According to the new math of global warming, we’re as good as dead already

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.

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  1. Chapman
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    I’m just going to come right out and say it: My wife loves anilingus.

    The problem is that I end up with a sore throat the next day about half the time. And half of those sore throats turn into full blown colds that last for several days.

    So I have two questions:

    1) Do you think the sore throat and colds are due to giving my wife anilingus?

    2) If your friend or co-worker kept getting colds, even in the middle of a heat wave, would you suspect him of frequently giving his wife anilingus?

  2. Erika
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    This is one of the many, many reasons that I will not have children.

    I could imagine totally relating to the mother in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “They say that women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves. But I dont dream at all. […] My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so dont ask for sorrow now. There is none.”

  3. Thom Elliott
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    Its funny Ivan thinks there will be survivors. When the methane sink at the bottom of the world’s oceans erupts from the heat increase and releases all that gas, there is no way any life will survive at all, we will all suffocate. Earth will be as Venus, thanks to James Watt, Henry Ford, and the mindlessness and nihilism of modern technology, and how it has so twisted human beings into unautonomous stockpiles of resource. I hope people take this information, and use it to transform their existences. As Rilke says in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”; you must change your life. Cherish your loved ones, attempt to really live, not just in hedonistic gluttony, but find meaning for you life.

  4. Eel
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Chapman, I think you’re in the wrong thread. The anilingus thread is over here:

  5. Arturo
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I think the insanity will get to us before the heat kills all the crops, and all the coastal cities wash out into the ocean.

    Case in point-

  6. Dan
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    “I hope people take this information, and use it to transform their existences. As Rilke says in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”; you must change your life.”

    The ghost of Henry Ford thanks you for driving around an automobile everyday.

  7. Thom Elliott
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Good one Dan! Thanks so much for taking a timeout from your amazingly productive and intense schedual of “hard work” to lavish us with that shred of astounding insight and wit. I am so grateful for your thoughtful advice and informed critique of my posting, it is just so refreshing to see someone of your stature, who is so in-demand as yourself, who would take a minute from your unbeliveably important “hard work” to help us all towards the light, leading out of the cave of ignorence. Why, you’re a saint! Cheers to you Dan, you scholar, and important scientist! Where would our world be without the amazing taxpayer supported research that you do? Thank the good Lord for Dan!

  8. Dan
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    You’re welcome.

  9. Dan
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    But seriously Thom. You’re sitting here telling people they need change their lives and transform their existences, and blaming Henry Ford for helping develop mass produced cars. While you drive around in your fucking car? You don’t see a problem with your hypocrisy? It’s mind boggling and absurd for you to think you have one shred of conviction or a place to tell others how to live while you ignore your own advice.

    Now go finish your Big Mac, and tell everyone again how they are eating murdered flesh

  10. Tom
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Dan, you have a really shoddy argument there. Where do we live, a place where cars are scarce and unnecessary? Southeast michigan, really? If it were so, I’d buy your “hypocrisy” line. You’re dodging any debate, and just dismissing anything that challenges the social institutions we’ve come to accept, whether or not they were created by the critics. If you really think “hypocrisy” is a proper response to critique, maybe it’s best you stay away for a while.

  11. Dan
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink


    You don’t understand what hypocrisy means.

    “1. the practice of professing standards, beliefs, etc., contrary to one’s real character or actual behaviour, esp the pretence of virtue and piety”

    Thom rants and raves about how Henry Ford was evil and people need to change their existence and dependence on modern technology. And yet, he drives his car all over town every day, posts from his smartphone, and sits in his air conditioned house.

    My argument is not against the evils or technology, or fossil fuels. It’s against a hypocrite that tells everyone else they should be making some sacrifices, yet refuses to make those sacrifices himself.

  12. Thom Elliott
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Dan, you don’t know what I do, or what I’ve done since my ‘Gelassenheit’, which was the result of intense study of philosophy. My life is a constant process of change away from my old way of living, which was probably similar to yours. Out of control eating and drinking, misery, and insanity, which I attribute to living an unexamined life, and in my case aggervated by terrible trauma. My lifestyle was as yours is, a grotesque product of modernity, the thoughtless consumption which is ubiquitus in our superficial society is the very thing which is the root cause of the danger we are in. Its my job to point it out, and tell of the change in your life when you think about it. Think about your life Dan.

