The American teacher and environmentalist Bill McKibben is one of the most convincing writers around on the topic of global warming. He has just published an article in Rolling Stone magazine in which he talks about “three numbers that add up to global catastrophe.” Let’s follow him through those numbers but a couple of preliminary points before we do.
Global warming occurs when carbon dioxide and other gases pumped into the atmosphere heat up the planet as a by-product of our burning fossil fuels. There is by now a growing and near overwhelming scientific consensus about this reality. There are to be sure those who continue to deny the science, much as some people still deny that the handling of asbestos causes cancer. Some of them are sincere but frequently the claims are made by or on behalf of industries that profit from business as usual.
First number: two degrees Celsius
McKibben says the consensus among nations is that we have to hold global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. This number has been used since at least 1995 and was the benchmark being used by countries at the international Copenhagen climate conference in November 2011. The agreements signed there were purely voluntary and had no enforcement mechanism. The conference was viewed as a failure from an environmental perspective but at least the 2 degrees Celsius figure has earned widespread agreement.
There are two problems here, says McKibben. One is that in the 17 years since 1995 we have already increased carbon emissions by .8 per cent – that is more than 1/3 of the permanent target. The second problem is that the 2 degrees Celsius target is far too lenient as a goal.
McKibben points to recent weather patterns: “June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed 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 …”
He adds, “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.”
He quotes Thomas Lovejoy, a former chief biodiversity adviser for the World Bank, as saying, “ If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.”
McKibben describes the 2 degree target as, “The bottomest of bottom lines.”
Second number: 565 gigatons
McKibben says, “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.” The problem here is that even if we stopped putting carbon into the atmosphere immediately the temperature would still rise another 0.8 degrees Celsius because previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. “That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two degree target,” says McKibben.
But everyone knows that we will not stop putting carbon into the atmosphere. “In fact,” says McKibben, “study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three per cent 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.”
McKibben quotes Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency as saying, “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.” McKibben says that a 6 degree Celsius increase in temperature would “create a planet straight out of science fiction.”
By way of Canadian content, McKibben says that the oil sands, fully developed, would contain as much as 240 gigatons of carbon – almost half of the world’s 565 gigaton space, if we take that limit seriously.
Third number: 2,795 gigatons
McKibben says this is the scariest number of all. It represents the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal, oil and gas reserves of corporations and states such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. “The key point, says McKibben, “is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.”
He uses the analogy of the .08 blood alcohol level. If two degrees Celsius is the legal drinking limit, then 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit. But 2,795 gigatons is the equivalent of three 12-packs of beer “that the fossil fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.”
McKibben’s point is that powerful, globe spanning corporations and petro states will do everything in their power to develop their reserves – and their power is enormous. In Canada, think of everything that the federal, Alberta and Saskatchewan governments are prepared to do to ensure that oil sands development proceeds at a rapid pace. No obstacle, it seems, will be allowed to stand in the way. Most petro states are not particularly democratic places.
“We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn,” McKibben says. “We’d have to keep 80 per cent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate.” Those reserves, locked in, have an estimated current market value of $27 trillion.
“We might well burn all of that carbon, in which case investors will do fine,” says McKibben. “But if we do the planet will crater . . . do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.”
Politics has failed
McKibben says that so far efforts by environmentalists and some politicians to curb the burning of fossil fuels have failed. Left to their own devices citizens might, or not, choose to regulate carbon and stop short of the brink. But citizens are not left to those devices. As Leonard Cohen says in his song, “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded . . . everybody knows the fight was fixed.” The carbon industry has inestimable money, reach and connections and will use them to prevent any government from forcing them to pay for their polluting ways, or to put a price on carbon emissions. But the challenge, surely, is for citizens and political movements to make that happen.
I will talk more in a future posting about the politics, and morality, of climate change.