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, 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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