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McKibben's Three Numbers—Measuring the march toward climate catastrophe

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UPDATE: A complete list of climate series pieces is available here:
The Climate series: a reference post.

This continues the Climate Catastrophe series of pieces I've been doing. Most recently, these have included:

  ■ Hugging the monster: Climate scientists and the C-word
  ■ The epic heat wave: "Of course it's about climate change"
  ■ Hansen on 3°C: Quarter to half of species on earth may die from global warming
  ■ What is "climate catastrophe"?

This post starts the promised comment on Bill McKibben's seminal Rolling Stones piece — the first of five.

McKibben's Three Numbers

Bill McKibben starts his article by identifying three numbers we should be watching to know how close we've come to climate catastrophe. Those numbers are:
  • 2°C (3.6°F) rise in global average temperature — Our global warming ceiling, according to the G8 and others. Of this, 0.8°C is already used up — i.e., we're 40% there.

  • 565 gigatons of new carbon in the air — How much atmospheric carbon equates to a 2°C (3.6°F) global warming increase.

  • 2795 gigatons of carbon in the ground — How much known carbon reserves the carbon owners can dig up and sell us.
Notice that the third number (ready reserves) is five times the second. If all that carbon gets into the air — 2795 gigatons in carbon reserves — we blow global warming right off the chart (this chart, the one showing all-time mass extinction events).

As you can see, this is a recipe for disaster. The bottom line for the carbon owners (the corporations, and nations like Venezuela that act like carbon corporations) is — how do I monetize those reserves.

If they succeed, it's over. Really over.

Let's look more closely at McKibben's numbers. He deals with them in detail in his article. In future posts we'll discuss the consequences and what options we have.

2°C — our global warming ceiling

Even though the powers-that-be (which means, the powers that own the world) can't agree on any solution to the global warming problem, they have reached an agreement that the increase in average global temperature must be kept below 2°C (3.6°F).

Even this number is disputed, but as McKibben points out in his piece, it's the only thing all of these climate conferences agree on. That makes 2°C the consensus benchmark.

From the article (my emphasis and much reparagraphing):
[The 2009 Copenhagen climate conference] failed spectacularly. ... [But the Copenhagen Accord] did contain one important number, however. In Paragraph 1, it formally recognized "the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius." And in the very next paragraph, it declared that "we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required... so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius."

By insisting on two degrees – about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – the accord ratified positions taken earlier in 2009 by the G8, and the so-called Major Economies Forum. It was as conventional as conventional wisdom gets. The number first gained prominence, in fact, at a 1995 climate conference chaired by Angela Merkel, then the German minister of the environment and now the center-right chancellor of the nation.
There's a problem with that 2°C — we've already used up 40% of it, and that 40% has done a lot more damage than anyone has anticipated. In fact, the mark of this climate crisis has been under-anticipating both its speed and severity. A word to the wise; this one needs to be over-estimated to compensate.

McKibben on that surprising severity:
Some context: So far, we've raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected.

(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.)
Think now. We learned here that a 3°C rise in global warming is likely to cause a world-historical extinction event (20–50% of species gone). The frightened-to-act world elites are focused on a 2°C number (of which we're already "spent" 0.8°C).

And even that is too generous, according to those nations that will be hit hardest by famines and other effects.
Given those impacts, in fact, many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target.

"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."

When delegates from developing nations were warned that two degrees would represent a "suicide pact" for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, "One degree, one Africa."
So keep that in mind as you read this and my subsequent posts. Two degrees is what we use as a benchmark. But only because it's what the timid elites will admit to.

For many, global warming of 1°C and it's all over; only the consequences remain. (And again, 0.8°C has already been baked in. Those continuing consequences are assured.)

565 gigatons gets us to 2°C; Big Gas & Oil has 2795 to sell

Here's where the financial rubber meets the road. According to McKibben, if we add 565 gigatons of carbon to the air, we get our 2°C rise.
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.
Don't let the numbers dazzle you. All you need to know — we've used up 0.8°C of our 2°C "budget" and if we do nothing we'll be handed another 0.8°C which is already in the pipeline. As Bill says, we're already 3/4 of the way there.

Do check the article for more on the 565 gigaton number. There's good support and an interesting discussion.

I want to pass to the other gigaton number — 2795 gigatons.
This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios.

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. ...

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate.
The "job creators" (read "personal wealth creators") need to sell you five times what it takes to keep the planet human-habitable, 'cause, you know, their wealth trumps (heh) your lives ... and then they're comfortably dead — winners all.

Bottom line

Let's stop here for now, with a walk through the numbers. McKibben gives us a nice clean problem statement — stay below 2°C. We're cooking the planet — note, the victim isn't the planet, it's us; the planet will do just fine — and in order to stop the crisis, we have to keep the oil-and-gas owners from selling their product.

His bottom line is — watch those three numbers, or rather, watch that 2°C number. (Don't worry; I'll watch it with you. I'm an interested party too.)

Then watch to see if the guys with the psychopathic greed (sorry, I mean "job creators") get their way. In my view, it's actually not over. There are means at our disposal. Job one, of course, is to hug the monster — recognize the problem in order to "incentivize" a solution. Stay tuned.

In that effort, I remain,


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

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