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Hard Climate Math that's Easy to Understand

Dan Lashof

Posted November 19, 2012

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Friday night I joined a sold out crowd of students, fractivists, and other concerned citizens at the New York City stop of Bill McKibben’s Do The Math tour. That’s right; more 2000 New Yorkers paid $10 apiece to spend their Friday evening at an event sponsored by hearing about 2 degrees of warming, 565 gigatons of headroom, and 2795 gigatons of fossil fuel reserves. Who knew scary numbers could be such a draw? 

Apparently Bill McKibben did. Following on the heels of his surprise hit Rolling Stone article, New York was the tenth stop of a national tour which has drawn enthusiastic crowds at every venue since it began in Seattle on November 7th. It continues in Durham and Atlanta this week before heading to the Midwest next week. What’s all the excitement about? Let’s do the numbers.

2 °C:  The maximum global warming target beyond which the risks of calamity get completely out of hand. Not that the 1 °C we’ve seen so far is safe, as this year’s extreme weather has made painfully clear.

565 gigatons: The maximum amount of carbon dioxide we can pump into our atmosphere by burning fossil fuels if we want to have a reasonable chance of staying under the 2 °C warming limit.

2,795 gigatons: The potential carbon dioxide emissions from burning existing fossil fuel reserves.

The upshot is that we need to keep 80% of existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we want to have a decent chance of avoiding climate chaos. That means it makes absolutely no sense to pursue ever more extreme fossil fuel resources, like those that would be unlocked by the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. It also means that we have to put a lid on the biggest current sources of carbon pollution, particularly power plants, which are responsible for almost 40 percent of U.S. emissions.

No wonder Bill McKibben has crowds standing in the aisles!

Actually, I have no idea how he does it. No poll or focus group would tell you that “Do The Math” is a winning message. And Bill McKibben doesn’t look or sound like a rock star. But I’m glad he is, because this is math that everyone needs to know.

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