• Three important numbers
    July 13,2013

    In the Aug. 2, 2012, issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Bill McKibben wrote an article that may well prove to be one of the most important news stories of this century. His very long article was filled with lots of technical data, numbers and references that gave it a great deal of credence but may have made it a little dry for the average reader. This is a nontechnical summary of that article.

    His theme centered on three numbers that relate to global warming. The first is 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — that is the maximum limit of temperature rise that climatologists believe we can tolerate without devastating damage to world economies. To understand the significance of this we have to look at what has happened so far from just the 1.4 degree rise we have experienced so far. The Arctic and Greenland ice caps and most glaciers are melting; worldwide temperature extremes are more pronounced; droughts and floods have destroyed crops around the world; and plants, animals and insect habitats are changing faster than ever in history.

    The rate and degree of change has surprised all the scientists who are studying this issue. What and how things change as we approach 3.6 degrees rise is difficult to predict precisely, but even if it is just more of the same — only worse — it will cost us trillions of dollars to adapt and accommodate the world economies to that hotter environment. Even if we stopped all carbon emissions today, the global temperature will still rise about 2.8 degrees because of past carbon dioxide emissions. That means we are already 80 percent of the way to that maximum tolerable rise of 3.6 degrees.

    The second number McKibben reported is 565 gigatons — that is the amount of carbon that can be released into the atmosphere by 2050 and still have a reasonable (20 percent) chance of staying below that maximum tolerable rise of 3.6 degrees. We can call the 565 number our carbon budget. To put this into perspective, at our current emission rate, by 2029 we will exceed 565 gigatons of carbon gas emissions.

    The third number is 2,795 gigatons. That is the amount of carbon that will be released into the atmosphere based on just the currently known and proven reserves of oil and gas currently on the books and in the inventory of the world’s oil producers. This represents about $27 trillion in value to those companies and countries that possess these reserves and is five times larger than the 565 gigaton carbon budget.

    It is difficult to estimate the drastic changes that would take place if all of this 2,795 gigatons were released into the atmosphere. The synergistic and feedback effects that are likely could compound the impact significantly. For instance, the heat is likely to cause the release of millions of tons of methane from the oceans and permafrost; methane has 25 times the effect of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

    To be safe, at least 80 percent of all of these known and proven oil and gas reserves would have to remain in the ground and the search for any new reserves would have to stop now. This would mean that well over $20 trillion would have to be written off as a loss by all those oil and gas producers. If that happened, corporate stock values in those companies would crash and the economies of several countries would collapse. It would also put an end to the rapid industrialization of countries like China and India and Brazil and dozens of other Third World countries. That is a scenario that is very unlikely to happen. In fact, it is hard to imagine any scenario where even a portion of that 2,795 gigatons is not fully processed into greenhouse gases.

    In McKibben’s article, he repeatedly pointed out that these numbers are our best estimates based on all the available data and resources we have but they may not be exactly accurate. Despite the general agreement across 40 different computer climate models, we are not really sure what happens economically at much above a 5 degree rise. For instance, we’re not sure of the impact, if ocean currents slow or stop or what a high acidic, low salinity ocean will have on weather and the aquatic food chain. We don’t know how far or where ideal crop-growing weather will move and whether the soil in those new areas will support massive crop development. Despite the inexact precision of these numbers, they are sufficiently well founded in indisputable and verifiable data so that even at the most extreme positive limits of the range of possible outcomes, we are headed for a major disaster.

    Unfortunately, mostly because of politics and special interests, we are not prepared for what’s coming. Conservatives fear any problem that can’t be solved by the market and are reaching for any answer other than human agency. Deniers and naysayers like Rupert Murdock, the Koch Brothers and even John McClaughry are out-of-touch obstructionists opposing any response. Progressives, by contrast, believe in global warming but propose to deal with it symbolically. The conservatives are buying a delusion and the progressives are buying a Prius.

    I would encourage everyone to read McKibben’s article. Just go to Google and search for “Three Numbers Climate Change.”

    Tom Watkins is a retired Navy officer and former business consultant. He lives in Montpelier.

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