Video: Nightline Does The Climate Math With Bill McKibben

Climate hawk Bill McKibben wrote an important and influence Rolling Stone piece last July, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” He reduced the climate debate to “Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe — and that make clear who the real enemy is.”

CO2 emissions by fossil fuels (1 ppm CO2 ~ 2.12 GtC, where ppm is parts per million of CO2 in air and GtC is gigatons of carbon) via Hansen. Significantly exceeding 450 ppm risks several severe and irreversible warming impacts. We are headed toward 800 to 1,000+ ppm, which represents the near-certain destruction of modern civilization as we know it — as the recent scientific literature makes chillingly clear.

The three key numbers are:

  • The First Number: 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit): The temperature rise we need to work as hard as possible to limit total warming to if we want to have our best chance of averting multiple catastrophes and amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks. (Equates to roughly 450 ppm CO2)
  • The Second Number: 565 Gigatons: “Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon … into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. (‘Reasonable,’ in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)”
  • The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons: “This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma…. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn.

ABC’s Nightline has done a terrific segment on McKibben’s math. I’d almost call it perfect, but they can’t quite get his name right!

Watch it:

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23 Responses to Video: Nightline Does The Climate Math With Bill McKibben

  1. Belgrave says:

    The other number which concerns me is 80 – latent heat of fusion of ice. Once the ice is gone from the arctic, the amount of heat required to melt 1g of ice will heat up 80g of water by 1ºC – and that not taking into account the increased amount of heat absorbed due to decreased albedo.

    BTW, off topic, I know, but most recent available CO2 reading at Mauna Loa (25/04/2013) is 399.72ppm – daily reading, at least will almost certainly top 400 this year : . The Guardian has reported it but any bets on whether the rest of the MSM will pay the slightest attention?

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Seeing McKibben’s revelatory Rolling Stone summary on Nightline is progress, at least. Better would be continuous and repeated coverage on prime time network news, and print outlet front pages.

    We are in great danger. At some point, the media is going to have to do its duty, and not respond to the hot breath of advertisers like Exxon Mobil and Georgia Pacific. We have seen little indication of media companies’ willingness to behave like actual humans, but maybe they’ll surprise us.

  3. Jeff Dixon says:

    I don’t think the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is off topic, as it tracks our consumption of the 565 gigaton budget that we had to work with. It also ties in to the recent discussions in the MSM of climate sensitivity (see, e.g., When we hit 400, I wouldn’t be totally shocked if one or more major news outlets decided the milestone was a convenient time to run a piece “taking stock” of how model predictions of climate sensitivity are bearing out. Which is unfortunate, considering that a snapshot of average surface temperature at any one particular moment is not probative of model accuracy, but it will make more sensational news if they try to spin the current lag as calling estimates/model predictions of climate sensitivity into serious doubt, while ignoring or giving short shrift to the accelerating warming of the deep ocean, where most of the Earth’s thermal inertia resides, and thus continuing to mislead the public about the seriousness and urgency of the global warming problem.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Good point about deep ocean heat retention, Jeff, which is known to most Climate Progress and Skeptical Science readers.

    I would guess that maybe 5% of the American public is aware of this heat distribution pattern. Reporters won’t fill in these kinds of details due to their managers, who are a timid bunch of careerists. This has to change.

  5. BillD says:

    I usually watch PBS, not ABC. However, great job ABC for airing a realistic look at the climate crisis! I am so sick of the oil ad that says that we have plenty of fossil fuel for the next 100 years, but does not say anything about the risks of exploiting that energy.

  6. BillD says:

    For what it’s worth, I just sent a comment to ABC news complimenting them for this segment on global climate change.

  7. fj says:

    With climate change as the experiment climate scientists did not want to do and were expecting to see the effects we see now much further into the future; 2 degrees C must be considered way too high.

    We must put the brakes on immediately.

    Forget that 2 degree guestimate. We have reached the limit.

    We must stop emissions now and figure out how to restore the environment that supports us.

  8. While McKibben may be correct in getting people to dump stock in fossil fuel companies, we should also think about doing the same to those who make products that are absolutely dependent on fossil fuels. Might we start with auto companies who continue to manufacture gasoline only vehicles? How about dumping on NASCAR until they start racing electrics? They tell us of the safety innovations that come out of their development. How fast might they push the technologies for faster cars with fewer pit stops?

    Or, as in the 2012 election, is the political story of America still “As GM goes, so goes the nation”?

  9. Gosh, I wish that Nightline show was available online. I guess they want to keep it only for broadcast.

    Why would they do that?

  10. dick smith says:

    Weseley, thanks for a great idea on NASCAR racing electrics–to improve the technology. Obvious, perhaps. But it never occurred to me.

  11. Superman1 says:

    Mike, there is a belief among posters here that if the information about the reality of climate change could reach the public through the media, that would translate into a change in fossil fuel use behavior. There’s no evidence for that.

  12. Superman1 says:

    In the case of cigarette smoking, getting the information out did little to stop smoking, according to experts on the subject. What cut smoking in half was economic penalties, anti-smoking mandates, and other harsh measures. These mandates were possible because there was a non-smoking majority that exerted its will on the smoking minority. Such a majority does not exist with respect to climate change.

  13. BobbyL says:

    The idea that 2C is safe or manageable is really outdated. The updated risks associated with 2C were presented at the Climate Congress in Copenhagen in March of 2009. The increased risks are made clear in an undated burning embers diagram which compares the updated risks with those presented in a similar diagram in 2001. The diagram can be viewed at So I would say the math McKibben is presenting is wrong and should be updated to conform to the science.

