The Only Terrifying Math That Gets Any Attention Is Defense Spending

Bill McKibben had a long piece on climate change this week, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” that has justifiably gotten a lot of attention. The terrifying math of the title is this:

  • Almost the entire world agreed in 2009 that we must keep global temperature increases below 2°C
  • Since then, the 0.8°C increase in temperature we’ve hit has brought far more damage than scientists expected
  • Humans can introduce no more than 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere if they want to keep the temperature from rising that 2°C which now seems too high
  • Fossil fuel companies already have in reserve–and plan to develop–2,795 gigatons of carbon fuels

The math means, McKibben explains, that to keep global warming within the consensus but already too high limit of 2°C, we’ve got to find some way to force the fossil fuel companies not to develop their existing reserves.

At this point, effective action would require actually keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil, not just changing slightly the speed at which it’s burned.


According to the Carbon Tracker report, 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.

From this McKibben proposes a solution: Tax carbon to make it cost prohibitive to develop these reserves. To tax carbon you’ve got to undercut the fossil fuel industry’s power, and to do that you’ve got to villainize them, but heck that’s easy because they really are villains, since their business model will kill the planet. And so a movement like the South African divestment campaign can make it toxic to own fossil fuel stocks.

That’s a gross oversimplification–please do read the full article for a nuanced version.

Now, there’s nothing in the article that I disagree with. I’m all for making fossil fuel companies pay for the waste their industry creates. I’m all in favor of villainizing them to make that more likely.

But I’ll note that McKibben doesn’t utter the words that would both make it easier to villainize the fossil fuel industry and explains some of the underlying reasons why that’s not going to be enough.

“National security.” Or even “security.”

In that silence, McKibben is a mirror image of the same fault in Obama’s own strategy and discussions more generally about threats to this country, even fairly realistic ones.

Sure, all the details McKibben cites about evident and likely effects of climate change imply this is a security issue: 356 homes gone in Colorado Springs, spiking food prices, even entire countries disappearing.

But until we start using the language of national security, we won’t properly demonstrate the treachery of those who refuse to deal with this. Read more