McKibben To Wall Street Journal: ‘Fossil-Fuel Companies Have Become Outlaws Against The Laws Of Physics’

Bill McKibben has a letter responding to an error-riddled Wall Street Journal op-ed — though I guess that’s redundant. This one attacks clean energy and the fossil-fuel divestment effort McKibben supports.

McKibben writes:

Robert Bryce’s Dec. 17 op-ed (“Harvard Needs Remedial Energy Math“) attacking campus efforts to have universities divest themselves of holdings in fossil-fuel companies is interesting for what it omits: even the slightest attempt to rebut the mathematical logic that shows fossil-fuel companies have become outlaws against the laws of physics. Here are the numbers: In order to prevent the two-degree Celsius rise in temperature that even the most conservative governments on earth have committed to avoiding, scientists tell us we can burn enough coal and oil and gas to produce 565 gigatons of CO2. Unfortunately, the planet’s fossil-fuel companies, and the countries that operate like fossil-fuel companies (think Venezuela and Kuwait), have five times that much in their reserves. It’s what their share prices are based on; they obviously plan to burn it; indeed, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars daily looking for more. If their business plan is carried out, the planet tanks.

Mr. Bryce is entirely correct that it will be hard to move away from fossil fuels, an enormous engineering challenge. But the Germans are demonstrating it can be done, and the most recent studies shows that we could rely on renewables for our power upwards of 99% of the time as early as 2030 if we got to work. Which we won’t, if the fossil-fuel industry continues to exert its massive financial muscle to block change. That’s why students in 189 campuses have so far risen up to demand divestment—this is the great moral challenge of our time, and maybe, given the stakes, of all time.

Bryce, of course, is one of the most debunked disinformers on the face of the Earth, who famously wrote (in the WSJ of course), “If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere” (see “Robert Bryce Makes Mockery of Science, Is Mocked in Return“). Hmm, if Bryce can be dead wrong about Einstein, then he’s probably dead wrong about everything else.

Bryce works for the Manhattan Institute, which “has received millions of dollars from donors tied to the fossil fuel industry” and the Kochs to spread pro-fossil-fuel messages.  Media Matters’ post, “Who Is Robert Bryce?” has more detail.  See also

Bryce’s nonsense is not worth debunking in detail — one could waste a lifetime doing that. But given that he claims “Harvard Needs Remedial Energy Math,” it’s worth noting one of his own countless instances of innumeracy, the tired “wind power uses too much land” myth:

Here’s where the math becomes college-freshman obvious: In 2011, the world had 240,000 megawatts of wind-generation capacity. That fleet of turbines produced 437 terawatt-hours of electricity. Therefore, just keeping up with the growth in global electricity demand—while not displacing any of the existing need for coal, oil and natural gas—would require the countries of the world to install about as much wind-generation capacity as now exists, and they’d have to do so every year.

Put another way, just to keep pace with demand growth, the wind industry will need to cover a land area of some 48,000 square miles with wind turbines per year, an area about the size of North Carolina. Even if that much land were available, no humans would want to live on the land because of the irritating noise generated by those turbines.

That paragraph would get any student in remedial energy math an ‘F’. The actual footprint used up by the wind turbines is quite tiny — so most of the land they occupy can be used for other purposes, notably farming.

Let’s go into the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s wind farm area calculator, plug in 0.25 acres per turbine and 240,000 megawatts (240,000,000 kW), and use 2 MW for wind turbines since “most of the commercial-scale turbines installed today are 2 MW in size. “The estimated land area required is: 30000 acres.” [For more detail, see Land-Use Requirements of Modern Wind Power Plants in the United States.]

As one can quickly find out on Google, “1 square mile is equal to 640 acres.”  So these wind turbine would take out of use about 50 square miles of land. And that doesn’t even count offshore wind.

Most of the best wind is not where many people live, so his non-issue about noise is, well, a non-issue.

