Why Global Warming is a Moral Issue

What does global warming look like? We’re beginning to have a pretty good idea. It looks like catastrophic floods in Queensland and New South Wales, like the Victorian bushfires. It looks like the wildfires in Colorado and the droughts affecting the US foodbelt.

Rolling Stone published a frankly terrifying (and brilliant) article last week, using hard numbers to prove just how dire the situation is – and how close and severe the consequences of inaction. It puts the current opposition to Australia’s carbon tax in context.

Image from the *Rolling Stone* article that has drawn half a million views.

Image from the Rolling Stone article that has drawn half a million views.

‘I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly,’ says George Monbiot, quoted in the piece. ‘Losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril human civilisation is in.’

The Rolling Stone article, by Bill McKibben, has drawn approximately half a million views, despite being very long (6000 words), with a fair amount of scientific data. Here’s a taste, below, of its main points.

The conclusion? We need serious economic activism on a global scale against the fossil fuel producers, similar to the kind of action the international community took against apartheid in South Africa.

Copenhagen: Below two degrees

At the largely ineffectual Copenhagen climate conference of 2009, the world’s governments formally committed to keeping carbon emissions ‘below two degrees Celsius’.

In Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben writes, ‘So far, we’ve reached the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected.'

The oceans are already 30% more acidic.

The oceans are already 30% more acidic.

‘(A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 per cent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapour than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five per cent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.’

Three quarters of the way to reaching the two degree target

‘Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees.’.

‘But in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.’

Trending towards six degrees

‘Study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three per cent a year – and at that rate, we’ll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today’s preschoolers will be graduating from high school.’

Within 16 years, we'll have burned enough carbon to have lifted the global temperature above two degrees, suggests the current data.

Within 16 years, we'll have burned enough carbon to have lifted the global temperature above two degrees, suggests the current data.

International Atomic Energy Agency chief economist Fatih Birol says, ‘When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature rise of about six degrees.’

‘We will keep drilling everywhere we can’

‘That’s the amount of fossil fuel we are currently planning to burn. It’s five times more than 565 gigatons.’

‘We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think it’s safe to burn … Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony.’

In March, Barack Obama promised, ‘You have my word that we will keep drilling everywhere we can … That’s a commitment that I make.’

Fossil fuel: a rogue industry

‘Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilisation.’

‘This industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it.’

A price on carbon is a moral issue

A price on carbon, McKibben concludes, is the only answer – ‘it would enlist markets in the fight against global warming’.

He points out that BP closed its solar division last December, while Shell shut down its solar and wind efforts in 2009.

A price on carbon 'would enlist markets in the fight against global warming'.

A price on carbon 'would enlist markets in the fight against global warming'.

‘To make a real difference – to keep us under a temperature increase of two degrees – you’d need to change carbon pricing in Washington, and then use that victory to leverage similar shifts around the world.’

At bottom, he says, climate change is ‘not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realise that this is … a moral issue.’

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