“To My Foreigner’s Eye”

I’ve seen Bill McKibben speak quite a few times, but today was something special. Speaking at the National Press Club, in Canberra, Australia, Bill delivered what a friend who was also listening called a “flawless” speech. It was something special that is for sure. Here it is in full. Tomorrow we are off to Melbourne and to another packed out theatre of 800+ people. You can follow our progress on Twitter: @350Australia #DotheMaths and on Facebook here.


Speech to the National Press Club, Canberra, Author and co-founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben

To my foreigner’s eye, there is a profound and interesting disconnection between the way that Australians view their fossil fuel resources, and the way that physics views those same deposits. This disconnection spells bad news for the planet, and perhaps also for the Australian economy, as it seems likely to lead to a series of bets that go disastrously wrong. My hope is that Australia might gain a more clear-eyed view of the future, seeing it more through the eyes of physics as it were, in hopes of charting a sounder course. A course that would, inevitably, require keeping most identified coal, gas and oil deposits safely underground.

Australia has vast fossil fuel deposits, some of the largest known on the planet; the most important are probably the coal beds. To Australians, and especially to the very wealthy men and women who own those holdings, these are the source of future wealth—enough wealth to allow you to build a whole fleet of replica Titanics, say. And so the plans are on for the rapid expansion of mine, rail, and port necessary to dig that coal and send it abroad to be burned.

But if that coal is ever burned, it will make it impossible for the planet to reach its stated climate goals—quite specific goals that the Australian govt. has solemnly signed to support. In particular, this country, like virtually all of the world’s nations, has pledged that it will not allow the planet’s temperatures to increase more than two degrees—that undertaking was signed at Copenhagen, the only result of that otherwise failed conference, but it’s also the stated policy of the G-20 and the G-8.

This is not, by the way, a very good target for which to be aiming. Climate scientists are alarmed by the damage that’s already been done by slightly less than one degree of global warming—the Arctic has melted, as of last summer. The oceans are 30% more acidic. Since warm air holds more water than cold, the atmosphere is 5% warmer, loading the dice for drought and for flood. So in fact, aiming for two degrees can’t be considered wise or prudent. But since it is the only target the world’s countries have agreed to, and since even if we do most things right from this point on we will be fortunate to stop short of it, two degrees is the operative goal.

And science, helpfully, gives us a reasonable estimate of how much coal and oil and gas we can still burn with some hope of staying below that two degree line. A variety of models demonstrate that, in order to provide us with 80% odds of staying beneath that line, we can burn about 500 billion tons more carbon between now and 2050. That sounds like an impressively large amount, since a billion tons of anything is a large quantity. But we burn near 40 billion tons a year annually, and the total is still climbing—given less than a decade and a half we’ll have blown past that threshold. That’s why measures like Australia’s carbon price are so important—by slowing emissions, they give us some hope of stretching that time frame. And it has been remarkably effective, not only here where the early results are already promising, but overseas where the Chinese, the Koreans, and others have obviously picked up on this work and taken it further.

But Australia also illustrates why domestic reductions in emissions won’t, by themselves, make enough difference. There are, after all, not that many people living here. Your own emissions are relatively small compared to the emissions already coming from the coal you ship abroad—these imported emissions, as it were, are twice your domestic emissions. And the plan is now on to increase those imports—perhaps triple them.

The maths that I laid out before make clearer what this mean. If the planet has a 500-gigaton carbon budget between it and two degrees, then Australia’s coal expansion plans would produce emissions large enough to fill about a third of that atmospheric space. Let me say it again: Australia plans to prosper by using up a third of the available space in the whole planet’s atmosphere. That is neither fair nor wise. The numbers, when you actually crunch them, are astonishing: the plan to mine the Galilee Valley, for instance, would by itself produce emissions equivalent to 7% of the space the whole planet still has left to fill. 7% of the whole shooting match, from one Australian valley.

What’s interesting to me, as an outsider, is how little attention this problem seems to have gotten. As I wrote in the Monthly earlier, I was amazed to see the reaction of the newspapers when news leaked that environmentalists were, what do you know, going to try and  fight those plans. Fight them legally and peacefully and civilly, but fight them nonetheless. The head of Rio Tinto called it ‘economic vandalism,’ and the head of the Australian Coal Association, Nikki Williams, spoke darkly about her ‘real concerns for safety.” But even government politicians, who had been forthright and powerful in their work on domestic emissions, joined the chorus. Wayne Swan called it “a disturbing development,” “deeply irresponsible,” and “completely irrational and destructive.” I am not naïve about the politics involved here. I come from a country where the president, though eloquently committed to fighting climate change in his rhetoric, also boasts about building more pipelines and drilling more wells than his predecessors. I understand the immense power of the fossil fuel industry, and I understand the political sensitivity of challenging that industry.

But I also understand that in the end physical reality—reality reality, you might say—outstrips political reality. We simply can’t deal with climate change if that coal gets mined, any more than if the coal of America’s Powder River Basin is mined. That’s why, unapologetically, we are fighting the infrastructure of rail and port necessary to bring those American assets to market. We can’t deal with the physics of climate if the tarsands of Canada are burned—that’s why we’ve been to jail in the so far successful attempt to slow down pipeline construction. There are perhaps a dozen pools of carbon this size around the world that simply must stay in the ground, in much the same way that we simply needed the Brazilians to keep their rainforest standing for the sake of the planet. And it is instructive to note that the Brazilians have, by and large, managed to do this despite their poverty. We need similar gestures from the rich.

