McKibben: naming the enemy

“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.

58 thoughts on “McKibben: naming the enemy”

  1. Not to mention the human cost of war. You can believe all the rhetoric you want about restoring democracy and fighting terrorism from the warmongers.
    But you have to look at the facts The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2012 was signed into United States law on December 31, 2011, by President Barack Obama.” refocuses the strategic goals of NATO towards energy security”.

  2. Do we also include all consumers of fossil fuels in the “public enemy number one” tag?

    After all, the industry is merely responding to consumer demand.

    1. AndyS, the argument is about the future and the pathways leading there. Producers and consumers commonly created the mess we are in now. But what counts from here onwards (and I would include the years since Kyoto into this) is the way the players in the system conduct themselves.
      At present the fossil fuel industry is funding nefarious campaigns to derail and delay responsible policy changes to bring us to the path towards a sustainable future. This is their karma to carry and their and their liability (from legal to moral) which I believe will be forced into their balance books in due course.
      As long as the denial campaign carries on, those fueling it acquire responsibility for their actions. The consumers are more and more realizing that they are also the future victims of climate change and will be willing to support change, especially once the constant disinformation from the shills of denial ends.

    2. Isn’t that the same argument the tobacco companies would use? We only make cigarettes because people want them- yeah right, who got them hooked in the first place?
      The decrease in smoking has come about because of political action to limit sales and advertising , restrictions on where people can smoke and media campaigns to inform people about the dangers of smoking.

      If there is to be any hope of slowing the acidification of the oceans and unfolding climate disasters we need political action at all levels to tilt the playing field against fossil fuels. People need to understand that the ‘grab a seat’ weekend away is a climate crime, as is the gas guzzling 4wd and jet ski.

      Of course no one likes the idea of having to change our energy wasteful western way of life ASAP, but if we listen to people like you andyS then it’s going to be changed for us and we’re going to like that even less.

      1. Yes of course. The difference between smoking and using fossil fuels is that.smoking is optional whereas curentlymour entire civilization is builtnaround fossil fuels.

        Of course I would be delighted if you demonstrated to me Viv that you could survive without any fossil fuel based products, or those derived from them.

        For example, steel products, cars bicycles, nuts, boots, any food products delivered by road or rail, clothes from nylon etc,

        I live a simple life telecommuting, but I still need to get food and the basic necessitiesmof life.
        Since I earn a good living, I dont really care if the basics of life become out of reach for the common man, especially if they were stupid enough to vote for these measures in the first place

        1. That’s why AndyS advocates using every last recoverable drop of fossil fuel up in a two century unimpeded orgy of consumption.
          Posterity be damned.

        2. “I dont really care if the basics of life become out of reach for the common man” – that explains a lot. Most of the rest of us do care about other people.

          As for the idea of having to give up everything based on fossil fuels, that’s a ridiculous idea that is only ever suggested by AGW deniers. We already have a huge number of resources that can be used and re-used. We must ensure that new products made from/with fossil fuels are well made and fit for purpose ( cutting down on the junk that goes almost straight to landfill would be a start.) It is also neccessary to reduce fossil fuel use for transport and heating and set up infrastructure for renewable energy.
          We do not have to go and live in a cave somewhere.

          ps- you live a ‘simple life telecommuting”- as a professional troll perhaps?

          1. As for the idea of having to give up everything based on fossil fuels, that’s a ridiculous idea that is only ever suggested by AGW deniers.

            I am not suggesting it, but if fossil fuels are “public enemy number one”, then why would you want to continue using them?

            [Childish & rude spelling error snipped.]

            It’s really not that hard.

            For example, environmentalists want to stop Bathhurst mining coal on Denniston. This coal would be used to make steel.
            Don’t you think it would be more logical to stop using steel?

            [Childish straw man: substantive argument, please, or your comments won’t pass moderation. GR]

            1. Any spelling mistakes were unintentional.

              However, I am still trying to reconcile “public enemy number one” with an industry that everyone seems to think we still need but maybe less of it.

              The rhetoric seems a little over-baked to me. Maybe it’s a cultural thing.

            2. Andy, you don’t get it. Its not that don’t need steel and transport and the essentials for our life, NO, its the way we plan to get these in the future that counts now!

              There are technologies – and yes also Thorium perhaps – that we can roll out over the next decades with urgency if we had the political will, and which would allow us to cut back significantly on our current fossil fuel use and perhaps one day relinquish it completely. We must start to pave and walk that path without delay.

