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.