Bill McKibben Does the Math on Global Warming

Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth was simple, overwhelming, and depressing, with maybe just a hint of hope around the edges. His new article in Rolling Stone, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math is pretty much the same thing, condensed down and updated with the latest scariness.

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.

The three numbers are these:

2 Degrees Celsius – This is the amount of warming that the world’s governments have agreed represents the redline beyond which we run an unacceptable risk of triggering quite horrific consequences. So far we’ve created about 0.8 degrees of warming. That makes it sound like we’ve got time to put the brakes on to avoid passing 2 degrees, but the inertia in the global climate system means that even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today, the temperature would continue to rise to a peak of around 1.6 degrees. In other words, as McKibben explains, “we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.” There’s also reason to think that 2 degrees was optimistic, and that extremely dire effects will be kicking in before that. But set that aside, and assume that two degrees of warming would represent a livable future.

565 Gigatons – This is the amount of additional carbon dioxide we can put into the atmosphere while having a reasonable chance (four chances in five) of staying below 2 degrees warming. If the current trajectory continues unchanged, we’ll add that amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in the next 16 years.

2,795 Gigatons – This is the amount of additional carbon dioxide that would be added to the atmosphere should all the world’s current “proven reserves” of coal, oil, and gas be extracted and burned.

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.

McKibben explores this more in the rest of the article. It isn’t pretty.

19 Responses to “Bill McKibben Does the Math on Global Warming”

  1. shcb Says:

    I know I’m a broken record but what is his technical solution? The best he can come up with is Germany produced half its needs of electricity for a few hours on a particularly sunny Saturday (I wonder if global warming was the cause of that sunny Saturday) people still drove cars of course, if they had all been electric what percentage would have been left for normal electrical usage?

    And talk about subsidies, good lord, the German solar subsidies make oil subsidies look like that guy that leaves his pocket change for a tip on a hundred dollar meal.

    People need and want 100% electricity 365 days every year. After decades of pumping huge amounts of wealth into a technology that has very limited practicality, they managed to produce 1/730 of that need on a freak of nature day.

    “Germans are good at taking an idea to its logical conclusion, they just aren’t very good at determining if the idea was good one to begin with”

  2. jbc Says:

    He’s not trying to offer a technical solution. He’s trying to build a consensus that there is, in fact, a problem. Only such a consensus would allow for the kind of sweeping changes we would need to avert catastrophe.

    Until then, it is too asymmetric a fight. People (like yourself) who for whatever reason are willing to argue that the problem is not real, or does not justify dramatic collective action, have an easy time blocking any effective response. Responding would be painful and hard, while apathy is (relatively) pleasant and easy (at least for a while). That means that advocates of action are (in effect) trying to roll a very big boulder up a very steep hill. McKibben is trying to change the slope of the hill.

  3. shcb Says:

    An effective response is to give us a viable solution.

    OK, just for a moment I’m on board, we have a huge problem, huge, monumental, the likes we have never seen, what is your technical solution, without that technical solution you can’t fix the problem.

    There is a hole in the lifeboat and the Titanic just let out it’s last gurgle on its way to Davey Jones locker. Is taxing the rich until they get off the boat going to save the load of souls? No, a technical solution has to be found. Maybe everyone can stand on their tippy toes, they will stay less than chin deep longer that way.

    This is the problem when you oversell your position, after Katrina we were told global warming caused it and we could expect that kind of destruction from here on out, hasn’t happened, now it’s the Colorado fires, yes they were bad, but you know what it took to put them out, a little rain. We got a little less than an inch one day according to my $3 gauge, and .4 a day or 2 later, if it would have came a couple weeks earlier there would not have been a problem. The reason there was so much destruction is because so many people live there now. They didn’t live there before because the knew there was a good chance a fire might burn down their house!

    So now since you guys have oversold this problem into a crisis we have squandered resources on windmills and solar cells instead of researching a real solution. We have been told the lifeboat is sinking! Swim! When really we should be using the bucket to bail while the first mate mikes methodical repairs.

  4. shcb Says:

    Did you replace the word collectivist with sweeping in your comment?

  5. jbc Says:

    Not that I remember. But I get that it is in part (maybe in large part) the collectivist nature of the proposed policy responses that motivates you to interpret expert opinion on the subject the way you do.

    You hierarchical individualist, you.

