Small Change BILL MCKIBBEN
A MAtter of Degrees
The arithmetic of a warming climate
WE’RE USED TO thinking of morality qualitatively, not quantitatively — if it’s wrong
to shoot six people, it’s not one-sixth as
bad to shoot just one. Robbing eight banks
or five banks is more or less the same
thing, at least in ethical terms. Al-Qaeda
was not twice as hideous because they
brought down both World Trade towers —
they’d already reached the theoretical upper limit for evil.
Sometimes, though, you actually have
to do the math. And fossil fuel is the perfect example.
Three hundred years ago, when we
started burning coal, there was no reason
not to. We had no idea yet that it could
change the climate—and, more importantly, we were burning such tiny quantities that it didn’t really matter. The ease
and mobility it provided for human beings, especially as smoky coal turned into
much cleaner oil, came with few discernible costs; it seemed almost like magic.
But over the course of the last generation,
we’ve all learned that this potion carried the
most powerful hangover possible. We’ve already burned enough coal and gas and oil
to push us out of the Holocene; we’ve raised
the planet’s temperature about one degree,
and that’s been enough to cause massive
outbreaks of drought and flooding, enough
to make seawater 30 percent more acidic.
The (literally) burning question for the earth
is, how fast can we get o= this stu=?
Which is where the arithmetic comes
in. Even though our heating of the climate
has already caused some truly ugly results,
scientists calculate that if we pass two degrees Celsius, we’re entering the
guaranteed-catastrophe zone. That’s why
the world’s nations — even the recalcitrant
ones, like the U.S. and Saudi Arabia — are
theoretically committed to making sure we
stop short of two degrees. “I cannot negotiate on the two degrees,” said that radical,
Germany’s Angela Merkel, in 2007. In
July 2009, the Major Economies Forum,
which includes all the countries that burn
Celsius, on the basis of equity and in the
context of sustainable development, enhance our long-term cooperative action
to combat climate change.
The poorest nations at Copenhagen were
demanding 1. 5 degrees as a target, and
even that is probably too high given recent
data — but for now let’s just say this: the one
thing about global warming that the world
agrees on is that two degrees is too much.
Scientists also agree that to stand a reasonable chance of avoiding a two-degree
rise, we can’t emit more than 565 gigatons
There are two choices here: a healthy balance sheet for the richest
industry on earth, or a healthy earth.
vast quantities of carbon, agreed to limit
temperature increases to below two degrees. In December 2009, as the Copenhagen conference was fizzling, President
Obama attempted to cover its failure with
a nonbinding agreement he and others
drafted on the fly. It opened with this:
To achieve the ultimate objective of the
Convention to stabilize greenhouse gas
concentration in the atmosphere at a
level that would prevent dangerous an-thropogenic interference with the climate system, we shall, recognizing the
scientific view that the increase in global
temperature should be below 2 degrees
of CO2 over the next forty years. It’s like
saying, if you want to keep your blood
alcohol level legal for driving, you can’t
drink more than eight beers in the next
six hours. It’s a limit: 565 gigatons. On
the other side is a world where much of
what we call civilization gets undermined,
beginning in the poorest places that have
done the least to cause the trouble.
Last year some analysts in the UK decided to add up how much carbon all the
world’s fossil fuel companies (and the countries like Venezuela that are essentially fossil fuel companies) have listed as reserves.
That is, how much they have already found
and are planning to dig up and burn. The