Of course, global warming will devastate North Carolina and indeed all coastal areas and much of the cropland in this country and around the world — so using up a little land to save the rest seems like the smart choice.

39 Responses to McKibben To Wall Street Journal: ‘Fossil-Fuel Companies Have Become Outlaws Against The Laws Of Physics’

  1. charles hollahan says:

    I lived for three years on wind power and that “annoying noise” that Bryce mentions is actually very nice to hear. When it was working I only had to listen a moment to know that it was working perfectly and we were going to have all the free power we wanted.

  2. Fun with arithmetic!

    Just as a reminder, folks, the Wall Street Journal is now a Murdoch paper, so any credibility it might have once had should be highly discounted by the reader, no matter what the subject. It was these same morons who published a headline about geoengineering — about a year ago, if I recall — that said. “We Can Fix ‘Global Warming” With a Garden Hose and a Weather Balloon.”


  3. Ernest says:

    There’s a little bit of both sides talking pass each other. One side emphasizes the insufficiency on renewables and the cost but minimizes the cost of global warming. The other side emphasizes the cost of global warming.

    Ultimately the claims have to be settled by demonstration, willing self contained, energy independent communities, nations (e.g. Germany) showing it can do >80% renewables, that it’s technologically feasible. (Deal with cost issues later.) (Geothermal and hydro, that is not generalizable, does not count.) Otherwise, I tend to lean on the side of getting rid of coal plants in favor of natural gas as an interim solution, and a final solution with a percentage of wind, solar, and largely next generation nuclear. The goal is to reduce CO2 and heat trapping gasses, not pick winners and losers in technology.

  4. Ernest says:

    But there is a good case for divsestment from fossil fuel companies on the basis of their anti-science political activism that blocks meaningful action towards addressing climate changes.

  5. catman306 says:

    I just heard someone on NPR’s All Things Considered making sense about climate! It was an interview with Bill McKibben.

  6. Paul Magnus says:

    Better question… Is it sane?

    Is It Morally Wrong For U.S. To Export Coal?

  7. Paul Magnus says:

    impact. Ie ocean acidification is having a crippling impact on the shell fish and prawn industry and economics in the NW. And then there was the King Tide a couple of weeks ago. That has big impacts which are going to escalate.

    As u can c the globule climate does trump local economics.

    Start spreading the word NPR….

  8. Mike Roddy says:

    I agree about “outlaw”, but it sounds a bit romantic, like Jesse James or something.

    How about “criminal”?

  9. anderlan says:

    Amory Lovins and RMI are in the comments of the WSJ letter, disabusing denialist fossil fuel worshippers with RMI’s and NREL’s own papers. Very nice.

  10. Steve Bloom says:

    McKibben: “In order to prevent the two-degree Celsius rise in temperature that even the most conservative governments on earth have committed to avoiding, scientists tell us we can burn enough coal and oil and gas to produce 565 gigatons of CO2.”

    This is still wrong, and I still don’t get why it’s necessary or desirable to say it.

    What’s weirdest about it is that 350 ppm (from which Bill derived the name of his organization) was the limit set by Hansen for us to stay under 2C. We are now very near 400 ppm and not slowing down. If we burn those 565 further gigatons, we’re looking at way worse than 2C.

    And which climate scientists are saying it? Some minority, perhaps, but even when the trillion tonne limit idea was developed several years back it was far from universally accepted. Now? I’m pretty sure that a survey of informed opinion would show a minimum expectation of 4C, and possibly much worse depending on feedbacks.

    Besides, even though its intent is the opposite, 2c/565 gt sends a too-relaxing message since we’re not even halfway there yet. Rather, the message ought to be that most of that 565 gt needs to stay in the ground, and that the climate impacts of the 435 gt we’ve already emitted are going to be bad enough that geo-engineering in the form of massive tree-planting will be needed to staunch the bleeding (figurative and literal).

