Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Latest News > Post and Comments

Latest News

“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” — Bill McKibben’s call for a carbon divestment move

But the core problem here is that, absent real leapfrogging, the developing countries will be hard put to take any paths apart from those that have already been pioneered in the wealthy world

This article originally appeared at EcoEquity

The new issue of Rolling Stone has a major essay by Bill McKibben, called Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. It’s a must read, for a number of reasons. The big one is that McKibben’s call for a “carbon disinvestment” movement – aimed at breaking the hammerlock that the fossil cartel has on our civilization – is a big step forward. It’s not the only step we need to take (more on this below) but it would make a huge difference.

First up, Terrifying New Math is a fine science-for-civilians essay on the recent “extreme weather,” which has been monumental. In fact, the summer of 2012 may well turn out to be a decisive turning point in the climate war. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the deniers have obviously peaked, at least in the US, at least for now. Not that they’ve given up – or run out of funding – but at least they’re now in the rear view. I for one doubt that they’ll be taking control of the debate again.

Anyway, there’s a lot of extreme-weather color in this essay. Who knew that this spring, when it rained in Mecca at a temperature of 109 degrees, it was the hottest recorded downpour on the books? And McKibben does a great job of quickly moving on to key numbers, and then drawing some substantive conclusions.

The numbers are key to the story. McKibben chose three:

The First Number: 2° Celsius

2°C of warming, maximum. This is the semi-official inter-governmental global temperature target (“the bottomist of bottom lines”). And it’s extremely, dangerously high. McKibben makes the case here well and briefly, and correctly notes that the ubiquity of support for the 2°C target is a sign of our desperation. 2°C of warming would very likely be a catastrophe. And the way things are going, we’re not going to come anywhere close to holding the 2°C line.

“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.

The Second Number: 565 Gigatons

The real action begins, though, with McKibben’s introduction of the global carbon budget. And I’d bet that this is the first time it’s shown its face in Rolling Stone. The discussion, again, is miraculously short, and the point is clear.

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.) . . .

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.”

In other words, we’re running out of “atmospheric space.” And, yes, we’re sure.

The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons

This larger number is the point of the story. To see this, note that it’s five times as large as the 565-gigaton carbon budget we met just above.

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. . . 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. . .

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground – 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.

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. [My emphasis] The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but the carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.

If you haven’t read the whole of McKibben’s Terrifying New Math, read it now. Here’s the link again. When you’re ready to loop back and think more about the carbon bubble in particular, see From “peak oil” to “unburnable carbon”, which I wrote last year when Carbon Tracker’s Carbon Bubble report was released. And by the way, it too is mercifully short.


The politics are a longer story. McKibben, a consummate literary journalist turned consummate organizer, is working hard, here, to focus attention on what I call the fossil cartel. This makes terrific sense, for all sorts of reasons. Back up far enough, though, and they come to this – while the extremely rapid reduction of global emissions is technologically and economically possible, the decisive action that we need would not be free (think about that $20 trillion in “stranded assets”). There would be powerful losers.

These losers can usefully be seen as a “carbon cartel” that consists of the fossil-energy companies, the fossil-energy exporting nations, and their innumerable satellites, agents, and camp followers. And that cartel is exactly where McKibben, and our friends at, and the folks at Oil Change International, and lots of others, are setting their sights. It’s an excellent focus. Hell, from the point of view of place-based and national activism, it’s probably the best we could hope for. It opens doors to real and useful insights. Like this one:

If Exxon burns its current reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms, of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter of the remaining two-degree budget. Severstal, the Russian mining giant, leads the list of coal companies, followed by firms like BHP Billiton and Peabody. The numbers are simply staggering – this industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it.

So far so good. Clear as a bell. But what are the implications? Here we need a bit more thought, which can usefully begin by focusing on that $20 trillion in assets – which we fully intend to “strand,” and as quickly as possible.

McKibben’s essay paves the way, by framing the goal as “divestment.” This is a major step forward from the argument made in the Carbon Bubble report itself, which basically presents itself as a call for rational and prudential management of the investment economy, rather than, say, human civilization.

