Carbon’s Terrifying Mathematics


Exasperation about the world’s ineffective measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was registered clearly on August 2, 2012, when Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and a principle founder of the environmental movement called, published a detailed article in Rolling Stone magazine called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”. As one of the most eloquent, passionate and informed spokespersons on the environmental threat of rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, McKibben’s article reads like a warning and an ultimatum. To give shape to his concerns, he identifies three numbers as key reference points.

The first is 2°C. This is the maximum global temperature increase that national political leaders have decided is prudent and safe. But even with this limited increase, climatologists warn, we have a one in five chance of losing control and far exceeding this number — it’s Russian roulette, McKibben reminds us, with five chambers instead of six. He quotes Thomas Lovejoy, former World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, who observed, “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.” And James Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climatologists, concurs. “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.”

Newscasts now commonly carry reports of unusual droughts, heat waves, forest fires, torrential rains, floods, landslides and windstorms. As the global temperature rise approaches 0.8°C, weather anomalies are already disruptive and costly. Even with this apparently modest rise, McKibben writes, “June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere — the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th century average…”. The odds of this “occurring by simple chance”, he explains, is 3.7 x 10 to power of 99 — “a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.” A rise of 2°C represents two and a half times this temperature increase.

The second number he asks us to note is 565 gigatons. This, scientists estimate, is the additional amount of carbon dioxide we can emit into the atmosphere before we exceed the 2°C limit. Global emissions in 2011 were 31.6 gigatons, an increase of 3.2 percent over the year before. Projections are for continued increases, the result of wholly unsuccessful efforts to reduce the global output. “In fact,” McKibben writes, “study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year — and at that rate, we’ll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today’s preschoolers will be graduating from high school.” A more ominous prediction comes from Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency”s chief economist. “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees,” a situation McKibben describes as “a planet straight out of science fiction.”

The third number McKibben asks us to note is 2,795 gigatons. This is the total carbon dioxide known to be held in storage in proven reserves of oil, gas and coal around the world. These reserves are the national property of countries and the private property of corporations. The present value of these reserves is about $27 trillion, an amount that the owners expect to recover by sale and the purchasers expect to burn as fuel. Notice that this 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide in storage is five times larger than the allowable 565 gigatons of emissions if average global temperature increases are to be held below 2°C.

As McKibben points out, this discrepancy reveals a worrisome dilemma. If the 2°C temperature ceiling is going to be met, then 80 percent of the fossil fuels held in storage will have to remain there, unburned, at a loss of about $20 trillion in assets. In McKibben’s words, “Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground — 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.” Countries relying on royalties and corporations expecting profits will have to forego most of their income to avoid the unleashing of a “science fiction” world of excessive heat and extreme weather.

These countries and corporations are not expected to willingly constrain their extraction of fossil fuels to save the planet from the environmental consequences. Their history and performance confirm this expectation. As McKibben points out, the melting Arctic ice has merely been an incentive for countries and corporations to rush northward to find even more gas and oil. Venezuela is intending to develop the Orinoco tar sands, a site even bigger than Alberta’s reserves. Burning the oil from just these two deposits would reach the 565 gigaton limit set for holding global temperature increases below 2°C. To paraphrase Naomi Klein’s chilling words, “…wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.” The Northern Gateway, Keystone and Kinder Morgan pipelines are all North American examples of such oil promotion projects. So are the daily tankers planned for BC’s West Coast.

If a way exists through this dilemma, it’s a global carbon tax that is sufficiently large to give renewable energies a competitive advantage and to leverage petro-states and fossil-fuel corporations to leave their assets in the ground. But this will take an unprecedented act of political will — one, it seems, we are not yet ready to take.


About Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.

2 thoughts on “Carbon’s Terrifying Mathematics

  1. After a 2006 British Government document on energy was made public in 2011, a reading by a London Guardian reporter concluded that much of the report’s findings suggested that we have already entered a period of peak oil. The now manic policies of fossil-fuel companies seem only to support that reality. Unfortunately, the Blair government spun the report findings differently, suggesting that peak oil would begin in 2030, a point that many US politicians and others choose to echo. Thus the science of McKibben and articles like this one cannot be published enough. Keep beating the drum. The message is slowly sinking in with growing numbers of citizens worldwide, as are the roles that fossil fuels play in foreign policy misadventure and economic instability.

    I would only add that along with sound climate science and mustering political will, we must start to challenge models of development and lifestyle associated with colonialist, industrial, and consumerist “evolution” and promote changes that are consistent with renewable energies, sustainable economies, citizen participation and bioregional empowerment. These are, I believe, all important, related issues.

  2. I read “The End of Nature” 20 years ago, and it had a profound effect on my thinking since then. Thanks, Ray, for directing me to McKibben’s recent piece.

    A couple of comments on the McKibben article:

    1. The US Chamber of Commerce should be identified as a criminal organization.

    2. In the “think globally, act locally” department, BCIMC, which manages funds for many pensions in BC, including public employees, holds lots of fossil-fuel stocks. including BP, Enbridge, and Exxon Mobil. If your pension is being managed by BCIMC, you should let them know that they are NOT acting in your best interest.

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