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Three Numbers that Predict the Future of the Planet

Three Numbers that Predict the Future of the Planet

The climate crisis is getting bad and we may be finally starting to notice. With increasingly crazy weather across America—scorching heat waves, massive fires, destructive derechos, devastating droughts—polls are starting to show a growing awareness of and concern for how our massive amounts of pollution are changing the weather and therefore changing our lives (mostly for the worse).

I know this is starting to sound alarmist and extreme. It should. Because reality is starting to get pretty desperate for those whose lives and livelihoods depend on a relatively stable and predictable climate. At the end of the day, that’s all of us. The first to get hit, however—and they are currently getting hit hard—are those who grow and raise our food (farmers, ranchers, fishermen, etc.), those who are economically and physically vulnerable (the elderly, sickly, homeless, etc.), and those who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (the victims of these storms and fires). And while we’re starting to feel the impacts of climate change in the United States, our global neighbors in regions such as Africa have been the ones bearing the brunt of the suffering.

After decades of scientific studies and expert warnings, climate change is no longer something being debated, it’s something being experienced. Let’s just hope we do what’s right to overcome this crisis before it’s too late. Because “too late” may be coming a lot sooner than we realize, and “what’s right” may be a lot harder than we want to accept.

If anyone understands the climate crisis, and is able to communicate it effectively, it’s Bill McKibben. A journalist by training, McKibben excels at digesting the latest scientific, technological, economic, political, and social information, and then reporting on it with great clarity, relevance, and conviction. In 1989, he wrote the first book about global warming for a general audience entitled The End of Nature. Since then he’s written numerous books and articles, including for Christian groups such as Christianity Today, Eerdmans, and Sojourners (he also teaches Sunday School for his local United Methodist church). McKibben is also the co-founder and co-leader of the global climate movement known as He just published a cover article in Rolling Stone entitled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, which he describes as the most significant piece of writing he has done on the topic since his groundbreaking first book over twenty years ago. After reading the article, I agree.

McKibben’s article is based on three simple numbers.

The first is 2oC. We do not want the global average temperature to warm more than this. Though the international community has failed in agreeing to a plan to fix climate change, everyone (including the United States) agrees that it would be disastrous to let the planet warm more than 2oC, though a growing number of scientists are now concerned that even this limit will be too far. As is, the climate has only warmed a global average of about 0.8oC and it has already caused considerably more damage than expected.

The second number is 565 gigatons. This is roughly how much more carbon dioxide experts think we can release into the atmosphere by mid-century if we are going to have a reasonable chance of keeping the global average temperature increase to within 2oC. Anything with “gigatons” as a unit of measurement sounds like a fantastically big number until you realize that last year alone we released 31.6 gigatons of CO2 and these amounts are growing every year. And, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 80% of this remaining emissions budget is already locked in due to existing energy-related infrastructure, and we are on track to lock in the remaining 20% by 2017.

The third number is 2,795 gigatons. If you thought the second number was big then think again. This is the amount of carbon contained in the proven oil and gas resources that the global fossil fuel industry already has in their reach. In other words, we are gearing up to release five times more carbon pollution into the atmosphere than the whole world agrees is safe or even sane.

Revelation 11:18 speaks of a time that will come for “destroying those who destroy the earth.” At the time this biblical text was written, there was no climate crisis. But there is today, and unrestrained carbon pollution of the atmosphere is one of the most far-reaching ways that humanity, through the fossil fuel industry, is currently destroying the earth as we know it.

This is the bad news, and its pretty bad. But at least we understand our shared reality much better today than ever before. And there is plenty of good news, especially for those of us who follow and trust in a God who loves the world, sustains it, and has promised to restore all of his groaning Creation along with us (see Col 1:18-20 and Romans 8:20-21.) Hope placed in God will not disappoint.

At the same time, and until Jesus comes back, we as a church, society and humanity all have a part to play here and now. Together, we have the knowledge, technology, and skill to fix things, along with the capacity to know and do what is good, even if we have been corrupted by sin at every level.

What it boils down to is straightforward, if not easy: we need to set an enforceable limit on global warming pollution on the national and international scale—565 gigatons comes to mind for now—and then we need to enforce it as if our future largely depends on it—because it does. This will include some sort of pricing mechanism so that polluters have to take responsibility for paying for the costs of their own pollution. If we do this in time, we should be able to turn things around before they get too much worse for everyone.

The problem is that we have not yet been able to muster the socio-political momentum necessary to reach these binding agreements. This is where Bill McKibben focuses the rest of his article and where I will focus my next post: learning from past failures, and charting a new path forward. It will be a much more forward-looking and encouraging post than this one had to be, I promise. I will also be sharing what (Bill McKibben’s group) and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (a newly-launched group I’m involved in) are doing to build the momentum we need to bring these next steps to pass. In the meantime, do check out McKibben’s article. Its long, but it’s a critically important and well worth the read.

Note: There’s always a chance, I suppose, that we’ll invent some miraculous new technology just in time that will solve the climate crisis without us having to change our lifestyles or laws (perhaps by rapidly sequestering huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere). Even though such a breakthrough could fix the technical problem we’re facing, its not a bet we should be making now, and it would do little to address the moral and spiritual problems that got us in this crisis in the first place.

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