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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

Air Date: Week of
The August 2nd issue of Rolling Stone

Humanity can survive if we can keep the climate from warming less than two degrees Celsius, and emit less than 565 Gigatons of carbon dioxide. The problem: energy companies have 2,795 Gigatons of carbon left to burn. Environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben talks about his recent Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. First there was an early hot spring, and then a broiling summer and now about half of America is sizzling in the grip of drought. Add a rash of tornadoes, early tropical storms, and widespread ice melt, and many observers point to climate disruption.

Bill McKibben is one of the most outspoken American voices on the question of climate. His non-profit group, 350.org, organized the largest global protest in history. Now he's taking his message to the pages of Rolling Stone Magazine with his treatise, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Bill McKibben, welcome!

MCKIBBEN: Hello Steve - how are you?

CURWOOD: I am well! Although your article says that clearly the planet will not be well if we continue on this path.

MCKIBBEN: Yeah, I’m afraid that even to me, these numbers came as something of a shock. They really shouldn’t have, because of course I’ve been doing this for a long time- I wrote my first book about this almost a quarter century ago, “The End of Nature.”

CURWOOD: We can’t be that old that I was in touch with you back in 1989 when…

MCKIBBEN: (Laughs). I can remember - 1989.

CURWOOD: When the “End of Nature” came out and we were getting this program started. You thought that that one book would do it, huh?

MCKIBBEN: Well, I was pretty sure that it would be all it would take. But it turns out that’s not quite how change happens, and in fact, what’s happened over the quarter century is really that we’ve lost more than we’ve won. As you know, the amount of carbon keeps increasing that we pour into the atmosphere and the temperature keeps going up.

What’s new and it’s thanks to some financial analysts and accountant-types in the UK is that we now have a better understanding why – unless we change things very dramatically – this is all but inevitable. And that’s what the math in this piece is about.

CURWOOD: And, by the way, a little bit of math on your own article in Rolling Stone -as we’re speaking, the magazine actually wasn’t on the stand, just online - you’re approaching 100,000 likes, just online.

MCKIBBEN: I feel very well liked, yes. It’s interesting because it’s a kind of long piece, 6,000 words, and it has a lot of numbers in it, and yet people seem very eager to read it and to share it. I think Rolling Stone said it may have gotten the most views of anything they’ve done in a long time.

I think there’s a lot of people looking around at drought, the wildfire, and the heat waves, and are really starting to come to terms with the fact that we’re in trouble and trying to figure out exactly the contours of that trouble.

McKibben in Times Square leading the International Day of Climate Action. (FlickrCC/Mat McDermott)

CURWOOD: Alright, so now as they say, let’s now do the numbers here. The first number that you have in your article here is two degrees Celsius.


CURWOOD: Why is that important?

MCKIBBEN: Well, it’s important mostly because it’s the one thing that world has agreed on, about climate change. All of our dysfunctional governments that haven’t gotten anything done, have nonetheless, time after time, put their names to pieces of paper saying ‘we can’t let the temperature rise more than two degrees Celsius,’ about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Now frankly, that number is too high. We’ve raised the temperature about one degree Celsius, and we’ve already melted 40 percent of the sea ice in the summer Arctic. If we were at all sensible, we would do what we could to stop right here.

CURWOOD: And yet, you say, it’s not enough.

MCKIBBEN: Well, here’s the thing. Were we to hope to stay below two degrees, to have a reasonable chance of keeping the world’s temperature below two degrees, the scientists tell us that we can only emit about 565 gigatons more carbon. We’re emitting about 30 gigatons a year, and we’re increasing that by about three percent a year – that’s how much coal and gas and gas we’re burning – so that gives us 16 or 17 years, which is bad news in and of itself.

But the real bad news, and the number that was the really scary one for me in this piece is the amount of carbon that the fossil fuel companies and countries that kind of operate like fossil fuel companies ­– think Venezuela or Kuwait – the amount that they already have on their books, in their reserves - that’s about 2,800 gigatons, or about five times more than even the most conservative scientists or governments says that we could safely burn.

CURWOOD: So, lets look at the money that’s involved. The researchers you cite here say that there’s five times as much oil, coal and gas, on the books of various energy companies, as climate scientists think is safe to burn. So that we have to keep four out of five of those barrels of oil and tons of coal underground.

MCKIBBEN: And at current market value, that means right off of something like 20 trillion dollars.

CURWOOD: That’s bigger than the United States deficit!

MCKIBBEN: It’s larger, probably, than the bubble that surrounded housing.

CURWOOD: How do you persuade corporations to give up 20 trillion dollars in assets?

MCKIBBEN: Well, it’s possible you can’t. But, the only way you can is - since we’re never going to have as much money as they do - is to build a movement. To work in different currencies: you know, passion and spirit and creativity, and sometimes, at least for a while, it works!

Last year at this time everybody told us that it was absolutely inevitable that the Keystone XL Pipeline would be built, and built this year. We organized the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years in this country, and at least for now, it’s not been built. I’m not guaranteeing victory. And, in fact, if you were forcing me to bet, you know, an honest man - I’d be forced to bet that we’re not going to win. But the stakes are high. The stakes are really nothing less than just about everything.

