It’s the math, stupid

Big Oil numbers don’t add up in era of climate change

There’s a famous aphorism about fishing that seems apropos to the fight against the continued exploitation of hydrocarbons in the age of climate change. It goes something like this: To continue doing what doesn’t work is a sign of insanity.

The origin of this little bit of fishing wisdom is a quote from Albert Einstein, who said that, “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Bill McKibben, the now iconic author-turned-climate-activist, has taken those words to heart, and has decided to focus his soft-spoken, science-based wrath on the oil industry, rather than the spineless politicians who have failed us on the climate change file.

McKibben is one of America’s finest journalists, but once he had researched and written The End of Nature, the first popular book about the implications and impacts of climate change, this shy Sunday school teacher from Vermont just couldn’t let go. So he put his writing on hold and founded, one of the most potent advocacy organizations in the mad push to make our politicians do something to prevent the coming climate catastrophe.

But McKibben has had another epiphany. This political strategy has largely failed. While advocates like McKibben have built the largest environmental movement since the birth of nuclear power, neither the American nor Canadian governments have done anything meaningful to solve the climate problem — and Canada, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s zealous pursuit of Hydrocarbon Heaven, is in full retreat from the empty commitments it has made.

So McKibben, ever the resourceful environmental warrior, is changing tack. Like a football coach at halftime, he has analyzed the opposition’s strategy and found their weaknesses, and he is making the necessary adjustments. Forget the politicians; it’s time to go after Big Oil directly.

“It’s time to march on Dallas,” McKibben told a boisterous crowd at the University of Vermont, where he kicked off a 20-city Do the Math Tour, which will be officially launched in Seattle on November 7, 2012, the day after the election. “The fossil fuel industry has behaved so recklessly that they should lose their social licence — their veneer of respectability. You want to take away our planet and our future? We’re going to take away your money and your good name.”

Here are the numbers prompting McKibben’s peaceful assault on the hydrocarbon industry. According to the overwhelming majority of scientists, we can only put 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere if we want to stay below 2 C of warming, which McKibben (and most of the world’s national governments) agree is necessary to avoid risking catastrophe for life on Earth. The Earth has already warmed by 0.8 C; even if we shut off all human-caused carbon today, the climate will warm another 0.8 C. So we don’t have much wiggle room.

But the fossil-fuel industry doesn’t seem all that interested in climate math. In fact, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists estimates that the proven coal, oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela, Kuwait and Canada) that act like fossil-fuel companies, contains almost 2,800 gigatons of CO2 — or five times the amount we can release to maintain 2 C degrees of warming.

Even my seventh-grade daughter can see that the math just doesn’t add up. That’s why McKibben and are hitting the road to, according to the Do the Math website, “build the movement that will change the terrifying math of the climate crisis.” This movement needs to be strong enough to stand up to the fossil fuel industry so that it can “mount an unprecedented campaign to cut off the industry’s financial and political support by divesting our schools, churches and government from fossil fuels.”

Rather than build a movement to convince our seemingly incapable politicians from adopting meaningful laws, policies and regulations that will phase out dangerous hydrocarbons, McKibben and his crew are going to cut the fossil-fuel industry off at the knees by asking individuals, and the banks and investment funds to which we are all connected, to simply cut off the funding to these obdurate, corporate giants that prefer profiting from the past rather than investing in a sustainable future.

Comments: 11

Clairvoyant wrote:

Now that is a great idea: "...divesting our schools, churches and government from fossil fuels ..."
So, no heating oil, no natural gas, no electricy, no plastic, no concrete, no metal, wood harvested with flint axes, no diesel & no gasoline so no cars & no trucks & no tractors, forests cleared to provide grazing for horses & other beasts of burden. Okay, so no is an exxxxagerrrrrration for example, you can alwasys get some natural gas from pig manure ... but wait, there won't be any pigs because there will be no meat in your diet: and there will be electricity from hydropower ... but wait, dams are bad (flood land) bad (put pollutants into the water) bad (kill fish) bad (change the temperature of the water) bad (put the greenhouse gas water vapor into the air) bad (destroy scenic sites) bad (cause earthquakes) ... so you won't have any dams: and there will be electricity from windmills & photovoltaics ... but wait, you won't have all the high alloys & metals needed to build these, and there won't be any dams for pumped storage.