Now is the time to move into the second generation of investor action on climate change, which tackles the system that is locked into financing fossil fuels. Climate change poses a great threat to the global economy and it is not unrealistic to expect regulators responsible for assessing new systemic risks to address the carbon bubble.

The goal now is for regulators to send clear signals to the market that cause a shift away from the huge carbon stockpiles which pose a systemic risk to investors. This is the duty of the regulator – to rise to this challenge and prevent the bubble bursting.

In any case, the alternative to rational management, or divestment, or whatever you want to call it, is just more delay and fossil lock-in. It’s a future in which the cartel remains firmly in control of energy system investment and deployment. One in which after, say, another decade, when the danger can no longer be denied, “the markets” suddenly “decide” (as they say) that most known “economic reserves” of fossil fuels simply will not be burned. That they are obsolete. Which would presumably mean a sudden and catastrophic “repricing” of coal and oil stocks. And, as Paul Gilding put it in his 2011 book The Great Disruption, “if you lose your shirt on your coal and oil investments, don’t say you weren’t warned.”

McKibben is as prudential as they come. But he’s not pretending that divestment is a matter of rational investing. Rather, his goal is a movement that’s powerful enough to isolate and then sunset the fossil cartel, or at least force them to “become true energy companies, this time for real.” Nor does he pretend that this would be easy. And while he puts a certain faith in capitalism’s famous capacity for “creative destruction,” he’s not waiting for the cartel to fall. He’s pushing.

Of course the cartel is very, very strong. All else being equal, it’s going to take us all down with it. This means we have to fight, and it also means that we could win. Though if you compare the carbon divestment challenge to the one faced by the divestment campaign that helped bring down South Africa’s Apartheid. . .

The fossil-fuel industry is obviously a tougher opponent, and even if you could force the hand of particular companies, you’d still have to figure out a strategy for dealing with all the sovereign nations that, in effect, act as fossil-fuel companies. The link for college students is even more obvious in this case. If their college’s endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree. (The same logic applies to the world’s largest investors, pension funds, which are also theoretically interested in the future – that’s when their members will “enjoy their retirement.”) “Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective,” says Bob Massie, a former anti-apartheid activist who helped found the Investor Network on Climate Risk. “The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now.”


There’s just one wee problem, which becomes visible only when you imagine success, which is to say, when you imagine an accelerated fossil phase-out that is driven, in part, by increased fossil-fuel prices. Here, McKibben chooses to be upbeat:

If you put a price on carbon, through a direct tax or other methods, it would enlist markets in the fight against global warming. Once Exxon has to pay for the damage its carbon is doing to the atmosphere, the price of its products would rise. Consumers would get a strong signal to use less fossil fuel – every time they stopped at the pump, they’d be reminded that you don’t need a semi-military vehicle to go to the grocery store. The economic playing field would now be a level one for nonpolluting energy sources. And you could do it all without bankrupting citizens – a so-called “fee-and-dividend” scheme would put a hefty tax on coal and gas and oil, then simply divide up the proceeds, sending everyone in the country a check each month for their share of the added costs of carbon. By switching to cleaner energy sources, most people would actually come out ahead.

The problem is the “most people would actually come out ahead,” part, wherein McKibben signals the importance of fee and dividend, which seems to be the current name of cap and dividend, a proposal I very much support. Still, what McKibben should really say is that “most people in rich countries would actually come out ahead.” Because if fee and dividend was the only equity framework on offer, and if energy prices increased as a result of the sunsetting of the fossil industry – which would be a very real danger, given this crazy world and its crazy economy – this wouldn’t be very good news for most people in the developing world. Not, at least, during the next few critical decades, wherein we hope to see a great transition. Which would probably fail for just this reason.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I love most all of the argument here, and I hesitate to write these words. The situation in the US is now so serious, so certifiably insane, that we Americans can be forgiven a bit of strategic self-involvement. We have to do whatever it takes to turn the American supertanker, and if that means temporarily putting the really big problem of – oh, let’s call it international solidarity – aside, so be it. The movement is an ecosystem, and we don’t all have to do the same thing. But do note that we never quite get around to the “acting globally” part of the equation. And that, despite all, despite even mad dogs and Republicans, climate remains a global commons problem. And that the “cooperative management” that’s needed to solve such a problem, as Elinor Ostrom explained in her 2009 Nobel lecture (delivered to commemorate her receipt of the economics prize) is only possible in the presence of “institutions that bring out the best in humans” by supporting “free communication,” “trust,” and “equitable outcomes.” And this means taking a very serious whack at not just the problem of domestic transitional justice (what fee-and-dividend is all about) but global transitional justice as well.

