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PLANET SELF DESTRUCTION
July 19, 2012 9:35 AM ET

If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado 

haven't convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this 

summer, here are some hard numbers about climate 

change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature 
records across the United States. That followed the 
warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere 
– the 327th consecutive month in which the 
temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-
century average, the odds of which occurring by 
simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number 
considerably larger than the number of stars in the 
universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the 

warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it 

crushed the old record by so much that it represented 

the "largest temperature departure from average of 

any season on record." The same week, Saudi 

authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca 

despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest 

downpour in the planet's history.

Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month  

the world's nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-

anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental 

summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. 

Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama 

didn't even attend. It was "a ghost of the glad, 

confident meeting 20 years ago," the British journalist 

George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, 

footsteps echoing through the halls "once thronged by 

multitudes." Since I wrote one of the first books for a 

general audience about global warming way back in 

1989, and since I've spent the intervening decades

 working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say 

with some confidence that we're losing the fight, 

badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, 

we remain in denial about the peril that human 

civilization is in.

When we think about global warming at all, the 

arguments tend to be ideological, theological and 

economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our 

predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the 

past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical 

analysis first published by financial analysts in the 

U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental 

conferences and journals, but it hasn't yet broken 

through to the larger public. This analysis upends 

most of the conventional political thinking about 

climate change. And it allows us to understand our 

precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally 

hopeless – position with three simple numbers.

The First Number: 2° Celsius

If the movie had ended in Hollywood fashion, the 

 climate conference in 2009 would have marked the 

culmination of the global fight to slow a changing 

climate. The world's nations had gathered in the 

December gloom of the Danish capital for what a 

leading climate economist, Sir Nicholas Stern of 

Britain, called the "most important gathering since 

the Second World War, given what is at stake." As 

Danish energy minister Connie Hedegaard, who 

presided over the conference, declared at the time:

 "This is our chance. If we miss it, it could take years 

before we get a new and better one. If ever."

In the event, of course, we missed it. Copenhagen 

failed spectacularly. Neither China nor the United 

States, which between them are responsible for 40 

percent of global carbon emissions, was prepared to 

offer dramatic concessions, and so the conference 

drifted aimlessly for two weeks until world leaders 

jetted in for the final day. Amid considerable chaos, 

President Obama took the lead in drafting a face-

saving "Copenhagen Accord" that fooled very few. 

Its purely voluntary agreements committed no one 

to anything, and even if countries signaled their 

intentions to cut carbon emissions, there was no 

enforcement mechanism. "Copenhagen is a crime 

scene tonight," an angry Greenpeace official declared, 

"with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport.

" Headline writers were equally brutal: 

COPENHAGEN: THE MUNICH OF OUR TIMES? 

asked one.

The accord did contain one important number, 

however. In Paragraph 1, it formally recognized 

"the scientific view that the increase in global 

temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.

" And in the very next paragraph, it declared that 

"we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are 

required... so as to hold the increase in global 

temperature below two degrees Celsius." By insisting 

on two degrees – about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – 

the accord ratified positions taken earlier in 2009 by 

the G8, and the so-called Major Economies Forum. 

It was as conventional as conventional wisdom gets. 

The number first gained prominence, in fact, at a 1995 

climate conference chaired by Angela Merkel, then 

the German minister of the environment and now the 

center-right chancellor of the nation.

Some context: So far, we've raised the average 

temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees 

Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than 

most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice 

in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more

 acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor 

than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a 

shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for 

devastating floods.) Given those impacts, in fact, 

many scientists have come to think that two degrees

 is far too lenient a target. "Any number much above 

one degree involves a gamble," writes Kerry Emanuel 

of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, "and the 

odds become less and less favorable as the 

temperature goes up." Thomas Lovejoy, once the 

World Bank's chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like 

this: "If we're seeing what we're seeing today at 

0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.

" NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet's most 

prominent climatologist, is even blunter: "The target

 that has been talked about in international 

negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually 

a prescription for long-term disaster." At the 

Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island 

nations warned that many would not survive a 

two-degree rise: "Some countries will flat-out 

disappear." When delegates from developing nations

 were warned that two degrees would represent a 

"suicide pact" for drought-stricken Africa, many of 

them started chanting, "One degree, one Africa."

Despite such well-founded misgivings, political 

realism bested scientific data, and the world settled 

on the two-degree target – indeed, it's fair to say that

 it's the only thing about climate change the world has 

settled on. All told, 167 countries responsible for more 

than 87 percent of the world's carbon emissions have 

signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, endorsing the 

two-degree target. Only a few dozen countries have 

rejected it, including Kuwait, Nicaragua and 

Venezuela. Even the United Arab Emirates, which 

makes most of its money exporting oil and gas, 

signed on. The official position of planet Earth at the 

moment is that we can't raise the temperature more 

than two degrees Celsius – it's become the bottomest 

of  bottom lines. Two degrees.

Global Warming's 

Terrifying New Math

Page 2 of 5

The Second Number: 565 Gigatons


Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly


 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the 

atmosphere by midcentury and still have some 

reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. 

("Reasonable," in this case, means four chances in 

five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian 

roulette with a six-shooter.)

This idea of a global "carbon budget" emerged about 

a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how 

much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. 

