Bill McKibben and 565 gigatons

Bill McKibben – journalist, author and environmental activist – is currently touring Australia and New Zealand with a very simple message: We can afford to emit no more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide if we are to stay below 2°C of warming, but fossil fuel companies have enough fuel in their reserves to emit 2,795 gigatons and they plan to burn all of it.

The University of Oxford has produced a counter at trillionthtonne which counts the tonnes of carbon spewing into our atmosphere and the amount of time we’ve got left to do something about it, which is about 15 years if we want to keep warming below 2°C. The longer we linger and bicker, the more carbon there is and the less time we have and the more difficult our task becomes.

Bill McKibben is urging individuals, universities and other institutions to divest from their stock holdings in the fossil fuel industry. This was the same strategy used by the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s which encouraged divestment of companies that traded or had operations in South Africa.

So far 10 US cities have committed to fossil fuel divestment, including San Franciso, Seattle and Berkeley. The Uniting Church of Australia (NSW and  ACT Synod) recently voted to dump their fossil fuel shares along with growing movements in Universities the world over, including Australia’s ANU. Fossil fuel investments are beginning to look rather risky.  BHP Billiton Ltd. recently announced an end to new coal projects and has already closed two Australian coal mines, Norwich Park and Gregory. There is growing concern that fossil fuels are currently overvalued and that when this bubble bursts, it will plunge the world deep into economic crisis. A group of London-based financial analysts at the Carbon Tracker Initiative, have begun identifying the scale of unburnable carbon currently listed on stock exchanges around the world.

Bill McKibben penned an article for Rolling Stone magazine last year, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, in an issue with Justin Bieber gracing the cover. McKibben’s piece had 10 times as many likes on Facebook as Justin Bieber’s and the movement he founded, 350.org is gaining momentum the world over. Most of 350.org’s supporters are young, poor and brown because that describes the majority of the world’s population. These are also the people who will be most affected by climate change but who are the least culpable. Here are some of them (more at 350.org):

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Dhaka, Bangladesh
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Cebu, Philippines
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Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
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Mumbai, India

Bill McKibben argues that “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage”. Is it acceptable for a restaurant to throw its rubbish out onto the street without cleaning it up? Of course not. Is it acceptable for fossil fuel companies to pollute the air without cleaning it up?

The Arctic could be ice-free as early as 2015. What will you tell the people of the future when they ask, “So the Arctic melted, then what did you do?”.