Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone has left me with new lingering thoughts about the challenges of climate change mitigation. His assessment is not pretty:
“I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”
Denial in the political sphere is more than apparent this election year. Many Republicans in congress continue to not only deny the existence of global warming, but are openly and vehemently against science–and this includes many members of the House Science committee. Romney does not officially deny climate change, rather he considers it a hilarious joke. While Obama and other Democrats take the issue more seriously, we still remain far from achieving federal carbon regulation or international committment. McKibben recounts the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference and notes that Obama did attend this years environmental summit in Rio.
In spite of all this, Roseland takes an optimistic stance, and argues that more encouraging and progressive responses are taking place on the local level. This is of course not surprising to read in an action oriented book on sustainable communities. Roseland argues that we can increase buy-in for mitigation initiatives by taking up issues that intersect with people’s other pressing concerns such as air quality or disaster preparedness. I completely agree with this positive, action-oriented perspective, and much of my work has focused on making small improvements in energy efficiency.
At the same, I am quite taken with the very different argument made by McKibben: we also need to recognize that some people’s interests are radically and directly in opposition to mitigation. Mckibben bases his argument on a simple set of numbers. First, it is estimated that we can keep the earth under 2° C of warming if we allow no more than 565 additional gigatrons C02 to be emitted. Second, it is estimated that 2,795 gigatrons C02 are already contained within the proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of fossil fuel companies. In other words, there are enough fossil fiels already being accounted for to warm the planet far beyond any acceptable scenario. These resources have an economic value of somewhere around $27 trillion.
Prof. Ben Brabson presentation added some additional context to this analysis. He points out that coal is the real 800 lb gorilla to be worried about. The planet’s coal resources are an order of magnitude greater than oil or natural gas. While oil and gas will burn out in the next 50 yrs or so, there exists enough coal to power the entire planet for another ~200 years. Since carbon persists in the atmosphere for so long, simply slowing down the rate of fossil fuel consumption accomplishes next to nothing. In order to actually prevent warming, these fuels can not ever be burned. Ever.
Reflecting on these facts has changed my perspective on mitigation. No amount of energy efficiency or innovation in renewables is going to prevent these fossil fuels from being burned. It doesn’t matter if fossil fuel execs personally deny or believe the science of climate change. There is no way that they will decide to voluntarily abandon $20 trillion in assets. Rather, they will try and are trying to do anything possible to prevent carbon regulation. And they are succeeding because their wealth allows them immense power to lobby congress and influence media discourse.
Mckibben argues that fossil fuel companies should be branded as “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization”. His hope is that identifying a real enemy could inspire a stronger, more energetic climate movement. While I’m not interested in villainizing individuals, I agree 100% that we are naive to ignore these powerful and motivated adversaries to mitigation. Alongside optimism about efficiency and renewables, we need realism about the danger that they represent. Ultimately, strong economic regulation will be the only way to keep fossil fuels safely in the ground.