Since April 21, environmental activist Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” movie has been shown around the nation and world. Its message is that catastrophic climate change looms large this century if fossil fuel use is not restricted.
In Oak Ridge, the movie has been shown several times at First Presbyterian Church, which is sponsoring McKibben’s lecture on Sunday, Aug. 18, at 7 p.m. at the Oak Ridge High School Performing Arts Center. The movie can be downloaded from McKibben’s grassroots organization www.350.org.
The author of two classics of environmental literature, “The End of Nature,” and “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet,” McKibben had the movie made after 350.org’s successful “Do the Math” tour of cities last fall. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” McKibben’s article a year ago in Rolling Stone magazine, inspired the tour.
The article and film focus on three numbers. The first number is two degrees Celsius.
Since the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, the planet’s surface temperature has risen by almost one degree Celsius (0.8°C). Most countries agree that allowing the earth’s surface to warm by two degrees since 1750 would usher in long-term, disastrous climate change.
Severe global warming that may result from increased carbon dioxide emissions from industrial operations is expected to generate frequent and severe tornadoes, hurricanes, thunderstorms, floods, heat waves and droughts, as well as rising sea levels. In addition, mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever might spread northward.
The second number is 565. McKibben has said that humankind can burn 565 more gigatons (billion tons) of fossil fuel by 2050 without causing the global surface temperature to rise two degrees.
The problem is that fossil fuel companies, such as Exxon Mobil, and petro-states, such as Saudi Arabia, have proven reserves of 2,795 gigatons, the third number.
Do the math, McKibben says. Divide 2,795 by 565, and you get 5.
To McKibben, “proven reserves” in the ground suggest plans for combustion of five times the amount of carbon fuels considered safe for humankind. The greatly increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations could trigger warming that leads to the climate change many wish to avoid.
Not everyone agrees because of some surprising data. According to The Economist, “Over the past 15 years, air temperatures at the earth’s surface have been flat while greenhouse gas emissions have continued to soar.” But that doesn’t mean the climate challenge has evaporated.
To explain global warming, 350.org dwells on another three numbers: 275, 350 and 400. Since the beginning of civilization, the atmosphere contained 275 molecules of carbon dioxide per one million molecules of other air gases (275 parts per million). This useful concentration trapped recycled heat in the atmosphere, preventing the earth from becoming too cold for human survival.
Since the 18th century, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has climbed steadily to about 400 ppm as a result mostly of human activities. That’s too much global warming, scientists have said. It’s causing glaciers that provide drinking water for millions to melt and disappear.
McKibben said that scientists agree that humankind should try to bring that level back to 350 ppm, the number after which his grassroots organization is named.
In his lecture here Aug. 18, McKibben will talk about the actions people can take to help avert a potentially dire situation. He will likely say that people can grow their own vegetables or at least buy locally produced foods, reducing the need for food transported from hundreds to thousands of miles away.
Gasoline, diesel, and other fossil fuels used for transportation are responsible for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions.
To underscore the point about food transportation, earlier that day at 1 p.m., First Presbyterian will host a 100-mile potluck meal on its soccer field off Lafayette Drive, near the intersection with Oak Ridge Turnpike. At least one ingredient in each dish must be grown within 100 miles, and the dish should have a label indicating the ingredient’s name and source location.
Another recommendation that McKibben will make is to stop investing in fossil fuel companies, sell your fossil fuel investments, and reinvest in clean energy stocks.
This divestment strategy that McKibben and 350.org are pushing among colleges, universities, churches, cities, and other institutions holding pension funds will be discussed in a future article. Concerning this strategy, some people have been doing the math.