Bill McKibben is the founder of, the Schumann ­Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury, and the author, most recently, of Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist. (March 2016)

The Koch Brothers’ New Brand

Jane Mayer’s remarkable new book makes it abundantly clear that the Kochs, and the closely connected group of billionaires they’ve helped assemble, have distorted American politics in devastating ways, impairing the chances that we’ll effectively respond to climate change, reducing voting rights in many states, paralyzing Congress, and radically ratcheting up inequality.

Climate Change: A Warning from Islam

Ziglab Lake, Jordan, 2009

The real effect of documents like the recent Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, or Pope Francis’s encyclical, is less immediate policy shifts than a change in the emotional climate. It’s not necessarily that we take what the pope says as Gospel, or decide that because our university sold its fossil fuel stocks we will do likewise; it’s that these things normalize action, moving it from the category of “something that activists want” to “something obvious.” That’s the phase we’re reaching right now in the climate fight.

The Pope and the Planet

Pope Francis visiting typhoon survivors in Tacloban, the Philippines, January 2015
The pope’s encyclical on climate change is entirely different from what the media reports might lead one to believe. Instead of a narrow and focused contribution to the climate debate, it turns out to be nothing less than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet—an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary.

Pope Francis: The Cry of the Earth

Pope Francis at the Vatican, September 1, 2014

Laudato Si’, finally released this morning in Rome, is a remarkable 183-page document, incredibly rich—it’s not dense, but it is studded with aphorisms and insights. This marks the first time that a person of great authority in our global culture has fully recognized the scale and depth of our crisis, and the consequent necessary rethinking of what it means to be human.

Climate: Will We Lose the Endgame?

An Adélie penguin on an iceberg in the Ross Sea; photograph by John Weller from his book The Last Ocean: Antarctica’s Ross Sea Project, Saving the Most Pristine Ecosystem on Earth. It includes a foreword by Carl Safina and is published by Rizzoli.
We may be entering the high-stakes endgame on climate change. The pieces—technological and perhaps political—are finally in place for rapid, powerful action to shift us off of fossil fuel. Unfortunately, the players may well decide instead to simply move pawns back and forth for another couple of decades, which would be fatal.

What Would Thoreau Do?

Ice on Walden Pond; from Richard Primack’s Walden Warming
Henry James once called Concord, Massachusetts, “the biggest little place in America,” and for its role in both political and literary history the title is probably forever secure. Concord was the site of the second battle of the American Revolution (and the first victory for the colonials), and a few …

Collapse and Crash

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State, which collapsed in high winds shortly after it was built, November 1940
It’s fair to say that no failure surprises Henry Petroski. His classic first book, To Engineer Is Human, dealt with failure, as do many of his columns in The American Scientist. “A single failure…is a source of knowledge we might not have gained in any other way.” They reveal “weaknesses in reasoning, knowledge, and performance that all the successful designs may not even hint at.” “The best way of achieving lasting success is by more fully understanding failure.” It’s also the best way of entertaining an audience not necessarily gripped by engineering as a topic.

Some Like It Hot!

A melting iceberg from the South Sawyer Glacier in the Tracy Arm Fjord, near Juneau, Alaska
And the heat goes on. In the last few weeks, new data from the CryoSat satellite system have shown that there’s only one fifth as much sea ice in the Arctic as there was in 1980. New data from the carbon dioxide monitors on the side of Mauna Loa in …

The Methane Beneath Our Feet

A temperature gauge at a gas powered electricity plant, Las Vegas, Nevada

Insouciant New Yorkers—here is another pending disaster to shrug off with characteristic brio! There is a huge, ongoing gas leak beneath your very feet. A team of natural gas experts recently commissioned to survey the New York system has found vastly elevated levels of methane in locations all over Manhattan, a clear indication that Con Ed’s 4,320-mile network of pipes, dating back to the 1800s, is corroded, full of holes, and spewing methane into the atmosphere. The main danger here is to planetary, not personal, safety: though it has received relatively little attention, methane, the primary component of natural gas, is second only to carbon dioxide on the list of greenhouse gases that are inducing climate change.

A Grim Warning from Science

Flooded streets under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, New York, October 29, 2012

Days before Sandy came ashore we not only knew approximately where it would go, but that its barometric pressure would drop below previous records and hence that its gushing surge would set new marks. For science, it was a bravura performance. It should shame at least a little those people who argue against the computer modeling of climate change on the grounds that “they can’t even tell the weather three days ahead of time—how can they predict the climate?” They can tell the future too. And unless we get off fossil fuel with great speed, no serious climate scientist believes that the sea will rise less than a meter this century. Think about what that means—as one researcher put it this week, it means that any average storm will become an insidious threat.

The Scientist Who Made a ‘Total Turnaround’

A mother polar bear and two cubs playing near their den, Brownlow Point, Canning River Delta, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, along the coast of the Beaufort Sea, March 2002
In the long intellectual struggle over global warming—by now stretching out to something like the duration of the cold war—one of the more amusing sideshows came earlier this summer, courtesy of Berkeley physicist Richard Muller. An engaging soul (he’s won teaching awards at Cal; no wonder, since his Wikipedia page …

The Ultimate Corporation

The Strathcona Refinery, owned by Exxon subsidiary Imperial Oil, on the outskirts of Edmonton, Alberta, December 2008
Exxon’s executives, as anecdote after anecdote in Steve Coll’s book makes clear, enjoy easy access to every president. Its confident CEO is “a peer of the White House’s rotating occupants” who can usually count on the administration to see things as he does. In fact, the president is often more …

Why Not Frack?

