Bill McKibben, head of 350.org, the organization I mentioned in the previous post, “Climate Change,” is a renowned American environmentalist author, journalist, and now the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont. In 2010, the Boston Globe called him “probably the nation’s leading environmentalist,” and Foreign Policy magazine named him one one of the 100 most important global thinkers. These are just a few of his many accolades.
As a journalist, McKibben has written frequently for the New York Times, Atlantic magazine, and Rolling Stone, to name a few. He is also the author of many books. His first, The End of Nature, published in 1989, is considered the first book about climate change written for a general audience. His latest book, Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, written in 2010, was a best seller about how rapidly climate change is changing life here on earth.
In his article, “The Reckoning “ in the August 2nd edition of Rolling Stone, McKibben lays out exactly what climate change will mean for us, in clear prose based on scientific facts. I hope you go to the link I’ve provided and read the whole article, but in this post, I’ll lay out for you some of its highlights. I want to get this information out to as many people as possible because it is more important than almost anything else I have read in a long time.
McKibben begins the piece with some startling facts: This June broke 2,132 high temperature records across the United States. “That followed,” he said, “the warmest May on record for the northern hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7×10 to the 99th, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.”
McKibben then gets to the main point of the piece –that there are “Three simple numbers that add up to future global catastrophe.” These three simple numbers come from an arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. that has been presented at various environmental conferences but hasn’t yet penetrated the general public.
The First Number: 2 degrees Celsius
The 2009 Copenhagen climate conference was, according to McKibben and most other environmentalists, a complete failure. “Neither China nor the U.S., which between them are responsible for 40% of global carbon emissions, was prepared to offer dramatic concessions…The accord did contain one important number, however.” It recognized that the increase in global temperature should stay below two degrees Celsius, and went on to declare that “we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required…so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius.”
So far, we have raised the earth’s average temperature to 0.8 degrees Celsius, and, as McKibben says, “that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected.” For instance, a third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone. Because of this and much other damage, many scientists believe that two degrees is too lenient of a goal. However, scientific data had to take a back seat to political realism, and the world agreed on the two degree target.
The Second Number: 565 Gigatons
“Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees,” says McKibben. This idea of a carbon budget was born about ten years ago when scientists started figuring out how much fossil fuel we could burn and not increase earth’s temperature by more than two degrees Celsius. As I said before, we’ve already increased that temperature by 0.8 degrees, so we’re almost halfway there. And, as McKibben says, “computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.”
Unfortunately, all indicators point to the fact that the 565 gigaton number will be as hard to control as two degrees one. “In fact,” says McKibben, “study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year – and at that rate, we’ll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years….” That would be in 2028. A child born today would be a junior in high school the year we reach the 565-gigaton number.
McKibben quotes Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, as saying, “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.” And, says McKibben, “That’s almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction.”
The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons
This third number,” says McKibben, is the scariest of all, because it represents the fossil fuel that we are planning to burn in the future, the proven coal, oil, and gas reserves still in the ground. And, if you hadn’t already noticed, this number – 2.795 – is five times higher that 565 – the number of gigatons of carbon dioxide that beyond which the earth becomes unsafe for human habitation.
McKibben explains it like this: “Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.”
McKibben goes on to explain that, although this coal, gas, and oil is still in the ground, the industries that control it are already borrowing money against it, as a known asset. In fact, these reserves are their primary asset, what gives their companies their value today. John Fullerton,a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, figures that at today’s market value, the 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 billion.
“You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet” says McKibben, “or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.”
“This sounds pretty bleak,” you say, “pretty hopeless.” And so it does. But, without an honest look at the numbers, we have no hope of dealing with them. McKibben states several times that environmental efforts to stem the tide of global warming have failed. But we can learn from these failures, he says, because now we know what strategies don’t work.
Changing Individual Lifestyles
“Most of us are ambivalent about going green,” says McKibben. We buy both weird, twisty light bulbs and flat screen TVs, only 3 percent of us have bought hybrid cars, and only 4 percent have reduced our utility use.
“Given a hundred years, you could conceivably change lifestyles enough to matter,” says McKibben, but time is precisely what we lack.”
Working Through the Political System
Environmentalists have lobbied Congressmen endlessly, trying to convince them of the perils of global warming, but with limited success.
Sometimes this has worked. Barack Obama, for instance, was able to make a significant change by increasing the fuel efficiency required for automobiles, but he’s also gone out of his way to push the practices of fracking and mining. “Producing more oil and gas here at home has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy,’ he explained in March. So, he’s pushing for America to produce more wind power and more fossil fuel power at the same time.
A New Movement
McKibben posits that what we need now is “a rapid, transformative change” in our approach to fighting global warming. “And,’ he adds, “movements require enemies.” We have that enemy, he says. It is the fossil fuel industry itself. Environmentalists have, for years, been trying to convince fossil-fuel industries “that they should turn away from coal, oil and gas and transform themselves more broadly into energy companies.” That approach seemed to work for awhile, at least with a few companies. Around 2000, BP named itself “Beyond Petroleum,” but its investments in alternative energy were meager, at best, and eventually disappeared. Shell shut down its solar and wind operations in 2009.
“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,” says Naomi Klein,an anti-corporate writer who is working on a new book about climate change. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”
The five biggest oil companies in the world have made more than $1 trillion in profits since the year 2000. And, “much of that profit stems from a single historical accident,” says McKibben. The fossil-fuel industry is the only business allowed to dump its waste, carbon dioxide, without penalty. The reason for this is that until 25 years ago, we didn’t know that CO2 was bad for the planet. But, now that we know, what can we do about it? The real meaning of this new math, says McKibben, is that “it could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.”
McKibben points to the campaign in the 1980’s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa as an example of a real movement. This campaign, that rose first on college campuses, eventually convinced more than 80 cities, 25 states, and 19 counties to take economic action against companies connected to the apartheid regime.
Of course, the fossil-fuel industry is a much tougher enemy than apartheid. But, as Bob Massie, former anti-apartheid activist who helped found the Investor Network on Climate Risk, said, “Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective. The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever ties with those who profit from climate change – now.”
Yikes!! This is pretty depressing stuff! McKibben makes the situation seem almost hopeless. Beyond that, he told us that both individual and governmental efforts to stop global warming have been a failure. So, should we just eat, drink, and be merry while Rome burns (not to mix metaphors)? I don’t think so.
I disagree that individual and governmental efforts have been a failure. Governments all over the world are working on the problem of climate change, with differing levels of success – from hybrid cars to alternative energy production. People are aware of the problem. But we need more than these scattered attempts to make a change. We need a united front! We, the people of the world need to get together on this. That’s why climate change conferences are so important. Unfortunately, the results of these conferences have been disappointing because too many countries put their own self-interests above the common good. All of us need to put our petty differences aside in order to save our home from destruction, much the same way neighbors get together to help each other when fire threatens to wipe out their neighborhood. India, China, and Brazil need to stop thinking that they don’t need to fight climate change in their countries because it was the West, after all, that created most of these green house gasses. We’re all in this together!
I agree with McKibben that we need an enemy in this fight, and that the coal, gas, and oil industries are that enemy. We need to fight them in every way imaginable. California is one of the few states in the nation where these extraction companies are not taxed on what they take out of our ground. How could that be? Why don’t we tax them? Dumping the stock of companies that refuse to cooperate in limiting carbon emissions would be another way to fight them. We should all be asking ourselves, “How can we fight these industries that are destroying our home?”