“There,” I say, marking a line in the sand with my bare toe. “That’s about a foot above high tide.” I turn to look at the ocean waves, breaking far off in the low winter light. Caylan, my friend and fearless volunteer photographer, helps me drag my little homebuilt skiff to the spot we marked. I climb in and pretend to row, carving out a sand angel’s wings with my oars, as he snaps a picture. “Not a whole lot of beach left,” he remarked. Sea oats dance in the breeze beside us. We’re almost to the dunes, in the path of the beach access, and we’re still about 4 inches of elevation below the actual mark.
We have come to the north end of Wrightsville Beach to document approximately where the ocean’s waters will lap in our lifetimes if the rise in our planet’s temperature, due to anthropogenic climate change, continues unchecked. Already we have taken pictures of the boat in front of the “Welcome to Wrightsville Beach” sign and in the middle of Waynick Boulevard, areas that studies agree would be submerged during a storm with the most conservative estimate of sea level rise (40 cm, or 1.3 feet, by 2100). As Caylan snapped the picture of me in the road, absurd in my tiny life jacket (safety first!), the drawbridge dropped and a rush of cars, which had been waiting to cross it, came hurtling toward us. Sitting on the pavement, traffic imminent, I felt a sinking in my stomach; if I didn’t move, I would be crushed to a pulp.
We’re in a similar moment now, planetarily speaking. Of course, I wasn’t killed (what a feat it would be to write this if I were!), but our planet’s fate is, unfortunately, not as certain. The gradual warming of our atmosphere is making itself felt by the heinous hurricanes our state endured in September or the wildfires in California—which, even as I write, are burning 80 acres a minute. Something like this happens now across the globe daily. There’s no ignoring it anymore, no pushing it off for a later solution. It’s now or never—especially for Caylan and I, millennials under 30 whose very future depends on figuring it out.
Thirty years is longer than I’ve been alive, but there’s a man whose writing has been concentrated on our changing climate for that long: Bill McKibben. He is a writer of the first book on climate change (1989’s “The End of Nature”), activist and founder of the nonprofit group 350.org. Last Thursday, he delivered a lecture to a room at UNCW’s Burney Center—all brimming with people my age or younger, a fact which filled me with hope. David Gessner, chair of UNCW’s Creative Writing Department, introduced him and noted how important it was to have him come to our water-surrounded city in the wake of Florence.
“I’m not going to spare you: Climate change is the biggest problem the world has ever faced,” McKibben began, “and it’s happening fast. This is not geological change over eons; this is happening in the lifetimes of everyone in this room.”
On the screen flashed a video he took from a helicopter in Greenland: a frozen mountain of ice parts from a glacier, toppling slow-motion into the sea. “This is happening every day, every minute,” he reminded.
As humans burn fossil fuels, we release the heat equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima-sized explosives into the atmosphere every day. This has put “all the biggest structures on the planet into a complete flux.” The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report last month, showing how in no uncertain terms in a decade or two we must enact “rapid and far-reaching” changes to stop emitting carbon, worldwide. Else we risk complete disaster.
We need to realize, McKibben said, we have the solution. While 10 or 15 years ago we didn’t know what would replace coal and oil, “engineers have done their jobs” in finding alternative. The cost of solar panels and wind generators have fallen 90 percent in the past decade, and are now the cheapest ways to generate power.
“We live in a time,” McKibben said, “when we can point a sheet of glass at the sun and out the back of it comes light, heat, cold, and information.” He calls it “a Hogwarts-level miracle.”
So why haven’t we made the effort to switch? According to McKibben, the fossil fuel industry doesn’t want us to make that change, despite its fundamental positive changes. Thanks to investigative journalism, we now know the fossil-fuel industry knew about detrimental changes their product was causing to the climate as far back as the ‘80s; they even started designing drilling rigs to account for sea-level rise. Yet, they neglected to tell the rest of us.
Exxon made more money in the past 10 years than any other company in the history of money, McKibben claimed. They and others have been more than willing to use funds to browbeat and bully anyone who threatens their business plan. He iterated how our fight is not about reason but about money and power. The only way to secure the future of the planet is to build united movements powerful enough to challenge big oil companies.
Ten years ago, McKibben started 350.org, a nonprofit dedicated to organizing people to effectively combat climate change. To date, it has held over 20,000 demonstrations in every country on earth. (The name alludes to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, the most scientists have estimated we can have without catastrophic warming effects. It is worth noting, as of now we are at 410 ppm and climbing steadily.) Education is the organization’s main goal, but the mission also extends to direct confrontation with new drilling and pipeline projects.
“If we’re going to be serious about 100 percent renewable energy, and we have to be serious about it, it makes no sense to lock ourselves into new fossil fuel projects,” McKibben said.
And it can work: Last year the Pacific Climate Warriors, who hail from the low-lying atolls in the Pacific—most threatened by sea level rise—successfully blockaded the coal harbor of Newcastle, Australia, using kayaks and dugout native canoes. At the same time a similar group of “kayactivists” stopped a Shell platform in Washington state from drilling in the Arctic. If there is any chance of winning this fight, we all must be active.
“The planet is way outside it’s comfort zone,” McKibben told, “so we need to be outside of ours. Whatever you’re doing now, it’s not enough.”
Back on the beach in my little boat, I am trying to do more. It’s a far cry from blockading the port of Wilmington, but at least it’s tangible. Just maybe it’ll get people’s attention. Perhaps not. Call it guerrilla journalism.
We all have to try to use less energy, to lobby our government and energy companies to switch entirely to renewable sources by 2050, to fight offshore drilling, to eat less meat, to walk more places instead of taking a car. The alternative is to give up, to doom our own civilization, and the rest of the life on this beautiful planet to heat death and starvation, to watch birds disappear from the skies and fish from the oceans, as our crops wither under a cruel sun, and saltwater swallows our cities. In my little boat, I can’t row fast enough to outrun a car or save the world, but I can still row, damn it. If we all make the decision to paddle, we can make a difference.
“It’s a burden to be alive at a moment on which so much depends,” said McKibben in his closing remarks, “but it’s also a privilege to have the leverage to make a difference.”
Climb in with me. Grab an oar. We’ve got work to do.