Bill McKibben has a noteworthy article in the Rolling Stone magazine, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”. It’s a bit long, though, so for people with little time here’s the fun facts at the core of the “terrifying math”:
- The world’s governments have agreed to stabilise the increase of the average global temperature below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels.
- To achieve this with some reasonable likelihood, we may emit no more than about 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide until the middle of this century. “Reasonable” in in this case means a likelihood of about 80%, and he has a great comparison for what that means: “‘Reasonable,’ in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.” I’ve always been puzzled how calmly politicians defend targets such as halving global emissions by 2050 as “2°C-compatible” even though they give at best a 50% chance of actually staying below 2°C. I don’t know about you, but if I had a 50% chance of not getting run over by a car in the street, I would not step a foot outside the house.
- Unfortunately, proven fossil fuel reserves contain the equivalent of 2,795 gigatonnes – which is five times higher than 565 gigatonnes. And calculated that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatonnes are worth about $27 trillion. – “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.”
Another great comparison:
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.
And they have a lot of political leverage to make sure that government doesn’t interfere. He notes the example of how in the US scientists, environmentalists and engineers for decades advocated for increasing the mileage requirements for cars. But putting them into law only became possible when the recession put the US car manufacturers on the ropes.
McKibben concludes that the fossil fuel industry needs to be tackled head-on. And suggests to start a divestment campaign like the one that helped end apartheid in South Africa.
It rose first on college campuses and then spread to municipal and state governments; 155 campuses eventually divested, and by the end of the decade, more than 80 cities, 25 states and 19 counties had taken some form of binding economic action against companies connected to the apartheid regime. “The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, “but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure,” especially from “the divestment movement of the 1980s.”