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The simple choice that will determine our future

During the Masters I’ve seen some scary charts and statistics about the speed at which we’re either pumping C02 into the atmosphere or destroying rainforest or the like.  I don’t put these on this blog as they’re just too depressing.

However, I got sent this recently published article from Rolling Stone magazine.  Written by Bill McKibben, it is the most compelling, powerful and scary piece I’ve seen on our predicament.  The reason I’m posting it is because I think it can represent an important moment in whether we, as humans, decide whether we want to act and stop Climate Change.

So, why is it so compelling, powerful and scary?  Because McKibben, to make the things really simple for everyone, has boiled the whole issue down to three numbers.  That’s all you need to know.  Three numbers.

Those numbers are:

2 degrees Celsius:  Scientists agree that this is the upper limit that its safe for us to warm the planet before the wheels start to fall off.  Read that as massive, unpredictable environmental events that will cripple global food supplies, put countries under water, cause water and food wars.  All that stuff and more.  Not good.

565 Gigatons:  This is the amount of carbon dioxide (give or take) that humans can pour into the atmosphere before we reach that 2 degree celsius figure. On current course, we’ll get there mid-century i.e. in about 40 years.

2,795 Gigatons:  This is the amount of carbon contained within the proven oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies and fossil-fuel countries (e.g. Saudi or Kuwait).  Yes, 2,795 is roughly five times bigger than 565.   So, the answer is simple, right?  Stop the energy companies and countries from getting it out of the ground and burning it.  However, whilst the reserves are still in the soil, it’s already economically above ground on balance sheets and in government spending plans.  To prevent those companies and countries from getting the reserves out of the ground is to effectively cripple them.  And those companies and countries are amongst the most powerful in the world.  As McKibben puts it:

“If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.”

So, if the fossil-fuel companies and countries keep their reserves in their pants we might all survive.  If they don’t, then we don’t.  It’s that simple.

So here’s the deal.  We, the people, have to act to keep the carbon in the ground.  We have to do it because governments have proven that can’t act collectively (see Copenhagen and Rio+20) and big business want to grow.  So, we have to lobby those companies and countries and/or dramatically lower our own footprints and come to terms considerable changes in lifestyle that will entail.  Life will be different and in some ways harder.  If we fail to make that choice and act then life will become much, much more difficult than if we had acted.

So, the choice is clear.  And if we don’t act, now that we know the risks, then frankly, we kinda deserve what we get.  In about 40 years.  Just sayin’ how it is.  Is this depressing?  Actually, no.  This is about taking control, having agency and having some say in what happens in the future, rather than having that future thrust upon us.  It’s all about how you frame it.

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