The first is 2° Celsius, the rise in average global temperatures at which we begin to feel the effects of global warming. We are nearly half-way there, and already the damage is greater than expected, with dramatically less Arctic ice, significantly higher acid levels in the ocean, and a wetter atmosphere capable of producing much heavier rainfalls.
The second number is 565 more gigatonnes, the amount of carbon dioxide scientists say we can add to the atmosphere by midcentury and still hope to stay below 2° Celsius. From this is derived the notion of a carbon budget, an attempt to keep the amount of fossil fuels burned within "safe" levels. To give you an idea of where we stand, last year 31.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide was added, a rate which would blow us past the safe level in less than 20 years.
The third number--2,795--is the real grabber. This is the "amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies."
The point McKibben makes is a simple one. Oil and natural gas companies are in the business of making money by producing and selling their product. It is in their interest to sell all the product they can to make all the money they can. But if they do so, they will push us wildly past the 565-gigatonne maximum level of carbon dioxide deemed barely acceptable if we are to avoid punishing consequences from climate change induced or accelerated by the burning of fossil fuels.
Now ask yourselves, what are the odds of the big oil and natural gas companies voluntarily agreeing to not sell what they already know they have, especially in the face of ever-increasing demand for the product? If the phrase "slim and none" pops into your head, you are on the right track.
Bottom line, as I have so often stated here, if climate change driven by global warming driven by burning fossil fuels is as real as the climate scientists say it is, then we and our children and their children are screwed, plain and simple, because there is no way, no how, the politics of the foreseeable future are going to permit the kinds of measures needed to achieve the first two numbers.
McKibben concludes his article with this tidbit of food for thought:
This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year's harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving... in the dust.Climate change is but one of many problems pressing upon us. It is also the problem with the least visibility, the least immediate impact on our daily lives. Folks who are worried about making the rent aren't likely to lose a lot of sleep over something that will happen a decade from now. Folks who already think taxes and the cost of living are too high aren't going to sign up more more of both. But like many of the other problems that we face today, climate change is the result of years of kicking the can down the road. Our political leadership has failed on every level. Sooner or later, the price must be paid. Sadly, I fear it is much, much sooner than we dare to think even a few short years ago.