I think I may have neglected to mention it, but, a few months ago, while attending the Netroots Nation conference in Providence, I had the opportunity to meet environmentalist and author Bill McKibben. I’d like to say that we spoke, but, really, we just nodded at one another and said “hello.” He’d just come off stage, and chose to take a seat next to me. I suppose I should have taken the opportunity to engage him in a conversation about global warming, but, being painfully shy, I just sat there, wondering how much he weighed, and what he might say if I brought up the idea of armed revolution… Anyway, he has an article in the new issue of Rolling Stone that I wanted to let you know about. Here’s a clip.
…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.” At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: “Some countries will flat-out disappear.” When delegates from developing nations were warned that two degrees would represent a “suicide pact” for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, “One degree, one Africa.”
Despite such well-founded misgivings, political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target – indeed, it’s fair to say that it’s the only thing about climate change the world has settled on. All told, 167 countries responsible for more than 87 percent of the world’s carbon emissions have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, endorsing the two-degree target. Only a few dozen countries have rejected it, including Kuwait, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Even the United Arab Emirates, which makes most of its money exporting oil and gas, signed on. The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius – it’s become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees…
But, as McKibben goes on to say, all of the pieces are in place to drive us well past the two degree mark in no time. As he points out, many feel that the magic number is 565. That’s the number of gigatons of carbon that we can burn before we hit the two degree mark. The problem is, the world’s oil and coal companies, as of this very moment, own 2,795 gigatons of carbon, which they’re not willing to give up. It’s an asset that they own, and they damn well intend to use it. Here’s more from McKibben.
…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.
Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.
If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. 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…
At this point, I was going to reiterate my global warming rant from a few days ago, but, thankfully, I found something better in a Metafilter thread about McKibben’s article. It comes from a fellow calling himself Ivan Fyodorovich. Here’s what he has to say. (WARNING: It’s not pretty.)
…I’m not happy telling you this, but this catastrophe will not be averted. There is nothing in human history that demonstrates that any such calamity will ever be avoided when the time-frame is this extended and remote (relative to normal human concerns), where the costs are distributed across large populations and not exclusively to those responsible, and where personal benefit so immediately accrues to both those responsible and everyone else as they fail avert the calamity.
Action will occur only when costs are direct, immediate, and large. And that will be far, far too late.
The Earth’s temperature will rise by at least five degrees C over the next 150 years. This will happen. It will kill billions of people, result in mass extinctions, destroy many of Earth’s ecosystems and alter the rest, utterly change global politics and economics in chaotic and militaristic fashion, and the survivors will probably curse our generation for the next thousand years. This is our future.
And, that, I’m sorry to say, is probably the truth.