CURWOOD: Well, Bill, you always keep things a little bit light for us and at one point you have an analogy between carbon and beer in this article.

MCKIBBEN: I’m glad you picked up on that because it’s, well, it’s a subject dear to my heart! We know that the two degrees is about like knowing what the legal drinking limit is. You can blow a 0.8 and you’re off to jail. And we know about how much you can drink and have some hope of staying below that. If you’re a guy my size and if you drink six beers slowly over the course of the evening, you’ll be pretty close to it, but you’ll be right around there. That’s the two degrees and the 565 gigatons. Here’s the problem: the fossil fuel industry has three twelve packs on the table, ready to pour. And that’s the trouble that we’re in. We’re about to go way-way-way over the limit. And nobody, no president, no politburo, no anybody is effectively saying: time to slow down.

CURWOOD: Now, I’m thinking of environmental activists, pretty much as a whole, and I think rather understandably, they really haven’t wanted to take on the fossil fuel industry.

Bill McKibben. (FlickrCC/The Aspen Institute)

MCKIBBEN: No, because it’s awful powerful! And why would you? I mean we’ve kept hoping that they would somehow magically become our allies. And occasionally there were sort of signs that might happen. I remember being with you Steve, maybe 15 years ago, in an MIT conference room listening to the people from BP explain that they were now going to be Beyond Petroleum.

They changed their logo, and they put some solar panels on a few of their gas stations, but they never really made any significant investment in renewable energy, they just kept looking for hydrocarbons, and you know, a couple of years ago, they said: forget even those token investments, we’re going back to our core business, and their core business turned out to be destroying the Gulf of Mexico.

And so the upshot of it is, and what we at 350.org are going to do - is try to take on that political power of those fossil fuel industries. We’re going to go right at them trying to kind of foment a divestment movement that looks a little bit like - say - the anti-apartheid movement only a generation ago.

CURWOOD: Alright. To continue with the South Africa analogy for a moment - you have a system of apartheid, you have a long resistance, a war, and then seemingly things changed. Why?

MCKIBBEN: Well, the two situations are not identical, obviously. The best…the most hopeful part of the analogy for us is that that financial pressure paid off. In this case, of course, it’s hard because all of us are beneficiaries of the fossil fuel system, as well as, you know, its potential victims.

On the other hand, we have as our sad recruiting sergeant, our unfortunate ally, we have Mother Nature, who’s making it abundantly clear now just what’s going on. Nobody can look at our continent, this summer with its record wildfires, its record heat-waves, its incredible, deep drought, its 76 percent of the farms in America now in drought areas, and not have some deep foreboding about what is happening on this earth.

CURWOOD: In South Africa, much of the argument was a moral one. What’s the moral argument you make here?

MCKIBBEN: I think that the climate change argument has often been put as a kind of technical argument, but in fact, at base, it’s a moral argument. What we’re dealing with is the out-of-control greed of a few companies. We know what the future should look like, and we know how to do it. There was one day last month when Germany, one of the few countries on earth that’s actually tried hard to do this stuff - one day when it generated more than half of its power from solar panels within its borders. Now, more than half its electricity from the sun - Munich’s north of Montreal. What does that indicate? That indicates that it’s not technology that limits us, it’s political will. And, one of the ways that we’ll generate that political will is make it clear just what the greed of this industry is doing to the one planet we’ve got.

CURWOOD: So what exactly are you calling for in terms of divestiture of fossil fuels?

MCKIBBEN: I think that college kids need to be sitting down with their boards of trustees and saying, ‘Really? You really want to pay for our education with investments that guarantee we’ll have no planet on which to carry out that education?’

I think that people need to sit down with state and municipal pension funds and say, ‘Really? You’re going to pay for people’s retirement funds with investments that ensure there’s not a planet for them to retire on?’ We’re going to try and put on pressure like that. By itself, it won’t be enough to carry the day, but it’s the kind of thing that sometimes can add up and add up fast. Change people’s understanding of where we are. Introduce a new wild card into this rigged game.

CURWOOD: So, you end your article saying: ‘We’ve met the enemy and it is Shell.’

MCKIBBEN: I was reflecting on the fact that we’ve been told very often that this is a personal problem, a lack of willingness of people to change. And yes, we need to take shorter showers and drive smaller cars and many of us have worked hard on those things.

The real problem is the amount of money that these fossil fuel companies pour into our political system to make sure that their special breaks stay intact, that they alone among industries continue to be able to pour their waste out for free. And that’s why, when you get down to it in any kind of mathematical analysis, with apologies to Walt Kelly, we’ve met the enemy and they is Shell, and Conoco, and Exxon, and all the rest.

CURWOOD: But, Bill, you could say that we’re the enemy too, because we have all of our money in 401Ks, the pension funds, various endowments invested in those companies that you just mentioned - they make a very fine return these days.

MCKIBBEN: And let's hope that we can bring ourselves to part at least with some of that easy return, because the long term return on that investment may not be hell exactly, but it’s got a pretty similar temperature.

CURWOOD: Bill McKibben’s latest article in Rolling Stone is entitled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Thanks Bill for taking the time with me today.

MCKIBBEN: Take care Steve!



Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

Bill McKibben’s 350.org


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