So while Bill is busy cutting off "funding to these obdurate, corporate giants", you should get busy cutting off fossil fuels & all the products derived from fossil fuels from all those "obdurate human individuals" ... yourself included?

on Nov 8th, 2012 at 12:43pm Report Abuse

SalishSea wrote:

David Roberts on Grist tweets during Sandy--pointing out the consequences from TIME LAG in effects from CO2--why so urgent to act NOW--the clilmate will not turn on a dime when we actually start reducing emissions!

David Roberts’ "tweet record" while Sandy worked its devastation
David Roberts@drgrist

Realtalk: The oceans will continue to rise for at least 50 years no matter what we do. We can only affect the latter half of century.

29 Oct 12David Roberts@drgrist
There's nothing Obama (or Buh, Clinton, Bush, or Reagan) could have done to prevent Sandy. Climate don't work that way. Big time lags.

29 Oct 12David Roberts@drgrist
The mega-hurricanes that we CAN prevent are the ones that will bedevil our children in the latter third of this century.

29 Oct 12 David Roberts@drgrist
The best we can do for ourselves and those alive in the next 50 years is enhance the resilience of our communities & infrastructure.

29 Oct 12 David Roberts@drgrist
Luckily, distributed renewable energy accomplishes both: reduces carbon emissions & enhances resilience.

A two-fer! Let's do it....."

on Nov 8th, 2012 at 2:47pm Report Abuse

Rogerlg wrote:

Hi Clairvoyant,

You may not have seen this argument clearly; Bill McKibben's not talking about shutting the gas valves in schools and churches, but getting them to divest their INVESTMENTS in the fossil fuel industry.

on Nov 9th, 2012 at 12:24pm Report Abuse

Rogerlg wrote:

It's ironic that the loudest voices in Canada calling for a carbon tax to deal with climate change are coming from the oil industry. But how do the rest of us feel about climate change? Carbon Conversations wants to find out.

It's an anonymous 2 minute survey online at; all it asks for is your opinion and your postal code.

on Nov 9th, 2012 at 12:27pm Report Abuse

Rogerlg wrote:

Hi Clairvoyant,

Unity College in Maine just announced today at Climate Progress that they are, in fact, getting out of their fossil fuel investments.

on Nov 9th, 2012 at 12:32pm Report Abuse

Rogerlg wrote:

By the way Jeff Gailus, speaking of numbers...

A new report released this week by PriceWaterhouse Cooper says that holding to only a 2 degree temperature increase is virtually impossible, and that we're heading for a 4 to 6 degree increase. (They talk in Fahrenheit, calling it 7 to 11 degrees).

on Nov 9th, 2012 at 12:37pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

To Rogerlg: I understand that McKibben is calling for divestment of investments in the fossil fuel industry, and not shutting off fossil fuel to schools and hospitals. Great "feel good", no pain, look at me, I'm saving the world! Simple hypocrisy. Unity College & McKibben & Gailus want it both ways, all the benefits that come from using fossil fuels, while condemning those who provide the fossil fuels. McKibben's new strategy will fail: as long as people use the fossil fuels, there will be companies that provide the fossil fuels to the market place. Do you really think that replacing Exxon & Devon with CNPC is an improvement?

To David Roberts: Distributed renewable energy may reduce fossil fuel CO2 emissions: it does not necessarily reduce total greenhouse gas emissions. It may increase resilience, but that is not certain: isolated units are not resilient without great cost ($ & labour & energy): interconnected units carry heavy costs of interconnection & backup: small may be beautiful, but it is also extremely inefficient. Have you ever heated with wood? Without using any fossil fuel? Owned a large enough woodlot, so the trees would grow as fast as you burned them? Chopped down the trees with an axe? Limbed them? Cut & split? Hauled to your house? Stored for a year to dry? Loaded the woodstove every day? Emptied the ashes? Cleaned the flue? And breathed the smoke? Yes, you would enjoy Walden, but maybe after a couple of decades, maybe not so much? And sorry, photovoltaics & windpower are at this point still parasites, capexed into existence and kept alive, by the wealth from fossil fuels: the technology is still not there, in particular energy storage. First law of thermodynamics: there is no free lunch.