  6. shcb Says:

    That isn’t the what motivates me to interpret expert opinion the way I do, but it was a red flag, it was what motivated me to look into the claims deeper. In due diligence I have also looked into the counter claims of those on my “side” of the argument and they seem to be fairly reliable, not totally but more so than the alarmists. And to be fair the alarmists seem to be more the pundits or the experts that have become activists.

    Hierarchical individualist, that is something of a contradiction of terms isn’t it :)

  7. enkidu Says:

    Generating half an industrial nation like Germany’s electrical needs from green sources is pretty amazing! Using taxamagical wwnj ‘math’ this is 1/730 of their energy needs… no, it is half their energy needs for that day. And they are continuing to invest in renewables.

    Speaking of storing renewable energy, I’m sure I’ve linked to this guy’s TED talk before (he doesn’t seem like an Evil Lib, but I haven’t looked into it, I just like his style: to solve a energy storage problem, we started with the periodic table…)

    “If we’re going to get this country out of its current energy situation, we can’t just conserve our way out. We can’t just drill our way out. We can’t bomb our way out. We’re going to do it the old-fashioned, American way. We’re going to invent our way out, working together.”

    I loved this guy’s talk, but he (and we) should realize there are big blocks of wwnjs who will never be convinced to work together. Ever. Those are wwn’js words. There will never be enough scientific evidence to convince a wwnj. Never (his word).

    Someone up in CND asked me, ‘what’s the big deal about the Higgs Bosun? My answer is: they said the same thing about this ‘electricity’ stuff 150 years ago.

  8. shcb Says:

    Again you mischaracterize what I said, you can’t convince me of AGE because to do so you would have to start over with the data since it has been so corrupted. I’m simply not going to live that long personally. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it for the 10 year old child, or the child not born. Also, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t develop new technologies for a variety of other reasons.

  9. shcb Says:

    Golly Enky, where have we heard this before, that we need storage, oh, that would have been from me!

  10. enkidu Says:

    I don’t need to mischaracterize your post, here it is verbatim:

    So now we have to start over completely? No amount of scientific evidence will ever be enough to convince you? You just throw out everything that disagrees with your foregone conclusion? color me shocked! shocked!

    Constantly shifting goal posts of wwnj ‘thinking’ here we come. And the clown team takes the field, grabs the ball and… eats it. flibbertybiggit

    Energy needs are typically the highest when the sun shines (you know, when people are awake and industry is working etc). Storing the energy produced by windmills at night is a relatively minor problem. Getting wwnjs to do anything productive is a much harder problem.

  11. shcb Says:

    “I loved this guy’s talk, but he (and we) should realize there are big blocks of wwnjs who will never be convinced to work together. Ever. Those are wwn’js words. There will never be enough scientific evidence to convince a wwnj. Never (his word).”

    thanks for providing the link, now everyone needs to go back, read what I said and what you just said, it is subtle, you are a master at mischaracterization, but it is there. you see what you did was change what I said, that you won’t convince me (because I’m too old) to “convince a wwnj” using the word “a” expands it to every conservative, that is the mischaracterization.

    Did you notice that JBC doesn’t “recall” changing the word collectivist to sweeping? Not a yes or no, just a doesn’t recall. I could be wrong, I frequently scan these posts and don’t really read them until I’m ready to comment, so maybe I read collectivist when he really said sweeping but I don’t think I did. I was thinking about his choice of words all day until I had a chance to actually reply, then I reread and the word I was fixated on wasn’t there. So if I’m right, JBC changed the wording, and then didn’t man up to it, Enky routinely misstates what I say and then says I changed the goal posts, I’m very consistent, but that doesn’t bode well for Enky’s responses so he simply changes them so they fit better. Not real honorable but it fits the stereotypes so I don’t complain much. I do point it out at every opportunity though.

    I couldn’t see the video but read the transcript, looks good, that is what I have been saying as long as I have been here on this site, the only way for non on demand sources to work is a storage method, I hope his works, it seems interesting. Keep us updated.

  12. shcb Says:

    So he says he can store enough electricity in 15 acres to supply New York City, pretty impressive. He also said there would be a viable product in 5 years 3 years ago so I guess we don’t have long to wait. He has also changed his simple chemistry to something else, but he won’t say what that something else is. We’ll see.

