Climate Change’s Catastrophic New Math

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In a not-to-miss article in this week’s Rolling Stone, environmental author and activist Bill McKibben explains some new math that adds up to a terrifying trajectory for the planet. Shaken by the piece, we called McKibben to learn more.

Lauren Feeney: It’s been a really hot summer. Just how hot, in relative terms?

Wildfires destroying homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

Bill McKibben: It’s been an almost unbelievably hot summer. We’re living through epic droughts. We’ve seen the biggest wildfires in New Mexico and Colorado in our history. We’ve seen temperature records fall one after another — more than 3,200 new high temperature records set in June alone. And that’s not just here — this past June was the warmest ever measured across the northern hemisphere. There are crop-withering droughts in much of eastern Europe right now, epic flooding in India. What we’re seeing is a perfect distillation of what climate change looks like in its early phases.

We’ve raised the earth’s temperature about one degree since the late 19th century, and that’s capable of causing the sort of short-term chaos we’re seeing around us now, as well as longer term effects: a third of the summer sea ice in the arctic is gone, the ocean is 30 percent more acidic and the atmosphere over the oceans is five percent wetter than usual. That’s what it looks like when you raise the temperature one degree. If we don’t get our act together very quickly, as I explain the Rolling Stone piece, it’s going to be two degrees, and really we’re on a trajectory right now that will take us to more like six degrees.

Feeney: You write about these three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe. Can you explain the equation?

McKibben: The first number is two degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — that’s the temperature increase that scientists and politicians have agreed represents the absolute furthest you’d ever want to go. The scientists have been saying that it’s too high, that we should really be stopping right where we are now. But governments are unwilling to do what that would require, so they’ve agreed in international conferences that two degrees will be the target for the planet. It’s the only thing that the world’s governments have agreed on about climate change.

The second number is 565 gigatons — that’s about how much carbon dioxide we can put in the atmosphere by midcentury and have any realistic hope of staying below two degrees. We release about 30 gigatons a year.

The third number — and the newest one in these calculations — is from a group of accountants and environmentalists in the UK who tried to find out how much carbon the world’s fossil fuel companies (and the countries that operate like fossil fuel companies) have in their reserves. That number is about 2,800 gigatons of carbon, or about five times the 565 gigatons we can put into the atmosphere and stay below two degrees. Now that coal, oil and gas is still below ground, but economically it’s really above ground — it’s reflected in the share price of Exxon or Shell, it’s reflected in the budget planning of Venezuela or Kuwait. The current plan, as announced by the fossil fuel companies and governments of the world, is to drive us way, way, way past that two degree figure.

It’s like knowing that the legal drinking limit is 0.08 percent and that maybe you could drink four or five beers over the course of a night and stay below it, but instead, you open five six-packs and put them out on the table for a night of drinking.

Feeney: What’s the timeline here? How long will it take for us to burn through the 565 gigatons?

McKibben: At the current rate that we’re burning it, about 16 more years. We’re burning about 30 gigatons of carbon a year and we’re increasing at about three percent per year.

Feeney: 16 years?! At that point, will we have raised the temperature by two degrees, or be on a trajectory to do so?

McKibben: We’d have expended enough to raise the temperature two degrees. There’s a timeline between when you emit the carbon and how quickly the temperature goes up. Of course, if we were going to avert that, we’d need to take incredibly dramatic action right now. If we wait 14 years then it will be much too late.

Feeney: What will happen once the earth has heated up two degrees?

McKibben: Well, much more of what we’ve got now, and at a level that scientists think is going to be very, very difficult for civilizations to deal with. The effects of this kind of thing don’t increase linearly, they seem to increase exponentially. So if one degree is bad, two degrees won’t be twice as bad, it will be a lot more bad than that.

Feeney: Sounds like biblical wrath — in our lifetime. Why isn’t there more public outrage?

McKibben: There is some. Last year we had what was the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years in this country — 1,200 people arrested to try and stop the Keystone Pipeline, mostly around climate issues.

