From the archives: The maths of climate change

By Claire (originally posted 30th July 2012)

“Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.”

I came across an article this morning titled, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” written by Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org) and published in Rolling Stone magazine.

The article focusses on three numbers, produced by financial analysts in the UK; 2 degrees Celsius,  565 gigatons and 2,795 gigatons. These three numbers sum up really nicely the big issue in climate change mitigation, as it stands at the moment.

1st number: 2 degrees Celsius

2 degrees Celsius is the internationally, politically recognised target for limiting global climate change. It is generally believed, that this is the threshold that we must stay below to avoid the more catastrophic effects of climate change.

So far, we have warmed the planet by 0.8 degrees. Already, we have experienced an increased loss of Arctic sea ice, record breaking heat waves, temperatures and droughts, as well as acidification of the oceans, stronger hurricanes and widespread coral bleaching events, just to name a few. In light of the current changes we are seeing to the climate system, some scientists believe that 2 degrees is too risky.

“Any number much above one degree involves a gamble,” writes Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, “and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.” 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, two degrees is simply too much.” NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet’s most prominent climatologist, is even blunter: “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: “Some countries will flat-out disappear.”

“The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius – it’s become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.”

2nd 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.)

This idea of a global “carbon budget” emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since 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.

This doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for action.

3rd number: 2,795 Gigatons

This is the number that I personally find the most unsettling.

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 (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.

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value.

This now just isn’t a climate issue – it’s an economic issue.

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. 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.

Essentially, one of the main reasons why it is so difficult to get decisive action on climate change, is that it’s in most people’s best interests not to. Not only is our current way of life based on the availability of cheap fuel, but our entire economy is dependent on the ability to freely use fossil fuels.

We can see this in action with all of the opposition to the introduction of a carbon tax in Australia. This issue isn’t about climate change, but it’s about the cost to the individual and to business. I don’t think most people would have an issue with Australia beginning to tackle the issue of climate change, as long as they didn’t have to pay for it.

And that right there is the problem. Unless we make carbon pollution an economic issue, we don’t stand a chance at making the dramatic changes needed to stick to the perceived “safe” level of global warming of 2 degrees Celsius.

Alone among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free. Nobody else gets that break – if you own a restaurant, you have to pay someone to cart away your trash, since piling it in the street would breed rats. But the fossil-fuel industry is different, and for sound historical reasons: Until a quarter-century ago, almost no one knew that CO2 was dangerous. But now that we understand that carbon is heating the planet and acidifying the oceans, its price becomes the central issue.

If you put a price on carbon, through a direct tax or other methods, it would enlist markets in the fight against global warming. Once Exxon has to pay for the damage its carbon is doing to the atmosphere, the price of its products would rise. Consumers would get a strong signal to use less fossil fuel – every time they stopped at the pump, they’d be reminded that you don’t need a semimilitary vehicle to go to the grocery store. The economic playing field would now be a level one for nonpolluting energy sources. And you could do it all without bankrupting citizens – a so-called “fee-and-dividend” scheme would put a hefty tax on coal and gas and oil, then simply divide up the proceeds, sending everyone in the country a check each month for their share of the added costs of carbon. By switching to cleaner energy sources, most people would actually come out ahead.

That there is the single biggest motivator for having a carbon tax in Australia (see my other post on why Australia needs a carbon tax). Realistically, it’s the only way we can make the large-scale changes needed to change the trajectory of global carbon emissions.

Read Bill McKibben’s full article here.

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