How much more fossil fuel can we burn before we get to the two-degree limit?
Recent studies show that we can burn between 565 billion and 900 billion additional tons of carbon before the average global temperature rises above two degrees Celsius. That sounds like quite a bit, and it is, but the same studies show that proven reserves of fossil fuels around the world amount to over 2700 billion tons of carbon. That’s 3 to 5 times as much as would get us into a run-away climate.
3 to 5 times as much!
That changes what it means to be a human being. We all used to think that fossil fuel was running out. As supplies got low, prices would rise, and there would be a natural shift to renewable forms of energy. Market forces would create a gradual transition in the right direction. But that’s not going to happen. Instead of investing in solar, wind, biofuels, and geothermal, energy companies have invested in huge new sources of unconventional fossil fuels, like tar sands and shale oil, and unconventional technologies like fracking. That’s where the quick money is. The result is an enormous new supply of carbon-based fuel and a future of cheap, climate-busting energy. This updated scenario puts giddy smiles on the faces of the “drill, baby, drill” crowd, but points us dead center at global disaster a few years down the road.
This is where the word paradigm comes in. “Paradigm” is a fancy, somewhat overused word for a worldview based on unquestioned and largely unconscious assumptions. The economic paradigm that I discuss in my book is the prevailing paradigm of our time. It is based on the assumption that economic growth is the primary purpose of human society and that market forces will lead us where we should go. But the economic paradigm does not, and cannot, value life. When it looks at a tree, it sees two-by-fours; when it looks at a river, its sees a sewer; when it looks at a mountaintop, it sees a coal mine. Non-human life has no value and no meaning. How much is a polar bear worth in dollars, or a tropical frog, an icecap, or a climate? Climate change does not fit into the paradigm, so we don’t know how to deal with it. Denial becomes the easiest response for many: if it is not in the worldview, it must not be in the world.
But as evidence accumulates that there is something going on in the world beyond the worldview, the paradigm begins to shift. Old assumptions die and new ones arise. The ecologic paradigm emerges, based on the assumption that life is more valuable than economic growth. It does not put an end to the economy; it puts the economy within the ecology. Human activities take place in relation to the forests, the oceans, and the atmosphere. Rather than blindly gorging on resources because that’s where the money is, the proper role of society becomes shaping economic activity to fit the carrying capacity of the Earth.
A paradigm shift is a change not in what we are looking at, but in where we are looking from. It is a change in who we are. This might sound like so much word play, but there really are 2700 billion tons of carbon at our finger tips, and we really do have to decide whether or not to burn them. If all we are is an economy, we will use them all. If we are a form of life in relation to other forms of life, we will leave 2000 of them in the ground.
It won’t be easy. Those carbon tons are worth somewhere around a quadrillion dollars. To live into the future, we will have to value life even more than that.