Why We Need to Keep 80 Percent of Fossil Fuels in the Ground

YES! Magazine, February 15, 2016, By Bill McKibben

Physics can impose a bracing clarity on the normally murky world of politics. It can make things simple. Not easy, but simple.

Most of the time, public policy is a series of trade-offs: higher taxes or fewer services, more regulation or more freedom of action. We attempt to balance our preferences: for having a beer after work, and for sober drivers. We meet somewhere in the middle, compromise, trade off. We tend to think we’re doing it right when everyone’s a little unhappy.

But when it comes to climate change, the essential problem is not one group’s preferences against another’s. It’s not—at bottom—industry versus environmentalists or Republicans against Democrats. It’s people against physics, which means that compromise and trade-­off don’t work. Lobbying physics is useless; it just keeps on doing what it does.

So here are the numbers: We have to keep 80 percent of the fossil-fuel reserves that we know about underground. If we don’t—if we dig up the coal and oil and gas and burn them—we will overwhelm the planet’s physical systems, heating the Earth far past the red lines drawn by scientists and governments. It’s not “we should do this,” or “we’d be wise to do this.” Instead it’s simpler: 'We have to do this.' ...

In fall 2012, students, faith leaders, and other activists launched a fossil-fuel divestment campaign in the United States, supported by 350.org (an organization I co-founded), that soon spread Down Under and to Europe. The argument was simple: If Exxon and Chevron and BP and Shell plan to dig up and burn more carbon than the planet can handle, they’re not normal companies.

If their business plan would break the planet, then we need to break ties with them.

At first, the institutions that joined in were small. Tiny Unity College in Maine was first, selling the fossil fuel stock in its $13 million portfolio. But the campaign accelerated quickly because the math was so clear, the physics so irrefutable. By now colleges from Stanford to Oxford, from Sydney to Edinburgh, have joined in, pointing out that it makes no sense to educate young people and then break the planet they’ll inhabit. ..."

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