Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

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In our previous discussion we read an essay by Robin Wall Kimmerer: in the conclusion to The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance, she states that "Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle, genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy."

This week I'm going to ask you to read two articles: one helping us confront the problem (Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math), and another laying out a potential market remedy (Fee and Dividend).

  • Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe – and that make clear who the real enemy is (By Bill McKibben)

    Bill McKibben is the founder of a group called, and a professor at Middlebury College. I first heard of him when he wrote a book called Eaarth -- about how the planet is becoming unrecognizable as the birthplace of humankind (and so he gives it a new name). He chose the name of his organization,, by asking climatologist James Hansen what level of atmospheric CO2 would be (relatively) safe; Hansen said 350 parts per million, and an organization was born. It has since become McKibben's mission to get us back down to 350 ppm (we are currently at around 413.95; pre-industrial revolution we were fairly steadily at around 280 ppm).

  • A carbon fee and dividend plan is a crucial part of social and environmental justice (James Hansen)

    James Hansen is one of the world's most important and well-respected science climatologists. Dr. James E. Hansen is director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University and is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University. He is the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. (from the article)

On a personal note, I have to mention that ten years ago I was arrested alongside Hansen in front of the White House, in a climate protest called "Appalachia Rising". Furthermore, I am pleased to have shaken the hands of both of these fine humans!


  1. How does McKibben use some very simple mathematical arguments to make his point (that things are Terrifying!)? Do you think that his math is respectible, or is there anything deceptive or disingenuous about it?

  2. There is a famous quote, due to Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." This quote provides a conjecture about how "human dynamics" will play out in any given problem. How does this quote pertain here?

  3. McKibben wrote this piece for The Rolling Stone in July of 2012, nearly nine years ago. Some people argue that there is no climate change. If that were the case, the trends that McKibben points out would not have continued. Based on your knowledge of current affairs, have the trends continued, or have those trends gone "every which way", as we might have expected them to do if climate change didn't exist?

  4. Dr. Hansen says "Here is the key to Fee and Dividend: The money collected — every penny — is distributed as a dividend to all legal residents on an equal basis. You and Bill Gates get the same amount, received every month in your bank account, or on a debit card if you have no bank. The dividend will be substantial — a $100 per ton carbon fee with today’s fossil fuel use translates to about $5,500 per year for a family of four — a significant sum for lower income Americans." Can this really be the market remedy to climate change?


  1. There is a bit of discrepancy among whether the math presented in McKibben's article Global Warming's Terrifying New Math[1] is deceptive.

    Here are some quotes of people who agree with the math presented:

    I don't think there is anything deceptive about the math the author is just using numbers to convey the message that something needs to be done about this crisis. - Daniel Purnell

    I thought it was an interesting read and I did not have anything to question [regarding] the math - Ganga Adhikari

    The math that McKibben uses throughout this part follows logically and the author is sure to include that these numbers are estimates from multiple simulations. Therefore, I believe that his "simple math" is somewhat respectable... - Blake Weimer

    ...I think Mckibben did a very good job of taking this information and representing in a really well, understandable way. This simple math was very well explained and thought through which shows in the text. - Octavia Dieng

    McKibben's math was respectable, and scientists have been talking about those numbers for decades. - Zhen Bao

    And some who thought that McKibben's numbers were deceptive:

    Nowhere for people to directly look at the information he is using...
    People look at "almost 1 degree close to detrimental 2 degrees" and "5 times over safe limit" to kind of persuade people without them knowing all the facts...
    Also he states that the gigatons that are "planned" to be burned. How long will that be? 5 years? 100 years? 10,000 years? Just seems like big scary numbers are supposed to get people to think they know the facts and go with it.
    - Chelsea Debord

    There are a lot of moments where he mentions that numbers may not be entirely too accurate but seems to use the numbers regardless of possible inaccuracies...
    While he does explain why he still does use it, I feel he felt like he needed to be deceptive about numbers to try to get people to understand the severity of the situations he is trying to describe.
    - John Nuestro

    There were also plenty of people who were somewhere in the middle. But for the most part, many people could agree that the article is missing pieces and confusing:

