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COMMENTARY

Has the train left the station? Likely

 Posted: 2:00 AM December 07, 2012

It's an interesting environmental metaphor: The train has left the station. In other words, while the world held lengthy and often muted discussions, spanning decades, about the environment and the warming of our planet, and while denialists insisted that rising temperatures, unprecedented droughts, extreme storms and retreating arctic ice are not man-made but cyclic, the train departed and there will be no do-overs.

What follows is based almost entirely on a recent Rolling Stone article, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," written by veteran environmentalist Bill McKibben. He makes the case that the decades-long — often acrimonious, certainly disheartening — debates regarding global warming have been rendered moot. The discussion has been fundamentally altered.

McKibben's math: Since 1995, there has been general agreement by scientists and environmentalists that regarding global warming, 2 degrees Celcius should not be surpassed. But, as McKibben points out, the planet's temperature increase already stands at just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, a rise which has to date caused extensive damage: a third of all summer sea ice is gone; the oceans are 30 percent more acidic (affecting coral reefs globally); and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere is now 5 percent wetter, resulting in extreme weather events (100-year storms occurring every five to 10 years). Some scientists insist that anything above one degree Celsius is regarded as a game changer.

"And yet," writes McKibben, "167 countries responsible for 87 percent of the world's carbon have endorsed the 2-degree target."

McKibben's second number: 565 gigatons. Scientists estimate that if we pour no more than 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere by midcentury, we can keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees. But even if we were to stop increasing CO2 today, the planet would continue to warm an additional 0.8 degrees as previously released carbon continues to warm earth's envelope, taking us ever closer to the 2 degrees.

"Study after study," writes McKibben, "predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly 3 percent a year — and at that rate, we'll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years"…" He goes on to reference Fatih Birol, the Paris-based International Energy Agency's chief economist, who stated that the trend "is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about 6 degrees."

McKibben's third number: 2,795 gigatons. "This number represents," writes McKibben, "the amount of carbon already identified in the coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn." The key point is that this number is five times higher than the 565 gigatons necessary to hold warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

McKibben points out that "we have five times as much oil and gas on the books (meaning in the ground, ready to be extracted) as climate scientists think is safe to burn.

Before we knew these numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain."

Know that McKibben has spoken and written eloquently about environmental concerns for decades, premised on the belief that if enough individuals changed their behavior — recycled, practiced conservation, embraced wind and solar, championed sustainability — that there was still time to get on the train, so to speak. Green was the operative brand.

But there has been a sea change in the thinking of many environmentalists, including McKibben. This change represents a paradigm shift that is profound and unsettling and poses an existential conundrum. McKibben writes, "So far "… environmental efforts to tackle global warming have failed. The planet's emissions of CO2 continue to soar, especially as developing countries emulate the industries of the West. People now perceive — correctly — that their individual actions will not make a decisive difference. "Given a hundred years, you could conceivably change lifestyles to matter."

Time, he acknowledges, is what we lack, as well as governments worldwide that possesses the will to confront our environmental reality. The current U.S. administration just granted Shell permission to drill in sections of the Arctic. Canada is committed to extracting its tar sands, hoping to transfer the synthetic crude oil via the Keystone pipeline across the U.S. And "drill, baby, drill" still echoes.

McKibben's math raises the question: What next for those who believe they can make a difference while struggling to be good stewards of the earth? Clearly, the meta-solution must be global. Anything less will ultimately fail. And so nihilism, for some, beckons.

McKibben's hope is that there is massive outrage by the global community that might translate into a movement impacting the energy companies (through the divestment of their stocks). However, he acknowledges, we may have waited too long to start — and so begins the conversation of adaptation — calling forth once again the image of that train, receding into the distance, the sun, feeling ever warmer, dropping just below the horizon.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.


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