The maths: the must read article by McKibben, the implications we must consider

Bill McKibben’s powerful Rolling Stone article is currently being pinged around Twitter.

It is essential reading: powerful, insightful, reasoned and passionate.

I implore you to read it and pass it around:

When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn’t yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.

McKibben highlights what he calls the “three most important” numbers you did to know.

Firstly, the so called “2 degree safe limit”:

The accord did contain one important number, however. In Paragraph 1, it formally recognized “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.” And in the very next paragraph, it declared that “we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required… so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius.” By insisting on two degrees – about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – the accord ratified positions taken earlier in 2009 by the G8, and the so-called Major Economies Forum. It was as conventional as conventional wisdom gets.

To maintain global temperatures under the “safe level” we need to restrict the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere – no more than 575 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. (“Reasonable,” in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)

However, there are close to 3000 gigatons worth carbon locked up in the available reserves of fossil fuels:

This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.

And that the economic imperatives and self interest of fossil fuel companies will drive us beyond the 575 gt:

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.

As I tried to say, with far less eloquence than McKibben we are locking in the March of folly. There is much to say and debate about how to respond to the issues outlined in the article.

4 thoughts on “The maths: the must read article by McKibben, the implications we must consider

  1. uknowispeaksense says:

    All well and good Mike but the average denier will just bury his/her head in the sand. Some of the ridiculously stupid ones will crow about how much better for plants all that CO2 is. If they refuse to accept the basic premise and fact that CO2 amplifies warming then the rest is moot to them.
    The key is going to be an economic one. The investors need to understand that it is their grandchildren who will suffer from the benefit they reap now. What good is money, when there is nothing left to spend it on?

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      True, but the deniers aren’t the ones we need to worry about – the numbers are quite low. However, the influence is disproportionate thanks to News Corp, the IPA (Bolt and the LNP links with both.

      A price on carbon is meant do the later, but it has proven a hard sell to conservative business.

      • uknowispeaksense says:

        All too true. I probably don’t need to ask but I assume you will be writing a piece about the inclusion of the “independent” Jack Cowin on the Fairfax board? The fatcat couldn’t get there herself so she sends her lackey in.

        • Watching the Deniers says:

          You know I thought about that. Here’s the synopsis: Cowin joins board, editors change no need to worry about their independence when they parrot their owners views. Rinehart hates public exposure, prefers to work through mouthpieces and allies like IPA, Cowin, Bolt. Watch Fairfax newspaper – except AFR – subs tank.

          I’ve got three other pieces almost done, which I’ll do first.

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