Bill McKibben at Copenhagen: I went to church and cried. Then I got back to work

Desmond Tutu in Copenhagen

The great environmental writer and founder of, Bill McKibben, is the guest blogger.

I’ve spent the last few years working more than full time to organize the first big global grassroots climate change campaign. That’s meant shutting off my emotions most of the time””this crisis is so terrifying that when you let yourself feel too deeply it can be paralyzing. Hence, much gallows humor, irony, and sheer work.

This afternoon I sobbed for an hour, and I’m still choking a little. I got to Copenhagen’s main Lutheran Cathedral just before the start of a special service designed to mark the conference underway for the next week. It was jammed, but I squeezed into a chair near the corner. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave the sermon; Desmond Tutu read the Psalm. Both were wonderful.

But my tears started before anyone said a word. As the service started, dozens choristers from around the world carried three things down the aisle and to the altar: pieces of dead coral bleached by hot ocean temperatures; stones uncovered by retreating glaciers; and small, shriveled ears of corn from drought-stricken parts of Africa. As I watched them go by, all I could think of was the people I’ve met in the last couple of years traveling the world: the people living in the valleys where those glaciers are disappearing, and the people downstream who have no backup plan for where their water is going to come from. The people who live on the islands surrounded by that coral, who depend on the reefs for the fish they eat, and to protect their homes from the waves. And the people, on every corner of the world, dealing with drought and flood, already unable to earn their daily bread in the places where their ancestors farmed for generations.

Those damned shriveled ears of corn. I’ve done everything I can think of, and millions of people around the world have joined us at in the most international campaign there ever was. But I just sat there thinking: It’s not enough. We didn’t do enough. I should have started earlier. People are dying already; people are sitting tonight in their small homes trying to figure out how they’re going to make the maize meal they have stretch far enough to fill the tummies of the kids sitting there waiting for dinner. And that’s with 390 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. The latest numbers from the computer jockeys at Climate Interactive“”a collaboration of Sustainability Institute, Sloan School of Management at MIT, and Ventana Systems, is that if all the national plans now on the table were adopted the planet in 2100 would have an atmosphere with 770 parts per million CO2. What then for coral, for glaciers, for corn. I didn’t do enough.

I cried all the harder a few minutes later when the great cathedral bell began slowly tolling 350 times. At the same moment, thousands of churches across Europe began ringing their bells the same 350 times. And in other parts of the world””from the bottom of New Zealand to the top of Greenland, Christendom sounded the alarm. And not just Christendom. In New York rabbis were blowing the shofar 350 times. We had pictures rolling in from the weekend’s vigil, from places like Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, where girls in burkas were forming human 350s, and from Bahrain, and from Amman.

And these tears were now sweet as well as bitter””at the thought that all over the world (not metaphorically all over the world, but literally all over the world) people had proven themselves this year. Proven their ability to understand the science and the stakes. Proven their ability to come together on their own””in October, when we organized what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” there wasn’t a movie star or rock idol in sight””just people rallying around a scientific data point. Now the world’s religious leaders were adding their voice.

On one side: scientists. And archbishops, Nobelists, and most of all ordinary people in ordinary places. Reason and faith. On the other side, power””the kind of power that will be assembling in the Bella Center all week to hammer out some kind of agreement. The kind of power, exemplified by the American delegation, that so far has decided it’s not worth making the kind of leap that the science demands. The kind of power that’s willing to do what’s politically pretty easy, but not what’s necessary. The kind that would condemn the planet to 770 ppm rather than take the hard steps we need.

So no more tears. Not now, not while there’s work to be done. Pass the Diet Coke, fire up the laptop, grab the cellphone. To work. We may not have done enough, but we’re going to do all we can.

Originally posted at Mother Jones and reposted at Wonk Room.

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16 Responses to Bill McKibben at Copenhagen: I went to church and cried. Then I got back to work

  1. Gail says:

    It’s early to be crying! Over my coffee I look out the window at the dying trees outside, and think the same thing – I didn’t start nearly soon enough. Just this morning I read a summary of scientific papers about ozone killing forests all over the world, one dating back to 1971 when I was still in high school. That is when we should have demanded a switch to clean energy.

    Thank you for everything you do, Bill McKibben.

  2. ken levenson says:

    Lovely post and that was a wonderful interview with you and Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith this weekend on NPR.

    I’m not a religious person at all – but… bless you!

