Three Responses to Bill McKibben’s Article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”

Global Justice Ecology Project

July 24, 2012

The following three pieces, by Anne Petermann, Dr. Rachel Smolker, and Keith Brunner were written in response to Bill McKibben’s new article in Rolling Stone magazine, titled, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe – make clear who the real enemy is.

The System Will Not be Reformed

Response by Anne Petermann

Bill McKibben, in his new Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” does an effective job at summarizing the hard and theoretical numbers that warn us of the devastating impacts of continuing to burn the Earth’s remaining fossil fuel reserves–yet it somehow falls short of its stated goal to help mobilize a new movement for climate action.

While the article is full of facts and figures and the future they portend, it falls into several traps common to US-based environmentalists, which undermine its movement-building objective.

The first and most obvious trap is relying on math to mobilize a movement. Environmentalists, often worried about attacks on their credibility, or afraid they will be labeled “emotional” by industry, tend to focus on statistics, mathematical analyses and hard science to make their case.  Unfortunately statistics like “565 Gigatons or 2,795 Gigatons” do not inspire passion.

While McKibben is focusing on Gigatons and percentages and degrees Celsuis, however, corporations like Shell are running multi-million dollar ad campaigns with TV commercials that feature families having fun, hospitals saving lives, children getting good educations, because of fossil fuels.  Coal = energy security; natural gas = maintaining the American way of life.  And as Dr. Rachel Smolker of BiofuelWatch points out below, some of these very same companies are moving into the bioenergy realm–wreaking yet more havoc on communities and ecosystems in the name of supposedly “clean, renewable energy.”  They are playing both sides of the field in the effort to ensure Americans do not feel their way of life is in any way threatened–ensuring them that they can have their cake and eat it too.  For while China may have surpassed the US in total annual carbon emissions, the US still leads, by far, the per capita release of CO2 emissions.

The second trap is filling the article with prophesies of doom and gloom, which do not mobilize effective action, but are very effective at disempowering and disengaging.  Just take a look at the recent report on the attitudes of Generation X on climate change–66% claim they aren’t sure it’s happening. While McKibben explains the need to keep the temperatures under 2° centigrade, which would already cause unforeseeable and dire consequences, he also quotes an official with the International Energy Agency on the current trend toward carbon emissions, “when I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.”  McKibben  goes on to explain what this means: “that’s almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction.”

But while expending the first half of the article on these numbers-based horror scenarios, McKibben then disempowers his audience yet further by reminding us that with the Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, the fossil fuel industry is well-positioned to outspend anyone whose motives run counter to their own–enabling them to elect the best politicians money can buy–a strategy which, so far, has ensured a US government that will not challenge corporate dominance.

The next trap he falls into is the trap of hopeful illogic.  After pointing out the power of the fossil fuel industry, and their stranglehold on congress, he goes on to argue that one great solution to our collective problem is to put a tax on carbon.  He admits that “It’s not clear, of course, that the power of the fossil-fuel industry can be broken,” but explains that “moral outrage just might–and that’s the meaning of this new math.  It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.” [see trap number one above].

Even if the math-based “real movement” emerged and was successful, and the divestment campaign McKibben promotes could actually “weaken the fossil fuel industry’s political standing,” there is the reality, as pointed out by Keith Brunner of Gears of Change in his response below, that it would merely move investments out of fossil fuels and into devastating land-grabbing “biofuel” or other false solution schemes.

McKibben delivers his final blow to the “real movement” he is trying to mobilize by stating, in the second to the last paragraph of the article, “Even if such a campaign is possible, however, we may have waited too long to start it.” He then closes by reminding us that the disasters already happening will only get worse, ending with “Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we’re now leaving…in the dust.”


There is a crucial and obvious need for a real movement to tackle the climate chaos juggernaut.  But this movement will not be based on math-based reform.  Reform what?  Can we have friendly Capitalism?  Can the very markets that have led us to the brink of the abyss now provide our parachute? McKibben points out that under this system, those with the money have all the power.  Then why are we trying to reform this system?  Why are we not transforming it?

And this brings me to the final trap that McKibben falls into in his Rolling Stone piece: compartmentalization.  Scientists are trained to compartmentalize–to see things in their individual tiny boxes and not connected to anything else.  Geneticists have dangerously perfected this science.  But everything on this planet is connected to everything else on this planet, and as Dr. Smolker points out, if you focus solely on eliminating fossil fuels without changing the underlying system, then very bad things will take their place because it is the system itself that is unsustainable.  It is a system designed to transform “natural capital” and human labor into gargantuan profits for an elite few: the so-called “1%”. Whether its driven by fossil fuels or biofuels or even massive solar and wind installations, the system will continue to devour ecosystems, displace forest-based communities, Indigenous Peoples and subsistence farmers from their lands, crush labor unions and generally make life hell for the vast majority of the world’s peoples.  That is what it does.

To eliminate fossil fuels, you have to transform the system that empowers the fossil fuels industry.  In diversity is strength, any ecologist knows this, and our movements for change are no exception.  The more we understand that the roots of the issues we are fighting are intertwined, the better we can cooperate to change the system driving them.

System Change, Not Climate Change.

Anne Petermann is the Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project.  She has worked for climate justice since 2004, and is a founding member of the Durban Group for Climate Justice, Climate Justice Now! and Climate Justice Action.  She has worked in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and in defense of forests since 1991.  She has a forthcoming piece in Z Magazine in September analyzing the failed UN Rio+20 Earth Summit, its domination by corporations, and the people’s summit that took place in Rio at the same time.


