Official shoulder-shrugging on climate change in Washington is no longer surprising to Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and tireless advocate for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. "It's true that D.C. hasn't yet caught on," he said in an email message Friday afternoon. "They're still in the grip of the fossil fuel industry."
The consequences of that grip are appearing increasingly dire. The International Energy Agency released its annual World Energy Outlook this week, for example, and among the many points highlighted in the roundup: Global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing at a pace that could make things far hotter on planet Earth than anyone, given the choice, would likely care to endure.
That report came on the heels of another lengthy analysis, published by the National Research Council on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency, which concluded that climate change is almost certain to destabilize the geopolitical chessboard, and as such it represents a clear concern for U.S. national security. A quick quote from the analysis:
In principle the thermal impulse could be mitigated to a degree that would presumably preserve the current operating conditions of human societies, but the global effort required to do that is not being undertaken and cannot be presumed. As a practical matter, that means that significant burdens of adaptation will be imposed on all societies and that unusually severe climate perturbations will be encountered in some parts of the world over the next decade with an increasing frequency and severity thereafter. There is compelling reason to presume that specific failures of adaptation will occur with consequences more severe than any yet experienced, severe enough to compel more extensive international engagement than has yet been anticipated or organized.
In response to the latter report, Democratic lawmakers called on Republican House leadership to hold hearings on the issue, but at this stage, no one is really expecting much from Washington.
As has been widely reported, climate change as an issue was dropped like a bad habit midway through President Barack Obama's first term, and it remained the issue that dare not speak its name right up through last week's election.
When asked this week, as he made his way to storm-ravaged New York City, what he might do in the next four years to tackle the issue, Obama sounded some familiarly dulcet tones. He acknowledged that it was a problem. He said that what's been done thus far has been inadequate and that a national conversation on the topic was needed.
But he also seemed keen to temper expectations, given partisan paralysis on Capitol Hill. "I don't know," the president said, "what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point."
McKibben isn't holding his breath. Instead, he plans to descend on Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom Friday night -- and on venues across the country over the next two weeks -- armed with three simple numbers that he believes will spur a global divestment campaign not unlike that which ultimately helped bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa.
In this case the target is not a racist political system, but peddlers of fossil fuels, and McKibben's magic numbers are 2, 565 and 2,795.
The number 2 stands for 2 degrees Celsius. This is the somewhat arbitrary number that, by dint of repetition since the mid-1990s and, perhaps, humanity's dislike of ambiguity, has become the upper threshold for what is considered tolerable planetary warming. Allowing average global temperatures to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius (roughly 3.6 degrees, for Fahrenheit holdouts in the U.S. and Belize) could well be a tipping point beyond which the planet's natural climate system, overloaded with human-produced greenhouse gases, goes permanently out of whack.
The curious can visit the National Snow and Ice Data Center to learn more about how that systemic breakdown might come about -- and it's worth noting that many scientists think a full 2 degree uptick in average global temperatures could be disastrous all on its own.
Two other key points: We're almost halfway there already, and it seems quite likely, given the greenhouse gases already built up in the atmosphere and the lack of coordinated action to curb that pollution, that we're hurtling headlong toward a 2 degree increase and perhaps well beyond.
That brings us to the two remaining numbers that McKibben wants to highlight: 565 and 2,795. The former is the upper limit, in gigatons, of carbon dioxide that many scientists believe humanity can still dump into the atmosphere to avoid the 2 degree uptick described above. The latter is the estimated amount, also in gigatons, of carbon dioxide embedded in the world's proven coal, oil and gas reserves. If we pull all of that out of the earth and burn it, McKibben suggests, the math doesn't add up very well for life on planet Earth.
If that arithmetic proves moving to enough people, McKibben reckons, it might be possible to focus their dismay at the bottom lines of fossil fuel companies and, in turn, diminish the industry's influence over leadership in Washington. "If we can show people that fossil fuels are to the planet's safety what the tobacco industry is to our individual health," McKibben said, "we may be able to loosen their grip on policy-making."
Central to that effort, McKibben says: Urging colleges and universities to divorce their endowments from fossil fuel stocks, much as those institutions were encouraged to divest from companies that did work in apartheid-era South Africa.
That earlier effort took decades to reach critical mass, of course, but by the late 1980s, dozens of colleges and universities had taken a stand, and it made a difference.
Last week, one day before President Obama was reelected, Unity College of Maine became the first college to announce plans to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Whether the move will go unnoticed or mark the start of a larger trend remains to be seen, but it does appear that frustration with Washington is mounting, and that the math is starting to sink in.
"We are running out of time," said Unity College president Stephen Mulkey in a statement explaining the decision last week. "While our public policy makers equivocate and avoid the topic of climate change, the window of opportunity for salvaging a livable planet for our children and grandchildren is rapidly closing.
"While there is much uncertainty about how climate change will play out with respect to specific regions and weather patterns, one thing is very clear: Our current emissions trajectory will carry us beyond 5 degrees Celsius average global warming by 2100," Mulkey added. "This will be a planet that is not consistent with our civilization, and science shows us that the impact will be largely irreversible for a millennium. I don't know how the stakes could get any higher."