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Bill McKibben: Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

Image: Rolling Stone Magazine

Image: Rolling Stone Magazine

Author, educator and environmentalist Bill McKibben has written a story that will be appearing in the next edition of Rolling Stone magazine (or, you can read the story here).  In an e-mail to followers of, Mr. McKibben describes his Rolling Stone story as “maybe the most important writing I’ve done since The End of Nature, way back in 1989″.  After reading the article, I can understand why.  There is some bad (but very important) news in story and it all revolves around three numbers: 2, 565 and 2,795.

Two is the globally accepted temperature increase, in degrees Celsius, at which we must limit global warming.  Right now, we are sitting at just under 0.8, and even that is having an incredible impact on our climate.  In fact many scientists believe that +2 is actually too high of a goal.  According Kerry Emanuel, a leading authority on hurricanes,

Any number much above one degree involves a gamble, and the odds become less and less favourable as the temperature goes up.

NASA climatologist James Hansen agrees.

If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.

Unfortunately, that two-degrees target looks even worse when you consider how close we are to breaching it.  Although our planet’s mean temperature has increased by 0,8 degrees, even if we stopped emitting carbon TODAY, the temperature would still rise by another 0,8 degrees because of the carbon we have already put in the atmosphere.  (There is a delay, or climate lag, of several decades between when we emit CO2 and the actual impact on our temperature.)  In other words, we are just over three-quarters of the way to our two-degree target.

That brings us to our second number: 565.  That is the amount of gigatons of carbon dioxide that scientists believe we can put into the atmosphere from now until mid century and “still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees”.  It is our “carbon budget”.  At the (increasing) rate at which we are emitting carbon dioxide, we are on pace to blow through our two-degree target in 16 years.  And if the emissions continue on this pace, we could reach six degrees of warming, “which would create a planet straight our of science fiction”.

The third and final number is 2,795.  “The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies.  In short, it’s the fossil fuels we’re currently planning to burn.”  And if you do the math (2,795 divided by 565), there is five times more carbon in the soil than our carbon budget allows us to burn.  Put another way, in order to save our climate we need to leave 80% of our fossil fuels in the ground.

(As a note, the Alberta Tar Sands are believed to contain as much as 240 gigatons of carbon.  That is almost half of our carbon budget.)

Those are the numbers.  And the choice is between our climate and the profits of the fossil fuel industry because leaving 80% of our fossil fuels in the ground would mean “writing off $20 trillion in assets”.  I don’t see the fossil fuel industry doing that on its own.  Do you?

The fossil-fuel industry is the enemy.  That is how we have to look at them because they have every intention of burning all the 2,795 gigatons that they can extract out of the Earth.  As anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein put it,

Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices.  But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.

And like many environmentalists, economists and even some conservatives, Bill McKibben believes that the way to keep that carbon in the ground (and saving our climate) is a price on carbon.

Once Exxon has to pay for the damage its carbon is doing to the atmosphere, the price of its products would rise. Consumers would get a strong signal to use less fossil fuel – every time they stopped at the pump, they’d be reminded that you don’t need a semimilitary vehicle to go to the grocery store. The economic playing field would now be a level one for nonpolluting energy sources. And you could do it all without bankrupting citizens – a so-called “fee-and-dividend” scheme would put a hefty tax on coal and gas and oil, then simply divide up the proceeds, sending everyone in the country a check each month for their share of the added costs of carbon. By switching to cleaner energy sources, most people would actually come out ahead.

Like many people have said in the past, we know the problem.  We have the technology to fix it.  Now all we need is the will to act.  Maybe Mr. McKibben’s “three numbers” can give us the kick in pants we need to actually do something about it.

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