  14. Lou Grinzo says:

    I recently did a calculation based on this notion — additional warming due to a lack of Arctic ice to melt in a season — and it came out to enough heat to warm up Lake Ontario by nearly 9 degrees F.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Mike, I know from personal experience, and from simple deduction, that MSM ‘managers’ in Australia, particularly in the overwhelmingly dominating News Corpse propaganda apparatus, are not ‘timid’ careerists. They are, in fact, universally hard Right, ideologically zealous, careerists, and they know what Big Brother Rupert wants to see and hear, and how brutally his treats ‘Thought Crime’. Judging by the Rightward march of the rest of the MSM, similar pressures exist elsewhere.

  16. Superman1 says:

    You are correct. Kevin Anderson states that 1 C is a more plausible ceiling, and from what I see in the Arctic, we’ve crossed the line already. But, showing the real numbers, and the harsh sacrifices required to achieve them, wouldn’t support McKibben’s political agenda, so what we get is fiction presented as fact.

  17. Solar Jim says:

    The climate ceiling of 1 degree C is already broken, as are many ceilings from Storm Sandy. Greenhouse gases already in the air will take the planet toward 2 degrees C at present concentrations. These include 400 ppm CO2 (carbonic acid gas) as well as others totaling a present equivalent nearing 500 ppm. This is what the planet is already responding to. Conclusion: fossils are not “fuels” at all, except for fools. That is the substance of the matter.

  18. BobbyL says:

    McKibben seems to focus on the fact that nations agreed on the 2C goal which I believe was based on the IPCC report of 2007 and their latest data came from 2006. Instead of following the more recent science which has found that 2C is really much more risky than previously thought McKibben has followed the lead of countries like the US and China. Perhaps the IPCC reports coming out later this year will be a wake-up call that the 2C goal is asking for trouble.

  19. Mike Boswell says:

    I believe the 2 degree equivalent is 450 ppm CO2 equivalent , not CO2. Correct?

  20. Matt Owens says:

    methane hydrates aren’t included in the total for reserves, because they haven’t been considered recoverable …until just a few weeks ago:

  21. Andy Hultgren says:

    To my previous comment, I’ll add this sentence of Joe’s recent post on the EIA emissions projection report:

    “Through 2020, Obama can put the U.S. close to the sane path without Congress, by using the executive authority under the Clean Air Act — a plan spelled out in detail by the Natural Resources Defense Council. To stay anywhere near the 450 ppm path post-2020, we’d likely need a sane Congress, too.”

    This battle is simply not yet lost.

  22. Andy Hultgren says:

    I’m reposting this as the original appears to be stuck in moderation somehow – see if it goes through this time.

    To all criticizing McKibben for talking about a 2C target, just a heads up:

    McKibben (mistakenly identified as a climate scientist in the news segment), founded the organization because they are advocating for return to a CO2 concentration of 350ppm. Not 2C. There is a difference!

    The 2C argument is compelling because someone did a compelling analysis of the associated carbon budget vs. actual reserves that is – by itself – gaining traction among the investment community. IMHO, are being very smart to latch on to that analysis as a way to simply and strikingly frame the climate crisis.

    And hitting that carbon budget is, by itself, monumental and would be an enormously productive step. I for one do not see what is accomplished by criticizing such action as insufficient. Unless you have an analysis showing that movement over the next decade to position us for 565 GtC still leaves us with the physical impossibility for future (further) efforts to then stabilize atmospheric CO2 at a lower concentration.

    In 2008, Hansen et al (“Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” – available for download from Hansen’s website – see Figure 6) estimated that a 50ppm CO2 drawdown could be accomplished through a global agriculture/reforestation/biochar program, and another ~35ppm through CO2 capture at biofuel combustion power plants. That’s ~85ppm drawdown capacity, accomplished over a timeframe of about 100 years. (Granted this is not Hansen’s particular area of expertise, but there are 8 other co-authors on the paper so I assume/hope someone knew what they were talking about).

    I understand the situation is dire and I myself struggle with my fair share of hopelessness. However, unless there is a detailed analysis demonstrating that initiation over the next 5-10 years of a global movement to decarbonize our society will still leave us without any future options to avoid 3-4C warming (which is the truly catastrophic level of warming), I will not give up hope.

    There’s my 2 cents, for what it’s worth.

  23. kermit says:

    superman1, the majority that took steps to change society regarding cigarettes were convinced by the experts telling them that smoking was bad for the smoker, and his (or her) kids, and his coworkers, and fellow travelers in public transit.

    There has been no attempt by the MSM to educate the public on this climate issue. The message is simple enough for them to understand: global warming is very bad and very expensive for everybody, and fossil fuel burning is the cause.

    You keep claiming that the population is “addicted”, but have shown no such evidence. Folks don’t care whether their commuter car is an oil burner or electrical. They can even get used to public transport; many folks use it now and everybody’s grandparents were using it 80 years ago. If people understand that the choice is between utter impoverishment and famine or buying fewer plastic geegaws, they can cope.

    The problem is that the population is immersed in an ocean of propaganda, and the right wing in the US & probably elsewhere has been convinced that worrying about the environment is a tribal thing, and only dirty hippies do it.

    There is an inertia to reeducating the public, and I don’t see how it can be done quickly. Like many here, I fear it will only start in earnest when it is too late.