Why has extreme weather failed to heat up climate debate?

The world is experiencing the hottest weather on record but politicians have failed to respond. They need a wake-up call

Bill McKibben, Wednesday 18 August 2010 15.30 BST
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We've had so much record heat around the world lately that the records themselves are setting records: 17 nations have reached new temperature highs, a new record for records in a year. Pakistan hit (129F) 54C, a new record for all of Asia. Moscow had never hit 100F (38C) before; lately it's been a rare day when the mercury settles lower.

Now scientists have confirmed what's been pretty obvious: the entire world has just come through the warmest six months, the warmest year, and the warmest decade on record. Following the hottest June ever, yesterday said July was the second hottest July recorded – and the warmest ever for land temperatures alone.

Just in case those feel like abstractions, here's what they mean in practice: because warmer air holds more water vapour than cold, deluge increases. Hence, Pakistan has seen the worst flooding in its history. Because heat cuts grain yields, Russia has stopped exporting grain, spiking prices. Greenland? Guess what – heat melts ice.

In fact, the only thing that defies common sense this brutal summer is how little political reaction there's been. The UN process continues its post-Copenhagen wander – even many NGOs continue out of sheer habit to support old targets, like limiting the level of CO2 to 450 parts per million (ppm) and a 2C increase in temperature. Why? If the current 390 ppm melts the Arctic, who would aim for 450? In Washington, meanwhile, the Congress and White House have decided there's no need for any kind of urgency: they let the tepid and tame climate bill die without even scheduling a vote.

So here's what we need: a movement. A really big one, all over the world. Right now the energy companies are winning, and winning easily. Because they're the most profitable business the world has ever seen, they have enormous influence. And because all they need to do is delay, so far they've barely even been bothered by environmentalists.

But this is no longer an environmental battle. As this summer demonstrates, if you're concerned about development, climate change is issue No 1 (how much development is going to go on in Pakistan, now that its bridges are all gone?). If you're concerned about war and peace, climate change is issue No 1 (when Russia stops sending grain to Egypt and Nigeria, and when wheat prices start to rise, what do you think comes next?). If you're concerned about the future, then climate change is issue No 1 – because this summer is a tiny taste of what the future is all about. So far we've barely raised the earth's temperature a degree, and that's caused all that we've seen so far. But climatologists assure us there's four or five degrees more by the century's end unless we work with incredible speed to end the fossil fuel era.

It's not impossible to build a movement. Look at the great examples in the UK, where anti-aviation-expansion group Plane Stupid has turned the tide on Heathrow (or where climate campaign 10:10 has persuaded Tottenham Hotspur to go green). Look at what we at managed to pull off last October, when 5,200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries pushed for a 350ppm carbon target. People everywhere can understand the science – they're living it, more and more.

This autumn the big dates include 10 October, when environmental groups the world over are collaborating on a Global Work Party, designed not just to put up a lot of solar panels but also to send a strong message to our leaders: We're getting to work, what about you?

But movements aren't just a series of events. They need to be ongoing, swelling—they need to suggest through science and art the new world that is possible. I'd be surprised if by this time next year civil disobedience was not under way across the globe. By next summer, I hope, it's this new movement that will be turning up the heat.

• Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, founder of, and author most recently of Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.