              But because this would be inconvenient to those who make their billions digging up and selling carbon fuels, these companies at the moment carry out a strategic campaign of misinformation and denial of the science about AGW and the potential of alternative energy production. You can count yourself as a victim of that campaign as you seem to demonstrate with abandon here over a long time now that you swallowed their bait, hook, line and sinker!

              We are NOT talking about turning the fossil fuel tap off over night, we are talking about making deliberate and strategic plans that will allow us to throttle that tap down significantly from 1990 levels downwards over the decades to come.

              But to do so we need a political mandate and the understanding of the people. The fossil fuel companies are doing their utmost at present to prevent either and bedevil any economy that makes inroads towards it (Some EU countries, etc…).

              Here in NZ we have the angry Leprechaun brigade from the NZCSC and their ridiculous antics and a hand full of blog trolls in their spell or perhaps pay… to assist these fossil fuel interests with their ‘work’ just as in most other places.

              So how about leaving the straw to the winter starved ruminants and get on board with the task to re-engineer this civilization so that we have a chance to prevent the worst outcome and to arrive eventually on a plateau of a long term sustainable arrangement to meet humanities needs and prevent the rape and pillage of our ecosystems.

              On the path of this countless great businesses will be founded and many will make a well earned fortune by delivering to the needs of a green-tech sustainable economy.

              Ready to join the future?

            3. You can count yourself as a victim of that campaign as you seem to demonstrate with abandon here over a long time now that you swallowed their bait, hook, line and sinker!

              Your arguments are completely without foundation Thomas.

  3. Blaming the hydrocarbon industry for society’s never ending quest for the cheapest energy source is not going to work. It’s as much a waste of time as blaming every conflict in the world on terrorists (or in times past, communists). The better solution is two-fold: 1) work toward including more of the true costs of hydrocarbons in their price and 2) making sustainable energy sources available so consumers have a choice. As conventional oil and gas are depleted, the price will rise and, together with “moral” choice, sustainable energy sources should take over. If not, then we will only have ourselves to blame – and rightly so.

    1. What do you think of Shale Gas then Mike? This is currently pushing down the cost of energy in the US and it is also probably contributing to reduced CO2 emissions as gas displacing coal will have this effect.

      There are probably a couple of centuries worth of shale gas in many countries and this should bridge us to a better long term solution, such as Thorium.

      Incidentally, Baroness Worthington, one of the senior architects of the UK climate change act, is also of this opinion.

      1. Shale Gas, if indeed it lowered the price of fossil carbon fuels, would be counter-productive. Any further growth based on some renewal of carbon based fuels would be going entirely into the wrong direction. Replacing Coal with Gas where possible, certainly. But adding shale gas to the mix without decommissioning coal fired stations at the same rate would be a step back again. Further, any cost lowering of carbon fuels would set back the economics of alternative fuels, which again would be a step back.
        Unless policy changes will simply force CO2 emission reductions via cost pressures we will not see emissions going down. Economic growth must play second fiddle to the survival of the ecosystem and most likely we will not be able to realize global economic growth if we want to have a real shot at preventing a fatal crash later…
        Also, it is still unclear if shale gas is actually going to deliver the abundance of gas it promises. Depletion rates of wells are high and the environmental impact of the wells concerning.

        1. The recent report form the Royal Society claimed that the environmental impacts of shale gas were overstated.

          Obviously, the UK government will have to pursue this path unless they wish to shut down the entire economy.

        2. Unless policy changes will simply force CO2 emission reductions via cost pressures we will not see emissions going down

          Wrong. Emissions are going down in the US for the reasons I state above.

      2. Andy-

        There are two kinds of “shale gas”. That easily obtained by in-situ “fracking” is relatively cheap, but far from plentiful. It takes a large amount of water and has other potential problems. The abundant type of “shale gas” requires mining and refining of the hydrocarbon content and is quite expensive even without considering environmental factors.

        1. So which type of shale gas does NZ have and does it differ from the several centuries worth that have been discovered in the US, China and the UK?

          1. New Zealand has very little of either. Our most abundant identified hydrocarbon resource is lignite, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. The vast majority of this is in Southland, about as far from our centre of population in Auckland as one could imagine.

            New Zealand will never be able to compete with the hydrocarbon giants (Australia included) by trying to play their game. We have to do better. Personally, I think Kiwis are up to the challenge, even if our political parties are not.

    2. Mike – I agree entirely. Those are certainly two of the very fundamental changes society, particularly developed and developing nations, must make. I would suggest another urgent change is a move away from a consumption based economy. Restrictions on advertising, especially that aimed at young children – but not exclusively, would be a first step. Legislation aimed at encouraging products that are repairable and easily upgradable, rather than throw away, and products that are recyclable etc are other initiatives that need to be promoted rather than “left up to the market”.

