Skip to main content

The New Math

Bill McKibben,  who first alerted the non-scientific world to global climate change two decades ago with The End of Nature  has a new piece in Rolling Stone that he says is the most important thing he’s written in the past 20 years, and he’s written hundreds of articles and books during that period.

It’s titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” and it’s long but worth reading. More than worth reading.
He speaks of three important numbers. One is two degrees Celsius (about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit). This is the maximum the average temperature the planet can be allowed to rise without triggering irreversible calamity (it’s already up by 0.8 degrees Celsius).
A second number is how much carbon can be added to the atmosphere before the 2-degree threshold is passed. We needn’t get too technical here; suffice to say that the third number—the amount of proven fossil fuel reserves in the world—is five times the second number. In other words, energy companies and energy-rich countries are sitting on five times as much carbon as the atmosphere can absorb without catastrophic consequences.
The only solution is to leave most of the oil, coal, and gas in the ground in the ground. This is clearly a fiendishly difficult sales job given the power of the energy industry.
McKIbben laments the utter lack of progress in combating this situation and argues that what’s been lacking is a suitable villain:
So: the paths we have tried to tackle global warming have so far produced only gradual, halting shifts. A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies. As John F. Kennedy put it, ‘The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He's helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.’ And enemies are what climate change has lacked.
But what 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. ‘Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their businesspay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshopsand 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.
McKibben goes on to make an interesting comparison between the international effort to end apartheid in South Africa and what we must do to rein in the energy companies.
There’s much food for thought here, and I commend it to you.

Terms of Use

The Earthjustice blog is a forum for public discussion of issues related to Earthjustice’s work. Commenters are asked to stay on topic and avoid content that is defamatory, offensive, abusive or intended to promote commercial interests. Because Earthjustice does not support or endorse candidates for any elective office, comments should refrain from endorsing or opposing candidates for office and political parties, either explicitly or by implication. We reserve the right to remove any comment that violates these terms.