It’s too easy to say, as McKibben does, that …

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.

But it’s not at all clear what concessions the Chinese could have offered, given the small potatoes that the rich-world negotiators had put on the table. In fact, China’s tactics in Copenhagen, clumsy and unimaginative though they may have been, made a terrible and even tragic kind of sense. And it was hardly the Chinese alone that resisted the deal. The whole developing-country block was torn between the desire for great ambition and the fear that, all else being equal, greater ambition would close off their development pathways.

And it still is. Torn, I mean. Which is why the climate negotiators, and the Rio negotiators for that matter, are lucky if they can even crawl forward. And why the key to a breakthrough is, in the latest jargon, Equitable Access to Sustainable Development. This is a long story, but it begins with a simple truth. Which brings me to …

The Fourth Number: ‘X’

The climate problem, in a nutshell, is that we’ve already exhausted the global carbon budget – the atmospheric space – but that many of us are still far too poor to live minimally dignified, let alone prosperous lives. Given this, and given that global emissions must peak as soon as humanly possible, how shall we understand the predicament of the developing world? Will emerging powers like China and Brazil – where most all people are still far poorer than the average American, or European, or Japanese – have to force themselves to an emissions peak at the same time as these wealthier countries? Clearly, that’s not on the table. But how wealthy would a country have to be — take “X”‘ as its per-capita income, in international dollars — before it could reasonably be expected to peak its emissions? And with what guarantees of international support would it do so? And what about the truly poor nations, India and most of Africa for starters? And those nations that are particularly vulnerable to the coming “impacts,” as they are called? What considerations can they reasonably expect? Keep in mind that, at a certain point, it hardly matters if these are judged in terms of “climate justice” or “climate realism.” What finally matters is that the transition be fair enough to actually work.

The core problem here is that, absent real leapfrogging, the developing countries will be hard put to take any paths apart from those that have already been pioneered in the wealthy world. The awful truth is that the only proven routes to the promised land of “development” – to water and food security, improved health care and education, and in general dignified ways of life that offer substantive choices and freedoms – involve expanding access to energy services, and thus corresponding increases in fossil fuel use and thus carbon emissions. Given this, what to do? This is the South’s dilemma, and if all we have to say about it is that fossil price increases will have virtuous effects (which of course they will), then we are going to lose.

The bottom line: Only a grand and global coalition – one that includes activists, scientists, politicians, negotiators, various elites and lots of citizens, one that brings nations in both the North and the South together to redesign and rebuild the global energy system, and fast – can possibly be powerful enough to defeat the fossil cartel. Without such a grand coalition, we can fight, but we probably can’t win.

We’re kind of trapped here. There’s no choice but to move forward as we can. But, still, there has to be something more for the world’s poor, and for its strivers. If ever it seemed that the world’s elites were getting serious about the “sustainable development goals” that Rio+20 put on the agenda, then climate deadlock would begin to crumble and, not at all incidentally, the fossil cartel would find itself under real pressure. But leapfrogging costs money, and takes technology, and right now neither money nor technology is on the table. From the South’s perspective, this quite implacably means that development is still pitted hard again climate protection, and it will continue to mean this until low-carbon energy is no longer an expensive gamble that the poor are expected to make on their own.

A carbon disinvestment campaign is a great idea. But to line up the ducks that we’ll need to win that campaign, we also need a plan for “lifting up the poor,” globally and as an integral part of the abandonment of fossil energy. Fee-and-dividend approaches could indeed help within rich countries. But they won’t work internationally, and we need something that will. Because, as the protest signs outside the recent Bonn talks said, “Equity is the gateway to ambition.”

