Bill Mckibben: “Global warming’s terrifying new math”

If you want to know where we stand with global warming, read Bill McKibben’s groundbreaking new piece in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terryifying New Math.” He opens by reminding us that this spring set a record for the warmest ever recorded for our nation, crushing previous records. The same week we set records, Saudi authorities “reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.”

The bad news is this: Even though meteorologists are reporting record-breaking high temperatures across the world, governments—most function as minions to the carbon fuel industries—aren’t really doing anything to address global warming. McKibben says that in order for us to grasp the serious predicament we are in, we need math. To that end, he provides us with three figures:

The First Number: 2˚ Celsius

The Second Number: 565 Gigatons

The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons

Following is a brief summary of what these figures mean to McKibben, but to gain the full impact of his argument, please read the whole article. It’s one that will change the dialogue on global warming going forward.

The First Number: 2˚ Celsius

This number—2˚ Celsius, or about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit—is the maximum temperature increase the Earth can withstand without catastrophic consequences. The number gained prominence in 1995 at the climate conference chaired by Angela Merkel, then German minister of the environment.

The same number was agreed upon at the failed 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, where neither China nor the United States offered the concessions needed to make a difference. Even though the Copenhagen Accord declared that deep cuts in global emissions are required to hold the increase in global temperatures below two degrees Celsius, it ended up with voluntary agreements with no enforcement mechanism. McKibben writes:

So far, we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.) Given those impacts, in fact, many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target. ”

Any number much above one degree involves a gamble,” writes Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, “and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.” Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.” NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet’s most prominent climatologist, is even blunter: “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.”

The Second Number: 565 Gigatons

McKibben writes that a decade ago, scientists estimated that we could dump roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still stay below the max two degrees Celsius temperature increase. So far we’ve increased the Earth’s temperature by 0.8.  More recent computer models show that even if we stopped increasing CO2 emissions now, the temperature would likely rise another 0.8 degrees, because previously released carbon will continue to overheat the atmosphere. Every year, with the exception of 2009, we have continued to pour record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Mckibben reports:

“There have been efforts to use more renewable energy and improve energy efficiency,” said Corinne Le Quéré, who runs England’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. “But what this shows is that so far the effects have been marginal.” In fact, 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, around the time today’s preschoolers will be graduating from high school. “The new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist. In fact, he continued, “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.” That’s almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction.

The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons

Of the three numbers, McKibben says the new number—2,795 gigatons—is the scariest of all. It represents the amount of carbon in the proven coal, oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and in countries like Venezuela or Kuwait who function like fossil fuel companies. It’s the fossil fuel we plan to burn in the future. And this new number – 2,795 – is way higher than 565. It’s five times higher.

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.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

McKibben points out the real problem: Even though the coal, gas and oil are in the soil, it’s already figured into the share prices of companies like Exxon Mobil. The reserves are the primary asset upon which their value is based. If you told Exxon that, in order to stop global warming they couldn’t use those reserves, the value of their companies would plummet.

The value of 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions is about $27 trillion. If the companies were responsible, paid attention to climate change scientists and kept 80 percent of the reserves in the ground, they would be writing off $20 trillion in assets. That figure tells us why they have spent millions trying to undermine and deny the reality of global warming.

The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, 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.

McKibben has given us the numbers, but more importantly, he has given us the enemy. The enemy is the carbon fuel industry and, more specifically, oligarchs like the Koch brothers who run it.  It’s investors who are destroying the Earth in exchange for short-term financial rewards. The enemy is the government that facilitates the extraction and burning of carbon fuels—through waging wars on behalf of oil barons, providing unneeded tax subsidies, and rubber-stamping environmentally dangerous practices such as fracking and offshore drilling.

McKibben’s math provides us with a stark wake-up call. The question is: What are we going to do about it?