Environmentalist emphasizes impact of climate change in annual Harding Lecture

Renowned environmental activist and author Bill McKibben delivered the annual Walter Harding Lecture in Wadsworth Auditorium on Saturday Sept. 30. 

Former Geneseo professor of English Walter Harding was a well-known Henry David Thoreau scholar. Geneseo now honors him by inviting an annual speaker who reflects the values of Thoreau and Harding. McKibben is an especially applicable fit, as he has devoted his life to protecting the wild spaces that Thoreau loved so much. 

Professor of English Paul Schacht, who directs the Digital Thoreau project, introduced McKibben.

“Since the publication of his first book—The End of Nature—in 1989, Bill has been trying ... to slow the pace of human manufactured climate change,” Schacht said. 

To begin the lecture, McKibben provided an overview of climate change and the impact it has on the planet. This included the recent extreme weather events that have affected the Caribbean and southern United States. 

“As I speak here today, 3.5 million of our countrymen in Puerto Rico are half-alive, doing their best to figure out how they’re going to survive in the face of unimaginable struggle,” McKibben said. “I wish I could say that the kind of things that are happening in Puerto Rico come as a surprise, but we’ve known this would happen for 20 years.”  

On top of extreme weather conditions, McKibben emphasized the effects of human activity on ecosystems––particularly on oceans––where rising water temperatures and increased acidity levels have become pressing concerns.

“In the course of a couple of weeks, we actually wiped out many places, sometimes 70, 80, 90 percent of the coral reefs surrounding island after island,” he said.  

Midway through, McKibben’s lecture took a more optimistic turn. Although he did not ignore the dangers of climate change, McKibben also highlighted advancements in renewable energy. 

“Ten years ago, 20 years ago, we didn’t really know how we would get off fossil fuel,” he said. “Engineers in the last 10 years have done their job and the price of solar panels is plummeting—to the point where it’s now the cheapest option in many places.”

McKibben has spent time in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Tanzania, and praised the results of cheap solar energy on impoverished communities

Without cheap solar energy, these remote places may not have gotten electricity for 50 years, according to McKibben.

McKibben and seven of his undergraduate students at Middlebury College founded 350.org in 2008. The website connects activists and helps organize protests related to climate change around the world. 

“We took [the name ‘350’] because the science community told us for years that 350 [parts per million] of carbon dioxide was too much,” McKibben said. “We wanted to organize the entire world and it would be easier to do with Arabic numerals, not English words.” 

The atmosphere passed 410 ppm of carbon dioxide this year, adding urgency to McKibben’s fight against climate change, McKibben said. 

McKibben showed a slideshow of pictures from various environmentalist protests, including a particularly poignant photo of five children in Haiti, holding signs that read, “Your actions affect me.” 

Going forward, McKibben wants to spread a message of hope and mobilize anyone with the ability to help. This year’s Harding Lecture was not only a reminder that climate change is an increasingly real problem that influences everyone—it was a direct call to action for the Geneseo community.u