  11. Steve Bloom says:

    Bill McKibben quoted on yesterday’s (12/30) NPR All Things Considered (linked by catman306 in #6 above):

    “We’ve already passed all kinds of tipping points. The NASA scientist Jim Hansen was saying, ‘There’s no other word for where we are now than planetary emergency.'”

    But, er, even though we’re still far short of the “safe” 2C limit we’ve passed numerous tipping points and are already in a planetary emergency? Say what?

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Murdoch’s Australian flagship, ‘The Australian’, which has the unspeakable effrontery to call itself ‘The Heart of the Nation’, used to say that it was striving to become ‘carbon neutral’, even while its coverage was 99% denialist and often viciously and slanderously so. That seems to be one hypocrisy that they have dropped (out of very many).

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    There is, in my opinion, no need for poisonous and deadly dangerous nuclear power, and certainly not the mythical ‘next generation’. We could, if we invested in solar, wind, geothermal and other truly safe and renewable technologies easily provide enough energy for humanity, but the powers-that-be(and ever have been) do not want it that way.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Or ‘psychotic’?

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Too true. I assume that the rapid progress of climate derangement and the all too apparent truth that the demented Right will never allow peaceful action to avert our descent into Hell, are just too hideously depressing for people to admit. If people speak the truth they are still dismissed as ‘alarmists’ or ‘pessimists’ even by the mainstream Green hierarchy. The truth is that only a miracle or the concerted action of the entire global power structure and humanity as a whole can now avert the greatest catastrophe, and probably the last, in human history.

  16. Ozonator says:

    Fossil-fuel companies have also become AGW outfalls against the laws of geologists as well. For example, “100% quake prediction is impossible: Experts” (KumKum Dasgupta, Hindustan Times;, 9/26/11).

    With predictions posted in her comment section, there are now 2 AGW correct quake predictions after ~7 days in “Mary Ellen Harte’s “Climate Change This Week: Bumper Clean Energy, Death By Climate Change, and More!” (Posted: 12/24/2012 2:26 am;

    Both were functionally antipodal and correct AGW quake predictions

    With condolences, Kashmir was a correct AGW quake prediction in the region of the killer 50th Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model (12/2 – 8/12) and significant for the Hindu Kush under the killer 50th Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model (12/2 – 8/12). Correct – it was in the “Kashmir (6+)” region under12/23 – 29/12, easily within the 5.5 Richter minimum, people felt it great than the 100 miles distance in Kashmir, and easily within the standard 2-week model. With the USGS reporting a 5.8, “A moderate intensity earthquake measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale hit Kashmir last night … epicenter … is located in Hindu Kush … which created panic among the residents of the Valley” (“5.9 magnitude earthquake shakes Kashmir Valley”;, 12/31/12).

    South Sandwich Islands (5+) was a correct AGW quake prediction under several miles of water. It was in the “South Sandwich Islands (5+)” under 12/23 – 29/12, easily within the 4.5 Richter minimum, easily within the standard 2-weeks model, and within 400 miles in the open ocean. Changing to an even worse system since they are geologists, the mostly good people with unfriendly user web maps at the USGS reported with poorly colored numbers and letters, the technically major quake – Magnitude Richters … Date … Region: “5.2 … 2012/12/30 … SCOTIA SEA” and “619km (385mi) WSW of Bristol Island, South Sandwich Islands” (

  17. Spike says:

    The Pliocene was about 2C warmer, and this article points out the other features of that era – worth remembering when people say 2C won’t be too bad:

  18. wili says:

    The 2 degree mark was always more of a political than a scientific one.

    For a short review:

    For a longer and more technical one:

  19. prokaryotes says:

    Collage: 2013 – CLIMATE ACTION

    A Happy New year to everybody!

  20. Mike Roddy says:

    Good point, Steve. We need to get off fossil fuels now, not in ever receding distant time horizons.

  21. Mike Roddy says:

    Yeah, the problem with the 2 degree benchmark is that it gives people an excuse to relax in the meantime. That’s not the way this is going to play out.

