If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere — the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.
Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation — in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.
Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world’s nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn’t even attend. It was “a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago,” the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls “once thronged by multitudes.” Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, 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.
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. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious — our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless — position with three simple numbers.
The First Number: 2° Celsius
If the movie had ended in Hollywood fashion, the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 would have marked the culmination of the global fight to slow a changing climate. The world’s nations had gathered in the December gloom of the Danish capital for what a leading climate economist, Sir Nicholas Stern of Britain, called the “most important gathering since the Second World War, given what is at stake.” As Danish energy minister Connie Hedegaard, who presided over the conference, declared at the time: “This is our chance. If we miss it, it could take years before we get a new and better one. If ever.”
In the event, of course, we missed it. Copenhagen failed spectacularly. Neither China nor the United States, which between them are responsible for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, was prepared to offer dramatic concessions, and so the conference drifted aimlessly for two weeks until world leaders jetted in for the final day. Amid considerable chaos, President Obama took the lead in drafting a face-saving “Copenhagen Accord” that fooled very few. Its purely voluntary agreements committed no one to anything, and even if countries signaled their intentions to cut carbon emissions, there was no enforcement mechanism. “Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight,” an angry Greenpeace official declared, “with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport.” Headline writers were equally brutal: COPENHAGEN: THE MUNICH OF OUR TIMES? asked one.
The accord did contain one important number, however. In Paragraph 1, it formally recognized “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.” And in the very next paragraph, it declared that “we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required… so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius.” By insisting on two degrees — about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — the accord ratified positions taken earlier in 2009 by the G8, and the so-called Major Economies Forum. It was as conventional as conventional wisdom gets. The number first gained prominence, in fact, at a 1995 climate conference chaired by Angela Merkel, then the German minister of the environment and now the center-right chancellor of the nation.
Some context: So far, we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.) Given those impacts, in fact, many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target. “Any number much above one degree involves a gamble,” writes Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, “and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.” Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.” NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet’s most prominent climatologist, is even blunter: “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: “Some countries will flat-out disappear.” When delegates from developing nations were warned that two degrees would represent a “suicide pact” for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, “One degree, one Africa.”
Despite such well-founded misgivings, political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target — indeed, it’s fair to say that it’s the only thing about climate change the world has settled on. All told, 167 countries responsible for more than 87 percent of the world’s carbon emissions have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, endorsing the two-degree target. Only a few dozen countries have rejected it, including Kuwait, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Even the United Arab Emirates, which makes most of its money exporting oil and gas, signed on. The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius — it’s become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.
The Second Number: 565 Gigatons
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.)
This idea of a global “carbon budget” emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since we’ve increased the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we’re currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.
How good are these numbers? No one is insisting that they’re exact, but few dispute that they’re generally right. 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.” William Collins, a senior climate scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, agrees. “I think the results of this round of simulations will be quite similar,” he says. “We’re not getting any free lunch from additional understanding of the climate system.”
We’re not getting any free lunch from the world’s economies, either. With only a single year’s lull in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis, we’ve continued to pour record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, year after year. In late May, the International Energy Agency published its latest figures — CO2 emissions last year rose to 31.6 gigatons, up 3.2 percent from the year before. America had a warm winter and converted more coal-fired power plants to natural gas, so its emissions fell slightly; China kept booming, so its carbon output (which recently surpassed the U.S.) rose 9.3 percent; the Japanese shut down their fleet of nukes post-Fukushima, so their emissions edged up 2.4 percent. “There have been efforts to use more renewable energy and improve energy efficiency,” said Corinne Le Quéré, who runs England’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. “But what this shows is that so far the effects have been marginal.” In fact, study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year — and at that rate, we’ll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today’s preschoolers will be graduating from high school. “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.
So, new data in hand, everyone at the Rio conference renewed their ritual calls for serious international action to move us back to a two-degree trajectory. The charade will continue in November, when the next Conference of the Parties (COP) of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change convenes in Qatar. This will be COP 18 — COP 1 was held in Berlin in 1995, and since then the process has accomplished essentially nothing. Even scientists, who are notoriously reluctant to speak out, are slowly overcoming their natural preference to simply provide data. “The message has been consistent for close to 30 years now,” Collins says with a wry laugh, “and we have the instrumentation and the computer power required to present the evidence in detail. If we choose to continue on our present course of action, it should be done with a full evaluation of the evidence the scientific community has presented.” He pauses, suddenly conscious of being on the record. “I should say, a fuller evaluation of the evidence.”
So far, though, such calls have had little effect. We’re in the same position we’ve been in for a quarter-century: scientific warning followed by political inaction. Among scientists speaking off the record, disgusted candor is the rule. One senior scientist told me, “You know those new cigarette packs, where governments make them put a picture of someone with a hole in their throats? Gas pumps should have something like that.”
The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons
This number is the scariest of all — one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios. The number describes 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. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number — 2,795 — is higher than 565. Five times higher.
The Carbon Tracker Initiative — led by James Leaton, an environmentalist who served as an adviser at the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers — combed through proprietary databases to figure out how much oil, gas and coal the world’s major energy companies hold in reserve. The numbers aren’t perfect — they don’t fully reflect the recent surge in unconventional energy sources like shale gas, and they don’t accurately reflect coal reserves, which are subject to less stringent reporting requirements than oil and gas. But for the biggest companies, the figures are quite exact: If you burned everything in the inventories of Russia’s Lukoil and America’s ExxonMobil, for instance, which lead the list of oil and gas companies, each would release more than 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Which is exactly why this new number, 2,795 gigatons, is such a big deal. Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit — equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit — the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.
We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.
Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground — it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide — those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives 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 how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.