Aug 1, 2012 · 5 minutes

A day after reading Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article on “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” I was talking to a friend from Microsoft Shanghai about how screwed our planet is. The odds are woefully stacked against us, I said. My friend was more optimistic. Technology is evolving at such a clip and the financial incentives are so high, he argued, that we will innovate our way out of the problem.

Before I go any further, here’s the crux of the issue. In his article, McKibben, a veteran journalist and the founder of activist group, points to three key figures that sum up the planet’s predicament:

  • At the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, heads of state agreed the increase in global temperature should be kept below two degrees Celsius. Anything more would spell disaster for the planet.
  • “Scientists estimate,” McKibben writes, “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.”
  • The amount of carbon already contained in the planet’s proven coal, oil, and gas reserves is 2,795 gigatons. That’s five times higher than we can afford to burn if global temperature increases are to remain below the apocalypse-inducing two degrees.
To me, those figures are frightening enough to make me want to go hide under a mountain in New Zealand, at least until the floodwaters have taken over Australia. To my friend – who just happens to be Australian – it’s no cause for alarm. He’s been at Microsoft for 11 years, and in that time he has seen tremendous change. Social networking. Smartphones. Self-driving cars. Just imagine what’s in store for the next 11 years, he said.

Yesterday, I put that argument to McKibben, who talked me on the phone from his home in Vermont. His response? “In an ideal world, we’d have enough time to have a slow, gentle – or even fast and fairly gentle – transition to sun and wind and whatever.” But, apparently, this isn’t an ideal world. “We don’t have that kind of time,” he says. “We will blow past that two degrees going by the current rates in about 16 years.”

On a technological level, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic for the future of the planet. For instance, on one day last month, Germany managed to generate half of its electricity from solar power. In the US, companies like Sunrun and Bloom Energy promise to transform our energy consumption habits. “It’s clear at some level we’re not up against an insurmountable technological problem,” says McKibben. “We’re at the moment up against a seemingly insurmountable political problem, which is the power of the fossil-fuel industry.”

Given more time, technology would likely come to our rescue, but we don’t have that luxury, says McKibben, who last year led a two-week protest against the planned “Keystone Pipeline” that got him and 1,200 supporters arrested. A few weeks later, he led 10,000 people to march on the White House, ultimately leading to a delay in approval for for the pipeline project.

“We’re clearly in the rapids of the waterfall already,” he says. “That’s what it means when you look around and you see that 40 percent of the sea ice in the summer Arctic has melted, or that this past month the entire top of the greenland ice sheet was melting at the same time, something we’ve never witnessed before. Or you look at the epic droughts and floods now gripping much of the world. Even if we did everything right at this point, we’re going to have a lot of climate change to deal with.”

The fight, then, will have to be waged on two fronts: technological, sure, but also, more importantly, political. People in Silicon Valley need to be thinking not only about doing great engineering, but also helping to rein in what McKibben calls a “rogue industry” – the fossil-fuel companies.

Here’s McKibben again, in his Rolling Stone piece, discussing that deathknell figure of 2,795 gigatons:

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it's already economically aboveground – it's figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It's why they've worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada's tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.
McKibben told me that fossil-fuel companies enjoy an unfair competitive advantage because they get to pour their waste into the atmosphere for free. That “incredible special perk” means they don’t have to pay for the damage that carbon does, and it’s completely granted by politicians, he says.

“They’re not outlaws in the technical sense,” says McKibben of the fossil-fuel companies, “because more than any industry on earth, they write the laws of the land. They spend more money on political campaigns and things than anyone else. But they’re outlaws, clearly, if the laws you’re worried about are the laws of chemistry and physics.”

Silicon Valley has a role to play, McKibben believes, in subverting the prevailing political order, not only in deploying its considerable capital, but also in deploying the tools needed to bring about change. McKibben’s organization has made full use of the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr to create a global movement, and he makes a point of saying “a sincere thank you” to the Silicon Valley companies responsible for those. But more needs to be done. He sees Stanford, for instance, as having an important influence.

“Will Stanford students decide they can put some hours away from developing the next Instagram to figuring out how to make sure Stanford gets fossil fuels out of its portfolio?” he asks rhetorically. The university is one of the world’s bellwether campuses, he says. “Stanford shouldn’t be paying for people’s educations with investments that guarantee there will not be a planet for them to carry out their education on.”

He likens the battle to the world’s rejection of apartheid. He hopes can spark something that looks like the divestment campaigns against the South African regime of 25 years ago. “The next chapter of this fight is going to be a reckoning with the fossil-fuel industry. Because if they keep doing what they are doing, if they carry out their plans to burn the carbon in their reserves, if they keep looking for more coal and gas and oil, then it's not going to matter how much new technology we figure out in the next 30 years, we’re still going to be underwater and over-heated.”

And let’s face it: there’s not enough room under the mountains of New Zealand for all of us.