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How much time do we have?

Last month the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released the figures for last year’s greenhouse gas emissions. What a grim picture: more greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere in 2015 than in any previous year; the rate of growth was increasing, and these emissions have so far caused an increase of one degree Celsius in global temperature. In response, climate scientists concluded that we have approximately five years to start reducing our fossil fuel usage before we cross tipping points to globe-spanning disaster.

Last week Bill McKibben published Recalculating the Climate Math. He wrote that the most recent numbers released by the think tank Oil Change International (OCI) show “how much of the fossil fuel in the world’s existing coal mines and oil wells we can burn if we want to prevent global warming from cooking the planet…[and] how much more new digging and drilling can we do? Here’s the answer: zero.”

McKibben quotes OCI’s Stephen Kretzmann’s statement that keeping it in the ground does not mean stopping all production of fossil fuel instantly. No new drilling coupled with letting “current fields begin their natural decline, [means] you’ll be using 50 percent less oil by 2033.” McKibben concludes: “That gives us 17 years … to replace all that oil with renewable energy” and we have enough time and the means to make this happen.

One trustworthy source says five years, another talks about 17. But since they are focusing on different aspects of the same problem they actually complement, rather than contradict, each other.

The most recent NOAA data tells us we have until just after the end of the next President’s term in office to start implementing comprehensive changes in our energy policy. This means no more fracking or fossil fuel infrastructure development, as well as a massive investment in renewable energy on a scale we have not seen since the retooling of our economy at the start of World War II. McKibben’s new math article tells us if we plan for this transformation and begin its implementation within five years, we may be able to make substantial enough reductions in our fossil fuel usage in the next 17 years to avoid, just barely, crossing the deadly 1.5 to 2 degree C temperature increase that would spell global disaster.

While this time frame is short and may be overly optimistic, this information is a boon for our movement. The enormity of the problem coupled with its indefinite timeline has paralyzed many of us. While these new numbers do not reduce the challenge, pinning down how much time we have makes our situation more concrete. Setting clear goals and clarifying our time limits makes it easier to activate people.

We have our marching orders. Since any new fracking, or continued expansion of oil extraction, even if coupled with increased use of renewables, will make it impossible to meet our five and seventeen year deadlines, we must organize our movement and its demands around this timetable.  Read More 
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