A fracking site run by the Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, October 2011
In one sense, the analysts who forecast that “peak oil”—i.e., the point at which the rate of global petroleum extraction will begin to decline—would be reached over the last few years were correct. The planet is running short of the easy stuff, where you stick a drill in the ground …

Embattled Public Radio

Former NPR correspondent Anne Garrels in Afghanistan, 2003

National Public Radio has taken a beating over the last two weeks: first its chief executive was forced to resign amid a scandal caused by a right-wing frame-up, and then, on Thursday, the GOP-dominated House voted to cut off all federal funding to NPR. For the moment, that bill seems unlikely to get far in the Senate, but it suggests just how much public radio has been undermined in recent weeks and months. What’s almost as disturbing as the persistent right-wing attacks on an institution respected and relied upon by the broad public is NPR’s seeming unwillingness to stand up for itself.

Resisting Climate Reality

Bjørn Lomborg in Greenland, 2009; from Ondi Timoner’s film Cool It
We are at a dramatic moment in the story of global warming. We’ve known, as a society, about the climate change crisis for just over twenty years, from the day in June 1988 when the NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that the planet was heating up because we …

All Programs Considered

Ira Glass, host of the public radio show This American Life, at the Brown Theatre, Louisville, Kentucky, January 2006
About one in ten Americans tune in to public radio each week; if you landed in a spaceship someplace in America searching for thoughtful and nonpartisan culture, your first stop would be the public radio stations that usually show up below 92 on the FM dial. You’d find not just the big news shows but also a variety of call-in shows: national ones, like On Point, The Diane Rehm Show, or Talk of the Nation, with its much-loved Science Friday edition, but also a number of superb local talk programs, with hosts like Leonard Lopate and Brian Lehrer in New York, Michael Krasny in San Francisco, Steve Scher in Seattle, Larry Mantle in L.A.—the list is very long.

Our Diminished Oceans


What may turn out to be the summer’s most important news story (and just possibly the millennium’s) didn’t make the pages of the Times. A study in Nature has concluded that as oceans warmed, phytoplankton—the tiny organisms that form the crucial first level of the entire marine food chain—were disappearing.

Heavy Weather in Copenhagen

A remote river in Greenland, a hundred miles northeast of Ilulissat and inside the Arctic Circle, July 2007; photograph by Olaf Otto Becker, whose images of Greenland’s melting ice sheet were on view in Copenhagen during the climate change conference and
Two and a half years ago, when the Copenhagen conference on global warming was being planned, the rapid melt of sea ice in the summer Arctic convinced many scientists that global warming was advancing far more rapidly than even the gloomiest predictions had asserted. This observation, combined with others—the accelerating …

In the Face of Catastrophe: A Surprise

Displaced people preparing food outdoors after the San Francisco earthquake, 1906
I am writing this review from the city of Malé, the capital of the Maldives. The highest point of land on this entire archipelago of 1,190 islands is maybe twenty feet above sea level, and that is the trash dump in the center of town; most of the nation is …

Can Obama Change the Climate?

A dried-up section of the Jialing River, Chongqing, China, March 2007
2009 may well turn out to be the decisive year in the human relationship with our home planet. By December, when the world’s leaders plan to gather in Copenhagen to sign a new global accord on global warming, we’ll know whether or not our political systems are up to the …

Green Fantasia

Thomas Friedman is the prime leading indicator of the conventional wisdom, always positioned just far enough ahead of the curve to give readers the sense that they’re in-the-know, but never far enough to cause deep mental unease. He performs a useful service as a kind of political GPS unit, telling …

Taking the Gospels Seriously

In the 1960s, at Harvard Divinity School, the future seemed orderly and ordained. Mainline Protestantism was at the height of its power; the theologian Paul Tillich had made the cover of Time less than a decade before, and Reinhold Niebuhr was widely known for his writings and political views. Evangelicalism was represented by the moderate and polite Billy Graham. For the young men studying at the Divinity School, even most of the gathering political protest a quarter-mile away in Harvard Yard seemed remote. “Columbia had burst into flames the year before,” recalled Peter Gomes when I interviewed him a few years ago. Now a teacher at the school, Gomes said, “The general reaction was ‘thank God that’s down there.’ There was Mario Savio in Berkeley, but that was what they did in California.”

Can Anyone Stop It?

During the last year, momentum has finally begun to build for taking action against global warming by putting limits on carbon emissions and then reducing them. Driven by ever-more-dire scientific reports, Congress has, for the first time, begun debating ambitious targets for carbon reduction. Al Gore, in his recent Live …

Warning on Warming

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest report in early February, it was greeted with shock: “World Wakes to Climate Catastrophe,” reported an Australian paper. But global warming is by now a scientific field with a fairly extensive history, and that history helps set the new …