  13. enkidu Says:

    So now jbc is carefully editing posts to add (or subtract?) more Sociamalism?
    By craftily using an “a” I’ve managed to “expand it to every conservatives”? No. Just. No. Not all conservatives are wrong wing nut jobs. But you certainly are. As well as something of a racist. And based on your ‘ah beat the dawg until is soiled itself! Twiced! hurf durf!’ you are also something of a sadist.

    I repeat your words verbatim, providing the exact link, yet I’m mischaracterizing… shit I don’t even know anymore: it is nearly impossible to follow wwnj ‘thinking’.

    Mr Sodoway’s liquid metal battery is suddenly bunk because he has changed the chemistry (you know, improving it or changing it to function better in – you know – reality rather than the fever swamp of wwnj fantasy)?

    Debate with wwnj extremists is a waste of time, but you certainly are a hilarious clown car just stuffed to the brim and beyond w crazy ass nonsense. But keep going! You’re hilarious. flibbertgibbit! hurf durf

  14. enkidu Says:

    he’s Canadian – must be a gawdam commie!
    I intentionally misspelled his name to add more Sociamalism

  15. shcb Says:

    There you go again, you don’t repeat the words verbatim, that is why the use of the word “a” instead of something more appropriate like “you” changes the meaning. That is what mischaracterization is all about. One way you do it is use a phrase I have used verbatim and then tell me (and others) what I meant.

    When my mother committed suicide I got up and spoke a few words at her rosary, at the end I said she had fought her demons for years and in the end the demons won. A bible thumping friend of my folks (who was also my CYO leader when I was in high school) immediately got up and said I really didn’t mean that. She then went on to give a sermon of what the Catholic religion teaches. Through the tears I blurted out to this bitch that I meant exactly what I said, that is why I said it! Luckily my wife calmed me down so I didn’t make any more of a scene that that.

    This is what you do, I say one thing, you say that isn’t what I meant. Or as I mentioned above you change a word or two to change the meaning and then say you used my words verbatim, but as I have said before you have a sympathetic audience so you get by with it.

    Did JBC change a word that changed the complexion of his comment? I don’t know, I don’t have a screen shot of before and after, I could have read something similar somewhere else in those few minutes and later in the day merged them in my mind. I know why he would change it, I just find his choice of words odd. If I had made an edit to a post less than 24 hours prior I would have been able to answer yes or no. especially something that I had to have given that much thought to.

    I never said his battery is bunk because he changed the formula, but it raises a flag, it means it probably isn’t as far along as he is making it sound. This is what I do for a living, I know the tricks, I know the signs. He may be on to something and changing the chemistry is just improving the technology, he may just be protecting his intellectual property since he has gone private to make the big bucks. Or by going private to make the big bucks he may be under more pressure than he is used to in the university setting and he may realize he has sold investors, private and governmental a cute trinket (at least to this point). My guess, and it is only a guess is the heat runs away with itself at a certain scale, something that can be overcome but not in the next two years with the few million he has been granted and he is scrambling. If you want another red flag, look at how he is selling the idea that his way of organizing his staff is as important as his technical ideas. So if his battery fails or at least falls short he can still hit the lecture tour with his management style.

  16. enkidu Says:

    Using Knarly’s Theorem, I will just ignore most of the sob story in your last post.

    But if you would like to investigate whether jbc has been craftily editing posts to add (or is it subtract?) more Sociamalism perhaps you could visit the Internet Archive and dial back the date to see the history of the post in question? Either way I’m sure it will reinforce your (extreme) bias and provide much longwinded bullshit nonsense for you to declare (yet again!) victory over stoopid libs.

    I have no idea what the hell you are babbling about, but perhaps this will resolve the issue in the fever swamp that is your tiny malinformed ‘mind’.

    also about the whole “a” thing
    It is pretty clear in context that I’m talking about one wwnj in particular, you. But you will twist logic reason and reality into as many knots as needed for you to pretend that you ‘win’ (again! infinity to zero! stoopid libs!) There are plenty of wwnjs out there and fewer and fewer decent conservatives… i think it has something to do with ingesting obviously bullshit media for so long the primary logic centers are permanently pickled.

  17. shcb Says:

    I think I found my mistake with JBC’s comment he said “…justify dramatic collective action” later in the comment, I remembered it but thought he had changed “…kind of sweeping changes we” from collective changes. My mistake apologies are in order.

  18. knarlyknight Says:

    we can note that apologies are in order and that none were actually given.

  19. shcb Says:


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