Blog post

Bill McKibben's terrifying climate math

Ryan Healey19 July 2012

In Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben, who introduced our I'm With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet, explicates three terrifying climate numbers in light of the hottest June in American history. 

First, there's the international consensus after the Copenhagen Accord that the average global temperature cannot increase beyond 2° Celsius. We're currently at 0.8 Celsius, which is already excessive: 

Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank's chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: "If we're seeing what we're seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much." NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet's most prominent climatologist, is even blunter: "The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster." At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: "Some countries will flat-out disappear." When delegates from developing nations were warned that two degrees would represent a "suicide pact" for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, "One degree, one Africa."

Second, we can only pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050, and still have a 4 in 5 chance of staying below two degrees Celsius. But we're already at an increase of 0.8, as McKibben explains:

Since we've increased the Earth's temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we're currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we're already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.

The third and final number is the scariest of all—there's 2,795 gigatons of fossil fuel in current oil and gas and coal reserves that we plan to burn. That's five times the paltry speed limit we've permitted:

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 then overviews what we can possibly do now, between the inefficacy of individual choices and hypocritical, stagnant government policy. McKibben then argues for the collective construction of a distinct enemy to rally against—the fossil-fuel industry:

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."

Visit Rolling Stone to read the article in full.