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    There is NO EXCUSE for what we humans are doing — altering the climate — given the harms that doing so will bring about. And, there is NO GENUINE AND COHERENT MORALITY (i.e., moral case) OR REASONING that can favor, recommend, or even permit it!

    I applaud Bill — and I also agree that we need to do much, much more.

    As the Jefferson Airplane used to sing, “pick up the cry!”

    Be Well,


  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    Also …

    Given Bill’s point about what the governments seem to be willing to put up with (at least ours), I’d like to offer a related point.

    Although I am still “hopeful” about, and “with”, President Obama and his expressed ideals, I am increasingly (and deeply) concerned about watered-down over-compromised non-solutions, and my support will vanish if we end up with a watered-down over-compromised non-solution to climate change. All Democratic politicians should note!

    I’m tired (very) of the chain of events and compromises and watering-downs and excuses and (what have we left?) that we have seen with the whole healthcare matter. I can’t even bear to think that Joe L. governs the fate of millions! Pooh on that, and that’s being as polite as I can be about it!

    If U.S. legislation and international agreements aimed at SUBSTANTIALLY and EFFECTIVELY addressing climate change undergo the same sort of watered-down fate, our leaders will lose my interest and followership.

    More work to do.



  5. Chris Dudley says:

    A reason that religious leaders are in tune with the need to reverse global warming is that they are involved with relief efforts and can see that their resources will be even more overwhelmed than they already are.

    Interestingly, this is the main reason that military organizations are taking an interest. Churches have other reasons to take action sooner but the congruence is interesting.

    I was pleased that Bill McKibben moved from the 80% cut by 2050 reductions for the US in Step It Up! to the 350 ppm goal that he holds presently. The 80% number comes out of contraction and convergence with a 2 C warming limit, so called “dangerous climate change” while the 350 ppm number comes from the realization that long term climate sensitivity is probably higher than the 3 C of warming per doubling of carbon dioxide. There will be a need to redo Step It Up! based on the new warming limit. But, it seems to me that the process is iterative. Each success gives us new moral courage even as civil rights regarding religion opened the way for civil rights regarding race and will remove the effects prejudice regarding civil unions. It is not a question of “has Bill McKibben done enough?” but rather has he striven enough? By setting goals as he has, he probably has. Eventually, I hope he will come to the idea that 280 ppm is the real goal but if he gets stuck where he is, it will still be enough. Others will take up the task.

  6. Jay Alt says:

    Bill, Thanks for all you do !
    What a powerful message:

    Archbishop of Canterbury says fear hinders climate change battle

  7. Lou Grinzo says:

    Thank you, Bill. The presence of people as smart, compassionate, and determined as you is the only thing that gives me hope that my three virtual daughters (my nieces) won’t inherit a hell hole of a planet.

    As for the rest of you–BACK TO WORK!!!

  8. Robert of ACT says:

    I’ve marched alongside of Bill McKibben in Amherst, NH and well remember his passion and message to all who have ears to hear by. His tears are likewise our tears as he reminds us yet again that the current proposed path will take us above 700 ppm and the masses that are already dying from disease and hunger. His message must be repeated to tell people of the false security that Copenhagen gives to the naive! There is a valid reason for the pentagon to link AGW to a high priority security threat. I do not berate Cope 15 but the politics is delay and time is the enemy. Oh how scary is the false fix that our world leaders are negotiating for us! I’m also reminded that the children born today could easily see the tipping points and feel the crisis unfold. It is truly a time to pray and ACT! 7 Billon people demand that our leaders wake up and enact a very aggressive plan to mitigate this Climate Catastrophe. Most people can visualize a blue/green earth that mankind values for its sustainable energy balanced future and not for its opportunity to plunder!

  9. Steve says:

    People have been starving, suffering, dying for centuries. It doesn’t all have to do with global warming. If you want to feel bad about something, feel bad about the whole range of human suffering, which has existed for a lot longer than the threat of global warming.

  10. greg Robie says:

    A Haiku:

    the tears are of fears
    that bind trust within thinking
    that feeds hopelessness

    This post’s lament is partially correct: not enough was done; what was done started too late. Given the ~30 year lag time inherent in global climate change dynamics, and the much longer one in play in terms of human psychology and a capacity to “think different’—scientifically a matter of ‘feeling’ different—neither of us were born when the tipping point for the unfolding klimakatastrophe was passed (probably around 1930). I find it important to remind myself that a focus on CO2 and 350 has fed into a blindness concerning Arctic methane and what its growing contribution to climate change means to the CO2 paradigm and ‘possible’ solutions. A surety of a solution, conflated with the wishing it engendered, precludes sober thinking from carrying the day. As some of the behaviors revealed in the stolen climate emails detail, ends were reasoned to justify means; motivated reasoning corrupted an otherwise trusted process.

