Three Numbers in Global Climate Roulette

19 Jul

Bill McKibben, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, Rolling Stone.

First number: 2 degrees Celsius. Some sort of vague international consensus has been reached that we have to keep the rise in annual average temperature below 2 degrees C. That number dates to 1995 and the average has gone up 0.8 degrees C. since then. Some experts think 2 degrees is too much; 1 degree would be much safer.

Second number: 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide: “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.”

Third number: 2,795 gigatons of CO2: That’s how much CO2 will be released when we burn all the fossil-fuels in existing proven reserves. Notice that it’s almost five times the “allowable”limit, which itself may be too high.

Are we cooked?

Which is exactly why this new number, 2,795 gigatons, is such a big deal. 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.

Is it too much to say that the fossil-fuel industry is evil?

Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. “Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”

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One Response to “Three Numbers in Global Climate Roulette”

  1. Charlie Keil July 20, 2012 at 6:16 am #

    Bill, excellent tight summary! I couldn’t bring myself to read McKibben all the way through. I’ll try again today.
    “Chill globally, groove locally” is the slogan. Make local living so pleasurable that, like Manny Kant, no one will want to leave the village that raises the whole and healthy child.

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