    I was left wishing there were more sources listed in the article. I believe the writer was tasked with covering a lot of material in a short amount of time, so it would have been nice if there were links to his sources or more detailed sources for those who were curious. - Rachel Ritchie

    ...when talking about the end of the Earth, I would like a bit higher confidence in the numbers being thrown around. - Madison Goodwin

    There are a lot of moments where he mentions that numbers may not be entirely too accurate but seems to use the numbers regardless of possible inaccuracies. - John Nuestro

  2. For the most part, there is one thing the class agrees on. This being that we live in a money hungry world. Most agree that this quote is very true and the fact that it is true is very troubling. Fossil fuels are absolutely terrible for the environment, as agreed on by the class, but fossil fuel companies make millions and millions. Because of the capitalist society we live in, it's difficult to make a straight ethical decision.

    Below are some notable quotes that agree with this quote:

    Money is a motivator simply on a survival level, and of course people get greedy and its importance goes beyond its means to luxury and access...This could easily be applied to this situation, fossil fuel companies I'm sure turn a blind eye to the damages because they need to to make money. People do it all the time, politicians, even.....scientists. Sadly almost anyone can be bought or persuaded or quieted with enough money. -Chelsea Debord

    This quote, as others have mentioned, pertains here because the motivations behind most if not all companies is profit...There are plenty of people in positions of power, whether scientific or political, willing to back something for money, so companies can pay others to advocate for the "truth" that benefits them. It is also mentioned by others, but a lot of big companies can lobby government officials for what benefits them. -Rachel Ritchie

    And like in climate change, why understand (although they do) the situation when that same understanding means ethically you should abstain from it and your wealth? The power business historically has been the cause (albeit hidden at times) of so much misery and death in the world. -Madison Goodwin

    We live in a society built on capitalism. Money is the source of everything these days. And the production of these fossil fuels and green house gases greatly bring in capital to thousands, possibly millions of people. Even though there are obviously detrimental consequences to ignoring climate change and global warming, we live in a society built on capital. -Octavia Dieng

  3. The question: "McKibben wrote this piece for The Rolling Stone in July of 2012, nearly nine years ago. Some people argue that there is no climate change. If that were the case, the trends that McKibben points out would not have continued. Based on your knowledge of current affairs, have the trends continued, or have those trends gone "every which way", as we might have expected them to do if climate change didn't exist?"

    Some folks noted that their senses -- their personal experience with weather -- was that the climate is changing. Climate is generally defined as an average of 30 years of weather, so most of us don't have the requisite background to determine if it's changing, based on our own personal experience. Warmer and wetter is what McKibben predicted based on human-caused climate change, however, and going forward from 2012, people seemed to agree that that's been their experience with the weather.

    In addition, sea-level rise, melting ice caps and glaciers, and other consequences of climate change were raised. While the Earth goes through cycles (on extraordinarily long time scales, relative to the major human impacts of the last several centuries), it seems that everyone agreed that humans are having their impact. Others mentioned extinctions (related, perhaps to habitat loss due to melting ice, or changing temperatures). Rachel brought a NASA article to the discussion, and this quote: the term “‘global climate change’ is more scientifically accurate” because “temperature change itself isn't the most severe effect of changing climate. Changes to precipitation patterns and sea level are likely to have much greater human impact than the higher temperatures alone”. Madison mentioned that "One of the reasons people may not believe in climate change (at least back then) is partly due to the original name, global warming. Not everywhere in the world experiences the increase see this article. It was just a general phrase used to describe the total increase in the whole of Earth's temperature. But as we have seen as of late, the different "seasons" are getting more vicious than the last which is a side effect of the increasing temperatures or climate change. So a vast majority affected in these areas are starting to believe the scientists that have been warning for decades now."

    Ganga mentioned the carbon footprint of humanity growing larger and larger every year, and the term "The Anthropocene" (which was coined by Paul Crutzen, who just recently died by the way -- on the 28th of January): "a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change."

    Some of us were willing to trust scientists with respect to their sense of the urgency of the problem. Some suggested that there is a level of mistrust today, perhaps in part due to the influence of corporations trying to make a buck (per the previous question), and due to misinformation spread perhaps by social media.