    But this, too, is only part of the story. There is the economic facet/paradigm of the systemic dynamics. Confirming the insights of the author of _The Fourth Turning_, 80 years ago FDR ‘fixed’ a collapse of overheated fractional reserve banking that was about 20 years in the making. He accomplished this by redefining the coin of the realm as consumer debt denominated by credit. That credit was structured to be regulated and guaranteed by the populous. The systemic flaw of this thinking was that guarantor of the credit was to also be impoverished by ever increasing greater debt —and a debt that was shifted generationally—for the ‘fix’ to work. Such was an oxymoron; a Catch 22. But it felt like it was a plan that offered hope; that could be trusted. It was. One generation burdened the next with what it did not want to be morally responsible for.

    In the short term, and in conjunction with war and policies effecting environmental, social, and economic injustice, a consumer credit bubble was created and grown. The consequential hegemony benefited the few while impoverishing the masses, governments, and the environment. From this perspective the purported ‘recovery’ is a sham. It kicks the responsibility for irresponsible behavior to others and subsequent generations. The ‘green’ jobs bills in Congress are similarly shams. The packed cathedral and its pageantry is a sham.

    Hoping for a better past feels so right (tears) . . . and plays out so wrong (dutifully engaging in actions/solutions shaped by the thinking that created the problem trying to be resolved).

    Homo sapiens are a backward feeling, more so than a forward feeling, species. Such is our condition. Today we are lead actors in a tragic drama of ‘Sapience Lost.’ Ironically, this drama is also an optimistic performance of ‘Justice Made Manifest.’ Our specie’s demise is proof that Good is just.

    Our pious hubris has deemed it be so.

  11. James Newberry says:

    Millions of individuals and dozens of nations are with you and back you, Bill. Hold your ground.

    To take our foot off the accelerator of global ecosphere poisoning, perhaps we should request elimination of all subsidies for uranium and petrochemical mining/extraction activities. These are estimated at around one quarter trillion dollars per year worldwide, with many tens of billions per year handed out by the US government. This encourages exactly what we don’t want to do. These figures do not include militarism, which is based on fossil and fissile materials for arsenals (explosives) and “delivery systems.”

    Remember, petroleum and coal are not truly energy resources. They are mined materials/matter. Their efficiency as energy is therefore undefined, i.e. at best about zero. Their oxidation is destruction by burning and release of carbonic acid gas, a permanent cost or debt that is perversely reverting the climate to past geologic ages, when seas were hundreds of feet higher. Clearly, suicidal and “uneconomical.”

    Wishing you and the world peace from one of your organizers.

  12. Raleigh Latham says:

    Bill is an amazing human being, and it sucks that 1 person alone can’t save the world, but at least a few million dedicated ones can do something, anything. I went to the vigil in my town, and now climate change is all I want to talk about, and act on.

  13. Michael Gray says:

    WE as a world of people MUST understand, this is a defining moment. One truly as important as any we have faced. This fight will not just determine quality of life, but life itself. If ever there was an opportunity to preserve, protect and carry the spiritual responsibilty of natural governance, it is now.

    I have argued for many years now that preservation of the environment goes much further than just conservation of land, air, and life, it is a spiritual responsibility.

  14. Cynthia says:

    This is off the subject but this really concerns me: The Arctic summer sea ice, which is usually up to 30 feet thick, is now so thin that you can’t walk on it. It was easily pierced by the research ship when scientists went to investigate. (Nov.29, 2009).

    “The findings, to be published in the journal Geophysical Research letters, shocked experts. Although northern sea ice hit a record low in 2007, researchers believed it was recovering because of what appeared on satellite images. But the satellites the experts relied on were misleading…”

    Doesn’t this mean there will no longer be any summer sea ice in the Arctic? Basically, the old, hard ice that is resistant to melting is now gone. Any new snow which falls this winter, will be soft, new snow and will melt easily.