  22. FWhite says:

    “Words, words, words.” This was Hamlet’s answer to Polonius when he asked: “What do you read, my Lord?”

    This “words, words, words,” has a deeply tragic meaning in the play. It is, in fact the secret of Hamlet’s character, the sense of the tragedy.

    Is it not also the sense of our climate change tragedy? For three decades and more, we go round and round with words. Yes, and action. But if you look around you for signs of progress on climate change, what do you find? The gravity and urgency of our situation deepens.

    Insanity, said Einstein, is when you keep doing the same thing expecting different results.

    Take heart. “Everything is perfect just as it is,” says the Guru. How can it be perfect you may ask?

    There is an answer, but I will leave you to find it.

    And when you do, you will understand how words and action are the way of the world. To take on a life is to act. The trick to maintaining ones’ equanimity is to rid oneself of attachment to outcomes. All life, however it turns out, is grist for the mill of deeper personal understanding of the way of the world and your place in it.

  23. Mike Roddy says:

    You’re right, Mulga. Distributed solar and geothermal mean loss of centralized corporate control. Nuclear is expensive and dangerous, but the big boys want to continue to bill us every month.

  24. Joan Savage says:

    Bryce’s weakest point is failure to address climate change damage.

    Let’s also tackle his strongest suit, growing global electricity demand, which he presented with an assumption that the global electricity market must be satisfied.

    The strongest answer is greenhouse gas-driven climate change has the power to sweep away the stability needed to underpin that market for electricity.

    That warning does not offer a progressive alternative to the billions of people on this planet who quite accurately link electricity to quality of life, be it street lighting or the controlled air pressure in a hospital operating room or a phone.

    Although wind power is a big help for the domestic United States electricity market, we have to face that the burgeoning electricity market is elsewhere; India, China, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, which do not have scoped out big wind resources.

    We have to tackle non-fossil alternatives for electricity generation in growing economies around the world, so that Bryce’s one strong point can be defeated.

  25. fj says:

    Despair not, low-cost distributed tehnologies have tremendous potential as the one- half billion cyclists in China, the now ancient idea of a pc on every desktop, cell phones, smart micro grids, solar . . .

  26. prokaryotes says:

    I would really like to see a comprehensive study on gadget resource and energy consumption vs saved resources because you buy less paper media and less printing and such.

    Basically smartphones are not bad, what is bad is the design cycle and devices which prevent you from manual upgrade, fixes. For instance iPhone without battery swap….

  27. SecularAnimist says:

    Joan Savage wrote: “we have to face that the burgeoning electricity market is elsewhere; India, China, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, which do not have scoped out big wind resources”

    I have no idea what you mean when you say those nations “do not have scoped out big wind resources”.

    For the year 2011, the first two countries you mention — China and India — were the FIRST and FIFTH ranked nations respectively in installed wind power capacity, and both continue to see very strong growth in wind power.

    Brazil was only 20th — but Brazil’s wind power capacity has grown nearly 45 percent annually for the last five years, and in 2011 grew almost 62 percent in ONE year.

    A year ago, the government of South Korea announced plans to invest nine billion dollars to build a 2.5 gigawatt offshore wind farm, the largest in the world.

    Indonesia has not invested so much in wind — but then, Indonesia is one of the top five geothermal energy countries in the world, with nearly 30,000 megawatts of geothermal potential, estimated to be about 40 percent of total world geothermal potential. Indonesia is just beginning to tap that resource, with 1,200 MW installed generation capacity, and plans to deploy another 5,000 MW in the next few years.

    And of course, solar energy is by far the fastest growing source of new electric generation capacity in the world — and this is particularly important in the developing world, where there is an ongoing revolution in rural electrification with off-grid photovoltaics, which is bring electricity to people in remote areas who will NEVER have grid power, from ANY source.

    So, Bryce’s “one strong point” is not really very “strong” at all — once you are aware of these facts.

