Bill McKibben doesn\’t really understand this markets stuff, does he?

We know roughly how much more carbon we can emit before we go past two degrees: about 500 billion tons. And at current rates of emissions, that will take us less than 40 years. But the math gets really impossible when you consider how much carbon the world’s coal, oil and gas industries already have in their reserves. That number is about 2,800 gigatons – five times what the most conservative governments and scientists on earth say would be safe to burn.

And yet, companies will dig it up and burn it – that’s what their business plans call for, that’s what their share prices depend on, and that’s what their government lobbying budgets are spent on making sure happens. Once you know the maths, you know that Exxon, Rio Tinto and Shell and so on aren’t like normal companies – they’re really rogues.


It can indeed be true that a company produces something because its business plan says to. But that\’s not the determinant of whether the thing gets produced. What does determine it is whether anyone wants to purchase or use what is produced.

The problem with climate change is not that companies try to force emitting fuels down our throats. It\’s that we, when looking at the available alternatives to cook our dinner shoose to use fossil fuels.

The problem is not, as Willy S near pointed out, in the corporates nor the stars: it is in us.

10 thoughts on “Bill McKibben doesn\’t really understand this markets stuff, does he?”

  1. Do these people not realise that without stupendously massive amounts of energy modern life as we know it is completely fucked? Everything, that we use or consume is effectively just energy transformed in some way. Our food, our houses, our clothes, our possessions are produced, manufactured and transported using energy, predominantly of fossil fuel origin. Thats before any consumption of fuel ourselves. Do people like this actually think we are using fossil fuels because of marketing? That we could all just stop using oil, gas and coal, and use fairy dust instead?

  2. Well, We don’t seem to be getting hotter now, anyway – we seem to be cooling…

    “The problem is not, as Willy S near pointed out, in the corporates nor the stars: it is in us.”

    Oh, Tim! Don’t you mean in the immortal words of David Soul? 😉

    “The future isn’t just for the night, it’s written in the moonlight

    And painted on the stars, we can’t change us…..”

  3. ‘Weepy’ Bill hates markets, hates globalisation, hates modern life. He knows what’s best for Gaia, and will stop at nothing to force his touchy-feely knowledge on the entire global population. That is the entire population that is left when he has finished trashing the global energy budget. 6.5 billion souls is too many for his proposed energy allowance, he will reduce this to 2 billion or so living in mud huts and ruled by diktat by him and his chosen Companions of the Climate Enlightenment.

  4. It’s not just markets Bill has a problem with – he seems also not to understand the basic science of global climate either! Like that most of the carbon emitted doesn’t just sit in the atmosphere – it’s not lead poisoning for heaven’s sake!

  5. Do these people not realise that without stupendously massive amounts of energy modern life as we know it is completely fucked?

    Hence those who work to provide it should be hailed as Gods.

  6. McKibben has got his numbers a bit mixed up. 500 Gt is an estimate of the amount of carbon we can emit to limit peak temperature increase to two degrees, 2800 Gt is an estimate of the amount of carbon dioxide we would emit by burning proven fossil fuel reserves. There’s a factor of 44/12 between carbon dioxide and carbon, so the true ratio is one and a half, not five.

    His ultimate source is these two (peer-reviewed) letters in Nature. The first finds that peak warming depends on cumulative emissions in a remarkably path-independent way, and that all-time emissions of 1000 Gt, which would be 560 Gt from 2000, gives a most likely peak warming of two degrees. That would be about 2000 Gt of CO2 from 2000, or about 1600 from now.

    The second paper (many of the authors are the same) finds that 1400 Gt of CO2 from 2000 gives a median peak warming of two degrees. That would be about 1000 Gt from now (the median is different from the mode). At current emission rates that will take about thirty years.

    Simon Cooke: it seems implausible that letters in Nature have got the basic science wrong. But if you’re confident, I suggest you write to the authors explaining your superior insight.

  7. PaulB, think about what uses CO2. That’s why it doesn’t just sit in the atmosphere.
    Thought about it?
    It’s plants. The increase in CO2 is driving plants to grow more. So as they grow more they suck out more CO2 from the atmosphere.

  8. SadButMadLad: Have you read the letter? Have you looked into how the models it uses handle carbon dioxide uptake by plants (and oceans)? Have you compared that with your own preferred model and determined that there’s an important difference? Have you discussed your concerns with the authors of the letter to see if they’ve got some insight you might have overlooked? Or are you just bloviating?

  9. Read the paper. Not my field. It is obviously the field of those working on the paper – including some pretty serious maths geeks.

    What does worry me about these models is that as far as I can see, they have been crap at predicting the future. Not that this is surprising given how crap we are predicting economic growth paths, which I suspect is probably less complex.

    The original models all claimed that we would be boiling by now. Obviously the models have gotten better, (or at least now match the new data), but I’ve not seen any sign that they are any more accurate in predicting a highly chaotic and complex system.

    I’m not arguing that there is not warming or that adding more carbon to the atmosphere isnt bad. It is possible that warming will be far worse. But, I’m not convinced that the models we have (and that are being used at the moment) will be any better than a coin toss in predicting what will happen. I know the paper gives confidence intervals, but I am reminded of the Bank of England’s confidence intervals about the path of inflation over the past couple of decades. They failed to get the inflation path within their 95% fan (the really wide bit) regularly.

  10. There is a lot of apologia for Hansen 1988 (and some for 1981), but it’s fairly clear that Hansen’s early models were out (less out if we adjust for actual GHGs), but even adjusted scenario B from Hansen 1988 now appears less accurate than a random walk.

    This recent paper finds that a forecast from 1999, based on data up to 1996 is accurate:

    But that the CMIP5 is about as accurate as a random walk.

    The paper notes that if the temperatures remain at the same level for 2007-2016 as 2002-2011, this would mean that the 1999 forecast is not falsified at the 10% level, but it would then be no more accurate than a random walk.

    Note, that this is all incredibly fiddly stuff, and it is possible that Hansen 1988 MIGHT yet be right – since you’d probably want to check results over 3 decades or more since the backtesting of the models suggest they tend to be poor at forecasting over shorter periods.

    This is an interesting analysis of whether global warming is anthropogenic. It is fairly confident that it is, which I would agree with, although the scale of the effect is still up in the air.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *