Three Terrifying Numbers: 2 degrees Celsius, 565 gigatons carbon, 2,795 gigatons carbon in proven reserves

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Last July, Bill McKibben (350.org) wrote an article in Rolling Stone Magazine.  He told the future when he said:  ”Say something so big finally happens (a giant hurricane swamps Manhattan, a megadrought wipes out Midwest agriculture) . . .”

His article is titled: Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe – and that make clear who the real enemy is.  Setting aside the polemical part (the fossil fuel industry is the “real enemy”), he does put those numbers into terms we can understand.

2 degrees Celsius is the increase in world temperature that we likely cannot avoid (we already are up 0.8 degrees Celsius since the start of the industrial revolution).  The article explains the bad things that are likely going to happen even if we can hold to 2 degrees Celsius.  (Our current trend line is for a temperature rise of 6 degrees Celsius, assuming economies wouldn’t collapse first.  See Climate Change Is Simple by Dave Roberts.)

565 gigatons of carbon is our likely allowance to keep the increase in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius.  It is how much we can consume; it is not our allowance per year, it is our total allowance for the foreseeable future.

2,795 gigatons of carbon is the amount of carbon in worldwide proven reserves of oil, natural gas, and coal.  As Bill McKibben points out, that is five times our allowance if we are to keep the temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius.  Logically, this means that if we are going to keep the temperature down, we can’t let 80% of these reserves be burned.  (The companies and countries that own these reserves will either have to forego profits on them or society will have to pay them to keep them in the ground.)

Young people have the most at stake; it is their world that is going to be forever changed, the only question is by how much. Bill McKibben provides an appropriate analogy:

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