  13. Dan
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Thats the issue Thom. I have no problem with your devotion to obscure philosophy, or your advocating for vegetarianism. Because those are things you actually do and “walk the walk” so to speak, and you have every right to proclaim those beliefs onto others. I have a problem with people that push their FAKE beliefs onto others. If you drive a car, you have no right to tell others they shouldnt, or to blame Henry Ford for his innovations. If you buy consumer electronics from Verizon or ATT, made in China or Japan or wherever, you have no right to tell others that they are evil for succumbing to consumerism or “late capitalism”. THATS the issue here. Dont be an advocate for something you dont actually believe in.

  14. anonymous
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Listening to you, Dan, has gotten me ready to embrace the end of human existence. Thank you for that.

  15. anonymous
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Also, I’m stuck on Chapman’s anilingus comment. Was he trying to suggest that the connection between the burning of carbon fuels and global warming is similar to the connection between his practicing of anilingus and his sore throats? Is he arguing that correlation does not imply causation? Or did he really want to share his thoughts on anilingus?

  16. Elbow
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    At what point does armed rebellion become an honorable undertaking? 1.5 degrees Celsius? I’m serious about this. At what point will public perception change, and those engaged in the destruction of oil and gas companies start being perceived as freedom fighters as opposed to terrorists? It would be good to have a target in mind, so that we could all align our activities.

  17. Thom Elliott
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Dan, I can’t help driving a car, its the society I was born into. I have every ‘right’ to state my historical critique, and what I see as the structure of the problem, which haunts me. I don’t have any fake beliefs I know of, Plato and Hegel are hardly obscure philsophers, and I resent how modernity makes everyone in it complicit, how just by living here it means you’re a slave holder and murderer. That is my belief, and my conviction. You on the other hand Dan, have no beliefs to speak of. You at one point proudly affirmed the moral rightness of being a consumer of the worst shit, it wouldn’t make sense to stop eating or drinking, but to do it in a thoughtful way. Think about your life Dan.

  18. mark k
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Dan your just not a “THINKER”, whereas Thom is. He needs his car to go about the world gathering knowledge so he can best tell the rest of how to live. We should all feel so lucky that he does our thinking for us. I just wish he would stop slacking here and cure cancer, or world hunger.

  19. Burt Reynolds
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Thom, you sound like an absolute riot to hang out with. It must be awesome to live each day hating everything which surrounds you.

  20. Dan
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    The thing is, Mr. Reynolds, Thom doesnt actually hate his smartphone or his car. He loves them. He hates the fact that he loves them. It’s like a gay politician trying to ban gay marriage, while secretly kicking his feet under the public bathroom stall.

  21. Thom Elliott
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Elbow, armed rebellion against who? The problem is that this is a problem which emerges out of the past. This horrific chain of events is a consequence of the nihilistic worldpicture and system created by men like Henry Ford, which is playing out in the mindless consumption of modernity. This problem is for the majority of people, utterly transperent to them, and as it is, it appears as though we are really too late to change this course. It would be too expensive to corperations and governments in modernity to retool their entire cultures, which is what it would require, but even then what is happening to the environment is happening now. It is time to really live as meaningfully as you can, to delve into your existence.

  22. dirtgrain
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Some hope? Dumping iron in the ocean could slow global warming, say scientists

    Then again: PSU study finds ‘caffeinated’ coastal waters. Iron and caffeine are the key ingredients in Ice-9.

  23. Burt Reynolds
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I have a fun drinking game. Everytime Thom says “modernity” or “nihilism” we drink. I’ve been playing for days. I have a dysfunctional liver.

  24. roots
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink


    I’m with Erika.

  25. SparkleMotion
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    In the end, is it not all of our own doing? Henry Ford didn’t create mass consumption. Put a gorilla in with an unlimited food supply and soon you will have an overweight gorilla. While it’s convenient to blame everything on someone else that existed in the past or a corporation without a face, in the end the problem is twofold – 1) we decide to feed the machine every time we decide that we don’t want to cook and there’s a Taco Bell on the way to our destination 2) there are too many people. Want to prevent mass starvation in the future? Let there be fewer people in which to feed. There is no real reason in our mechanized world to have 6 kids. I have a feeling that this will become a real thing in my lifetime.