Since we've increased the Earth's temperature by 

0.8 degrees so far, we're currently less than halfway 

to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate 

that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the 

temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, 

as previously released carbon continues to overheat 

the atmosphere. That means we're already three-

quarters of the way to the two-degree target.

How good are these numbers? No one is insisting that 

they're exact, but few dispute that they're generally 

right. The 565-gigaton figure was derived from one 
of the most sophisticated computer-simulation models 
that have been built by climate scientists around the 
world over the past few decades. And the number is 
being further confirmed by the latest climate-
simulation models currently being finalized in advance 
of the next report by the Intergovernmental Panel on 
Climate Change. "Looking at them as they come in, 
they hardly differ at all," says Tom Wigley, an 
Australian climatologist at the National Center for 
Atmospheric Research. "There's maybe 40 models in 
the data set now, compared with 20 before. But so far 
the numbers are pretty much the same. We're just 
fine-tuning things. I don't think much has changed 
over the last decade." William Collins, a senior climate 
scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 
agrees. "I think the results of this round of simulations 
will be quite similar," he says. "We're not getting any 
free lunch from additional understanding of the climate 

, either. With only a single year's lull in 2009 at the 

height of the financial crisis, we've continued to pour 

record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, year 

after year. In late May, the International Energy 

Agency published its latest figures – CO2 emissions 

last year rose to 31.6 gigatons, up 3.2 percent from the 

year before. America had a warm winter and converted 

more coal-fired power plants to natural gas, so its 

emissions fell slightly; China kept booming, so its 

carbon output (which recently surpassed the U.S.) 

rose 9.3 percent; the Japanese shut down their fleet 

of nukes post-Fukushima, so their emissions edged 

up 2.4 percent. "There have been efforts to use more 

renewable energy and improve energy efficiency," 

said Corinne Le Quéré, who runs England's Tyndall 

Centre for Climate Change Research. "But what this

 shows is that so far the effects have been marginal." 

 fact, study after study predicts that carbon emissions 

will keep growing by roughly three percent a year – 

and at that rate, we'll blow through our 565-gigaton 

allowance in 16 years, around the time today's 

preschoolers will be graduating from high school. 

"The new data provide further evidence that the door

 to a two-degree trajectory is about to close," said 

Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist. In fact, he 

continued, "When I look at this data, the trend is 

perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about 

six degrees." That's almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, 

which would create a planet straight out of science 

fiction.

So, new data in hand, everyone at the Rio conference 

renewed their ritual calls for serious international 

action to move us back to a two-degree trajectory. 

The charade will continue in November, when the 

next Conference of the Parties (COP) of the U.N. 

Framework Convention on Climate Change convenes 

in Qatar. This will be COP 18 – COP 1 was held in 

Berlin in 1995, and since then the process has 

accomplished essentially nothing. Even scientists, 

who are notoriously reluctant to speak out, are slowly 

overcoming their natural preference to simply provide 

. "The message has been consistent for close to 30 

years now," Collins says with a wry laugh, "and we 

have the instrumentation and the computer power 

required to present the evidence in detail. If we 

choose to continue on our present course of action, 

it should be done with a full evaluation of the evidence

 the scientific community has presented." He pauses, 

suddenly conscious of being on the record. "I should 

say, a fuller evaluation of the evidence."

So far, though, such calls have had little effect. 

We're in the same position we've been in for a quarter-

century: scientific warning followed by political 

inaction. Among scientists speaking off the record, 

disgusted candor is the rule. One senior scientist told 

me, "You know those new cigarette packs, where 

governments make them put a picture of someone 

with a hole in their throats? Gas pumps should have 

something like that."

The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons

This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the 

first time, meshes the political and scientific 

dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last 

summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of 

London financial analysts and environmentalists who 

published a report in an effort to educate investors 

about the possible risks that climate change poses to 

their stock portfolios. The number describes the 

amount of carbon already contained in the proven 

coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel 

companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or 

Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, 

it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn. 

And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – 

is higher than 565. Five times higher.

The Carbon Tracker Initiative – led by James Leaton, 

an environmentalist who served as an adviser at the 

accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers – combed 

through proprietary databases to figure out how 

much oil, gas and coal the world's major energy 

companies hold in reserve. The numbers aren't perfect 

– they don't fully reflect the recent surge in 

unconventional energy sources like shale gas, and 

they don't accurately reflect coal reserves, which are 

subject to less stringent reporting requirements than 

oil and gas. But for the biggest companies, the figures 

are quite exact: If you burned everything in the 

inventories of Russia's Lukoil and America's 

ExxonMobil, for instance, which lead the list of oil 

and gas companies, each would release more than 

40 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Which is exactly why this new number, 2,795 gigatons, 

is such a big deal. Think of two degrees Celsius as 

the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 

blood-alcohol level below which you might get away 

with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many

 drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – 

the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. 

And the 2,795 gigatons? That's the three 12-packs the 

fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened 

and ready to pour.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on 

the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. 

We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked 

away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew 

those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring 

some massive intervention, it seems certain.

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the 

soil. But it's already economically aboveground – 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, the holding 

that gives their companies their value. It's why they've 

worked so hard these past years to figure out how to 

unlock the oil in Canada's tar sands, or how to drill 

miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the 

Appalachians.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, 

plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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