Sunday, July 22, 2012

Our climate challenge in three numbers

"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."

- Bill McKibben, Global Warming's Terrifying New Math.

Apart from missing "s" in the title and a dodgy stat in the opening paragraph, McKibben's compelling 5-page piece is a good summary of some important elements of the challenge we face. The bottom line of his three numbers is that, according to our best understanding, if we want at least an 80% chance of staying under the internationally agreed (but still very dangerous) 2ºC limit we can only burn about 20% of our current fossil fuel reserves (not resources, but reserves, i.e. what is known and could be profitably brought to market under present conditions). This is the kind of statistic that can really serve to focus the attention. We need to leave four out of every five known and already profitable barrels of oil, tonnes of coal, cubic metres of natural gas underground.

Of course, the great difficulty is that no one country wants to do anything other than burn every last molecule of fossil hydrocarbon that can be brought to the surface unless all other countries agree to limit themselves also. And when some countries have far larger reserves (and so far more at stake economically in leaving 80% of them in the ground), then reaching such an agreement is basically impossible under present political assumptions. If you look at where the blockages in international negotiations are coming from, then it's no great surprise that these are also the countries with the largest reserves of fossil hydrocarbons: China, USA, Russia, Australia, Canada, various middle eastern states. Countries with tiny (or largely depleted) reserves are the ones at the forefront: small island nations, non-oil-based African nations and the EU (esp UK and Germany, which have historically had huge fossil carbon deposits, but have already burned most of their easily accessible stuff).

And so we are left with an international multi-player game of chicken, with no country wanting to blink first and lose market advantage, ensuring that all countries suffer horrendously as a result. The fact that those with least to contribute to the problem generally have greater vulnerability only serves to entrench both the injustice and the intractability of the issue.

The slim silver lining in recent extreme weather in the US is that it might bring home to US voters and policymakers that there are no winners in a game of chicken. Even if others are going to suffer more and sooner, the US is far from immune, especially to precisely these kinds of threats (droughts, wildfires, heatwaves, water stress). Russia is facing its own wildfires and floods. China has had large areas in drought almost constantly for the last five years and a flood this week has a death toll that could pass 100. Canada has simultaneously faced deadly floods and serious drought in the last couple of months. Middle Eastern petro-states are all too aware of their dire water situation as they rapidly go from grain exporters to zero wheat production within a decade (Saudi Arabia) after basically exhausting their fossil water. And Australia has all too quickly forgotten its own droughts, bushfires and floods just a couple of years ago.

Further complicating the picture is that it is not simply countries that are making these decisions. Apart from some nationalised oil companies, most of these reserves are held by for profit corporations with very, very deep pockets and who are generally not shy at throwing their weight around, spending up big on lobbying, misinformation and propaganda at every level in order to convince us all that without them we'd be living in caves and that they are struggling to get by in tough conditions.

Yet according to the most recent data, fifteen out of the thirty most profitable companies in the world are directly fossil fuel related (many of the remaining fifteen also have significant, if slightly less direct, links).
1. Gazprom: US$44.5b
2. Exxon Mobil: $41.1b
4. Royal Dutch Shell $30.9b
5. Chevron: $26.9b
8. BP: $25.7b
11. Vale: $22.9b
12. Petronas: $21.9b
13. VW: $21.4b
14. Ford: $20.2b
15. Petrobras: $20.1b
22. China National Petroleum: $16.3b
26. GE: $14.2b
27. Statoil: $14.1
29. Rosneft Oil: $12.5b
30. ConocoPhillips: $12.4b
The bottom line is that until a very wide audience grasps just how dire our situation is and starts to demand something different from our corporate and political leaders, then none of key climate numbers are likely to improve.

