McKibben: naming the enemy

By Bryan Walker 28/07/2012

“It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”  These are the words Bill McKibben uses to describe the fossil-fuel industry in a recent striking article in Rolling Stone which has received wide attention. It’s well worth reading, not least for the elegant lucidity of its prose. This post is not intended as some kind of summary, but rather as a reflection on McKibben’s notion that we need to recognise that we are up against a formidable enemy.  He moves to this declaration by considering three numbers.

The first is 2o Celsius, the level of warming which is widely accepted politically as not to be exceeded. Scientifically it can’t be regarded as a safe level of warming, and it’s certainly not so regarded by McKibben, but ”political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target”.

The second number is 565 gigatons, which is the amount of carbon dioxide scientists estimate can still be added to the atmosphere by mid-century and give us a reasonable (80%) hope of staying below two degrees.

The third number is 2,795 gigatons, which is the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries that act like fossil-fuel companies. “In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn.” And it’s five times more than we can burn and have any hope of staying within two degrees of warming.

In other words 80 percent of the fossil fuel reserves have to stay in the ground if we’re to observe the 2 degree guardrail. But economically speaking McKibben points out that the reserves are already above ground – “those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value”.  They support share prices, money is borrowed against them, nations base their budgets on expected returns from them. And the asset write-off which would have to be made if 80 percent of those reserves were left unexploited would be in the region of $20 trillion by some estimates.

There’s no sign of any intention on the part of companies or countries to allow that to happen. Even though they know global warming is the result – “they employ some of the world’s best scientists, after all” – they relentlessly pursue the search for more hydrocarbons, including bidding for leases in the Arctic where the melting of sea ice is clearly a consequence of warming.

Indeed, as I posted here, Exxon’s CEO Rex Tillerson claims to be fully conversant with the science, even to be participating in IPCC reports, but somehow reconciles that with continued exploitation of the fuels. I wrote of his recklessness. McKibben is stronger: “There’s not a more reckless man on the planet than Tillerson.”

Entrenched, fighting to remain protected from having to pay the true cost of its product, unwilling to acknowledge the harm that product is now recognised to be causing, determined to carry on drilling and mining, showing minimal interest in alternative energy development – it’s hardly hyperbole to describe the industry as an enemy to human civilisation. And this is the view McKibben considers we need now to take.

What he’s seeking is a level of moral outrage which might eventually mean that investment institutions sever ties with companies which profit from climate change, along the lines of the divestment movement of the 1980s from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. Some hope, perhaps, but one which might be helped along by the Carbon Tracker report Unburnable Carbon earlier this year warning investors of the risk of heavy exposure to fossil-fuel companies whose assets will look much less secure if the political world is finally shocked by climate disaster into serious regulation of carbon.

It’s very much in order for McKibben to identify an enemy, remembering that it’s a moral struggle that he points to, and that he’s always been clear abut the path of non-violence. It’s a complicated picture, of course, since it is not possible to simply stop using fossil fuels. But what is possible is a rapid transition away from them to alternatives, and at the point where companies or countries put obstacles in the way of that transition, and look first to the full exploitation of the fossil resources, they can rightly be regarded as enemies of human society. It’s a label they have to reckon with. And maybe it’s one which will work on the human consciences of those involved and give them pause.

It’s a stark characterisation. But the numbers McKibben offers are stark. And so will be the consequences of burning all that fuel.  Here in New Zealand as the government relentlessly trumpets the likely economic benefits of greatly expanded fossil fuel exploration, and the Labour Party appears to be following not too far behind albeit a trifle less enthusiastically, politicians need to look at the big picture, the climate change picture. They need to ask themselves more than whether localised oil spills can be prevented or contained. The big question is whether they want to be aligned with forces ready to take huge risks with the global environment which sustains human civilisation, all in the name of preserving dubious financial assets.