Bill McKibben's Global Warming Math Will Scare The Daylights Out Of You

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Bill McKibben, noted climate change activist and director of has responded to the recent spate of abnormal weather with an alarming article in Rolling Stone which he calls, “the most important thing [he’s] written in many years.”  Though it is long, it is well worth the read, even if its terrifying.

In it, McKibben reduces what we know about climate change into three basic numbers.  In a post on Daily Kos, he explains them:

 1) 2 degrees C–that’s what the world’s nations (even oil states) have agreed is the most we can possibly let temps rise. It’s actually too high–but it is the one thing about climate change that the world has agreed on

2) 565 gigatons co2–that’s roughly how much more carbon we can pour into the atmosphere between now and 2050 and have a reasonable chance of staying below 2 degrees. It’s not much–we burn about 30 gigatons a year, and growing, so at current rates would go by in 16 years

3) 2795 gigatons co2. This is the really scary number. It’s how much carbon the fossil fuel industry (and the countries that operate like fossil fuel companies) have already in their reserves. The stuff that props up their share price, lets them borrow money. The stuff they’re committed to burning.

What that means is: we now know for certain that the stated business plans of this industry will wreck the planet. It’s not even close–they’re planning to burn 5 x the carbon that any sane scientist sets as the absolute upper limit.

So stopping them doesn’t mean gradual shifts in trajectory. It means taking on this industry with at least as much vigor as we took on companies that did business with apartheid South Africa.

McKibben believes that the only way to slow down climate change, a process which could upend untold ways of life we take for granted (i.e. flowering plants like corn, wheat, and rice), is to mount a massive campaign of boycotts and public action in the vein of anti-apartheid protests in the 1980’s and early ‘90’s.  

 The three numbers I’ve described are daunting – they may define an essentially impossible future. But at least they provide intellectual clarity about the greatest challenge humans have ever faced. We know how much we can burn, and we know who’s planning to burn more. Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it’s not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell.


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