But to answer your question — first, it seems like such an unbearably huge problem that people wonder how we can possibly begin to address it.

The second reason is that people spend a lot of time blaming themselves for this problem — going on and on about our wasteful habits and so on, all of which is true, and all of which we should address. My house is covered with solar panels. I drove the first hybrid Honda Civic in the state of Vermont. But I try not to fool myself that that’s going to really do much to solve this problem. The most important thing to come out of that story in Rolling Stone is the kind of blunt understanding that there’s an enemy here and it’s not us. We have met the enemy and it’s Shell, Chevron, BP, Total, Exxon. Not only are these guys producing all this carbon, they’re the ones who are arguing to make sure that nothing ever changes. Left to our own devices, most Americans would be willing to see change come. We’d even be willing to pay for our society to convert to sun and wind. The people who aren’t willing to do that are the people who own coal mines and oil wells.

Feeney: Here at BillMoyers.com, we talk a lot about the corrosive influence of money in our democracy. How does climate change fit into that conversation?

McKibben: Climate change is the poster child for institutionalized corruption. There’s more money in the fossil fuel business than there is in any other business on earth. Exxon made more last year than any company in the history of money, literally. All you need to do is look around our capital to see what kind of influence that money buys. We’ve known about climate change for more than a quarter century, and in that time there’s been a bipartisan effort in Washington to do absolutely nothing — and it’s been entirely successful. Parts of it are almost beyond belief. We give these guys huge subsidies! We pay them a performance bonus for wrecking the planet!

But the biggest problem is that we let them keep intact their most valuable subsidy — that alone among industries, they’re allowed to pour their waste out for free. Nobody else gets to do that. If you own a restaurant, the cheapest thing to do would just be to pile your trash in the street every night. But if you did, there’d be rats all over the city. So a hundred years ago, we stopped letting people do that. You have to clean up after yourself. The exception to that rule is the fossil fuel industry, which doesn’t have to clean up after itself. It gets to pour that waste out for free. That’s why they’re the most profitable industry on earth and, that’s the reason that the oil baron Koch brothers are going to be the biggest donors in this year’s elections. They’re spending lots and lots and lots of money to make sure that nothing ever happens to change the profitable equation for the fossil fuel industry, even though it clearly means the destruction of the planet’s climate system.

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  • Anonymous

    Good thing we’re about to vote in a POTUS who is super-religious and paradoxically elitist and of the most ultimate in examples of the “rational” self-interested.  That way, we can completely ignore the consequences of human existence and ambition, or more accurately, the consequences of insatiable greed and consumption, rather than just merely tip-toe around it as we do now.  Where is the logic lost on people, that this, just as with most things, is not a question of IF, but WHEN and HOW BAD?  Are we really that selfish and irresponsible?  Well, like I said, at least we have a super religious leader waiting in the wings to tell us that we don’t have to take responsibility for our actions, or think ahead, we can do what we want, because there is a God who will always forgive us after the fact as long as we bow to and worship him, and that eventually (although we haven’t seen it yet) he will step in and make it all OK.  At least, that is, for those who were selfish enough and unwilling to admit human action has real consequences, but willing to worship an invisible “get out of jail free” cardholder.  What a joke we are!

  • William Deckard

    Japan TV said they are having the hottest week now. One temp was 104 degreess near Tokyo. And why doesn’t anyone mention that methanol is worse than CO2? With the now thawing tundra it is releasing tons more green house gases. Not to mention all the cattle and cow waste.

  • Mike

    Let’s finally start talking about stopping, and over time reversing, population growth. This growth overwhelms everything else we try to do. See Growthbusters.org for a film on the subject.

  • William Deckard

    Too many humans is another subject of reduction I would like to see. Millions killed each day from pollution, chemical, war and dirty water to mention a few. But don’t worry too much, an astroid is coming that should wipe out most of anyway. By the way, in about 15 years.

