The cover of the current issue of Rolling Stone features a gormless Justin Bieber sporting a white wife-beater (“Hot, ready, legal”). Casual browsers at the newsstand could be forgiven for giving it a miss, but that would mean missing out on Bill McKibben's apocalyptic article about climate change.
Titled “Global warming’s terrifying new math”, it certainly lives up to its name. The most alarming claim is that we are already, in effect, three-quarters of the way to ensuring that average global temperatures rise by two degrees celsius, which is the upper limit of what scientists say is tolerable (and just about the only thing that politicians in Copenhagen could agree on).
That assessment is based on the fact that temperatures have already risen by 0.8 degrees and that, even if we stop burning carbon today, there is roughly another 0.8 degrees of warming in the carbon we have already released into the atmosphere, according to computer models.
Alarmed, we asked readers how important it is for politicians to address climate change. Most agreed that it was important to address now, while 20% said it may be too late already — slightly fewer than the number who considered it totally unimportant.
Overall, roughly a third were relaxed about the threat of a climatic catastrophe. Many people who hold such a view accept the science of global warming, but suspect that we will literally engineer a solution before the seas rise and crops die. That may be a long shot.
Consider some of the terrifying new math. One of the big questions that environmentalists have long asked is a seemingly simple one: How much more fossil fuel can we afford to burn?
The answer, it seems, is a lot less than we have already discovered. The Carbon Tracker Initiative, cited in the Rolling Stone article, conservatively estimates there are about 2,795 gigatonnes of carbon in the world’s proven reserves of coal, oil and gas, while scientists’ models reckon we can afford to add no more than 565 gigatonnes to the atmosphere.
If that is true, it leads to a frightening conclusion: We cannot afford to burn 80% of the fossil fuels we have already discovered. At the same time, the companies and countries that own those resources have already accounted for them on their balance sheets. That carbon is already priced into global markets.
It is hard to imagine that we will not burn most of it, which puts the pressure on to find ways of minimising the amount of carbon that escapes into the atmosphere. Fewer articles about Justin Bieber may be one place to start.