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“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” — Bill McKibben’s Call to Action on Carbon Emissions Makes Waves

McKibben offers some scary new analysis and proposes a last ditch approach on how humanity can take steps to preserve itself.

While a binding deal on harmful carbon output remains elusive by the world's second biggest polluter after China, some small signs of progress in the United States have emerged at the state and individual levels.


The new issue of  Rolling Stone has a major essay by Bill McKibben, called  Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. It’s a must read, for a number of reasons. The big one is that McKibben’s call for a “carbon disinvestment” movement – aimed at breaking the hammerlock that the fossil cartel has on our civilization – is a big step forward. It’s not the only step we need to take (more on this below) but it would make a huge difference.

First up,  Terrifying New Math is a fine science-for-civilians essay on the recent “extreme weather,” which has been monumental. In fact, the summer of 2012 may well turn out to be a decisive turning point in the climate war. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the deniers have obviously peaked, at least in the US, at least for now. Not that they’ve given up – or run out of funding – but at least they’re now in the rear view. I for one doubt that they’ll be taking control of the debate again.

Anyway, there’s a lot of extreme-weather color in this essay. Who knew that this spring, when it rained in Mecca at a temperature of 109 degrees, it was the hottest recorded downpour on the books? And McKibben does a great job of quickly moving on to key numbers, and then drawing some substantive conclusions.

The numbers are key to the story. McKibben chose three:

The First Number: 2° Celsius

2°C of warming, maximum. This is the semi-official inter-governmental global temperature target (“the bottomist of bottom lines”). And it’s extremely, dangerously high. McKibben makes the case here well and briefly, and correctly notes that the ubiquity of support for the 2°C target is a sign of our desperation. 2°C of warming would very likely be a catastrophe. And the way things are going, we’re not going to come anywhere close to holding the 2°C line.

“The new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist. In fact, he continued, “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.”  That’s almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction.

The Second Number: 565 Gigatons

The real action begins, though, with McKibben’s introduction of the global carbon budget. And I’d bet that this is the first time it’s shown its face in  Rolling Stone. The discussion, again, is miraculously short, and the point is clear.

Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. (“Reasonable,” in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.) . . .

The 565-gigaton figure was derived from one of the most sophisticated computer-simulation models that have been built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades. And the number is being further confirmed by the latest climate-simulation models currently being finalized in advance of the next report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Looking at them as they come in, they hardly differ at all,” says Tom Wigley, an Australian climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “There’s maybe 40 models in the data set now, compared with 20 before. But so far the numbers are pretty much the same. We’re just fine-tuning things. I don’t think much has changed over the last decade.”