  • KMMK

    Great article! It clearly summarizes a problem which is still considered by most Americans far too complicated to understand. However, I am surprised that Meteorologists have not been identified as part of the reason why we still are in denial. Most of us get and understand our weather from Meteorologists and a recent study found that 27% of TV meteorologists call global warming a “scam,” while over half deny that humans are the cause. John Coleman, founder of The Weather Channel, calls global warming “the greatest scam in history.” More sites like http://www.ForecastTheFacts.org are starting to expose these people we trust with reporting the weather. 
     

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-K-Carter/1061176532 Steven K. Carter

    Institutionalized criminal behavior by the big oil companies in cahoots with the banksters has so corrupted our society that it is beyond reform without a revolution or complete collapse. These organizations have turned our democracy into a corporatocracy controlled by a police state mentality. Unfortunately the grip hold they have is almost unsurmountable. Only a change in consciousness of those in power will unseat them and that isn’t likely. A revolution too seems doubtful as the general population is too mollified to act.. Its only when the current unsustainable model comes tumbling down, and it will, will there be a chance for a new paradigm to take hold. By then the world may well be a very different place with populations having tumbled to less than a billion. It will be quite a ride for our children and grandchildren. They can look back to us and wonder why.

  • Davidcom

    My question is do the Koch brothers (and others) really BELIEVE that climate change is a hoax or do they pretend to believe it in order to make their trillions?   If they actually KNOW that they are destroying the climate… where do they intend to live ?   Is there a place on the planet that they can buy that will be safe from the carnage they are creating?

  • Murphy Thomas8

    Old, rich white men are living in a ’50s dream world.  Yes, boys; the world has changed/is changing, and  you can’t face it…I don’t pity you, I only scorn your childish ways. 

  • DANIELA G. MEMBER OF PBS.

    PLEASE AIR MORE PROGRAMING AND DOCUMENTARIES ON CLIMATE CRISIS. THE MAJOR MEDIA IS IGNORING IT. WE NEED PBS TO DO MORE AND MORE ABOUT IT, PLEASE. IT’S UTTERLY VITAL. THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN IS IGNORING THE ISSUES OF CLIMATE CRISIS AND IT IS HOT UPON US FOR SURE. 

  • Daniela G Member PBS

    PLEASE DO MORE DOCUMENTARIES ABOUT CLIMATE CRISIS. IT IS A MOST VITAL SUBJECT AND THE MAJOR MEDIA IS IGNORING IT, AS DOES THE POLITICAL CAMPAIGN. PBS IS THE ONLY MEDIA ESTABLISHMENT BESIDES THE BBC AND ALGEZEERA TALKING ABOUT CLIMATE CRISIS ISSUES AND CLIMATE CHANGE AND ALL ITS AFTERMATH IS HOTLY UPON US NOW!!!! I JUST RENEWED MY MEMBERSHIP AT PBS, BECAUSE IT DOES COVERAGE OF CLIMATE CRISIS ISSUES.

  • Sanibelmassage

    Worse than population is that portion of the population (us) is using way more than it’s share of energy. Each U.S resident uses Two Hundred Times ! The entry of each person in Ethiopia. It’s the energy use, fossil fuels, that needs to be curtailed

  • Mike

     Sanibelmassage, you may be politically correct, but you are also so wrong. Population Growth is a huge problem in the USA. Please read http://www.npg.org/forum_series/OverPopulationOverConsump009.pdf
    Thank You.

  • Dornie44

    Does the immorality of institutional industries owned by the Koch Brothers, merit revolution, for our survival?

  • Cesca

    I strongly second the suggestion of Daniela below. I just read another  article today that says the vast majority of Generation X is not less concerned about climate change today than they were a few years ago. Most know little about it and many of those that have been successfully confused by the constant drum of disinformation about there being doubt about it. Its not even to be found in the poll the Democratic party put out about  what concerns you most for the next election cycle! We MUST have more news about it and often – and fictional movies and records and any other media that can reach through the fog of  Facebook chitchat and make people realize the importance of acting on this – and  believe that action is still possible. 

