Bill McKibben’s 3 Climate Numbers & What They Mean

Posted on August 1, 2012


Bill McKibben had a recent article in Rolling Stone (Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math) in which he highlighted three numbers and what these numbers mean to climate change.

The first number is 2oC.

This is the ceiling number.  We can’t afford to go beyond 2oC of warming if we wish to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.[1]

And some scientists are actually insisting that 2oC is already too much.

With a mere 0.8oC of warming we’ve had:

  • catastrophic heatwaves in Europe, Russia and the US,
  • catastrophic drought in Australia,
  • in the US, the worst drought in a generation,
  • drought and famine in East Africa,
  • catastrophic floods in Manitoba, along the Mississippi, in Colombia, Pakistan and Australia,
  • Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Katrina, and, in 2012, we unfortunately all learned what a derecho is,
  • wildfires in Colorado, deadly brush fires in Australia, forest fires in Russia and the Ukraine,
  • Also the Arctic sea ice is disappearing, along with many of the world’s glaciers.

If this is what 0.8oC looks like, why on Earth are we planning for 2oC?

A good question, but let’s put it aside and go on to Bill’s second number.

The second number is 565 gigatons. 

565 gigatons is another ceiling.  It represents our remaining wiggle room as a planetary civilization.  Basically, if we throw more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the air between now and 2050, then we will almost certainly exceed the 2oC limit.

So, how are we doing in real life?

Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, says if we continue with our present fossil fuel use “the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.”

11oF!  Welcome, dinosaur planet.

McKibben’s third number shows why a science fiction planet might be the preferred option for some parties.

The third number is 2795 gigatons. 

2795 gigatons represents the amount of carbon dioxide that would be emitted if we burned up the planet’s current reserves of fossil fuels.

Note that the third number is five times the size of the second number.

The 2795 gigatons translates into the oil, gas and coal assets which are presently sitting in the ground.  These assets, taken together, add up to $27 trillion.  Between now and 2050, we can’t use more than $7 trillion of that $27 trillion without breaking past our planet’s 565 gigaton limit.

That’s $20 trillion worth of assets which have to be left in the ground in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Bill McKibben puts it this way:

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.

McKibben’s three numbers tell us something very clearly:  that the oil and coal companies, the petro-states or would-be petro-states, the ones who are going to have to forgo $20 trillion dollars worth of profit in order to save the planet, these are not the people who are going to be marching to save the planet from disastrous climate change.

Bill quotes Naomi Klein:

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.

When you think  about it–unless you are naturally a cynic–this shouldn’t make sense.  How can it be more profitable to destroy the future of our civilization than to preserve it?

And it doesn’t make sense.  The problem can be explained in economics as a market anomaly.  Very much in need of a market correction.

Probably because at the start of this industrial revolution thing people just didn’t know that burning petrochemicals and tossing the waste into the atmosphere would have a price, we didn’t put a price on it.  The petrochemical industry, then and now, has been permitted to pollute for free.  The actual cost of burning fossil fuels has not been and is not now reflected in its price.  In effect, the future has been paying a subsidy for fossil fuels which keeps the price of these fuels artificially low.  A market anomaly, as I said.

Alternative non-polluting fuels like solar and wind power don’t need or receive this subsidy.  A continuing free ride for fossil fuels—the continuing license to pollute for free despite already palpable feedbacks  in the climate system—grants them an artificial, unearned and dangerous price advantage in the marketplace.

It’s time to end the subsidy.

How are we to do it?  McKibben proposes a fee and dividend system which puts a price on carbon without actually being a tax.  You pay a fee upfront for all carbon use.  The fee is collected by the government and given back as a dividend to the people it was collected from. The government gets no net tax revenue.

Of course, citizens get the same dividend back no matter how much they have paid in carbon fees.  The fees encourage them to minimize the use of items which are carbon-intensive.  And items for which carbon fees don’t apply—think solar panels—will be able to compete in a rationalized marketplace where hidden carbon subsidies have been removed.

Pursued widely and with vigour, the fee and dividend system could even make it more profitable, business-wise, to preserve our future rather than destroy it.

That’s the kind of “market correction” we want, right?

[1] Just to be clear.  2oC is the total amount of warming that we want to hold it to.  We’re already 40% of the way there.