Unskewing the climate math


As you recall, during the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney and the Republicans had trouble making their budget numbers add up. As Bill Clinton pointed out at the 2012 Democratic convention, Republican policies simply “defied arithmetic.”

On Election Day, Karl Rove threw a fit on Fox News because the vote counts being reported out of Ohio didn’t add up the way he and the Romney campaign thought they should.

It was all part of a pattern. Rove was among many Republicans who all year long had been denouncing public opinion polls because they showed Barack Obama was winning, even though the polls were based on widely accepted statistical models. One right-wing website became popular among conservatives because it had found a way to “unskew” the polling numbers so that they matched the right-wing spin.

Lying about facts is commonplace in American politics. Facts can be easily manipulated, especially in the heat of a campaign. But lying about the numbers is much harder, and those who try are much more easily exposed, like the guy with the unskewedpolls.com web site who was forced to eat a hearty serving of crow right after the election.

Republicans may think they are entitled to their own facts, but not to their own math. Exposing their numerical deceptions is easy, even for a former president from Arkansas.

“I came from a place where people still thought two plus two equals four,” Clinton said in his convention speech.

In the end, Republican misadventures with numbers mattered little. Obama collected more votes, and no amount of spin could change that. Rove’s guy lost, and that was that. In politics, as in sports, the scoreboard doesn’t lie.

This leads us to the great unanswered question of American politics: Why is it that Republicans are so bad at math? Republicans have been trying to skew the math in a number of other ways, but they have been twisting nothing so vital than the statistics that show our climate is dramatically changing. The well-funded Republican climate-denial machine has been up and running for years.

One guy who is working hard at unskewing the climate deniers’ bad math is journalist Bill McKibben, who last week launched his “Do the Math” tour of several American cities. We caught up with him in Portland, Oregon, where he drew a packed audience to a downtown venue in addition to hundreds of others who watched the presentation on live video streamed to a nearby college campus.

His “Do the Math” tour continues this week with stops in Portland, Maine, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and next week in Washington, Durham and Atlanta. For more information, check out McKibben’s web site at 350.org.

As McKibben puts it, skewing the climate numbers to fit a political agenda, as the Republican Party has been doing, will lead to inaction, a very dangerous course. The consequences of our failure to stop carbon dioxide releases to the atmosphere are likely to be gruesome and deadly. If we don’t implement effective strategies to curb those releases, we will face an “essentially impossible future,” he wrote last summer in a widely read article in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”

McKibben wrote that three simple numbers are all we need to allow us to “understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position.” As we will see, he also refers to a fourth that is equally significant and disturbing.

The first of these numbers is 2° Celsius – about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the last 100 years, the average global temperature has risen by about 0.8° Celsius, an increase that has already done a great amount of damage. Summertime sea ice in the Arctic has nearly entirely melted, and the atmosphere is holding significantly more water, causing devastating storms worldwide that have become far more frequent and powerful. And as a related effect, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic.

McKibben acknowledges that a 2° C temperature rise might be too much, given the damage already inflicted by the much smaller rise seen to date. But there is not much we can do to keep temperatures below 2° C, given the vast amount of carbon dioxide already emitted. McKibben sees an increase of 2° C as inevitable. Further increases are likely, but don’t have to be.

McKibben calls 2° C the “bottomest of bottom lines.”

The second number is 565 gigatons.

That’s the amount of future carbon dioxide emissions that would bring about a temperature increase of 2° C. If we release anything more than 565 gigatons, we can forget about retaining a planet that’s anything even remotely like the one we’ve got.

The third number is 2,795 gigatons.

That’s the amount of future carbon dioxide emissions that would enter the atmosphere if the world’s entire known oil, gas and coal supplies are burned in our cars, furnaces and power plants. It includes all the known inventories of the big oil companies – Shell, Chevron, BP, Conoco-Phillips and Exxon.

If all of that carbon dioxide were to be released, a 2° C temperature increase would be just a distant, fond memory.

This third number was derived by a group of London economists and accountants who combed through the energy companies’ proprietary databases. It is five times the 565 gigaton limit.

McKibben compares the two numbers to getting drunk and getting drunker. The difference between the two numbers is like blowing a .08 in a breathalyzer test measuring alcohol consumption, and blowing a .40. A .08 means you’re drunk. At .40, if you’re not dead, you’re in a near-death stupor.

Which brings us to a fourth number: $25 trillion.

This number represents the total profits that the big energy corporations expect to derive from burning all of their fossil fuels. No wonder the Republican Party and its oily patrons are trying to skew the math. It’s not a number they are eager to announce.

In fact neither political party would even touch global warming as a topic during most of the recent presidential campaign. No one was willing to discuss global warming, that is, until a giant hurricane swamped Manhattan – an event McKibben specifically predicted in his Rolling Stone article three months before it happened.

Moreover, neither of the two candidates wanted to talk about the huge profits that would be lost, or the lifestyle changes we will have to make, once we get real about climate.

Not that the oil companies would have much of a planet left on which to spend those trillions. Who would have thought we’d lose the planet to greed? As Bill McKibben says to anyone who will listen, do the math.

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