  26. mark k
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree with SparkleMotion, we need fewer people in this world, or at least slow the growth down. But with people like Octomom who cant afford 1 kid let along 8. Thats someone Thom should be mad at.
    Burt I love the drinking game idea, only problem is Thom gets mad and runs off with the game ball. Kind of a “Screw you guys, I’m going home” moment.

  27. Dan
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    “Dan, I can’t help driving a car” is the biggest load of shit ever. I know several people that dont own cars. Stop lying, and just say “my life is a hell of a lot easier when I drive a car.” Similarly, if you want people to believe that you only use a smart phone out of necessity (filing papers demands it!), then you should not use that phone for one second outside of work related things. But instead, you sit on your phone and take hipster instagram pics just like the rest of the consumers around you.

  28. Thom Elliott
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Sparklemotion, it is hardly convinent to say our society is in terrible peril because of intractable systems set in motion over one hundred years ago, where humanity becomes enfolded into an endgame feedback loop. “Tragic” is the first word that comes to mind. Henry Ford may not have created mindless consumption itself, but he absolutely created the technological paradigm for its rise and standardization. Our economic system is based on the impossible infinite expansion of obsolescent consumables, which tends to either be made from, or trasported by the utilization of oil, which is the very thing which has created this tragic situation. It wasn’t just the mindlessness of the last 20 years which caused this, but the steady progression over the last two centuries toward this stark fate.

  29. Thom Elliott
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    It isn’t that there are too many human beings, its that there are a small amount of human beings consuming too much oil over too short a time period. The Swiffer comes to mind. We pump chemicals into our environment by the gigatonnage in order to ‘sustain’ our prosperous technological lifestyle of consumption, which means it was a stolen prosperity, based on nothing. Our postindustrial midwest is a glaring testament to the stolen prosperity of technology. We created this horrific standard, which is now being sought or emulated all over the world, and the timetable for indefinate expansion ran-out. China has to expand by like 9% a quarter in perpetuity, which is impossible. It is indefinate economic expansion, not humans.

  30. Chapman
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Great, I ask for some legitimate help and I get these two bozos taking over the comments. I’m thinking about leaving this site.

  31. A simple plan
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Step 1: Enjoy life as best you can.
    Step 2: Don’t make any babies.
    Step 3: Be prepared to kill yourself immediately when the world is no longer worth living in.

  32. Brainless
    Posted July 21, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Jesus Thom, don’t you have your own blog? I mean, I’m glad to see that you’re giving your thesaurus app a good workout, but like… shut up. Your writing is almost unreadable. Maybe you could try to write less and say more.

    And to the rest of you doom-sayers: I think there paintings in Lascaux predicting the end of the world and telling people not to have babies. It’s an old story. Humans – 35,000 years of Chicken Littling.

  33. 350
    Posted September 6, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Join us to hear Bill McKibben speak in Ann Arbor next week! Bill is an author, activist, and co-founder of He’ll be talking about the “most important number in the world,” and if you haven’t heard him speak, trust me, it’s not to be missed.

    WHEN: Friday, Sept 14, 4:30 PM
    WHERE: Rackham Auditorium, UM, Ann Arbor

    The talk is free and open to the public.

    Bill has done more than anyone to draw attention to the number 350 and the crisis of climate change. Time Magazine called him ‘the planet’s best green journalist’ and the Boston Globe said in 2010 that he was ‘probably the country’s most important environmentalist.’

    Of course Ann Arbor 350 will be there too, and we’ll help you connect with local efforts to combat the climate crisis. In fact, on September 17th, the Monday after Bill’s talk, we’re having a Climate Meet-up to plan more local action.

    Want to stay connected with Ann Arbor 350 but can’t make the meet-up? Connect with us on Facebook or sign up for our local mailing list here. Hope to see you soon!

    Thanks for all you do,

    Monica & the 350 Team

  34. Mr. Y
    Posted January 12, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    To walk outside today in Michigan is to know that the world is ending. People in t-shirts on January 12.

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