  15. Aubrey Meyer says:

    Here is a C&C-scenario image with: –

    [1] numbers for fossil fuels only
    [2] for all-regions/all-years 2000-2050,
    [3] contracting globally to near-zero by 2050 and
    [4] converging to equal per capita globally by 2020 [it’ll be there for 28 days only]

    Use Acrobat ‘tools’ ’select and zoom’ then ‘pan and zoom’ to get big-picture and detailed numbers as-above simultaneously . . .

    C&C can be shown this way at any rates specified – it is my impression that something like this is now the next step.

  16. Aubrey Meyer says:

    It is easy to feel really disccouraged by that [non]-outcome from COP-15 and to feel that the wind is taken out of local sails.

    However, whatever the ‘sociology’ of all this is, to ‘succeed’ there has to be a meta-account of what’s happening so as to be able to measure the ‘success/failure’ at all.

    It seems a mistake to veer towards writing off ‘the process’ as a whole, as for better of worse, its the only one there is . . . and it knows it has to succeed . . . . so the issue remains can we and how do we help that happen . . . . ?

    Here’s a report of what did and didn’t happen at COP-15, tempered by that viewpoint.

    Beyond the COP-15 ‘Blame Game’
    Jan 11, 2010

    The COP-15 Copenhagen blame game was sparked by failure to properly
    explain the ‘Danish Text’.

    Aubrey Meyer and Terry O’Connell of the Global Commons Institute argue
    that the Copenhagen Summit came close to agreeing an equitable means of
    tackling climate change, but was let down by politicians’ failure to
    spell out their support for the contraction and convergence model.

    BusinessGreen, 11 Jan 2010

    COP-15 was not so much a “failure” as a postponement.


    We can still get beyond the Copenhagen deadlock, as we have all now
    agreed the “two degree” upper limit on global temperature rise. But
    first we have to get past the return to the politics of picking numbers
    out of a hat and the blame-game that has dominated the Copenhagen

    These post-mortems have been very noisy and Ed Miliband was strident in
    [wrongly] blaming China for the failure. Not that “blaming” per se
    really helps anyway. If there is blame it was (yet again) for generating
    a debate at cross-purposes and Miliband should share some of it. This is
    not to accuse him of being less than whole-hearted in his efforts – he
    obviously really was – but he was opaque and half-hearted in his
    understanding of what he was really trying to do. Maybe blame his

    The lack of clarity that dogged the talks emerged as early day two when
    the “leaked Danish draft proposal” appeared. Although it didn’t specify
    by name that the principle it was presenting was for the global
    “Contraction and Convergence ” (C&C) of greenhouse gas [ghg] emissions,
    the figures it advanced obviously were: – to avoid an overall
    temperature rise of more than two degrees, global GHG emissions must
    contract by 50 per cent by 2050 within which time-frame the share from
    developed countries must contract by 80 per cent. These targets are an
    example of C&C and would effectively result in equal per capita
    emissions globally by 2050.

    Though Ed Miliband has now claimed that he knew nothing about this draft
    proposal, these numbers are in fact precisely the global/UK emissions
    control figures in the UK Climate Act from a Department of which he is
    the Minister, so his claim of “ignorance” is baffling.

    Lord Adair Turner the Chairman of the Government’s Climate Change
    Committee [CCC] had confirmed in evidence to Parliament in February last
    year that the Climate Act was C&C, as “convergence to equal per capita
    emissions entitlements globally was the only proposition that was doable
    and fair”.

    With a calculating model to do the work, C&C was first formally proposed
    to the UNFCCC at COP-2 in 1996 by the Global Commons Institute. The C&C
    model will calculate any rate of global emissions contraction deemed
    necessary to meet the goal set by the UNFCCC for safe and stable
    concentrations of GHG in the atmosphere and any rate of convergence to
    equal per capita emissions entitlements within any rate of contraction,
    to satisfy the UNFCCC equity rationale.

    The results of this framework-based approach make a market for
    emissions-trading possible where the key points are [a] it is an
    inclusive integral approach rooted in the science of “safe and stable”
    concentrations and [b] it has a shared equity rationale within that
    global “contraction” limit where the faster the international
    convergence on the global per capita average, the more the valuable and
    tradable entitlements are pre-distributed to ” under-consuming”
    Developing Countries [and vice-versa]. The key negotiating point is
    obviously the rate of convergence, as this addresses the issue of ”
    historic responsibilities”.