        1. Certainly the current eating habits of Western countries which are rapidly being adopted by China and India are very demanding on high energy inputs – dairy products in particular. They are not altogether the most healthful of diets either. Why else would health professionals in the western world encourage us to “eat less and move more”?
          So yes, cutting back on processed food and high meat and dairy diets would be, not only a solution to cutting emissions, but would also produce a more healthy population – which would surprisingly, aid the solution of the second problem you pose.
          I like my dairy and meat as much as anyone else, but I can also see that it is not the most healthy, nor is it the most responsible, so as much as I am able, I eat locally produced produce, or produce that I have grown. I also cut back on the amount of meat and dairy and not only does it save money – I am more healthy for it.
          As for the problem of a burgeoning human population, that problem is one that can only ultimately be solved by a more fairer distribution of the worlds wealth, enabling women in poor counties to be better educated, and better able to take charge of their lives. A simplistic answer I know – but far too big a problem to be answered here and off topic anyway.

    1. Sorry, but the laws of physics hold true at the quantum level, especially the laws of conservation of energy. The Nobel gas plasma from which high seed ions where seen coming was excited by an energetic laser pulse and the kinetic energy of the ions flying off a tiny fraction of that initial energy invested from some power station somewhere….. There is no free lunch, even at the quantum level… 😉

    1. Do you agree… [Vapid trolling deleted. Andy, if you want to have an intelligent discussion about these issues, you need to make a contribution, not simply set up straw men. GR]

  4. McKibben is telling us that “most people would come out ahead” in his proposed fee and dividend carbon tax scheme that supposedly would be adequate to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions sufficient to keep the planet from heating beyond 2 degrees. Who still believes this? Here’s Schellnhuber discussing the difficulty at the “4 degrees” conference held in the UK prior to Copenhagen. It isn’t possible to just not do anything instead of forging a viable agreement in 2009 and continue to hope that slim possibilities some said they could see then still exist.

    1. No we can’t agree. It’s a company’s right to use rewards and loyalty programmes. You may chose to ban them within a country (for example petrol station loyalty schemes), but how would this work for international air travel?

      1. “we” can’t agree.
        Do we have a royal personnage with us here or are you speaking for more than just yourself andyS?
        International air travel happens on planes that are owned by companies that have offices in actual countrys.

        Removing rewards for fossil fuel use is a really good idea Tom.

        1. The “we” was in response to Tom’s comment thus:

          Can we agree that frequent flyer and airpoints schemes be abandoned?

          If you wish to lobby your MP to have air miles and other perks banned, then be my guest. You can find many of them in the Koru lounge in Wellington airport on a Friday afternoon.

          It makes no difference to me as I don’t do much flying now and air miles have never been of much use. We could also ban loyalty cards such as FlyBuys,AA Rewards etc.

          This will be of great appeal to those of the banning stuff disposition, yet it will make very little difference to people’s behaviour I suspect, since I don’t chose to fly or not fly depending on Air Miles accrual. I might chose which airline to fly with based on that decision, however.

    1. Hey Mr February. I thank you for your insightful comment. I am sure we can solve “the biggest crisis facing humanity” by cutting back on airpoints rewards

      One step at a time, eh?

      1. One step at a time x 7 Billion who do the stepping = a lot of movement
        (now that ‘one step’ at a time applies to all sorts of things, incl. perhaps said airline points…)

        In fact in an AGW aware policy environment an annual tradeable personal carbon allotment has been suggested. In that way frequent flyers will need to buy these on the market while those who don’t burn theirs stand to benefit by selling theirs on the market. In effect a reverse reward scheme: you get rewarded for NOT consuming rather than being rewarded for burning our future through consumption.

        Surely in the time of FlyBuys technology we could have CarbonBudget Cards which deduct a carbon expense for every item purchased from your account, tagged to that items carbon content. When its empty you must reload credits on the market by purchasing those online from a pool of sellers.
        Something of that kind I think could work very well, especially if you include home electricity etc. too.
        The policy environment then only needs to decide how many allotments it issues (or is allowed to issue under treaties) per year to its citizens and that value can slowly come down as required to regulate the carbon emissions down year by year.

        Producers of goods are then automatically incentivised to lower the carbon energy requirements of the production of their goods as not to load the cost of their products in terms of carbon points to its customers and the game of monopoly can market-style work towards reducing our emissions.

  5. “No we can’t agree. It’s a company’s right to use rewards and loyalty programmes.”

    Actually, frequent flyer and other loyalty schemes have long been argued to be anti-competitive. For example. So, maybe I agree with Andy on this one. After all, the higher the price of flying the better.