  28. Joan Savage says:

    How about Scotty’s refrain on Star Trek, Ye cannae break th’ laws o’ physics! ?

    In that sense, there cannae be outlaws or criminals, just fools who don’t foresee the inevitable outcome.

  29. Joan Savage says:

    Thanks for filling in on the progress, but I still have to push for a quantitative answer to Bryce.

    Would global projected growth in wind and solar capacity really quash Bryce’s contention that the global demand for electricity is growing even faster?

    I don’t even know where he got his figure for 450 terawatts per year growth in electricity demand, and that’s part of the ratio.

  30. David Goldstein says:

    Yes- additionally we see the ‘we have only warmed 0.8 degree figure’ and this leaves out 3 essential things: 1) There is already another 0.8 or so warming in the pipeline 2) The apparent feedback speed-ups are making our path to 2 C a greatly accelerated one 3) Carbon emissions are considerably worse than most models have included ….we are, for all intents and purposes, already at 2 C. And this is not to mention the damping effect of the aerosal build-up from Asia in the first decade of the 2000s which is, by definition, a temporary situation. THIS is a problem- to imagine that ‘another 565 gt’ is going to bring us to 2 C seems deeply misleading- at that point there will clearly be much MORE warming to come in the pipeline AND an even more greatly accelerated feedback dynamic. Yes?

  31. Superman1 says:

    Look at the ‘pea’, not the ‘shell’. We are at the limit of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for entry into what Anderson calls the Extremely Dangerous regime. I don’t care about quoted solar and wind installations; we need to reduce CO2 yesterday. Stop burning fossil fuels ASAP, and start re-foresting ASAP. And, add some geo-engineering to ‘quench’ the positive feedback mechanisms we see already, some of which are starting to accelerate.

  32. Steve Bloom says:

    Yes, unfortunately. To his credit, Bill does point out that it’s *governments* who have designated 2C as safe, but accepting that idea as in any way correct and then going on to argue that there’s any chance that 565 more gigatons (a figure that governments have not adopted in any case) would remain within it is strange.

  33. Joan Savage says:

    I agree about urgency, and I wouldn’t be so persistent about getting to the bottom of the ratio between electricity demand and ‘green’ supply, if the answer didn’t bear on what is needed to sharply limit CO2.

    Bryce is wrong to ignore warming, and we’d be wrong if we ignore where the biggest growth in CO2 emissions is developing. Apparently it’s not in the US.

    By the way, I love reforestation, but 70 percent of the tree species on the planet are highly vulnerable to drought, so that’s yet one more reason to take a hard look at growth in global emissions, and not count on trees to provide a remedy.

  34. fj says:

    Where much travel — which is energy intensive — for information transfer communications advances have provided tremendous savings. The telegraph almost literally closed down the pony express overnight.

    Less-than-human weight transport should have a similar effect on the great waste associated with human mobility.

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Nukes’ very dangerousness ís also useful to our Masters. The lást thing they desire ís a calm, happy, peaceable populace living with a decent suficiency òf life’s good things. They prefer a society riven by inequality, precarious, badly-paid work, insatiable greed for consumer crap driven by the psychological manipulation and molestation òf advertising and basically divided against itself into innumerable ‘economic agents’ engaged in a never-ending struggle òf all against all. That’s the type òf society that reflects their psyches and which they will always dominate, and domination ís one òf their móst cherished goods.

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Just ás thểre are ‘Holy Fools’, so obviously thểre are also diabolical fools, who belong in the sulphurous regions.

  37. SecularAnimist says:

    Superman1 wrote: “I don’t care about quoted solar and wind installations; we need to reduce CO2 yesterday. Stop burning fossil fuels ASAP, and start re-foresting ASAP.”

    The solar and wind installations that you “don’t care about” are exactly what is required to “stop burning fossil fuels ASAP”.

    So your comment is completely incoherent.

  38. Joan Savage says:

    Well said.
    Avoid high sulfur fools.