For me, the most telling number in McKibben's piece is the one that he doesn't mention. McKibben is an author with a string of respected publications about environmental and economic issues. He was the first popular writer to publish a book on climate change back in the 80s. Yet in the last three or four years he has re-invented himself as an activist after becoming convinced that writing alone is too slow to effect the changes that need to happen. He has built and become the public face of the world's largest climate movement, a movement named after and dedicated to a number: 350. His organisation,, refers to the highest concentration of CO2 in parts per million considered "safe" by some of the world's leading climate scientists. We are currently over 390 ppm and rising rapidly. For most commentators, 350 ppm is seen as a pipe dream, an impossibility, well outside the realm of the thinkable, let alone the achievable. International negotiations talk about 550 and occasionally 450, but many commentators think we'll be lucky to stay below 650 and our current path is heading for 750 or significantly higher. In this context, McKibben and have served as a witness to how far from a just and sustainable world we are currently travelling. And yet here, in one of his highest profile pieces to date, he doesn't mention the number to which he has dedicated the last few years of his life and of which he is a relentless promoter. Is this because he has been so successful in publicising 350 ppm that he felt he could move on? Or because he decided that this idea is now so detached from reality that he needed to lower his sights?
Image by ALS.


conqueringlion said...

Hi Byron

Thanks for a very thoughtful piece. You describe two degrees as very dangerous and discuss the need of staying below my figure. So, with the original articles focus on math, and the inherent promise of precision, how far below two degrees would you consider we need to stay?

byron smith said...

I take my lead from the study summarised and discussed in this revealing piece that took the famous "burning embers" diagrams from the IPCC Third Assessment Report (2001) and updated it in 2009 on the basis of new research.

If, back in 2001, the governments of the world agreed that 2ºC was the limit of acceptability, then implicitly, if the climate effects and costs associated with what was then thought to be likely at 2ºC actually appear only a little above 1ºC, then that ought to be the morally optimum goal.

In other words, I think that 350 is probably a decent current guess at a morally acceptable upper limit. Remember, so far we haven't actually seen anything like the full consequences of even 390 ppm, since it takes decades for most of the effects of elevated CO2 concentrations to become apparent, and centuries or longer before all the effects show up. More than a few top experts say that sustained concentrations above 350 ppm are likely to be a death knell for more than 99% of coral reefs, as well as being associated with multi-metre sea level rise (over centuries) and very significant biodiversity decline. I think that is too high a price to pay.

The fact that 450 ppm is likely many times worse, and 550 many times worse again simply means that from here on out, the lower the better. It is not really feasilble, given current technology to remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. A massive reforestation and soil management programme could buy us some useful breathing space, but nothing removes the top imperative of climate logic being: keep as much fossil carbon in the ground as possible.

Now obviously, climate change is not the only morally relevant consideration here. Our global economy currently runs on fossil fuels and the nightmare scenario of simply turning it all off overnight (as though that were even possible) is always held up as the reductio ad absurdum of aggressive mitigation attempts.

In answer to the question "how fast ought we decarbonise?" My answer generally is "faster than you currently think possible or prudent". Gradual incrementalism in this situation means a slow death. The only truly conservative path open to us (conservative in the true sense of seeking to pass on to our grandchildren a planet that bears some resemblance to the one we received from our grandparents) is to shift paradigms and take the biggest steps we can conceive of, even at the cost of comfort and feelings of security.

byron smith said...

CP: Here's what some of big oil do with their profits. Useful statistics here on just where the billions end up going. It is not only their product that pollutes our environment, their money pollutes our politics.

byron smith said...

CP: US abandons 2ºC.

byron smith said...

Planet 3.0: Great analysis, critique and extension of the McKibben piece by Tom Athanasiou, who argues that carbon disinvestment can only be part of the picture. Unless we have our eyes set on the much broader picture, we'll be stuck thinking only of solutions for rich countries. But "equity is the gateway to ambition".

byron smith said...

Hot Topic: Some reflections on the McKibben piece, especially on the characterisation of the fossil fuel industry as public enemy #1.

byron smith said...

BBC: 2ºC out the window, according to top UK science advisor.