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


Last July, Bill McKibben ( 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:

“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. 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. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain. 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.”

Read more at:  Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math | Rolling Stone



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