Doing The Math On Climate Change With Bill McKibben Adds Up To “We Are So Screwed”

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Bill McKibben is a mild-mannered writer and college professor from Vermont who has transformed himself, somewhat reluctantly, into one of the most outspoken critics of weak-kneed government action on climate change and the pernicious influence of the fossil fuel industry on global politics. He has been jailed for speaking his mind and vilified by any number of right-wing talking heads. He started a group called (you may have heard of it) that has become one of the leaders for climate change action in the world. takes its name from a calculation made by prominent climate scientists who say the maximum concentration of carbon dioxide the atmosphere can tolerate before catastrophic changes in global weather patterns occur is 350 parts per million. We are now at 410 ppm, and that figure is rising fast. McKibben has written a book about his experiences while organizing the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. (It has little good to say about about either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton and nothing good to say about George W. Bush or Dick Cheney.) Called Oil And Honey, it was published in 2013 and should be required reading for every American.

McKibben tells his readers that there are only three numbers that matter when it comes to understanding the seriousness of climate change. Much of what he wrote in that book is included in a piece he did for Rolling Stone in 2012. The rest of this post will quote liberally from that piece for two reasons. One, McKibben writes far better than I do. Two, it is much easier to cut and paste than to manually transcribe whole paragraphs. Bear with me.

The First Number — 2º Celsius

2 degrees Celsius is the magic number world leaders have agreed is the absolute most the earth can tolerate before cataclysmic climate change occurs. It is the number that formed the basis of the Paris Climate accords in December, 2015. McKibben calls it a political number, not a scientific one. For those in the know, 1 degree Celsius (equivalent to 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) is when things begin to come apart. We are at about 0.8 degrees Celsius right now, and already massive melting of the Arctic ice sheet and permafrost are occurring. NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet’s most prominent climatologist, put it bluntly: “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long term disaster.”

The Second Number — 565 Gigatons

McKibben writes,

“Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. The 565-gigaton figure was derived from one of the most sophisticated computer simulation models that have been built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades. And the number is being further confirmed by the latest climate simulation models currently being finalized in advance of the next report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

Things are worse than they appear. If the world stopped adding carbon emissions to the atmosphere today, the earth would continue to warm for decades. Since there is no chance of ending emissions, what can we expect going forward?

McKibben has the answer.

“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, (12 years as this is being written) around the time today’s preschoolers will be graduating from high school. ‘The new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close,’ says Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist. In fact, he continued, ‘When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.’ That’s almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction.”

The Third Number — 2,795 Gigatons

Are you scared yet? Wait, it gets worse. Much worse. According to McKibben, “The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil fuel companies, and the countries that act like fossil fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.” And the fossil fuel industry intends to burn every molecule.

Why? Listen to the words of John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute. According to McKibben, Fullerton 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.”

Politics and economics are not friends. Doing the right thing for the earth is diametrically opposed to doing the right thing for energy companies. McKibben illustrates this point nicely by reporting on the activities of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

“In his speech to the Copenhagen conference … Chavez quoted Rosa Luxemburg, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and ‘Christ the Redeemer,’ insisting that ‘climate change is undoubtedly the most devastating environmental problem of this century.’

“But the next spring, in the Simon Bolivar Hall of the state run oil company, he signed an agreement with a consortium of international players to develop the vast Orinoco tar sands as ‘the most significant engine for a comprehensive development of the entire territory and Venezuelan population.’ The Orinoco deposits are larger than Alberta’s — taken together, they’d fill up the whole available atmospheric space.”

The Fossil Fuel Industry Is Public Enemy #1

Bill McKibben has learned not to mince his words. He has learned that playing nice is about as effective as whistling in the dark.

“[W]hat all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy — one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil fuel industry in a new light. 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.”

He then quotes from Naomi Klein, another prominent climate change activist.

“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. But these numbers make clear that with the fossil fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”

McKibben continues,

“The numbers are simply staggering — this industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it. They’re clearly cognizant of global warming — they employ some of the world’s best scientists, after all, and they’re bidding on all those oil leases made possible by the staggering melt of Arctic ice. And yet they relentlessly search for more hydrocarbons — in early March, Exxon CEO [now Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson told Wall Street analysts that the company plans to spend $37 billion a year through 2016 (about $100 million a day) searching for yet more oil and gas.

“There’s not a more reckless man on the planet than Tillerson. Late last month, (remember this piece was posted in 2012) on the same day the Colorado fires reached their height, he told a New York audience that global warming is real, but dismissed it as an ‘engineering problem’ that has ‘engineering solutions.’ Such as? ‘Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we’ll adapt to that. … The fear factor that people want to throw out there to say, “We just have to stop this,” I do not accept,’ Tillerson said. McKibben snorts, ‘Of course not — if he did accept it, he’d have to keep his reserves in the ground. Which would cost him money. It’s not an engineering problem, in other words — it’s a greed problem.’ “

The Power Of The Koch Brothers

Lurking behind the scenes are the Koch Brothers, whose personal fortunes — most of it made in the fossil fuel business — are estimated at $50 billion each. (That’s about what General Motors is worth.) Any calls for a price on carbon until now have been batted away by the forces aligned with Charles and David Koch, whose father was one of the founders of the John Birch Society. “[T]hey know any system to regulate carbon would cut those profits, and they reportedly plan to lavish as much as $200 million on this year’s elections,” said McKibben in July of 2012.