Tom Athanasiou, Author and director of Earth Island Project EcoEquityTom Athanasiou photo
Tom Athanasiou, the director of the Earth Island projectEcoEquity has been a close observer of the climate negotiations since 1999. He codirects both the Climate Action Network’s Equity Working Group and the Climate Equity Reference Project. His principle interest is distributional justice within the context of an emergency global climate mobilization, which he hopes to live to see.

Email this post to a friend.

Write to the editor about this post.

Subscribe Today
cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJFour issues of the award-winning
Earth Island Journal for only $10




“Climate scientists are in the same category as economists, psychiatrists, and other “professions” that can’t prove anything”

Firstly, not one “fact” with which we operate on from any field of science is ever truly proven; think of driving ones car, flying planes, consuming medication, all of these have implicit risk which stems from the uncertainty of the systems which they function within. The world is inherently chaotic (read: random events do occur), prescribing that one could truly prove something would indeed be impossible due to the random nature of the earth and the knowledge it contains.

HOWEVER,, you have obviously not spent any significant time reviewing the methodology by which climate scientists, or any type of scientist for that matter, upholds in order to arrive at the 40 climate models mentioned in this article. To be published in a peer reviewed scientific journal a researcher has to take every measure to eliminate bias, account for synergistic effect and ensure that their results are REPRODUCIBLE. This is important because it lends credibility to the knowledge obtained.

Climate models are not “guesses” thrown around by a bunch of hippies. Their the culmination of decades of observation, analysis and deductive reasoning. Their carried out (often) by advanced algorithms designed to eliminate the need to “guess” anything.

So please, continue to operate your life with the convenient assumption that your imperialist worldview and narcissistic attitude didn’t get us here. Please continue to degrade the people who are dedicating their careers to create solutions to a problem which they largely did not create. And PLEASE, should climate activists lose this fight, I invite you to soak up all the beautiful cancer granting UV sun that your precious fossil fuel atmosphere will give you.

By Holly Marshall on Sat, April 14, 2018 at 5:29 am

WHATSUP!!! Dept of Ag again…When admin tries to undertake an ambitious campaign to tackle climate change by regulating industries responsible for greenhouse gases,notably energy and transportation which contribute to 50% of total emissions; Dept of Ag sticks it to the people.

By Celine-M.B on Sun, November 06, 2016 at 6:30 am

This intrdouces a pleasingly rational point of view.

By Marnie on Mon, September 24, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Its gotten so that unless I can see someone refering to doing something about the climate change right now I don’t fully read their articles, comments , blogs, posts. I’ve probably read upwards ofv 10 thousand of these and not once have they mentioned the turning point deadline thats rapidly approaching. I’m totally amazied that your all convinced that the need to eliminate the CO2 is the focus that should be addressed. This from what I understand will slow the climates accelerating rise in temperature,while this plan might be of assistance to the overall slowing process it looks to be a lengthly process that will require entirely to much time.Theres an elaborite theory that to use massive intervention with unproven experimental,process, might interfer with globial peace. As possibility of floods , drought, and a multitude of various conditions could lead to conflict. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is little use of trying to draw a picture,if you will that any 8 year old child could understand, your so call deniers claim this is a process that happens every so many 10 thousand years. This may be a fact, but a queston,I’ve had is if it happens every so many 10 thousand years, how is it possible to coreout ice tubes that are a 100thousad years old from the glaciers, it seems they too are melting . I really think it inprobable that one can obtain ice from 100 thousand years ago every 10 thousand years. The fact that since the early parts of the last century and that during the middle of it; mass production and manufacturing that have added more pollution in different forms and at such a rate as to force this natural phenomenon to occur much earlier than it might have, and at an accelerated level of urgency. Still ,even with rain falling in Meca at 109 degrees, storms that remain stationary, tornados where none had been before, even more violent, now hurricane season is here what will it take? hurricanes that go up the coast then downthe coast maybe a collision of several? Still this is not the issue I’ve come here to have input on , while all seems as though it can somehow be basicly tolerated, be advised, as the world temperature rises, 1-2-3 degrees the ocean will also change temperature, it may take longer but it will change to a warmer state, meanwhile with the mean climate temperature rising, the perma frost , the tundra, the Russian plains all of these, consisting of the greatest accumulation of METHANE gas there is will first slowly then accelerated release this gas into the atmosphere, look on the maps, the northern hemisphere is completely dwarfed by these areas in comparison to populated land, it exist both above and below the sea, the Gulf of Mexico is heavy with this gas, there even exists floating islands near the bottom of the gulf, this will be released as the ocean temperature rises. The input I’m looking for is , what type of process can be applied to remove this gas from our atmosphere. In that it is at least 20 times more potentially harmful than Co2 will it require less to place the world in the tonage of particulate that can’t be burned or used? Has there ever been any attempt to estimate the tonnage of the combined areas. Does it look as though this release of methane gas has ever happened before or is this the same gas that is from the time of dinosaurs? I under stand the Russians are trying to monator this release as it happens? Does anyone other than me think the main governments need to start now whatever might either hold our temperature or reduce it now.