on Nov 13th, 2012 at 3:08pm Report Abuse

Rogerlg wrote:

Hi Clairvoyant,

I detect a bit of extremism in your responses to both Mr. Roberts and I. How's that all-or-nothing thinking working for you? Heating our houses with wood for decades? How about building our houses to be so energy efficient they can be heated in a Calgary winter with a hair dryer, or by doing jumping jacks? (That range of efficiency can be found with the PassivHaus design standard, birthed in Canada but incubated and implemented in Europe; )

Neither Bill McKibben, nor David Suzuki, nor Greenpeace, nor the International Energy Agency (which aggressively supports both renewables and carbon pricing) are suggesting we can get off fossil fuels by next Tuesday. We must, however, make the big decisions today that will guide our energy and infrastructure developments in increasingly clean and efficient directions for decades. That's quite different from digging up and burning our fossil fuel resources as fast as possible.

on Nov 14th, 2012 at 10:32pm Report Abuse

Jeff Gailus wrote:

You are so right, Clairyoyant, there is no free lunch; with that, I can agree. But the cost of some lunches are higher, and longer, than others. Increasingly dirty and difficult-to-access hydrocarobons are becoming increasingly costly, and it's time to switch to alternatives. Of course, that's hard to admit for individuals and societies who have bet their livelihoods and economies on the dark horse of Big Oil, but increasing numbers of people all over the world have begun to see the light, and this growing movement eventually will persuade politicians and the market to stop subsidizing the oil industry and invest in clean energy technologies in a meaningful way. (Just look at Germany.) It will take time, and we'll likely have to give up our instatiable appetite for meaningless bling, beads and baubles, but we'll get there. We just need to ignore the naysayers and get to work. But if all the bean counters and engineers who are so busy pumping (and digging) oil out of the ground would instead turn their genius toward alternatives, it would be a hell of a lot quicker.

on Nov 15th, 2012 at 3:10pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Jeff: Sorry to disappoint, but "hydrocarbons are becoming increasingly costly" is not yet a reality. There are certainly ups & downs, but take out inflation, and the price of refined hydrocarbons such as gasoline have not changed a heck of a lot in at least a half century. Natural gas's price rise to the moon has been temporarily interrupted by shale gas, and crude oil may be following the same trajectory ... now wouldn't that be a pain ... gasoline costing less than 50 or maybe 100 years ago.
Thanks for acknowledging my genius, but sorry to disappoint, I have spent a lot of time looking at alternatives, and working on a few, and they come up short ... windpower was just around the corner forty years ago, and it's still just around the corner ... PV is not even around the corner ... the generating technologies have improved, but not enough, and "storage" remains the black hole, and all (pumped, momentum, battery, hydrogen, pressure) have fundamental (free lunch) problems.
I agree that we should stop subsidizing fuels ... now how about you and those increasing numbers of people all over the world, tell that to Chavez, or to governments in places like Brazil, & Iran?

on Nov 18th, 2012 at 9:52pm Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:

Carbon taxes won't do dick-all to curb emissions. Rather, they are another revenue stream, for the American and European governments, which are drowning in red ink. These costs WILL get passed on to consumers, by energy companies, as well as providers of other goods and services. And carbon taxation, cap & trade, etc. is a not too-subtle push to make wind, hydroelectric, and especially nuclear energy--which are fraught with their own environmental problems--attractive.

At some point, people are going to have to confront the elephant in the room of population growth. Notwithstanding the shrill denials of everyone from Mark Steyn, to the Socialist Workers' Party, overpopulation is a real issue. More people mean more energy use, PERIOD, not to mention nitrate fertilizers (NOx is a strong greenhouse gas), and water consumption to grow food. And the large-scale transfer on immigrants from the warm 'South' to the cold 'North' (Canada, etc.), where heating and other fuel usage is needed, isn't helping. But this is all too un-PC for people to even discuss these days.

on Nov 29th, 2012 at 1:46am Report Abuse

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