Posted by: mariannedc | September 7, 2012

Three numbers you should know about

By Dave Kane, Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns

I recently read an article that really made me even more concerned for the planet that I am leaving my 8-month-old boy. In Rolling Stone magazine, climate movement leader Bill McKibben wrote a sobering article about “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” He talks about three important numbers that humanity needs to understand: 2, 565 and 2795.

2 degrees Celsius

“2” refers to “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.” In the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, countries signed a document stating that “we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required… so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius.” While it is good that there is at least some international consensus about the need to deal with climate change, as NASA scientist James Hansen points out, “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” “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 [a third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods], two degrees is simply too much.’”

The problem is that “[s]ince 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.” [emphasis mine]

Which brings us to McKibben’s second key number…

565 Gigatons

“Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. (‘Reasonable,’ in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)”

But we are very rapidly spending this allotment – “CO2 emissions last year rose to 31.6 gigatons, up 3.2 percent from the year before. America had a warm winter and converted more coal-fired power plants to natural gas, so its emissions fell slightly; China kept booming, so its carbon output (which recently surpassed that of the U.S.) rose 9.3 percent; the Japanese shut down their fleet of nukes post-Fukushima, so their emissions edged up 2.4 percent.”

“[S]tudy 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.”

“’The new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close,’ said 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.”

And finally, McKibben’s third key data figure…

2795 Gigatons

This 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 (think Venezuela or Kuwait) 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.”

McKibben brings these numbers down to Earth with an analogy: “this new number, 2,795 gigatons, is such a big deal. Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour… We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate.”

And keeping those reserves will have serious effects on fossil fuel companies’ profitability. “John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, 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.”

“According to the Carbon Tracker report, if Exxon burns its current reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms, of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter of the remaining two-degree budget.”

And that is only what these companies already have in reserves. “[I]n early March, Exxon CEO 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.” [emphasis mine] That is only one corporation.

It is hard to imagine that the U.S. Congress will be able to overcome the heavy influence of fossil fuel companies any time soon. “In 2009, for the first time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce 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.”

Probably the most shocking quote in McKibben’s article is from the archaic Chamber of Commerce. In a brief filed with the Environmental Protection Agency the Chamber urged officials not to regulate carbon. “’[S]hould 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.’” That’s right, the Chamber of Commerce thinks it is better for human bodies to mutate in order to adapt to rising temperatures rather than affect the profits of oil companies in any way.

Unfortunately, one of humanity’s principal technological responses to rising temperatures – air conditioning – not only releases increasing amounts of climate change gases into the air, aggravating the problem, but is also making it more difficult for our bodies to adjust to a warmer world. I will explore this further in a future article.



  1. I read McKibben’s piece in R.S. — you’ve summarized it nicely and actually made it easier to follow. thanks.

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