By George Chip Leveto Sr. on Fri, August 10, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Wow, Mr. Bill!  Somebody has self-esteem issues.  Climate scientists are real scientists.  Nobody professes to know anything with 100% certainty.  Let me guess, you are an investor and feel conflicted about the money you make in the stock market, by investing in global oil and gas corporations?  I know, bummer for you….....  Perhaps you should talk to someone…..

By Faith Morgan on Fri, August 10, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Still think hydro, waterwheels and hydrogen the way to go

By neillevine3 on Wed, August 01, 2012 at 11:04 am

the fossil-fuel industry can be successfully fought down.  They’ve been the main culprits behind the unwillingness of many to change the way they live. But I doubt it.  Most of my friends and family are conservatives and they absolutely reject any idea of anthropcentric global warming - which they believe is just liberal propaganda designed to get them used to collectivization and socialism. One of them who has Ph.D. in physics actually believes the sun’s causing it. He won’t be persuaded otherwise either. But somewhere in their subconscious minds something is happening - the EF5 Tornadoes that scoured Alabama in 2011 and the effect of the Derecho at the end of June and early July in 2012 has something churning in that shadowy place in their minds. Their undermind sees the climate is warming and this is causing them to unconsciously act despite themselves. However, the words that come out of them now drip with notions of survival. Plans, not yet come to writing, are being concocted. These have to do with fleeing the nest they helped to foul to places of perceived safety: the deep, deep woods, the mountains and tiny towns and villages located in notches in the foothills. Here they intend to “go Amish” and survive until it’s all clear and the climate right’s itself. They really believe that they can run and hide from it and then emerge to a renaissance of humanity.

By Mike Drabik on Wed, August 01, 2012 at 8:05 am

“ don’t need a semi-military vehicle to go to the grocery store”.  Get all of these people to wake up and start thinking of “we” instead of “I” and we are well on our way to reversing course.

By Andrew Baucom on Wed, August 01, 2012 at 5:05 am

FK Exxon.

The world is supposed to go to hell so Exxon’s shares can stay up???

By Noz on Wed, August 01, 2012 at 12:25 am

Here’s the problem I have with this. As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as a climate scientist. These are people who are trying to model something so huge that the best they can do is guess at it. That’s not scientific. One “climate scientist” asserts something and the next one takes is as near gospel and then builds a new assertion on top of the first one, and so on and so on. That’s not science. That’s guess work, and when someone demands that it be viewed as science, it becomes fraud.

Climate scientists are in the same category as economists, psychiatrists, and other “professions” that can’t prove anything, can’t cure anything, can’t even retroactively provide conclusive analysis about historic events. These are highly educated believers in their respective religions, but they are not scientists.

By Bill Gradwohl on Tue, July 31, 2012 at 9:19 pm

We could all start by drivin a bit slower smile

By Jason on Tue, July 31, 2012 at 7:13 am

ok Bill, so when I wake up tomorrow morning, what the f**k do I do to stop all this?

By les grice on Sat, July 28, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Math?  How about just the facts Jack!!!!

By neillevine3 on Sat, July 28, 2012 at 9:31 am

Bill is an English major who can peer review statistical models, he must be as smart as the Russian major Tom Friedman from the NY Times!

By Bob on Fri, July 27, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Leave a comment

Comments Policy

Remember my personal information?

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

View Posts by Date View Posts by Author


Four issues for just
$15 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!