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Why We Need to Keep 80 Percent of Fossil Fuels in the Ground

Posted on 9 March 2016 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yes! Magazine by Bill McKibben

Physics can impose a bracing clarity on the normally murky world of politics. It can make things simple. Not easy, but simple.

Most of the time, public policy is a series of trade-offs: higher taxes or fewer services, more regulation or more freedom of action. We attempt to balance our preferences: for having a beer after work, and for sober drivers. We meet somewhere in the middle, compromise, trade off. We tend to think we’re doing it right when everyone’s a little unhappy.

But when it comes to climate change, the essential problem is not one group’s preferences against another’s. It’s not—at bottom—industry versus environmentalists or Republicans against Democrats. It’s people against physics, which means that compromise and trade-­off don’t work. Lobbying physics is useless; it just keeps on doing what it does.

So here are the numbers: We have to keep 80 percent of the fossil-fuel reserves that we know about underground. If we don’t—if we dig up the coal and oil and gas and burn them—we will overwhelm the planet’s physical systems, heating the Earth far past the red lines drawn by scientists and governments. It’s not “we should do this,” or “we’d be wise to do this.” Instead it’s simpler: “We have to do this.”

And we can do this. Five years ago, “keeping it in the ground” was a new idea. When environmentalists talked about climate policy, it was almost always in terms of reducing demand. On the individual level: Change your light bulb. On the government level: Put a price on carbon. These are excellent ideas, and they’re making slow but steady progress (more slowly in the United States than elsewhere, but that’s par for the course). Given enough time, they’d bring down carbon emissions gradually but powerfully.

Time, however, is precisely what we don’t have. We pushed through the 400 parts per million level of CO2 in the atmosphere last spring; 2015 was the hottest year in recorded history, smashing the record set in … 2014. So we have to attack this problem from both ends, going after supply as well as demand. We have to leave fossil fuel in the ground.

Most of that coal and oil and gas—most of that money—is concentrated in a few huge underground pools of carbon. There’s oil in the Arctic, and in the tar sands of Canada and Venezuela, and in the Caspian Sea; there’s coal in Western Australia, Indonesia, China, and in the Powder River Basin; there’s gas to be fracked in Eastern Europe. Call these the “carbon bombs.” If they go off—if they’re dug up and burnt—they’ll wreck the planet. Of course, you could also call them “money pits.” Lots of money—that coal and gas and oil may be worth $20 trillion. Maybe more.

Because of that, there are people who say that the task is simply impossible—that there’s no way the oil barons and coal kings will leave those sums underground. And they surely won’t do it voluntarily. Take the Koch brothers, for instance: They’re among the largest leaseholders in Canada’s tar sands and plan nearly $900 million in political spending during 2016, more than the Republicans or the Democrats. Because they won’t be among the richest men on Earth anymore if that oil stays beneath the ground.

But in fact it’s not a hopeless task. We’ve begun to turn the tide, and in remarkably short order.


YES! Illustration by Jensine Eckwall.

If you understand the logic of the Keep It in the Ground campaign, for instance, then you understand the logic of the Keystone pipeline fight. Pundits said it was “just one pipeline,” but efforts to block it meant that the expansion of Canada’s tar sands suddenly, sharply slowed. Investors, unsure that there would ever be affordable ways to bring more of that oil to market, pulled tens of billions of dollars off the table, even before the price of oil began to fall. So far, only about 3 percent of the oil in those tar sands has been extracted; the bomb is still sitting there, and if we block pipelines, then we cut the fuse.

And the same tactics are working elsewhere, too. In Australia, there was unrelenting pressure from indigenous groups and climate scientists to block what would have been the world’s largest coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Valley. Activists tied up plans long enough that other campaigners were able to pressure banks around the world to withdraw financing for the giant mine. By spring 2015, most of the world’s major financial institutions had vowed not to provide loans for the big dig, and by summer the mining company was closing down offices and laying off its planning staff.

Money, in fact, is a key part of the Keep It in the Ground strategy. In fall 2012, students, faith leaders, and other activists launched a fossil-fuel divestment campaign in the United States, supported by (an organization I co-founded), that soon spread Down Under and to Europe. The argument was simple: If Exxon and Chevron and BP and Shell plan to dig up and burn more carbon than the planet can handle, they’re not normal companies.

If their business plan would break the planet, then we need to break ties with them.

At first, the institutions that joined in were small. Tiny Unity College in Maine was first, selling the fossil fuel stock in its $13 million portfolio. But the campaign accelerated quickly because the math was so clear, the physics so irrefutable. By now colleges from Stanford to Oxford, from Sydney to Edinburgh, have joined in, pointing out that it makes no sense to educate young people and then break the planet they’ll inhabit. Ditto doctors associations on several continents, which argue that you can’t pretend to be interested in public health if you invest in companies destroying it. Ditto the United Church of Christ and the Unitarians and the Church of England and the Episcopalians, who insist that care for creation is incompatible with such destruction.

These divestments are hurting companies directly—coal giant Peabody formally told shareholders in 2014 that the campaign was affecting its stock price and making it hard to raise capital. But even more, they’ve driven the necessity of keeping carbon underground from the fringes into the heart of the world’s establishment. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund started divesting its fossil fuel stocks, while Deutsche Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund have started down the same road. A month after the Rockefeller announcement, the governor of the Bank of England told a conference that “the vast majority” of carbon reserves are “unburnable,” warning of massive “stranded assets.” Trying to get out from under this “carbon bubble” is one reason why huge funds are now beginning to divest. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, for instance, lost $5 billion before it saw the light and started selling its stock.

