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The Great Carbon Bubble: Why The Fossil Fuel Industry Fights (Science) So Hard

by Bill McKibben

If we could see the world with an illuminating set of spectacles, one of its most prominent features at the moment would be a giant carbon bubble, whose bursting someday will make the housing bubble of '07 look like a lark. As yet it’s unfortunately largely invisible.

On Jan 4th NASA updated the most iconic photograph in our civilization’s gallery: “Blue Marble,” originally taken in '72.

As Jeff Masters, the web’s most widely read meteorologist, explains, “The U.S. and Canada are virtually snow-free and cloud-free 40 years later, which is extremely rare for a January day. The lack of snow in the mountains of the Western U.S. is particularly unusual. I doubt one could find a January day this cloud-free with so little snow on the ground throughout the entire satellite record.”

In fact, it’s likely that the week that photo was taken will prove “the driest first week in recorded U.S. history.” Indeed, 2011 shows the greatest weather extremes in history -- 56% of the country was either in drought or flood, which was no surprise since “climate change science predicts wet areas will tend to get wetter and dry areas will tend to get drier.” We suffered 14 weather disasters in 2011, each causing $1 billion or more in damage. (The old record was nine.) In the face of such data you’d think we’d already be in an all-out effort to do something about climate change. Instead, we’re witnessing an all-out effort to deny there’s a problem.

Most media pays remarkably little attention to what’s happening or denies it outright. Coverage of global warming has dipped 40% over the last two years. Last month, for instance, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by “16 scientists and engineers” headlined “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” The most telling evidence of the bias of the WSJ is the fact that 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences wrote a comparable (but scientifically accurate) essay, offered it to the WSJ, and were turned down.

It’s no secret where this denial comes from: the fossil fuel industry pays for it. Of the 16 authors of the WSJ article, 5 had had ties to Exxon. The question is why the industry persists in denial in the face of an endless body of fact showing climate change is the greatest danger we’ve ever faced. Why doesn’t it fold the way the tobacco industry eventually did? Why doesn’t it invest its riches in things like solar panels and so profit handsomely from the next generation of energy? As it happens, the answer is more interesting than you might think.

Part of it’s simple enough: ExxonMobil, year after year, pulls in more money than any company in history. Chevron’s not far behind. Everyone in the business is swimming in money. Still, they could theoretically invest all that cash in new clean technology. As it happens, though, they’ve got a deeper problem, one that’s become clear only in the last few years. Put briefly: their value is largely based on fossil-fuel reserves that won’t be burned if we ever take global warming seriously.

Many scientists have pointed to a 2 degree rise in global temperatures as the most we could possibly deal with. If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons -- 5x more than we can ever safely burn. It has to stay in the ground.

Put another way, in ecological terms it would be extremely prudent to write off $20 trillion worth of those reserves. In economic terms, it would be a disaster, first and foremost for shareholders and executives of companies like ExxonMobil (and people in places like Venezuela). This sort of write-off is the disastrous future staring you in the face as soon as climate change is taken as seriously as it should be. It’s why you’ll do anything -- including fund an endless campaigns of lies -- to avoid coming to terms with its reality. So instead, we simply charge ahead. The energy-industrial elite are denying that the business models at the center of our economy are in the deepest possible conflict with physics and chemistry. The carbon bubble that looms over our world needs to be deflated soon. As with our fiscal crisis, failure to do so will cause enormous pain -- pain, in fact, almost beyond imagining. After all, if you think banks are too big to fail, consider the climate as a whole and imagine the nature of the bailout that would face us when that bubble finally bursts.

Unfortunately, it won’t burst by itself -- not in time, anyway. The fossil-fuel companies, with their heavily funded lies and their record campaign contributions, are leveraging us deeper into an unpayable carbon debt -- and with each passing day, they’re raking in unimaginable returns. ExxonMobil reported 2011 profits at $41 billion, the second highest of all time. Do you wonder who owns the record? That would be ExxonMobil in '08 at $45 billion.

Telling the truth about climate change would require pulling away the biggest punchbowl in history, right when the party is in full swing. That’s why the fight is so pitched. That’s why those of us battling for the future need to raise our game. And it’s why that view from the satellites, however beautiful from a distance, is likely to become ever harder to recognize as our home planet.

Bill McKibben, founder of grassroots climate campaign 350.org which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since '09, is the author of a dozen books about the environment. Time Magazine called him 'the planet's best green journalist' and Boston Globe said in 2010 that he is 'probably the country's most important environmentalist.' 

"Blue Marble" 1972 image/2012 image courtesy of NASA

15 comments

  1. JensenK 14 May, 2012 at 23:05 Reply

    It’s great to read all the comments and I always find it surprising how little people really know about the environment and how much urban myth there is. We all need to educate each other and not criticize each other

  2. MarieGue 15 May, 2012 at 23:39 Reply

    It’s so great that all of you on here are talking about the environment in ways that isn’t simply doomsday and actually offering solutions. The dialogue itself is effecting real change!

  3. Jackie 17 May, 2012 at 08:40 Reply

    It’s so tough to really know what is actually good for the environment. Now we hear that the process of making the batteries and also the waste of having to replace the batteries each 5 years on electric vehicles actually causes more pollution than regular fuel cars. Algea seems like a great solution, hope it catches on — I guess we may not have flying cars yet but who knew we’d be powered by Algea!

  4. Spartacus 20 May, 2012 at 04:58 Reply

    Thank GOD for giving us OIL!  Most of us have no idea how much OIL has done for mankind.  What a wonderful gift!!!! 

    • Piper0miss 29 May, 2012 at 06:04 Reply

      yes I suppose God gave us oil… but we do abuse it and our position as the most intelligent species. 

  5. BRTmission 21 May, 2012 at 23:38 Reply

    hmmm, makes you think… so I checked out 350.org and it is amazing work these people are doing on all our behalf. 

  6. Thomas 23 May, 2012 at 18:09 Reply

    I agree we need to educate each other because unfortunately mainstream media is in the pockets of the oil industry and will never give alternative energy resources a fair representation. I’m glad that the Reader exists

  7. Brad Ryke 30 June, 2012 at 23:44 Reply

    I for one really hope that mother nature forgives our carelessness. It is amazing how regenerative nature can be but we must do our part and continuing to recycle and reduce our personal carbon footprints ads up and makes a strong impact. 

  8. Tarik 16 July, 2012 at 22:08 Reply

    the environment is all of our responsibility and we each make a significant impact when we do the smallest deed to reduce our individual carbon footprint because it is in the right direction

  9. Paulette 5 October, 2012 at 22:55 Reply

    I refuse to accept that it is too late to change things. For example, just driving into LA and seeing blue sky when I recall just 10 years ago that you would see far more brown film and often thick too. I haven’t seen this lately in my visits to LA. Seeing this positive change gives me hope that our environment is improving with people becoming better educated, recycling more and opting for fuels and energy other than coal and oil. 

    • Jen 8 September, 2013 at 04:35 Reply

      I agree, the environment has to be improving because we have greater regulation especially in California, more people are driving electric and hybrid. Although we have more cars on the road I’m sure, they are more regulated. Ultimately the sky isn’t as brown as often.

  10. Pat 10 September, 2013 at 22:21 Reply

    this info cannot continue to be ignored by the so called “news” organizations on tv and newspapers. Im glad that you guys are not ignoring it

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