In a larger sense, this underlines the fact that the fossil fuel companies have become a kind of rogue force, outlaw not against the laws of the state which they often write, but against the laws of physics. They have, financial analysts have now discovered, 2800 gigatons of carbon already in their reserves—their business plans make clear that they plan to burn it, despite the fact that, as I have said, the planet only has room for 500 gigatons. It’s not like those numbers are close—that if scientists were a little off in their estimates we’d squeak by. The industry has five times the carbon that the planet can take.

Which is one reason that, first in the States and now around the world, we’ve launched a divestment campaign to try and weaken the financial and political standing of those companies, to turn them into the next tobacco industry, though their secondhand smoke is far more lethal even than the kind that comes from cigarettes. In the US, there are already 380 college campuses with active divestment fights, and five colleges that have already divested. I was so pleased to see the powerful campaign underway at ANU, for young people—who will have to live with a degrading planet for 6 or 7 decades to come—are in the forefront of the fight. Already the Uniting Church has announced plans to divest. We’ve met with the heads of many super funds in Australia, and they know that it’s on the radar. Just today the Green party announced a drive to convince the Fund for the Future to do likewise. In the States, ten big cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, have announced divestment plans; just this morning the mayor of Portland called on the entire state of Oregon to do likewise.

One aspect of this fight is moral, of course. If it’s wrong to wreck the climate it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage—that’s why, say, the churches are involved. It makes no sense, from their point of view, to invest in companies that run Genesis backwards.

But there’s also a clear financial message here. A decision to invest in fossil fuel shares at this point is a bet that the planet will do nothing at all about climate change. If the world’s governments ever took even that small two degree target seriously, as HSBC and Citi noted in a report last month, the share values of these companies would be cut in half. We are riding a carbon bubble, and either the bubble pops or the planet pops. This is not some hobby horse of mine alone; the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, and Pricewaterhousecoopers have all issued serious reports in recent months underlining this mathematics; investing in these companies becomes a greater risk all the time.

In a larger but similar sense, it’s worth asking whether or not it makes sense to bet the Australian economy on a fossil fuel future. It’s a question that’s being asked in Canada too, which in many ways finds itself with a comparable paradox between its international commitment and its aspiration to dig up every last bit of oil and sell it abroad. Among other things, voices in the financial community there have started to ponder the question of whether it’s a blessing or a curse to be so resource-dependent. The Germans have made the opposite bet—they’re focused on the rapid expansion of renewable energy, and there were days last summer when they produced half the power they used from solar panels within their borders. I’d guess that the nations that choose to pursue 21st century technologies may do better than those who cast their lot with 18th century technology—but that’s just a guess. Watch the Chinese carefully; their appetite for carbon is diminishing. Make sure your customer base is as interested in burning coal as you are in selling it.

But I want to finish by saying that for us, we’re not mostly concerned about the economic implications—we’re concerned about the deepest moral questions that we’ve ever as a civilization faced. This is not a normal social issue where slow,, gradual transition will be enough. (It might have been enough if governments have paid attention when we started raising this issue—but it’s not any more). And so, around the world, people are raising the temperature, as it were.

In North America, in order to try and block the Keystone pipeline, we managed to organize the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years about any issue, with thousands going to jail. We may lose that fight, but so far we’ve kept them at bay for two years. That spirit is spreading far and wide; increasingly, people understand that their political leaders simply aren’t getting the job done. We simply are not going to let these things happen without a struggle—peaceful but resolute.

 

There is an emerging fossil fuel resistance around the world. Many of the people who comprise it are on the front lines, defending their farms and forests. Even more people are eager to defend the atmosphere—combined, these are becoming the alliances whose potential power begins to rival the financial might of the fossil fuel industry. We can’t outspend them, but we can out organize them.

And you can tell that we are making progress because the tone of the industry is changing. If you listen to, say, Ms. Williams of the Australian Coal Association, she doesn’t sound cool and confident; she sounds increasingly harried. Earlier this week on Q and A, Sen. Bernardi said that our call for divestment from fossil fuel companies was “madness.” But in fact the madness lies in business as usual. Madness comes in listening to the loud warnings of scientists and then doing precisely the opposite. Building new coal mines, at this point in human history, is as mad as listening to the doctor tell you your cholesterol is too high and then eating a stick of butter. The louder the industry and its hired guns shout, the clearer the weakness of their intellectual position.

In fact, let me go a little further. This country seems about ready to elect a government that styles itself conservative and cautious. The coal industry insists that its opponents are radical. But there is nothing radical about what we’re asking for—we’d like merely a world that works a bit like the one we were born into, when rivers actually flowed to the sea, when the hundred year storm didn’t come every other season. Those are actually conservative demands. Radicals work at coal companies. If you’re willing to fund your desire for replica Titanics by altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere, then you’re a radical on a scale that would make any 60s hippie blush. In the environmental community we take it as our job to stand up to that radicalism. We’re going to do it firmly, and I think we’re increasingly going to win. 

  • HAPPENING NOW: “Years of Living Dangerously” watch-parties and web-chat. More at 350.org/years

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