Bill McKibben – Do the Maths

Bill McKibben - David vs Goliath (Image: Christopher Wright)
Bill McKibben – David vs Goliath (Image: Christopher Wright)

Last night I attended Bill McKibben’s first public Australian lecture at the University of Sydney. It was sell-out event and the Seymour Theatre was full as young and old crammed in to hear what one newspaper has termed the “rock star of the global warming movement”. Waiting for the doors to open it did have that feeling of a big event – a performance by someone who has been willing to call-out the elephant in the room – our convenient but ultimately suicidal race to change the physics of the Earth in the name of “business as usual”. People were hungry to see and hear the unassuming American who has become the most prominent public face of the fight against global warming.

The message is now a simple but very powerful one. The same message he first developed in the Rolling Stone article that “went viral” and captured the world’s attention. Three simple numbers:

  • 2 degrees Celsius – this is the maximum increase in global temperature agreed to by the world’s politicians at Copenhagen in 2009. As McKibben and others have pointed out, allowing the world to warm to 2 degrees would likely be disastrous for much of the world’s population, however this is currently the only global agreement we have.
  • 565 gigatonnes – this is the emissions budget we must keep within in order not to exceed 2 degrees of global warming. It is based on a scientific paper by Meinshausen et al. (2009) which calculated how much cumulated Co2 emissions humanity had already released into the atmosphere and how much we can emit in the future in order to stay within the 2 degrees maximum by mid-century.
  • 2,795 gigatonnes – this last number as Bill demonstrated graphically “is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma”. Based on work by the Carbon Tracker Initiative in London, it calculates the carbon emissions that would result from the consumption of known fossil-fuel reserves – the greenhouse gases that fossil fuel companies and nations plan to burn and which supports the value of their shares.

This simple maths is startling. “Business as usual” will mean we are not even close to retaining global warming within the politically convenient (but also dangerous) 2 degrees limit. Those known reserves are 5 times greater than our budget. As Bill argued last night – it’s too late to prevent climate change, the issue now is preventing it from becoming a catastrophic threat to our civilisation.

So what to do? Here Bill made some interesting points. The current, bizarre “climate change debate” between climate change deniers and those urging action will inevitably end, because, as he argued, irrespective of the ability of educators and activists to inform the public of the issue, “mother nature” is a far more effective educator. Extreme weather events, as are currently playing out around the world, will get to a stage where even the most vehement denier will have trouble maintaining their stance (although having watched Federal Senator Corey Bernardi on ABC’s Q and A the other night – perhaps nothing will sway his perspective!).

More specifically, Bill’s approach identifies a specific group of actors as largely responsible for this situation – the fossil fuel industry . This provides a focus for public concern. While some might see here a demonisation of particular industries and companies, the point is I think more systemic and ethical. This industry’s business model results in a significant threat to the future of our society and indeed, our species. Ethically, as Bill argued recently in an article in The Monthly, “If you sell something with knowledge of the damage its consumption will do, you bear some responsibility for that damage.” Once the obfuscation on climate change ends, these industries are potentially in a very difficult space – a “carbon bubble” in which large fossil fuel reserves which underpin their value cannot be realised. More complex however is the potential reputational and legal implications of knowingly engaging in social and environmental harm.

The emergence of groups like illustrate an emerging, and potentially effective, social movement on climate change. Indeed, this point has been highlighted by Professor Andy Hoffman from the University of Michigan, who visited the University of Sydney in March. In his lectures and discussion on where the politics of climate change is heading, he argued Bill McKibben has been largely responsible for this emerging social movement, by identifying in a simple form the key dilemma of our carbon emissions trajectory, the source of these emissions, and also strategies of response.

In the latter half of last night’s talk, Bill focused on the divestment movement his group have initiated across the United States in colleges and cities like Seattle and San Francisco. This has energised a diverse range of citizens to look at where their savings are invested and to agitate to shift investment away from fossil fuel development. This activism has also involved civil disobedience directed at local examples of fossil fuel expansion (most notably in the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline). Here in Australia, we are also witnessing the growth of similar social movements in campaigns against the expansion of coal mining and CSG.

In closing last night, Bill argued that he was actually somewhat optimistic about the growing social engagement with this issue. He noted that the media often dismissed his activism as a hopeless “David versus Goliath” battle. However, as a Sunday school teacher, he knew how that battle ended! In coming years climate politics is going to become more heated as the David of climate change activism faces off against the Goliath of fossil fuels forever – there is still room for hope.

7 thoughts on “Bill McKibben – Do the Maths”

  1. Good post and having been at the presentation myself it was very concerning to hear how far we have to go. I was however encouraged by Bill’s speech and that by moving investments such as your super fund away from fossil fuels can be a very simple but effective way of making a difference. What really concerns me is that at the current rate of consumption I think we only have around 14 years left of our carbon budget to use up. My daughter will be only 17 and what will the world be like then?

      1. Rachel,
        Thanks for the link to that – hadn’t seen it – frightening numbers! The key number on the carbon budget comes from the Meinshausen et al. (2009) study which defined what the limit was re carbon emissions already released and how much we had left re 2 degrees.

        On a related matter, I’m guest editing a special issue of the UK journal “Organization” on “Climate Change and Future Imaginings” coming out in September which has an invited commentary by Bill McKibben and interviews with Prof Michael Mann and Paul Gilding as well some great academic studies. The ‘celeb’ pieces will be open access – so should be interesting stuff – I’ll post when they are out!

  2. The simplest math, seems to get no hearing; over a thousand qualified scientists, espousing the threat, to but a few denying it.

    1. Greg,
      Yes agree – it truly is bizarre that we have reached this stage in a public debate over the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced as a species. It’d be comical if it wasn’t so damned serious!
      As Kurt Vonnegut stated about one way this may play out:
      “We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard, and too damned cheap.”


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