But things like divestment and blocking pipelines are not a solution to our energy demands/needs. While alternative energy sources like solar and wind have great untapped potential, I'm not convinced they alone can supplant our reliance on fossil fuels. I'd like to hear what McKibben says to nuclear power supporters who argue that as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.


I'm curious: how does the Keystone pipeline help our energy independence?

What will replace hydrocarbon fuels?

I agree Jon. Increased efficiency can help us do the same while using less energy, but something will have to replace hydrocarbon sources (which include "clean coal" and natural gas). It seems like a long-shot that solar or wind can foot the entire bill, but then you never know: according to NASA, the total amount of energy we use is just 1/10,000 of the solar energy delivered to us by the sun ( One day last summer, Germany--a modern, northern latitude country--produced 1/3 of its weekday energy needs with solar. I am no nuclear power expert, but under the circumstances, it seems that all options need to be considered. Is there some reason to believe we cannot produce "clean" nuclear energy if we put our minds to it?