  • Cesca

    I strongly second the suggestion of Daniela below. I just read another  article today that says the vast majority of Generation X is less concerned about climate change today than they were a few years ago. Most know little about it and many of those that have been successfully confused by the constant drum of disinformation about there being doubt about it. Its not even to be found in the poll the Democratic party put out about  what concerns you most for the next election cycle! We MUST have more news about it and often – and fictional movies and records and any other media that can reach through the fog of  Facebook chitchat and make people realize the importance of acting on this – and  believe that action is still possible. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1540850670 Martin Daynorowicz

    How these corporations can sacrifice the future of their children and grandchildren for the sake of profit over a stable environment is beyond me.  They all started their mega businesses on oil and coal, why can’t they segue into solar, wind and water energy?  Same business, different medium. 

  • JonThomas

     In a few words…

    Fixed costs.

    Not saying it’s right or conscionable…it’s  not.

    It’s just, to there way of thinking, simple economics.

    If I may be presumptuous for a moment, it’s also the reason they aren’t building more refineries. They don’t want to invest in a dying business. They want to suck out as much as they can with the current structures in place.

    These people aren’t the type that necessarily believes in stewardship. Their goal is a parasitical extraction of all the profit they can make before they move on.

    Sustainability means nothing to such people.

    They don’t know if the earth can withstand the toll it is under, and that concern is secondary to the goal of profits.

  • JonThomas

    I’m sorry, I strongly disagree on one point.

    Generation X is well aware of climate change. If there are reasons for them being “less concerned,” it is because of there current positions in the generation strata.

    Generation X are the ones with families. They are the ones losing their houses. They are the ones most directly, and currently, under the assault by the effects of today’s economic conditions.

    Generation X was also affected by disappointment with their elders on this issue.

    The boomers have huge political clout, both from financial standings (coming from an era of economic prosperity,) and from shear numbers. Generation X was/is the smallest generation in terms of population.

    The age group of Generation X has been the ones most directly affected by increases in inflation and very small increases to average household wages.

    They screamed loudly on this issue but were shouted down for decades. Now they are trying to raise their families and just survive.

    Has the environment lost value in their eyes? No, but a poll cannot capture the fullness of the problems facing any one person, let alone an entire generation.

    The issue remains a priority to them, but with experience the may had been forced to accept that change will not likely come in their lifetimes… but their children need food… now, a secure roof…now, good schools…now, and finances for college… now! All while they are living under societal breakdowns such as divorce and the loss of wealth.

    So while more programming would be good, I dislike putting the blame on the backs of a generation struggling to survive.

  • Cyrene Domogalla

    Disturbing to hear that major climate shifts (more so than now) could occur so soon. I see arguments on whether humans are the cause or not – but to me that’s irrelevant. Is it not in our interests to divorce ourselves from a finite supply of energy which is not very efficient to begin with? Is it not in our interests to have air that isn’t clogged with crap, particularly in places like China, India, and big cities like New York and LA? Unfortunately there is no money in this. Until there is, it’s not likely to get addressed. As a whole we are not a philanthropic species until we’re forced to be.

  • http://www.facebook.com/becky.bellgreenstreet Becky Bell-Greenstreet

    We who’ve been signing petitions, writing our congressmen, marching in protest and evangelizing for alternative energy for years are/will be suffering right along w/the nay-sayers, skeptics,  greedmongers and fools.  And, we get absolutely NO satisfaction from saying, “We told you so.” 

  • Reddoor2

     You’re right.  “I told you so” doesn’t change the fact that we will ALL have to live the consequences. 

    The problem is always human nature.  It’s too hard to prove to people who resist changing their belief systems, and values about the way the world operates, that what didn’t happen could have; what hasn’t happened yet, will. 

