‘New New Math’ Means Keeping Even More Fossils in the Ground: McKibben
Last week’s blockbuster report by Oil Change International shows that the “new new math” calling for urgent greenhouse gas reductions is even more ominous than it was just four years ago, 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben reports in a post for New Republic.
“The new numbers are startling,” he writes. “Only four years ago, I wrote an essay called Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. In the piece, I drew on research from a London-based think tank, the Carbon Tracker Initiative,” which showed that the world’s known fossil reserves “contained five times more carbon than we can burn if we want to keep from raising the planet’s temperature by more than 2°C.”
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But the figures in the OCI study are “even more explosive,” McKibben notes: scientists estimate that humanity can only emit another 800 gigatons of carbon dioxide to have a two-thirds chance of keeping average warming below 2°. And today’s coal, oil, and gas production represents 942 Gt.
“So the math problem is simple, and it goes like this. 942 > 800.”
But something else has changed in the last four years, McKibben writes: After seeing today’s climate impacts resulting from 1°C average global warming, scientists and climate hawks began advocating for a 1.5°C long-term limit, and nations accepted that long-term goal in the Paris Agreement. “To have even a 50–50 chance of meeting that goal, we can only release about 353 gigatons more CO2. So let’s do the math again: 942 > 353.”
That will mean closing all coal mines and some oil and gas fields before they’re finished producing.
“Absent some incredible breakthrough in mythical carbon-sucking unicorns, the numbers say we’re done with the expansion of the fossil fuel industry,” Oil Change Executive Director Stephen Kretzmann told McKibben. “Living up to the Paris Agreement means we must start a managed decline in the fossil fuel industry immediately—and manage that decline as quickly as possible.”
McKibben and Kretzmann stress that “keeping it in the ground” doesn’t mean shutting down all fossil production immediately. “If you let current fields begin their natural decline,” says Kretzmann, “you’ll be using 50% less oil by 2033.” “That gives us 17 years, as the wells we’ve already drilled slowly run dry, to replace all that oil with renewable energy,” McKibben notes. “That’s enough time—maybe—to replace gas guzzlers with electric cars. To retrain pipeline workers and coal miners to build solar panels and wind turbines.”
Everyone from ExxonMobil to the U.S. interior secretary considers the idea of a ‘Keep It in the Ground Act’ unrealistic. “But as the new math makes clear, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the only realistic approach,” McKibben writes.
“This is literally a math test, and it’s not being graded on a curve. It only has one correct answer. And if we don’t get it right, then all of us—along with our 10,000-year-old experiment in human civilization—will fail.”