Our Carbon Debt, Our Moral Duty
In explaining the connection between the burning of dirty carbon intensive energy sources and extreme weather the changes regarding fauna, seasons, species, diseases, migration of both humans and other species, biodiversity, sea level, acidification of oceans and most acutely the atmosphere, the economic effects cannot be underplayed. Billions have already been spent as a result of climate disasters within only the last couple of years most recently Hurricane Sandy which cost 65 billion and the year long Midwest/Plains drought that cost 35 billion on top of the 14 billion spent last year due to the effects of extreme climate events in the US alone.
The urgency of addressing this global crisis cannot be made anymore clearer as more and more we see scientific studies corroborating what we have known for decades: humans are making the planet warmer and that warming is now affecting our agricultural output, our economy, our human rights, our productivity, our health and our very lives. More importantly, we are seeing it firsthand as more frequent and extreme climate events continue to strike predominantly poor and developing areas of the world that cannot keep up with the fast paced changes that are being accelerated by our increasing emissions from these dirty sources.
The globe we live on is changing in ways that the human species has not experienced. Global temperature has risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century and the emissions that are driving that increase further are continuing to increase to a point where positive feedback loops leading to a tipping point are now occurring. This is and will have consequences regarding the human species' ability to grow food, maintain biodiversity, preserve water sources and stave off diseases. And though there are interests that would have people believe this is either not happening, not pushed by man or made up to institute some worldwide tax slave state the reality and the facts behind climate science reveal that to be rhetoric contrived by a network of politically and ideologically slanted think tanks that deal in propaganda and misinformation in order to support their profit driven benefactors.
Since the 1930s scientists had begun questioning whether man's behavior and habits on this Earth post Industrial Revolution had amplified the natural carbon cycle and atmospheric composition of our planet. Thousands of studies and peer reviewed papers have been published with over 98% of climate scientists publishing stating and agreeing that humans are indeed changing the face of the Earth and pushing the natural processes that we have come to rely on for centuries to a place beyond their natural ability to sustain us. We do not live in a linear system and are now seeing clearly globally that pushing the natural variables of climate are now causing those systems to push back.
The question we should now be asking ourselves is just what are we prepared to do to deal with the changes taking place... The changes we have precipitated by continuing to remain closed off from reality listening only to those voices telling us everything is OK in order to preserve the status quo that benefits the few at the expense of the many. It surely may be hard to accept that man has such an influence on this planet, but ever since man began changing the face of Earth thousands of years ago through agriculture and deforestation we have been setting the scene for the future.
Climate had remained basically stable up to that point with interglacial and glacial periods happening on a time scale of thousands of years. What we are seeing now is a pace and severity of change faster than ever before due to the time lapse feedbacks of the concentration of greenhouse gases put up into the atmosphere by humans from this past century and (amplified by continuing to emit 90 million tons daily) even before that which have pushed those natural cycles. Continuing this same behavior only increases exponentially the chances of our world being an even more unstable place for us and our children.
Which leads to the question: What must we do in order to regain the climate balance of our planet?
The answer to that question is simple and also complex, but if you know the math and have a moral compass the answer is clear. In order to truly understand the urgency of this crisis you need to have a grasp on the math behind it and the moral implications of ignoring that math. This is what scientists from Switzerland, Germany and the UK explained in a scientific paper published in Nature in 2009 entitled, “Greenhouse Gas Emission Targets For Limiting Global Warming” which laid out the math regarding our ”carbon budget.” The amount of carbon expended to date from emissions of coal, oil and natural gas minus the amount on reserve leaves humanity with a carbon budget much like a checking account where you only have a limited amount to live on and have to stay within that amount in order to avoid overdrawing your account. The difference however, is that with a checking account if you bounce a check the fee is minimal in relation to overdrawing the carbon budget because the fee for that is our planet.
This carbon budget humans have to live within is in line with a 2 degree Celsius threshold as established by world governments that has been determined to be the point at which dangerous feedbacks in our climate system would take place. Global temperatures however have already increased by 0.4 degrees Celsius this past century and we are already seeing dangerous feedbacks in our climate system such as unprecedented record breaking melting of Arctic ice that broke records last year now being tied to extreme weather in the US and globally. I personally believe that 2 degrees is too generous a number based on current reality, but the scenario as laid out by this study is one which also requires our urgent attention.
Here is the budget per this study using radiative forcing (heat stored) and emissions stored in the deep ocean as well using 1000 different emission scenarios: 50-50 chance of keeping global temperature under 2 degree threshold: only 1,437 gigatons of carbon can be emitted between 2000 and 2050. 80 percent chance of keeping global temperature below 2 degree threshold: only 886 gigatons of carbon.
However, the paper also found that by 2006 one quarter of that budget had already been expended by these nations. The conclusion of that study was then obvious: humans cannot burn every gigaton of carbon on the balance sheets of the fossil fuel companies looking for it to be burned for profit and still maintain a habitable planet. The total gigatons of fossil fuels was determined to be 2,795 gigatons on the balance sheet which would give us at present consumption rates only 11 more years to expend this budget. By 2040 it would be game over for the climate.
This now brings us to the most important question, the moral question: Do we have the moral courage to see the urgency of what going over this carbon budget means for our very survival and the biodiversity of this planet now and in the future by putting that above profit? Perhaps the best way to answer that is to look at your actions in your own life. Do you begrudge your children or those you love what they need to live in order to please yourself first? Why would you then do that to the planet that gives us life?
Throughout the entire history of mankind the one constant has been our Earth, always sacrificing and always giving us what we need. However, we have abused our place on this planet. We have decided that in our arrogance we are above nature and have no responsibility for putting back what we take. We have closed our eyes to the reality we have now put into motion by our consumptive habits. This is the moral crux of the carbon budget.
For even though you may think the numbers quoted here that reflect market values, balance sheets and CO2 concentrations in dead fossils are just numbers, there are lives attached to those numbers. Biodiversity is attached to those numbers. The web of life is attached to those numbers. The lives and livelihoods of millions for generations to come are attached to those numbers. Those you love are attached to those numbers. I lived through Hurricane Sandy and I understand more than ever what is attached to those numbers. The value we choose to now place on working together for a clean energy future and a future where the moral imperative supersedes the profit of the here and now that is wasting away what we now know is essential for our survival is not only imperative but necessary.
Humans are said to be the most intelligent of all species. If that is so then why would we continue to do what is surely to bring our own demise and the erosion of a beautiful planet that is our only home? Understanding the numbers associated with the carbon budget need to lead you to reflecting on the moral implications of ignoring those numbers and continuing business as usual. If we are to have a present and future that reflects our true moral values then we must leave it in the ground and look to the sky. Our children and generations to come will thank us for it. If we do not, the unthinkable will be our reality and we will have failed to exhibit the moral courage we know we have. We cannot allow complacency, comfort or fear of opposing forces to deter us from understanding this task before us and taking action. The math makes it clear and failure is not an option.