    If the crisis were prevented then it’s easy to believe it wasn’t going to happen-so we always have to live the crisis to learn.  Even then, the lesson’s are too short lived.   It appears to be the Achilles’ heel of human nature. 

  • Guesthaters

    Sucks to be you then America does what we want as you see. Bow to the leaders your going down like everyone else. Nothing stops USA we run the world get used to it

  • We Live As 1

    If your from ethiopia I feel sorry for you..

  • GWisfake

    Says you googling a question.. Learn facts not opinions

  • SciencefactBerkley

    This is pure opinion, there are no scientific facts to back nor recognize these statements. As a NOAA member can assure there is NO Global Warming nor has there ever been. Pure activists trying to gather attention ” Al Gore ” is a good example

  • JonThomas

     If there was even 1 NOAA member who who could assure the public that Global warming does exist, then as far as assurances go, you would be canceled out.

    I did find an article on the home page of NOAA interesting. An excerpt from the article states:

    “The globally-averaged temperature for June 2012 marked the fourth
    warmest June since record keeping began in 1880. It also marks the 36th

    consecutive June and 328th consecutive month with a global temperature
    above the 20th century average.”

    Also found in the FAQ’s of the NOAA home page is what appears to be the group’s stance; that global warming is scientific fact and that there is a lot of evidence pointing to human activity being the reason of such warming.

    So…either you are in opposition to the rest of the membership… or you are not a member of NOAA, and you are relying on people’s laziness to not go and check for themselves. Your “assurances” are empty, and most probably you are just someone who comments in opposition to climate change to make it seem as if there is basis for debate.

  • Anonymous

    Human nature isn’t such a big problem in Germany, Denmark, Iceland, etc etc. Europe has set its targets and you can look them up and see what they’re doing on the Internet. How dare you Americans sit back and sigh that its human nature? It’s only now North American nature/culture. You have created the culture-without-limits, you all worship your precious constitutional freedoms that allow companies to trash the planet, movies and tv to glorify violence and bullying as entertainment. You’re so inside the boiling pot of environmental collapse you no longer can see it. And that’s tragic. If you saw your own culture as we on the outside do, you’d rush into the streets to protest and you’d nominate your wonderful new Green party candidate, who is a brilliant woman. 

  • Reddoor2

    I hardly know how to reply to your angry comment except to say that I do not live in the America I was born and raised in, I have seen my country fall into the hands of “leaders” whose values I do not support and I have seen the rise of power of the multinational corporation and the decline of democratic power in my home, and like many Americans, I weep for the hope and vision that has been lost in the quest of a few for power. It started more than 30 years ago but the true impact of pragmatic but short sighted decisions are beginning to take their toll. No nation, no matter how great it once was, can afford leaders purchased by corporate interests, which are inherently shortsighted. I do dare to blame hate, greed, lust, gluttony and pride among other qualities of human nature for the catastrophe that many ordinary citizens of all nations must suffer at the hands of the few with the duty and power to listen to their better angels. No nation, as no human is perfect, and it is the selfishness of all of us to want to survive, but only the better angels that can help us all do it together.

  • Wilkins

    PBS needs a weekly show about climate and energy. It needs to be on at 8pm when families can watch. Also, NPR needs a daily climate chamge and energy program. There is plenty of material, with the daily weather events happening all over the world and fascinating research into alternative energy and carbon sequestration.

    McKibben’s piece should be distributed to every politician in the country (although most are too scientifically ignorant to understand it.)

  • Anonymous

    I think you misunderstood my purpose. I was criticizing the fact that you blame human nature for the American environmental situation. What I point out is that this blame allows you to avoid looking at the planet clearly. There are many nations that, in spite of dreadful pasts and the presence of clearly mixed ‘human nature’ as you put it, have adopted strong environmental policies, made clear targets towards the near future, and have dramatically changed the way energy is being used, primarily city by city. So many Americans refuse to look at the solutions offered by other nations.