    In a nutshell, whatever the agreed rate of convergence, we are all –
    rich and poor – dealing with same emissions contraction event where the
    100 per cent of emissions entitlements is not more or less than that
    available under the contraction rate required to achieve the objective
    of the UNFCCC. The executive of this stated publicly in 2004 that
    contraction and convergence is inevitably required to achieve the
    Convention’s objective.

    When Miliband’s Climate Act became law the UK House of Commons
    Environmental Audit Committee started an enquiry into “Targets in the UK
    Act: – Where did they come from – Were the models, on which they were
    based, valid?” The answer was they came from C&C as advocated from 2000
    by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution [RCEP]: –

    The Report published today: –

    concluded the, “approach to setting emission reduction targets based

    on equalising per capita emissions globally is sensible and equitable”.

    Moreover, though questions about the validity of the climate models
    being used were debated all year by the CCC, DECC, the Hadley Centre,
    GCI and others, already in March 2009 Adair Turner had agreed the key
    insight into the handling of C&C in the international negotiations. He
    agreed that if for reasons of climate-urgency the rate of international
    contraction had to be accelerated, then for reasons of international
    equity the rate of convergence would need to be accelerated relative to

    GCI’s constant advice to Government was this: when you introduce C&C at
    COP 15 in December, as you will inevitably have to do, [a] openly
    propose the principle and the reasoning behind it [b] perhaps provide
    examples of different rates of C&C to show its negotiability [c] if you
    must, prefer the specific example of C&C rates you want but [d] above
    all stress that you invite examples of other rates of C&C from other
    countries particularly China, India and Africa, so we all get via the
    same principle to a discussion that’s on the same page. It is not rocket

    Come the hour did they do this? No. The opaquely un-named group of
    governments behind the Danish Text laid down “the draft treaty” with an
    unexplained prescription of the rates of C&C globally and created an
    acute anti-reaction from the G-77 and China within the negotiations.
    They argued that the proposal meant the “lion’s share of what’s left
    goes to developed countries ” and that “it is still per capita 2:1 in
    favour of developed countries by 2050 “, re-igniting the usual blame and
    fury all over again.

    Let’s fast forward to the COP-15 end-game. The Chinese told the
    developed countries this prescription was unacceptable even to the
    extent that the developed countries couldn’t have their targets either.
    Though Angela Merkel was reported to be outraged about this, the reason
    for the Chinese stance was obvious: effectively capping developing
    countries to just the balance of what was left after a rate of
    convergence to per capita equality by 2050 inside this global emissions
    cut of 50 per cent by 2050, the Chinese (perhaps mischievously) spoke
    for all who saw this as Developed Countries seizing the lion’s share of
    what was left through the slow rate of convergence.

    Instead of suggesting faster convergence, which they could have done,
    they didn’t, but Miliband didn’t either and he came home and started
    publicly blaming the Chinese for the failure and all hell broke.

    The whole affair was made even more plaintive with the comments from the
    Maldives that fighting about equal rights to do the wrong thing doesn’t
    help. They are threatened with inundation and unequal rights to do wrong
    doesn’t prevent that either.

    Arguing accelerated rates of Contraction and Convergence would help, but
    the rates of Contraction and Convergence is a meta-argument that we must
    all now resolve as a whole if the Maldives are to remain visible
    let-alone audible.

    In 2004 the UNFCCC Executive itself recognised that “C&C is inevitably
    required to achieve the objective of the Convention.” So now, instead of
    allowing covert and ad hoc alliances of member nations to ambush
    negotiations, perhaps the UN should recognise formal groups with shared
    interests that can reach positions for negotiation at the higher level.
    Indeed, if the UK and the European Union itself want to remain relevant
    to resolving this now fully global quarrel, this needs to happen. We are
    now in fact nearer to a deal, and there remains one rational choice to
    get it: return and propose the C&C principle openly, formally, globally
    with countries grouping in “regions” as they choose [e.g. EU] to a total
    of perhaps 6 to 10, with an invitation to all sides to put forward their
    preferred rates of C&C from where we all can then negotiate to consensus
    – rationally.

    It will be a compromise but regional fights will remain in the regions
    and away from the UN, and from this C&C deal can follow the global
    framework-based carbon-market that can help resolve many of the
    remaining differences helping to finance survival and development in a
    low-carbon future.

    Aubrey Meyer is founder of the Global Commons Institute (GCI) and the
    developer of the Contraction and Convergence model

    Terry O’Connell is director of corporate relations at GCI