Understanding the Math Behind Global Warming

Reader Contribution by Amanda Sorell
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It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the weather that’s currently wreaking havoc on the planet tends to amp up the talk about global warming, as well as about what we are doing (or not doing) to battle climate change. Most of the time, global warming can seem too big to tackle, and it brings up a whole slew of discomfort and debate. It’s an amorphous, complicated issue that can’t be solved with a few easy equations.

But Bill McKibben, author, environmentalist, journalist and head of environmental organization 350.org, brings equations to the forefront of the climate conversation in a recent Rolling Stone article titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” 

He writes, “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.”

So, larger public, here is McKibben’s rundown of the three numbers to know and what they might mean for our planet’s future.

The first number is 2 degrees Celsius. At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, the countries in attendance agreed to the “Copenhagen Accord,” which, according to the article, “ recognized ‘the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.’” So far, McKibben says, we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet to nearly half of that allotted increase, to nearly 0.8 degrees Celsius. He calls the agreement upon 2 degrees “the bottomest of bottom lines,” saying that actually raising the global temperature to meet that target could be raising it to a dangerous level.

The second number is 565 Gigatons, which is the amount of carbon that scientists predict humans can release into the atmosphere while still staying below 2 degrees Celsius. And the final number is 2,795 Gigatons, which McKibben says is “the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies.”

The first number hinges heavily on the second number, and therefore, on the third number (which is five times higher than the second). If 2,795 Gigatons of carbon are actually released into the atmosphere, McKibben says, then it’s game over for the 2-degree target. He goes on to appoint the fossil-fuel industry as the enemy, and says it will be a tough opponent to beat — he calls upon readers to recognize that “…pure self-interest won’t spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might — and that’s the real meaning of this new math. It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.”

McKibben’s focus on numbers and on the new path they should precipitate gained popularity and traction, as well as a variety of responses, after the article was released online. According to a 350.org press release, as of one week ago, the article had been shared almost 100,000 times, and viewed online as many as 450,000 times. Calling it a breakthrough moment for a movement, McKibben announced an upcoming series of events that he plans to undertake in early November: “Starting the day after the election, I’d like to go after the fossil fuel industry even more directly, trying — as the Rolling Stone piece suggests — to spark a movement like the ones that overturned the great immoral institutions of the past century, such as Apartheid in South Africa. On November 7th, 350.org board member Naomi Klein and I are planning to launch a road show that will cover 20 cities in just over 20 nights (we’re going to break for Thanksgiving) to bring the message I laid out in Rolling Stone to thousands of people across America.”

To read more about the numbers in the article and what they imply, you can check out the full article at www.RollingStone.com. For more details on McKibben’s upcoming road show, you can visit 350.org. You can also respond to the article, or to McKibben’s movement, at thoughts@350.org.

Photo by Fotolia/Taiga 

Amanda Sorell is an Assistant Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine.

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