On Nov. 28, prominent environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben will make a Chicago stop as part of his current “Do the Math” tour. The math referred to is “the terrifying math of the climate crisis.” Bill McKibben, the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, is one of the founders of 350.org, an organization focused on “building a global movement to solve the climate crisis.” 

Mr. McKibben’s 350.org website has started referring to global warming and climate change as “climate crisis” and “climate chaos.” The 350 refers to the 350 parts per million (ppm) that many scientists and climate experts conclude is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Mr. McKibben’s organization estimates that there are now 392 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Mr. McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour continues to use math to dramatize the seriousness of the climate crisis. McKibben kicked off his “Do the Math” tour in Seattle, the day after the presidential election. The tour is being billed as “part TED-talk, part old-time revival meeting” and has sold out already in several cities.

Mr. McKibben’s books and articles reinforce his understanding of the climate crisis and how he “Does the Math” to emphasize his concerns.

In a Rolling Stone article published in August, Mr. McKibben explains three crucial numbers relating to global warming.

Two Degrees Celsius: The temperature of the Earth cannot be raised more than two degrees Celsius. Even with a two degrees rise, it is thought that “some countries will flat-out disappear.

565 Gigatons: If no more than 565 gigatons (a gigaton is one billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere by 2050, the above Celsius number is likely to stay below two degrees.

2,795 Gigatons: If all the fossil fuels that are estimated to exist (ie the oil, gas and coal that the world’s major oil companies, and countries such as Venezuela and Kuwait, hold in reserve) were to be burned, this is the amount of carbon dioxide that would be released. It is five times higher than the 565 Gigatons that would keep the Earth’s temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius.

Mr. McKibben uses the analogy of alcohol consumption:

“Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit –

equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit. – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.”

Of course, he points out, the balance sheets of the oil and gas companies are based on using their reserves. These companies are “the enemy,” and it is Mr. McKibben’s intention to build a movement to pressure the companies into changing their practices.

Mr. McKibben favors a carbon tax, “to enlist markets in the fight against global warming.” If the oil companies raise their prices because they are being held responsible for climate change, consumers will notice, and “every time they stopped at the (gas) pump, they’d be reminded that you don’t need a semimilitary vehicle to go to the grocery store.”

The Rolling Stone article was published before Hurricane Sandy, but after the summer of 2012’s record setting hot temperatures in the Midwest and Plains states, after the most destructive fire in Colorado history, and after the largest fire in New Mexico’s history. It was published just after the level of Arctic sea ice hit its lowest level ever. And it was published just after what “has been, without question, the most difficult season in all of Henry’s 20 years of farming – for the simple reason that it was the hottest, driest season since they started keeping records in the mid-1800s,” according to a note on the Brockman Family Farming webpage. The Brockmans bring their produce regularly to the Evanston’s farmers’ market.

The 350.org website predicts that 2040 may possibly be the first completely ice-free summer in the Arctic and notes that polar bears and indigenous cultures are already affected by the loss of the ice.

As he tries to rally his troops, Mr. McKibben is both hopeful and discouraging. Pure self-interest “probably won’t spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might – and that’s the real meaning of this new math.

It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.” He says “the fossil fuel industry has bought one party in Washington, D.C. and scared the other into silence.  Unless we can weaken the power of this industry, we’ll never see the sort of climate progress we need.”

Ellen Galland

Ellen Galland has had an architectural practice in Evanston since 1983. For more than 20 years, she has written articles for the RoundTable, including the column “Ask An Architect" and "The Green Column"...