  • Reddoor2

    What you blame on the American people is conditioned by what one party, owned by American and multinational corporations are telling them….that profits and profitability will be harmed. True but incomplete. Those same Americans were “patriotically” behind the gulf wars because t Opposition was vilified in the news. America no longer has a free press but has a propaganda machine fueling ignorance and hate to those same Americans-dual income or single parent families-busy trying to make a living with little time to look beyond the propaganda and a real fear of what is going on in the world and the global implications they feel powerless to change. Human nature compels all of us to attend to the immediate and real before addressing the hypothetical long range issues. Remember in better days, Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000. Had the election not been decided for Bush- we’d all be in a different place and Kyoto would have been implemented. However, power on America has found a way around the American people. We mo longer have a legitimate democracy, and possibly no longer have a legitimate government, but most American people are not yet ready to recognize THAT, much less the global climate forecast.

  • Anonymous

    You know not what you speak of… If you were in school, you would be failing, because you have not studied and do not know the facts. Go get serious and come back here when you have something to say that is at least relevant to the ENORMOUS crisis humanity faces due to our willingness to avoid inconvenient truths.

  • Anonymous

    This illustrates a fundamental flaw of capitalism. Capitalism is no way to try and organize a sustainable civilization around. The writing is on the wall.The right wing fundamentalists know this which is why they bring nuclear bombs to knife fights. Ironically, their actions guarantee the downfall of capitalism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.clopton.75 James Clopton

    Read James Lovelock. he said this a long time ago

  • Annemarie Askwith

    Bill, we have to take back the right of personhood from corporations. Help.
    Also big oil (Velaro) is coming to our great lakes area to crush and boil for ethenol 150 mile radius of trees from anyone who will sell. How can I get a copy of “You’ve been trumped” for the local Sierra Club to show the public?

  • JNB

    90% of a cow’s methane comes out of its mouth(as they chew the cud)

  • JNB

    kindly supply us with the source of that ‘recent study’.

  • themnax

    perhaps in 16 years that colaps will come. if what i’m reading here is true, and i have no reason to doubt that it is, and other mitigating factors don’t come along to alter the equation, there is going to be more people diseased and starving, then ever in human history. not just numbers but percentage wise. and not just in 3rd world countries.

    potentially this is nature’s way of correcting the problem. at some point, once that begins to happen, we will no longer be able to keep creating it.

    so if we ignore the problem, it will eventually correct itself. we’re just not going to like the way it does, and that very well could include, removing our human species from the equation.

    i don’t think the most likely thing is that we will become extinct entirely, though i’m also not completely discounting that possibility. but i would not be at all surprised, to see a major, majority, reduction in the level of human population resulting.

    i might even applaud the latter, if it weren’t for the extreme unpleasantness, of starvation and multiple simultaneous mega-epidemics.

  • Robert R. Holt

    I was very happy to see that at least some of your staff have read Bill McKibben’s epochal piece, and to learn elsewhere on tjis site that Bill Moyers considers Bill McK a good friend. I am writing to urge in the strongest way I can that McKibben be a featured guest very soon, and that the discussion focus on how to get the major media to carry this story, and how to get the administration to realize its true significance. Obama coud win a place in history and validate his Nobel prize if he would face up to this emergency, which demands priority over everything else. There must be a massive educational effort to get the people to understand why the new energy policy must be to reduce demand, not increase supply, and to focus on energy efficiency and conservation.

    I also want to suggest that Bill Moyers invite Ellen Hodgson Brown to be his guest, and have a chance to explain her ideas about how the government can get the funds for needed infrastructure work and to implement the above policies by taking control of the creation of money and escape from the debt trap. Some staff members should read some of her articles posted on the internet at http://www.webofdebt.com/articles/, which will give some idea of their enormous potential and sound factual basis.

  • Bob Yaffee

    We will have to prepare an emergency fund to help cope with the consequences of this global neglect. We cannot rely on Congress to legislate avoidance of the environmental cliff.