Recent news stories and photos of air pollution in Harbin, a northern Chinese city of 11 million, no doubt shocked and nauseated most Americans. They showed air pollution so bad that some people compared it to a snowstorm, with the “snow” being particulate matter from coal-burning plants that provide Harbin with heat—the heat just having been turned on for the winter by the Chinese authorities. The air pollution level was 30 or 40 times what is considered tolerable, with 25 parts per million the acceptable level and Harbin’s at over 600 parts per million, and in some places 1,000 ppm!
But we should neither be shocked—global warming, after all, means global—nor comforted that it’s ‘only China.’ Because, again, carbon in the air knows no boundaries. A recent reading of Bill McKibben’s new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (Holt: 2013), reinforces that realization in several ways. First is his account of the civil disobedience battle he led (and still leads) against the Keystone Pipeline. Second is his account of his latest initiative, to induce colleges across the country to divest their endowments of any financial earnings from fossil fuel companies. The third, and what I’ll focus on here, are his elucidation of three key numbers in the fight against global warming. McKibben likes using numbers as symbols, as his major organization 350.org makes clear— the number 350 standing for 350 ppm of carbon in our air, a level which is high, but which most breathing beings can probably live with. Of course, earth has already overshot that mark, our current level being around 400 ppm—a number the 350 highlights nicely.
McKibben’s other three numbers, though, are even more significant. The first is: 2, for 2 degrees Celsius. That’s the maximum rise in temperature that most scientists agree is the upper limit of temperature rise that humans can survive with. Most would prefer a lower number, 1.5 degrees or less, but 2 degrees is the limit. We’ve already raised the temperature 0.8 degrees, but anything over 2 degrees and it’s “game over.” The second number is 565. That stands for 565 gigatons of carbon in the air—the maximum amount, by midcentury, we can put into the air and still have a reasonable chance to keep the temperature rise at or below that limit of 2 degrees Celsius. The third number and the scariest is 2,795 gigatons—“the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the fossil fuel companies and countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil fuel companies” (146). As McKibben notes, this represents the carbon load from the fossil fuel we’re on target to burn. If you compare 565, the maximum, with 2,795, the amount we’re on target to burn, you realize that those who control fossil fuels are planning to add five (5) times as much carbon as the earth can take and remain viable for the kind of life humans have led for the past several thousand years. The point is simple: these are proven reserves (and the number could be far higher) still in the ground, but since the reserves are what companies use to establish their worth, borrow money, and budget around (and what stock prices are based on), there is no doubt that these fossil fuel companies plan to use all they’ve got. As McKibben points out,
“These are their assets, the holdings that give their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or to frack the Appalachians—the value of ExxonMobil is, more or less, the value of those reserves. If you told ExxonMobil that they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of the company would plummet…” (148).
It’s also, of course, why these companies have spent so much to cast doubt on the idea that carbon burning by humans causes global warming. So if you told the CEOs of any of these companies—the Koch Brothers, Shell, Exxon, Chevron, British Petroleum, not to mention Saudi Arabia—that they should keep about 80% of their proven reserves in the ground, and write off trillions of their assets, they would laugh at you. Capitalism simply doesn’t work that way.
This is why McKibben and those who have joined him in jail have decided that a new way of fighting global warming is necessary. If we continue to rely on the so-called market to keep us from burning 5 times as much fossil fuel as the planet can withstand, it’s really “game over” for the planet we once knew. So McKibben and his cohorts have, in their latest initiative to save the planet, targeted the companies themselves with their divestment campaign.
One other element has come up in recent days to add to the plausibility of what McKibben writes in Oil and Honey. Last week, Al Gore made headlines when he said publicly that the next “bubble” slated to collapse is the one in the fossil fuel industry. Gore, basing his prognostication on the same figures McKibben uses, claimed that these fossil fuel companies are heavily overvalued. Why? Because there is no way they can make use of what they count as their assets, since to do so would push the world into catastrophe from global warming. In other words, to burn the reserves producing that 2,795 gigatons would push us over the brink into a global warming nightmare—rising sea levels, changes in plant and animal life, immense changes in weather and storms like Hurricane Sandy. Therefore, they will have to refrain from using their reserves, and hence are worth far less than what their current stock value, based on using those reserves, indicates. The fossil fuel bubble will have to burst—or the planet will.
And to give us an idea of what is already happening in one little corner of the ecosystem, McKibben tells us of the effect of our already-warming temperatures on the lives of that most wondrous animal, the moose. Moose are perfectly adapted to the climate they normally inhabit, their heavy coats able to keep them warm in sub-zero temperatures. However, if the temperature gets above 20 degrees Fahrenheit, as it has recently in places like Minnesota, the moose are in trouble. It’s not that they faint from the heat. It’s that warmer temperatures allow ticks to proliferate (deep cold used to kill them off), and the proliferating ticks drive the moose crazy. One moose could normally tolerate about 10,000 ticks, but with proliferation, moose now harbor as many as 70,000 ticks! This makes them so crazy that they scratch incessantly and tear away most of their fur. But fur is their protection against cold, so when a cold snap occurs, moose devoid of fur tend to freeze to death. The result is that the moose population in Minnesota has dropped by about half. Nor has tick proliferation stopped in Minnesota. In McKibben’s home state of Vermont, ticks have now begun to proliferate as well, leading to alarming increases in Lyme disease. Vermonters who used to love their woods are now reluctant to venture there for fear of ticks and Lyme disease—which has become almost pandemic.
This is only one example of a subtle ecological change caused by warming temperatures that has deep and lasting consequences. It makes you wonder what is going through the minds of those who would continue to support denialists, and continue plans they know will plunge the earth into an unknown, and preventable transformation. One clue, though, comes from the aforementioned pollution crisis in China. A report I saw noted that many in China have begun to buy air purifiers. And which class is doing this most? You guessed it: the ruling classes who run the Chinese government, as well as the newly wealthy who can afford them. It appears that these neo-mandarins, like many of our own oligarchs, think they can ride out the global warming catastrophe they’re bringing about by buying safe havens for themselves and their families and purifying the rare air they breathe. This is the same kind of cruel indifference, rigidity and blindness that has led to civilizational collapses in the past. All that remains to be seen is whether the pattern will hold in our ‘more enlightened’ time as well. One thing is for sure, though: none of us can afford to stay on the sidelines hoping that recycling our cans or driving a prius will solve the problem; or that this time, because we’re all such nice, well-meaning people, things will be different.