Bill McKibben believes that we’re losing the fight against global warming. In his recent article in Rolling Stone (Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math in the August, 2, 2012 issue), McKibben writes “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.” I’m inclined to agree with him, having witnessed the decades of international policy impasses, domestic political battles, and disinformation campaigns that have resulted in more conversation on “controversy” than progress. It’s hard not to be resigned to thorough discouragement, but McKibben is absolutely relentless in his pursuit to research, educate, and motivate global action. This most recent example is particularly urgent and provocative. As hinted at in the title, the numbers are the primary storytellers.
The first important number he details is 2 degrees Celsius, which is the amount that scientists and most governments have agreed is the maximum increase in global temperature, without very serious consequences. The second number is 565 gigatons, which is the amount of carbon dioxide that we can emit by midway through this century in order to keep us within the 2 degree Celsius range. This all makes the third number even more daunting; 2,795 gigatons is the amount of carbon contained in the proven reserves of the world’s fossil fuel companies. Meaning, the world’s inventory of fossil fuels is five times the amount that scientists think would actually be safe to burn. And every day fossil fuel companies spend millions of dollars to find and extract more coal, oil, and natural gas.
This equation very clearly illustrates an unsustainable system with dire consequences for the economy. Some kind of mechanism must evolve to increase the price of fossil fuels and decrease the cost of renewable energy sources, and quickly. But if that optimistic climate-saving scenario does indeed play out, energy companies will be left holding assets that they can no longer sell, which will cause the industry losses in the trillions of dollars. The consequences for investors of this “carbon bubble” are being researched by UK-based Carbon Tracker Initiative, which published a seminal report earlier this year titled, “Unburnable Carbon.”
McKibben’s article is sobering, but its prominent place in Rolling Stone is encouraging, and it is already getting a lot of attention. Considering the extreme global weather this year, this could be a very good moment for the message. A recent opinion poll reported that in July 70% of Americans stated that they believed that the climate is changing, which is a 5% increase vs. the same poll in March. This is a rapid, and likely seasonal, increase in acknowledgment of the problem, but it remains to be seen when opinion might translate into significant national will. There is still much progress to be made toward articulating the future that we want to see, and how we will transition to the energy sources that we need in order to get there.
Amanda is Portfolio 21 Investments' Communications Manager. She has more than 10 years of research, communications, and interactive media experience in the financial industry.