Fighting Fossil Fuels must Include Opposing False Solutions

 Response by Dr. Rachel Smolker

 Thanks Bill for putting the stark reality into terms that we can relate to and understand, even though it is not pleasant news.

I feel compelled to comment on a couple of points.

The article focusses on carbon emissions and in this context exclusively on the role of fossil fuel industries. This is critically important and I do not intend in the following to belittle the importance of all you have pointed to. Climate change is indeed caused by the buildup of GHG in the atmosphere, and fossil fuels are a very significant culprit.

HOWEVER – there is a particular danger to such singular focus.

At the same time we have dumped fossil carbon into the atmosphere, we have also worked hard to degrade ecosystems to the state where they are now releasing billions of tonnes of stored carbon as well – and losing their ability to draw down ‘new’ carbon and otherwise help regulate the climate.  Forests, healthy carbon rich soils, grasslands, peatlands, wetlands, lakes and rivers, all manner of healthy ecosystems play a key role not just as “dumps” for excessive emissions but in regulating water and nitrogen cycles and weather and temperature and protecting against flood and so on and on.  If we want to reduce the discussion to carbon, even then the role of healthy ecosystems, and the importance of protecting and restoring them as “carbon sinks” is understood and appreciated by far too few…. Industrial agriculture and forestry practices, hydro dams, mining, extraction, paving and endless construction etc etc… all the multitude of things that contribute to the demise of lands, ecosystems, soils… are contributing to carbon emissions very significantly while also further diminishing the potential for those to act as “sinks/dumps” to help alleviate the impacts. The purveyors of that destruction must be put on the bench alongside fossil fuel industries.

The reason this is so crucially important?

As the call to end fossil fuels grows louder, it will, if history is any indication, result in yet more and more demand for bioenergy alternatives. The impacts of that are catastrophic already… just look at corn ethanol – near a third of US corn crop turned into ethanol!  And what will that mean now with the drought cutting major slice into crops? And bioelectricity – burning trees for electricity instead of (or in reality mostly in addition to) coal is ever expanding practice as “renewable energy”.  Worldwide, in the name of renewable energy, funding for mega hydrodams is also being accelerated, thus destroying river, forest and other ecosystems as well as leading to huge methane emissions.  These are the main “alternatives” being promoted and awareness of the scale and magnitude of impacts this poor choice is having on lands, hence carbon, hence climate, is rather sparse…

Meanwhile, even as we are making vast new demands for products of the land to act as alternatives to fossil fuels,  the impacts of warming itself are taking escalating toll on lands: Forests are turning from sinks to sources and dying back, soils are drying out and respiring carbon in death gasp, fires and droughts taking toll – etc etc.  Ecosystem destruction, such as intensive logging interacts with and multiplies the impacts of climate change and vice versa.  You know it – but it is key to keep including this in the conversation to raise awareness and begin steering the ship of change in a direction that does not have us simply die from a different disease – burning up every scrap of wood and plowing up every inch of the land to plant sugar cane, palm oil, corn or jatropha and damming every river in an attempt to maintain BAU without fossil fuels.

Also, there are related problems with a carbon tax. Currently we pretend that the carbon emissions from bioenergy are nonexistent, (the “carbon neutral myth”). If fossil carbon is taxed, models indicate that the incentives for expanding “carbon neutral” bioenergy would result in the replacement of virtually all remaining biodiverse ecosystems – forests, savannah, grasslands etc. with energy feedstock monocrops over the next 30 years.  This is detailed in an article published in Science: “Implications of Limiting CO2 Concentrations on Land Use and Energy”:

PS: You mention that under a carbon tax,  Exxon and their ilk could “become true energy companies, this time for real”.   Is that really what we would want?? For one thing, the main investment in and profiting from bioenergy is precisely these fossil fuel companies.(

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Real alternatives  require deep and systemic changes to make it possible for all to enjoy “buen vivir“, not consume excessively or destroy things, to recognize our common interests and act like it.  I believe the real enemy is not “them” – but rather sadly our own  inability to act collectively.

Dr. Rachel Smolker is a Wildlife Biologist and works with Biofuelwatch, analyzing the impacts of bioenergy, such as liquid biofuels and biomass-based electricity, as well s climate mitigation schemes like biochar on peoples and ecosystems globally.


The Dangers of Divestment Campaigns

Response by Keith Brunner

Bill offers divestment campaigns, a la South Africa, as a favored strategy to hit the fossil fuel companies financially.  Sounds great, except when you look at the trends over the past few years of big institutional investors- like pension funds and university endowments- to move their money (often through a private equity intermediary) into, amongst other things, “emerging market” natural resources and infrastructure funds, facilitating land and resource grabbing across the South.  It’s what the “progressive” climate-aware fund managers (like the CERES folks) are advocating, and it’s a problem.

And that’s another place where he misses the point: Yes, the fossil fuel corporations are the big bad wolf, but just as problematic is the system of investment and returns which necessitates a growth economy (it’s called capitalism).  That Harvard University endowment fund manager has a “fiduciary responsibility” to get a certain annual return, which means they have to put their money into growing, profitable funds or firms or states (what’s the difference anyhow), which grow through exploiting people and dismantling ecosystems.  We aren’t going to invest our way to a livable planet.

We need to focus on the root causes and false solutions, lift up the community solutions, and push the big green groups to become more holistic in their analysis so they don’t shoot us all in the foot.

Keith Brunner works on climate justice issues with the Red Clover Climate Justice Collective in Burlington, VT.  He has attended and protested the UN Climate Conferences since 2010.