Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math part 1 – by Bill McKibben

If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world’s nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn’t even attend. It was “a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago,” the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls “once thronged by multitudes.” Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.

When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn’t yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.

The First Number: 2° Celsius

If the movie had ended in Hollywood fashion, the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 would have marked the culmination of the global fight to slow a changing climate. The world’s nations had gathered in the December gloom of the Danish capital for what a leading climate economist, Sir Nicholas Stern of Britain, called the “most important gathering since the Second World War, given what is at stake.” As Danish energy minister Connie Hedegaard, who presided over the conference, declared at the time: “This is our chance. If we miss it, it could take years before we get a new and better one. If ever.”

In the event, of course, we missed it. Copenhagen failed spectacularly. Neither China nor the United States, which between them are responsible for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, was prepared to offer dramatic concessions, and so the conference drifted aimlessly for two weeks until world leaders jetted in for the final day. Amid considerable chaos, President Obama took the lead in drafting a face-saving “Copenhagen Accord” that fooled very few. Its purely voluntary agreements committed no one to anything, and even if countries signaled their intentions to cut carbon emissions, there was no enforcement mechanism. “Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight,” an angry Greenpeace official declared, “with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport.” Headline writers were equally brutal: COPENHAGEN: THE MUNICH OF OUR TIMES? asked one.

The 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.

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.) 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.”

Despite such well-founded misgivings, political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target – indeed, it’s fair to say that it’s the only thing about climate change the world has settled on. All told, 167 countries responsible for more than 87 percent of the world’s carbon emissions have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, endorsing the two-degree target. Only a few dozen countries have rejected it, including Kuwait, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Even the United Arab Emirates, which makes most of its money exporting oil and gas, signed on. 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.

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6 Responses to Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math part 1 – by Bill McKibben

  1. Citizen Harry says:

    So now we live in a world where countries all around the world have defined their economies around fossil fuels, based bank loans, and economies on it. We now live in a world where actual human beings don’t mind destroying mountains, polluting the environment, and most unbelievably to me… shoot billions of gallons of toxic chemicals into groundwater to free up natural gas. Into GROUNDWATER. My God.

    Unfortunately, those of us with a conscience have no recourse because money and power rules. But then, the gods will cry when their ivory towers come crumbling down. And so nature balances itself eventually. And, unfortunately, even the innocent will suffer because they are joined at the hip with the insane.
    Citizen Harry

  2. Walt says:

    So you are against the use of all the fossil fuels, coal, natural gas and oil, let’s see today less than 10% of our energy comes from renewables. What would you have us to do? How can we keep up with our current electrical demands?

    Good lord, look who I’m asking, the man with no answers. Sorry Harry, forget about those two questions, I know they will never be answered, just like all of the others.

  3. Frank Alot says:

    I think Harry must be tired of talking with you Walt. You don’t fully read his posts. From what I remember of your continuing rant to have him answer your question about the order in which power get’s turned back on in a given state emergency, he had already made it pretty clear that he believed that those who have corrupt politicians in their back pocket get the lights on first. What more did you want for him to add to his opinion? It seemed pretty logical to me, and backed up with the evidence that the PGA Greenbriar Country Club with it’s billionaire owner had their lights on almost immediately compared to the rest of the county. A county by the way where children were wandering down roads looking for food handouts because they were starving 15 days after the power went out, as millionaire golfers drank Perrier and had steak dinners in the Country Club dining room in air conditioned comfort.

    And as far as your question here, Walt… I’ll offer my own opinion that if politicians and corporations weren’t obsessed about more than their own profits, there would be a vast movement towards creating and refining these new technologys. In World War II when faced with immediate destruction, the whole US mobilized to do something about Hitler and Japan. Just because greed and corruption leaves us with 10% from renewable resources doesn’t mean that if we don’t do something about the 90% that is completely outdated, polluting, killing, and wrong, we won’t have a society that needs any power… because Western Civilization will end. So you’re argument continues to be a weak one, and reflective of your partnership with Coal or whatever reason that compels you to constantly show your lack of humanity and pro-coal logic here on this blog.

    • Walt says:

      Frank, that’s quite a rant you had there, I see you have been drinking Harry’s kool aid. You see Frank, Harry has a long history of scolding others while unable to pose any other solutions. His refusal to answer my question is nothing new, did you even read what you wrote? How do you consider his response of “corrupt politicians having their lights turned on first” an answer to what order he would have the electricity turned back on?

      Does the Greenbrier still have their backup generator operational? Mr. Justice offered assistance, and Harry chastised him for that. Children wandering down roads? I think you are being a little dramatic aren’t you Frank, if that had truly happened it would have been all over the news.

      Frank, who owns these corporations? The average citizen, in other words……you and I Frank, these big corporations are owned by the stockholders, some own stock through retirement plans others by stock options. FYI, Corporations are always looking for new technologies, the only reason they are not jumping on the renewable bandwagon is because it is not profitable, and that has been proven by these solar and wind companies going bankrupt after taking billions of taxpayer dollars from our government.

      Frank, since you are speaking for Harry, why don’t you answer my questions? What would you have us to do? How can we keep up with our current electrical demands?

  4. Citizen Harry says:

    Lol. What he said!

    • Walt says:

      Harry, I didn’t think you liked others putting words in your mouth?

      When are you going to be a man and standup and answer these questions?

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