But the fight remains damnably hard, because politicians are so used to doing the bidding of the oil companies. In fact, just days after the theoretically landmark Paris climate accord, the Obama administration and Congress gave the oil industry a much-sought-after gift: ending the 40-year ban on crude oil exports. We’re making progress (it was something of a breakthrough, for instance, when cautious Hillary Clinton came out against Arctic oil) but not fast enough.

Which is why, this spring, the climate movement will be rallying on the sites of as many of those carbon bombs as possible, in massive peaceful resistance designed to slow extraction of fossil fuels, but even more to shine a light on these massive, remote deposits. The leaders, as always, will be the frontline communities that live nearby. Some of the rest of us will make the trek to these locations; others will rally at embassies and banks to bring the same point home. Because once we’ve marked them on the planet’s mental map as mortal dangers, our odds of winning go up.

If you’re still skeptical, consider what happened in the Amazon after the world’s scientists, in the 1980s, identified the rainforest as absolutely necessary to the planet’s survival. 

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. it is hopeless, even obama advocates for an "all of the above" approach to fossil fuel consumption, and at least he admits there's a problem. it only gets worse from there.

    rich and powerful people want to keep us enslaved to fossil fuels, they are not going to voluntarily agree to massively subsidize renewable energy.

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  2. Bill McKibben is a great leader, but he is far too optimistic. We have already very likely burned far too much fossil fuel and 100% of it needs to be left in the ground. We have very likely already crossed the barrier for a 2C rise in global temperature due to the melting permafrost and methane clathrates which the IPCC has yet to consider. Despite this, humans are burning more oil and natural gas than ever before. Coal may have decreased a little, but as of Dec. 31, 2014, it was also at record levels. Deforestation is also at record levels according to the most recent satellite study which show that numerous world governments have been lying. And Europe is chopping down American forests to burn in their power plants.

    Of course, Europe has been lying about nitrogen oxide and soot emissions from diesels yet is still subsidizing diesel cars and fuel. The EPA has been lying until recently about U.S. methane emissions. Atmospheric CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide are all at records levels and still increasing at or near their fastest rates ever. CO2e is almost at 500 parts per million.

    We need to ban the manufacturer and importation of fossil fuel cars, buses, trucks, and tractors as of five years from now. We need to ban their usage as of 15 years from now. We need to ban the use of fossil fuels for concrete five years from now and the production of electricity from fossil fuels. 

    It is very likely that billions of humans will die many years prematurely this century due to global warming. There are seven billion on Earth now and probably another 13 billion will be born this century. No one wants to admit that billions will die of starvation as most of the current farmlands of the world will turn into desert including the U.S. Midwest and South. It's about time that Skeptical Science starts reporting this.

    We must work quickly to save as many human and animal lives as we can. We must all give up beef and dairy today if you haven't already. Even seafood and pork have footprints which are simply too high. We all should only buy EV cars and only buy renewable energy electricity. We should eliminate our gas water heaters and stoves today. We need to give up flying on airplanes completely. And we have to elect Democrats, because Republicans have sold their souls to the fossil fuel industry, America be damned. Death is rushing at us. Don't be so optimistic. Scientific research shows that pessimists live longer, probably because they take things more seriously.

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  3. if we have to leave 80% in the ground then how long will it take to use up the 20%? and how quickly are we reducing our usage to make that 20% last longer. I am presuming that this 20% always keeps us under 2C or is it 1.5C?

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  4. pete, I believe that 20% is for a chance of staying under 2C, but I think that chance may only be 33%, or close to it. That doesn't seem like good odds, to me. We may already have burned too much to stay under 2C.
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  5. TonyW... We're at about 1°C over preindustrial. For us to have already burned enough to push us past 2°C seems a stretch. That would mean there's a full 1°C in thermal inertia, and I would suspect it's not quite that much. Are we on a trajectory that will likely put us over 2°C? Absolutely. 

    I can't remember who it was now, but one researcher framed it in interesting terms this way, "Can we stay under 2°C? Yes, but only in the models." Staying under 2°C will require that we develop technologies that can effectively pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.

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  6. We are stuck.  Since optimism can be misdirecting.  We must be active and positve while retaining a ruthlessly realistic view.  I can only speak for myself, but I think this is what our children must face, what they and we must do: 

    Suffer, Adapt, Mitigate
    To suffer is to accept and endure; we make an active choice to hunker-down and face a painful, inevitable situation.
    To adapt is to tap into resilience as we take real action to survive and co-exist with all beings.
    To mitigate is to work on real processes to make the problem less severe in the future.

    we do this with tools of Palliation, Civilization, and Revision
    We help with suffering by easing pain with palliative care to ourselves and others.
    We best adapt when we band together in shared community effort to service and build a global human civilization.
    We make tomorrow better as we revise our failed systems by radical reformation and innovation.

    There may be lots of other tasks, but I think that a general outline

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  7. This discusses policies that should be adopted to reduce fossil fuel usage. It is aimed at the decisions that the coal, oil, and gas industries should make. It does not take into account the fact that there is a vast range of infrastructure (machines, cars, planes, ships, etc) that irrevocably uses fossil fuels. these cannot possibly be shut down rapidly. The most that is possible is policies be adpoted to reduce the demand  of the infrastructure while encouraging the industry to power down. This process can only happen slowly despite the policy decisions by those aiming to reduce the impact of climate change. 90000 ships, thousands of airliners and millions of cars will not be scapped rapidly.

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