350 Its a simple number. Its the atmosphere concentration of CO2the planet can not surpass in terms of parts per million (ppm), before the polar ice caps melt. This would kick off a positive feedback loop of ever more warming as the sun’s rays are no longer reflected back into space, and the arctic warms even more releasing countless tonnes of stored methane in the permafrost according to the number’s originator Dr. Hansen, then of NASA. 1
The number we are at is 405 now. 2
If you consider 10-30ppm as the number of continued fossil fuel emissions to build out renewable infrastructure, high speed rail lines and buses and to keep farm tractors running till we can figure out how to feed and move six billion people without using carbon intensive methods, we are effectively sitting at a current level of 415-435 ppm on a transition adjusted basis (current level of 405 ppm + 10-30ppm to transition). This is 19-24% above Dr. Hansen’s maximum level and 53-61% above pre-industrial levels as things sit today. This also rather generously assumes everything to follow in this piece happened tomorrow, without another year wasted on effectively business as normal. Add in say five years to even start on any of this, and a more gradual carbon free adjustment speed and the numbers start to look far worse. To think the planet could go any higher in terms of its CO2 concentrations than the levels stated above and be okay in the end would be he equivalent of betting ones net worth on Bitcoin futures. Risky and highly unethical given the consequences of getting the bet wrong.
Even this stark assessment puts aside the enormous growth in methane emissions due to the fracking boom (heartily endorsed by Democrats it must be pointed out), and the poor state of our forests to absorb CO2 going forward, with huge deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia, and North American forests suffering from record forest fires. This is all means the option of longer time horizons for a transition (eg. 80% cut by 2050) are no longer adequate.
This means simply not building new fossil fuel projects or even zeroing out all stock market capitalization of fossil fuel companies, or getting all banks everywhere to stop loaning to fossil fuel companies will not save the planet. As an aside many of the largest fossil fuel producers are state owned and do not borrow in regular commercial lending markets. eg. Saudi Aramco, Gazprom or the national oil companies of Kuwait or the UAE. Most of the above have almost no private shareholders who could consider divesting in any event. Further to think small, privately owned oil companies will not produce in the Bakken of North Dakota and be shut out of all forms of local credit union, state level banks or private funding is delusional. It is to think slavery could and would end if only the New York banks of the era stopped funding it!
The only path towards saving our planet from climate change at this point, is for the equivalent of the retooling the American economy went thru from peacetime to wartime production in 1941-1944 to be applied to the goal of more or less immediate decarbonization of the entire economy. This can only be done with an unequivocal political mandate a crisis exists, and a suspension of the free market to ensure all resources go towards the critical goal of decarbonizing the economy. An explicit goal of removing most of the consumption we undertake now would be essential in order to power down the world’s energy requirements to something renewable energy could scale up to in a short period of time. Very likely rights to sue for lost profits for now banned fossil fuel production and for lease holders would have to be suspended. Ditto for investor dispute clauses in trade agreements. Ditto for the need for planning permissions for renewable energy. Sovereign debt repayments would have to be suspended so that such funds can go into renewable energy deployments. Such a “great leap” into decarbonization will also cause emissions to crash as new carbon emissions are then focused on transition not just more consumption, and activities which do not directly produce the goods required for the transition eg. Solar panels, wind farms etc. Token carbon prices of $15-$35/tonne will not get you there near quick enough. European emissions trading prices are and have been at the pathetically low levels of around 5-8 euros/tonne for years now 3.
California’s cap and trade system produced a not so ground breaking change in the use of automobiles by its having increased gasoline prices eleven cents per gallon. 4 Is there a single motorist who no longer drives solely because of this new toll? Perhaps why so many are eager to link to it 5, as it gives the appearance of action while actually doing more or less nothing. We must deliver actual decarbonization not “hope” a market pressure of “x emissions credits” or “y carbon taxes” will get us there. There is now no time to spare if we were to get any of these wrong. History shows we clearly would.
A government mandated retooling of the American and all other national economies is a tall order, yes. To be intellectually honest about it however, it is the only thing which can save the planet, and thus the only responsible call to action which can and should be made. If a patient with otherwise fatal cancer elects to refuse the viable surgery that will remove their cancer (as is their legal right to do) then the ethical surgeon can only but advise they get their affairs in order. They should not offer more palatable but surely inadequate alternative treatment paths which will not save the patients life. Divestment is no different in this regard. It is the equivalent of the patient being told diet and exercise can cure their late stage cancer. The patient must be given a clear diagnosis and asked if they wish to undertake the treatment which will save them. The survival of the planet will then be for its inhabitants to decide.
Anton Davis is a California based environmental activist with a keen interest in climate change. He believes neoliberal solutions to the issue such as cap and trade, carbon taxes, and moving funds from one capitalist investment structure to another (divestment) can not solve the issue. He has worked as a nature guide and tree planter throughout the Western United States.