The Peak of Human Greed

The long debated question as to whether the climate will collapse before we run out of fossil fuel was dealt a final nail in the coffin this month by Bill McKibben in his article ‘Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math’ – published in Rolling Stone magazine.  Yes, the times they are a changing – climate change is getting on to the popular agenda, but could it really get more terrifying?  If you’re not scared already, you haven’t understood the implications of climate change.  (That, or maybe you’re the CEO of Shell and co. whose actions can only be an indication of a plan to survive by creating a world resembling something like Logan’s Run.)  But, McKibben is right; his article still has the power to scare even the most up-to-date environmentalist.

Here’s the terrifying ‘new math’: scientists estimate that we can still pour another 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere and still have a reasonably good chance of staying below the 2 degrees ‘safety’ threshold set at Copenhagen, described by one delegate as a ‘suicide pact’ for Africa.  The number that the fossil fuel giants are still planning to extract and burn, however, is 2,795 gigatons.  That’s five times higher than 565 gigatons – the ‘safe’ level, – a level at which nations disappear under the waves, thousands become climate refugees, and which results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

The truly scary thing about the figures is that the 2,795 gigatons that McKibben is talking about is not just the amount of fossil fuel left in the ground – he’s talking about reserves that are already part of future calculations.

‘[I]t’s already economically aboveground’ he explains – ‘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’.

And by primary asset he means that giving up the reserves would cost them around 20 trillion dollars.  That’s what we’re up against.

In a way this changes nothing, but maybe it highlights just what we’re fighting against: human greed.  The greed being exercised in the case of climate change is almost beyond belief –to keep extracting and burning these fossil fuels makes no rational sense unless these people really have a burning desire to live in some kind of artificial dome while the rest of the world rips itself apart.  There is, literally, no future left in fossil fuels – all that is left is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

You would have thought we would have managed to work this out, yet here we are, sitting on the brink of calamity while a handful of men ruin the world.  There’s something frighteningly cruel about the situation: that the ‘pinnacle’ of evolution could ultimately have become powerful enough to destroy itself and almost everything else produced by millions of years of natural selection, but that thought in itself brings me some kind of reassurance.  It feels like a message telling us we could be more.

There is more to human beings than greed.  We’re capable of achieving the most amazing things.  I began this blog with the answer to a question about peak fuels and climate change but one question remains unanswered.  Are we strong enough to fight back – and are we strong enough to change?  We’ll know the answer soon enough…

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About EcoTheme

Welcome to EcoTheme. I’m from the the county of Dorset in the South West of England. Having studied environmental ethics and written a Masters dissertation on the ethics of sustainable living I now work with Campaign against Climate Change and Greenpeace. I started EcoTheme to present discussion and views on things going on in the environmental world. It should become clear through my posts that I believe our environmental problems to be the most pressing matters of the day – not simply because I place value in our natural world but also because it is the platform on which all life depends.
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