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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

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  • Claire W.

    I really like this article. It has some really interesting information about the health of our planet and the extreme lengths to which the fossil fuel corporations are going to ignore it. I haven’t forgotten about global warning! We need to lessen our dependence on oil!

    • Chelsea R

      Totally agree… always good informative stuff in the Reader that you don’t see in other media

  • Janica_92

    Totally agree… always good informative stuff in the Reader that you don’t see in other media

  • Julian

    well what can we do about it Mr. McKibben?! it’s not like we can actually stop using oil because it’s everywhere , even in my laptop that I am using to read your article because of how my laptop was manufactured. This article is very doomsday 

    • D45rule

      well, if you would visit http://www.350.org, you’d see all the difference this raising of awareness is making so be a part of the solution will ya’

  • Nancerrl

    it’s incredible to see the difference of the earth. It actually looks prettier modern day but that’s because of photo quality improvements and there is definitely noticeably less snow and ice. alarming stuff!

  • Jeff

    hmmm… I guess I’d rather live in my bubble and pretend that it’ll all be ok 

  • Jerryco

    Here’s one answer to all the naysayers! FROM WIKIPEDIA http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae_fuelAlgae fuel might be an alternative to fossil fuel and uses algae as its source of natural deposits.[1] Several companies and government agencies are funding efforts to reduce capital and operating costs and make algae fuel production commercially viable.[2] Harvested algae, like fossil fuel, release CO2 when burnt but unlike fossil fuel the CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere by the growing algae.

  • Jerryco

    it got cut off:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae_fuel

  • Jerryco

    ok I am trying to post the link … but it will not post … so look for algea fuel and learn about it … it’s incredible and the algea consumes the CO2 it creates while creating oil that can be used !

    • Michelle

      wow this is fascinating! and a real answer to drilling! I’m going to certainly share this

    • Michelle

      check this out , this is a way we can help : according to the head of the Algal Biomass Organization algae fuel can reach price parity with oil in 2018 if granted production tax credits… so we should pressure government to grant them tax credits like they do the oil companies

  • Dawn

    thanks for the info Jerryco and Michelle, I feel like the planet can be saved, and isn’t it funny that mother nature is the saving grace

  • TamiBDR

    this is awesome… I have so much hope now… this just made my day… I just researched oil producing algea and I feel like the world is really going to be ok… I am sharing this with anyone who will listen!

  • Nicholas

    sorry to say but sounds like some of you may have been out of the loop or living under a rock … even Obama has suggested using algea  to produce oil.

  • Sharebear2

    hope it doesn’t fizzle out like biodiesel which is too expensive and very hard to find 

  • JensenK

    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

  • MarieGue

    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!

  • Jackie

    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!

  • Spartacus

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

    • Piper0miss

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

  • BRTmission

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

  • Thomas

    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

  • DerbyRich

    very interesting, i like the commentary as much as the article lol

  • Jason V

    very very interesting to know about what’s really going on 

  • Brad Ryke

    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. 

  • Tarik

    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

  • Paulette

    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

      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.

  • Pat

    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