“In 2009, for the first time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (heavily supported by the Koch Brothers) surpassed both the Republican and Democratic National Committees on political spending. The following year, more than 90 percent of the Chamber’s cash went to GOP candidates, many of whom deny the existence of global warming. Not long ago, the Chamber even filed a brief with the EPA urging the agency not to regulate carbon. Should the world’s scientists turn out to be right and the planet heats up, the Chamber advised, ‘populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological and technological adaptations.’ As radical goes, demanding that we change our physiology seems right up there.”

What sort of physiological changes might the Chamber have in mind? Should humans grow gills so they can swim in the rising oceans? Animals are already showing physiological changes as a result of rising temperatures, says Bret Scheffers of the University of Florida. “It is reasonable to suggest that most species on Earth have been impacted by climate change in some way or another.” His research shows that global warming has already had a discernible impact on 77 of 94 different ecological processes, including genetics, seasonal responses, overall distribution, and even morphology — the physical traits including body size and shape.

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A Stunning Disregard For Human Life

The attitude of the Chamber of Commerce shows a stunning disregard for human life. Their position is that people only need to kick the A/C up a notch, using electricity obtained by burning fossil fuels. Ask yourself a question: If you were responsible for shortening the lives of millions of people while inflicting untold suffering from emphysema, asthma, and cancer on the survivors, what do you think would happen to you?

Those who have watched Law & Order for multiple seasons are well familiar with the phrase “depraved indifference.” According to, it refers to a situation in which a defendant’s conduct is “so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so lacking in regard for the life or lives of others, and so blameworthy as to warrant the same criminal liability as that which the law imposes upon a person who intentionally causes a crime. Depraved indifference focuses on the risk created by the defendant’s conduct, not the injuries actually resulting.”

So, why are fossil fuel company owners and executives not in jail? You know the answer to that — money. In America and in most other countries, there are two legal systems: one for ordinary citizens, who can be arrested for smoking a joint or protesting in the wrong place, and another for the wealthy. The only question is, why do people put up with such a bifurcated justice system?

The Climate Deniers Are In Control

If the effects of burning fossil fuels are known, why are those in power predominately climate change deniers who insist it is a hoax concocted by the Chinese? That’s a difficult question, but the answer is intimately connected to the monetary muscle the fossil fuel industry can bring to bear on the political process. It goes far beyond political advertising. It includes a network of so-called think tanks who dutifully report what they are paid to report by their benefactors — the fossil fuel industry. It includes major influence over alternative news channels and websites that are paid handsomely to spread the gospel according to the Koch Brothers.

The list of fake research organizations includes the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute. Add in the American Petroleum Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and dozens of others. The tentacles of the fossil fuel industry stretch deep into the evangelical movement as well. It supports institutions like Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. Conservative writer Rachel Held Evans tells the New York Times that when she went to school there, she was taught to distrust information coming from the scientific or media elite because these sources did not hold a Christian worldview. “It was presented as a cohesive worldview that you could maintain if you studied the Bible,” she says. “Part of that was that climate change isn’t real, that evolution is a myth made up by scientists who hate God, and capitalism is God’s ideal for society.”

Donald Trump was the beneficiary of a groundswell of support from the evangelical Christian community in the last election. In fact, they may have been the difference that put Trump in the White House. The Constitution says that Americans are free to worship any way they wish. But it’s appropriate to point out that a worldview is nothing more than a filter that people choose to employ to keep them from having to think deeply about issues they may find troubling.

What Are The Options?

The human race is headed for extinction, but no one is willing to do anything about it. Websites like CleanTechnica can inform us, but if the voters continue to elect climate deniers, we are well and truly screwed. There is no way to sugarcoat this. We must unite to defend ourselves from the brutality and inhumanity of the fossil fuel industry. We must put a price on carbon. We must slash the amount of carbon emissions going into the atmosphere.

Even if we stopped all emissions tomorrow, the warming of the planet would continue for decades. Our only realistic hope is to stop pumping the atmosphere full of carbon and find a way to remove some of the carbon that is already there. When talking to a friend recently about climate change, he shrugged and said, “We’ll find a way to ‘science it out’ when we need to.” That attitude is quite common.

But he is wrong. There is no way humanity will be able to “science it out,” especially when a significant segment of the population rejects science as witchcraft that impinges on their worldview. We are doomed and there is no other way to say it. The truth is that the earth is in the process of becoming uninhabitable by human beings. As a species, we are headed for extinction. We just don’t know it yet.

Humanity has sown the seeds of its own destruction. We can’t wait to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of greed. Perhaps the legend of The Flood is true and the earth we know today is really Earth 2.0. Perhaps a million years from now, after the earth has had a chance to heal itself, Earth 3.0 will emerge. Maybe by then humans will have learned not to poison the one place in the entire universe that sustains them. But if history is any guide, the odds of that happening are not very encouraging.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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