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Q+A: Bill McKibben crunches Australia’s climate numbers

McKibben has calculated that the world can emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth, he says.
McKibben founded the environmental movement.

US environmentalist and scholar, Bill McKibben, has crunched the numbers: we can emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide worldwide if we want to stay below 2°C of warming, he says.

However, the world is on track to burn enough fossil fuels to emit 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

McKibben, who founded the environmental movement and is pushing companies to get rid of investments in fossil fuels, is currently touring Australia.

He spoke to The Conversation about what the numbers tell us about climate change and Australia.

You say the world can emit only 565 gigatons worldwide if we want to stay below 2 degrees C. Have you done the calculations for how much Australia can afford to contribute to that 565 gigatons?

Here’s one way to do the numbers. If Australia builds out the coal mines it’s currently talking about, then it will release about a third altogether of that 565 gigatons. So that gives you some sense of the scale. Australia constitutes much less than a third of the world population. You begin to sense the problem we are running into.

Truthfully, if you wanted to figure out some sense of what Australia’s allowance of that 565 gigatons should be, you would figure out what percentage of world population is Australian, which has got to be less than 1% of the world population, and that would be your share. You’d also have to back calculate if it’s fair for Australia to use even that, given it’s probably already used more than its fair share, just like the United States, Canada and other countries.

If we were allotting space in the atmosphere based on fairness, we would be letting Indians and Africans use most of it from here on in.

In realistic terms, what we have to do is take these large carbon deposits in Australia, Canada, Venezuela, the Powder River Basin in the US, these seven or eight huge deposits of carbon around the world, and keep them under ground.

If they ever get out and get burnt, then you can’t make the maths work at all.

Investment in fossil fuel still gets a pretty good return in Australia. Are you having any luck convincing Australian investors to divest?

It looks like most of the big miners are starting to head for the exits. BHP is trying to sell much of its coal.

There are Australians who are beginning to take up these questions. The Uniting Church has divested its shares. We are on our way to the Australian National University today where the students have a powerful divestment movement underway. It’s early days but if I were a coal mining baron in this country, I would be a little bit worried about the upsurge of awareness of what their plans for the planet really are.

Is your argument that investment in fossil fuels is wrong because it may destroy the world or wrong because one day those investments may be worthless because the world will have moved on from fossil fuels?

I have to say I worry about the first of those things more than the other. But I do think it’s clear that if you invest in these stocks, you are making a bet that we will never take climate change seriously.

HSBC ran the numbers a couple of months ago and said that if the world did anything to try to meet its 2 degree Celsius target that everybody, including Australia, has solemnly agreed to then you would have to cut the valuation of all these shares in half.

So if we ever took climate change seriously, everybody is sitting on a big bubble.

Who are the biggest investors in Australia in fossil fuels?

As I understand it, the biggest pools of money are in pension and superannuation funds. We were meeting in Sydney yesterday with people who control some of the big funds in Australia and they are paying more attention for practical reasons and because they understand the science.

As one of these leading fund guys said yesterday, “Who are we to doubt the science? All of our other investments are based on science and technology, we understand what is going on.”

The meeting was at the Goldman Sachs office yesterday with a bunch of people running various super funds from around the country, there were about 150 people there with a link up to the Goldman Sachs office in Melbourne.

Most of our fossil fuels are exported and some argue argue that if we don’t sell fossil fuels to India and China, they’ll either get them elsewhere or their development will slow down. What’s your response to that?

It is true that, at this point, cheap fossil fuel can be a useful thing but at a certain point you can move from good to bad. It’s like drinking beer all night. There is a point at which it’s not fun any more.

To judge from the health statistics coming out of China, we are reaching that point. In fact, the Chinese are trying hard to figure out how the hell to get off coal and they are moving aggressively toward renewable energy.

All these countries have entrenched fossil fuel interests just like Australia does.

A big study came out last September funded by 20 of the poorest countries on Earth. It showed that by 2030, fossil fuels, between climate change and straight air pollution, would claim about 100 million lives.

So I think, at this point, the idea that the Australia mining barons are engaged in their work for humanitarian reasons is somewhat suspect.

Are offset schemes and emission trading schemes a serious way to mitigate against climate change?

There’s no way to offset the huge volumes of carbon that would come out of these Australian coal mines.

If everyone in Australia set to work doing nothing but planting trees between now and the end of the century, I don’t think you would have enough trees to soak up the carbon that comes out of these new coal mines.

One valley, the proposed coal mine for the Galilee Basin, is enough to fill up about 6% of the atmospheric space that we have got.

In the end, it’s a math problem and the math is pretty daunting.

It’s not that we should not be planting trees. It’s that we already have too much carbon in the atmosphere. We have already raised the temperature a degree. We have already melted the Arctic. So we should be in an emergency effort right now to deal with that, not adding to the problem.

Are you seeing much movement to wind back fossil fuel subsidies?

There’s more attention to and it is more visible and it’s becoming more of an issue all the time. In the United States, it is one of the things Obama is trying to do, to cut those subsidies but they are jealously guarded. In our political system, that financial power translates too easily into political power.

But that is one of the reasons we build movements, to try and equal the power of the fossil fuel industry with people power.

Do you think your argument stands a chance against the entrenched place coal has in the Australian economy?

My sense is that Australians overestimate the amount of their economy based on coal.

Because it generates outsize returns for a few people, they are able to use it to their political ends.

But I am pretty sure that a country as blessed with the resources of sun and wind and 21st century fuels doesn’t need to stay completely wedded to 18th century technology. A country as affluent and educated as Australia could figure out something else to do with its people rather than just keep digging up black rocks and burning them.

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