Climate Math for Dummies

Avoiding climate breakdown means leaving $100 trillion of fossil fuel unburned. Some powerful interests don’t like that.

California poppies and Canterbury bells bloom after prolonged record drought gave way to heavy winter rains, causing one of the biggest wildflower blooms in years on March 16, 2017 at Diamond Valley Lake, near Hemet, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

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The climate crisis, Bill McKibben writes in the April issue of Rolling Stone, is “at heart, a math problem.” The atmosphere, he points out, “can only hold so much carbon before it overheats the Earth. Think of it as a one-gallon bucket: If you put more than a gallon of water in it, it will overflow. So that would be dumb.”

Dumb, however, seems to be what the fossil fuel industry and many of the world’s governments prefer. Science is all but screaming that civilization’s survival requires slashing emissions of heat-trapping gases. Instead, emissions keep rising. Limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is still technically feasible, as today’s Covering Climate Now press briefing discussed, but only if fossil fuel burning is rapidly phased out.

For journalists, McKibben’s article is a must-read reminder that every proposed climate solution must be measured against the immutable laws of physics and math. And a reminder, too, that our solutions coverage should highlight the single biggest obstacle to progress: the resistance of the fossil fuel industry and its political allies.

To avoid climate breakdown, McKibben explains, it’s imperative to leave nearly all of Earth’s remaining fossil fuels — roughly 90% of currently identified oil, coal, and gas reserves — in the ground, unburned. The International Energy Agency made much the same point in 2021, declaring that limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C allows for “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects.”

The latest IPCC report again stressed that humanity has most of the technologies needed to quit fossil fuels fast enough to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C. The problem is that doing so would cost some very rich people and companies incomprehensible sums of money — and they don’t like that. “If you want to understand … why the fossil-fuel industry fights so hard,” McKibben writes, recognize that leaving all that fossil fuel in the ground “means stranding about $100 trillion worth of assets in the soil.”

Though largely unmentioned in most reporting, this battle between private wealth and human survival is the essence of the drama we as journalists are covering. It’s what we must convey if our audiences are to understand why climate progress has been so slow and what can be done to accelerate it.

Defenders of the status quo offer plenty of rationales for continuing down the current path. Most of those rationales are false (fossil fuels are, in fact, no longer cheaper than green energy) or self-serving (although fossil fuels do account for about 80% of world energy consumption, that can be changed). Even if those rationales were true, however, the current path would still be suicidal. Physics and math don’t care what is “economically profitable” or “socially convenient.” Either we stop filling the bucket, fast, or we face the consequences.

From Us

Climate Solutions. A number of journalists asked for a shorter version of our climate solutions guide co-produced with Solutions Journalism Network — and we listened. Thank you for the feedback! See the new “Cheat Sheet: Climate Solutions Reporting Guide.”

ICYMI. Revisit some of CCNow’s recent Q&As in Columbia Journalism Review, with reporters discussing their experiences covering climate change. Hear from: Vox’s Rebecca Leber on at-home energy use and the IRA roll-out; Brazilian journalist Gabriela Sá Passoa on enduring crises, and preserving hope, in the Amazon rainforest; and climate journalist Mary Annaïse Heglar on the bad habits climate journalists can ditch to make the most of 2023.

Noteworthy Stories

High-risk countries. Ahead of World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings this weekend, momentum is building behind the Barbados Prime Minister’s “Bridgetown Initiative” to help Global South countries cope with climate change. The initiative calls for the IMF to facilitate trillions of dollars of loans to developing countries and also proposes taxes on fossil fuel companies profits. By Kelly MacNamara at AFP…

Higher seas. Seas are rising much faster along the US Gulf and southern Atlantic coasts than elsewhere on Earth, according to multiple studies. This increase has made the destruction from hurricanes greater and more far reaching. By Chelsea Harvey at Scientific American…

In the ground. The head of the International Energy Agency said the world has “more than enough” coal mines, gas wells, and oil fields as it works towards climate goals. Fatih Birol added that “there is a problem” with companies that boost fossil fuel production, while claiming their strategy “is in line with the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7-degree-Fahrenheit) target.” By Ajit Niranjan at Deutsche Welle…

Proxy season. At the annual meetings of publicly-traded companies this year, shareholders have increasingly pushed for more action on climate change. So far, investors have filed more than 120 climate-related proposals. By Michael Copley at NPR…

“Grassroots” opposition? As renewable energy grows in the US so does opposition to solar and wind energy projects. There are over 120 local policies that block or restrict such projects in 31 states that are fueled in part by dark money and coordinated disinformation campaigns on Facebook. By Canary Media…

Via Twitter

We’re loving journalist Emily Atkin’s review of how to do “unbiased” reporting of Big Oil and other “corporate polluters.”

Events & Resources

Misinformation. Orion Magazine and Columbia Journalism Review will hold a panel discussion on disinformation in climate reporting. April 18. RSVP. 

Media’s role. USAID and BBC Media Action will hold a webinar on the “important role media can play in behavior insights for supporting climate action.” April 24. RSVP.

Earth Day events. maintains a mapped database with hundreds of Earth Day-related events and actions around the world. April 22. Check it out. 

Deb Haaland. The US Interior Secretary will give the keynote address, and take questions, at Society of Environmental’s annual conference on April 21. RSVP here. SEJ will also live broadcast plenaries on “clean energy and the land” (April 21) and “covering gender and environment” (April 22).

Indigenous voices. The Peasant and Indigenous Press Forum is holding an event on “how Indigenous self-determination is countering climate collapse.” April 27. RSVP.

Lithium. For SEJ, David Boraks, who covers climate change for NPR’s Charlotte, N.C., affiliate, WFAE, offers insights and reporting tips for covering the growing demand for lithium amid environmental concerns. Read it.

Jobs, Etc.

Jobs. The Washington Post is hiring a global climate correspondent (Asia) to join their office in Seoul, South Korea. North State Public Radio in Chico, Calif., is looking for a “Morning Edition” anchor. CalMatters is hiring a climate reporter. Sentient Media is recruiting a social media manager. High Country News is offering six, 24-week remote internship positions.

Award. Submissions are open for the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental and Climate Journalism, which carries a $5,000 prize. The deadline is April 22. Learn more.

Climate journalism. Yale Climate Connections put together a list of colleges, universities, and nonprofits that offer further education and training to help journalists report on climate. Check it out.