    In terms of U.S. policy, Octavia mentioned that "Rejoining the Paris Climate Change agreement is a step in the right direction". Zhen described how differently the Chinese experience has been in recent years, where, in contrast to the previous U.S. administration's denial of climate change, "...climate change is a big chapter in Chinese middle school geology text book (a required class). Lots of things have changed in China since 2012. China started a Three-North Shelter Forest Program in 1978 and is planned to be completed by 2050. It's aimed to grow 35 million hectares (87 million acres) of new trees—a forest the size of Germany. The forest coverage in China has grown 2.68% since 2010 (data from Statista). Ninety-eight per cent of the electric buses in the world are deployed in Chinese cities.... 'China is already leading in renewable energy production figures. It is currently the world's largest producer of wind and solar energy, and the largest domestic and outbound investor in renewable energy. Four of the world's five biggest renewable energy deals were made by Chinese companies in 2016.'"

    Zhen added "China shares 28% of world CO2 emissions. But the government is seeing the issue and taking actions to make things a little better. 28% is scary though..."

    In very practical terms, Shawn is somewhat pessimistic about what people are willing to do (or not do): "... people will need to change their lifestyles. People will not be able to do the things they are used to that they enjoy. I am sure that many people would be out of the climate change prevention 'movement' if it meant they were forced to ride the bus everyday, never take vacations by plane, or have an electricity 'budget.'" Rachel responded to that by making mention of an important term: "confirmation bias" -- people hear what they want to hear. And they don't want to hear that they should be driving their cars, taking their flights, eating their beef, etc.

  4. A short summary for this discussion question is no, this proposal is not the market remedy to climate change. Overall, most people brought up that while the idea is a good start, there is a lot more that needs to be thought of in order to adequately solve the problem.

    The general idea of the proposal is good and as best stated by Blake Weimer,

    "People fail to consider the social benefits to participating in reducing carbon emissions, and as such it would be smart to propose the idea of fee and dividend as a sort of subsidy to help shift people's private benefits curve closer to the social benefit curve."

    However, as several pointed out:

    "It's idealistic to think that this in turn leads to other countries implanting similar policies." - Daniel Purnell

    "While both economic groups will pay the same for fossil fuels up front, wealthier people still use more fossil fuels than poorer people and will become upset when the dividend they receive does not cover their costs, but covers the poorer peoples fossil squeal costs." - Nevaeh Moore

    "Anything that involves people paying money will be hard to get everyone behind without a greater understanding and acceptance of the gravity of the issue" - Rachel Ritchie

    "Also, will this dividend be counted as taxable income at the end of the year? If so a large majority of that will be taken ... its the normal, average American who will be forced to make these radical changes they can't afford to make the world a better place" - Chelsea Debord

    Other implications also arise:

    "Effects would only be beneficial in the short term ... I agree with Shawn's third point. If everyone did get a check for the same amount of money, inflation would likely occur" - Justin Horn

    "If a border adjustment was introduced, this would directly impact relations with China. Not only do they have the highest emissions (we are second), but they are also the largest importer into the US and our largest export location. Both of our economies are extremely connected. If we put a duty on their imported items, they will most definitely do the same to us... If this bill with adjustment passes, it would severely cripple both our and China's economy for some years/decades until we both become greener and the bill is no longer needed to the same extent. However, it would stir both against to become greener as soon as possible.


    The border adjustment would also hurt third-world countries who may not have the means to become greener but rely on exporting to the US in order to stimulate their economy. There may need to be some kind of limitation on who receives the duty as to not hurt those who cannot afford it." - Madison Goodwin

    Some people suggested ideas to fix the proposal:

    "Perhaps of it being money, it could instead be similar to food stamps for lower income and maybe tax credits for higher income" - Blake Weimer

    Jokingly, the "only remedy for climate change is reducing our CO2 emissions drastically, but that's definitely unrealistic. Or maybe another pandemic will wipe out the human race; hence no more global warming... I'm just kidding." - Zhen Bao