    1. I completely agree with you Tom.
      Let’s make flying so expensive thatbour MPs can’t get to Wellington from their constituencies on a Monday mooring. Let’s make flying so expensive that no one comes to Nz on holiday.

      I can enjoy telecommunting and enjoy the quiet open and human less laandscape that NZ will become.

      Bring it on

      1. Any nation that’s basing its long-run economy on mass and frequent long-haul tourism is clearly being reckless in the extreme. As usual, your idiot strawman relies on the reductio ad absurdum of loudly proclaiming in your best ‘won’t someone think of the children?!?!’ manner that your opponent is advocating the end of tourism overnight.

        This stunt is so tedious – and dishonest – that it’s a wonder that your own body doesn’t rebel against it, much in the manner of a major intestine throttling the brain of one of the Azgoths of Kria – second-worst poets in the universe – during a recital.

        1. What do you suggest then Bill, to solve the biggest crisis facing humanity?

          Do you think banning loyalty cards and air miles is going to help?

          [Childish insult snipped]

        2. It’s a process, andy – having a tantrum anyime anybody suggest anything really doesn’t help!

          In your world every suggestion is either going to be insufficiently-threatening to you, hence ‘ineffective’ [reaction; sneer, gloat]; or ominously likely to work, hence ‘dangerous’ [reaction; hysteria].

          It’s as if we were in a bus heading straight towards that tired old metaphorical cliff, and whenever someone suggests that perhaps we, um, need to hit the brakes you guys all scream loudly ‘but we’ll all go through the windscreen and almost certainly die; oh the humanity!!!’ and generally carry-on as only middle-aged/+ supposedly ‘conservative’ males can.

          Of course, the later we leave the braking the harder it will have to be.

          Or we could just sail over the cliff, of course – apparently your preferred option. That’s ‘liberty’ for you!; freedom to land in a screaming, mangled heap unfettered…

          1. If we were in a bus heading for a cliff, driven by a crazed driver, I’d go and shoot the driver.

            I wouldn’t ask him to hand over his Fly Buys card.

          2. If we were in a bus heading for a cliff, driven by a crazed driver, I’d go and shoot the driver.

            Yes, you would, wouldn’t you? 😉 Because a driverless bus would really do the trick, wouldn’t it?

            Un-thought-through, mis-directed violence – that’s today’s supposed ‘conservatism’ in a nutshell!

            I’m going to extend my own metaphor: you guys also refuse to wear seatbelts on the bus, and spend all your time lobbying against anyone else being able to use them.

            1. Shooting the driver doesn’t mean a driverless bus.

              It means I get to drive the bus, not the nutter.

            2. andyS proclaims:

              It means I get to drive the bus, not the nutter.

              Just what the passengers need, another driver that doesn’t know the difference between the brake and the accelerator. Pity the poor passengers if andyS gets control.

            3. Yeah, that was, um, obvious. And that would, um, work.

              I’m glad I don’t live in your head, andy.

            4. Yeah, that was, um, obvious. And that would, um, work.
              I’m glad I don’t live in your head, andy.

              Funny, my wife says that to me too.

      1. David Evans’ “opinion” piece (in the “science” section, FFS!) contains deliberate falsehoods, and Stuff should be ashamed of themselves for giving it space.

          1. Yes; And Yes….. 🙁
            So much for the msm in this country.
            Actually the only paper that I am aware of that does truly investigative journalism in this country is our local rag “The Peninsula Press” . Week by week he produces some excellent work. And it’s free. Apart from the guardian it’s the only paper I can be bothered reading regularly.

          2. Ran in the bloody Age, too, I gather. Truly, the poisonous influence of billionaires in our nominally democratic societies has brought us to an appalling ebb. On-demand, 24 hour, 365 day, hot and cold running Stupid…

  6. Andy

    I just figure that there are 2 ways to face our current dilemma. Proceed as we are and be disappointed or embrace the change.

    I have taken a no-flying stance which means hunting out low carbon ways of doing business. For example, how to manage clients and workload around fewer slower journeys by bus, boat and train. There is a lot to learn but also a lot of new things to enjoy. The old economy was not only immoral, but getting boring anyway.

    It’s odd to me that people can take a conservative and cautious stance to suggestions of changing current living patterns, while the one thing any conservative should be passionate about – the stability of the natural world – is radically changing through radical human intervention. It begins to look reckless. Like the captain ordering more speed on the Titanic.

    1. I agree. All the conservatives are now in the Green party, and a bunch of radical reactionaries have usurped the brand.

      Again, what is the conservative position on carrying out a radical experiment with the one atmosphere we possess?

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