Climate change numbers revealed and explained

Writing in Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben brings us global warming's "new math," a collection of scary stats about the record-setting shifts in the world's climate, from the hottest rainfall ever recording (109' F in Mecca) to the record-breaking increase in the number of broken records in worldwide weather. McKibben's second set of numbers are the financial numbers -- companies borrowing against fossil hydrocarbons that are still in the ground, effectively incurring an obligation to dig them up and burn them -- that explain why no one is doing anything about the first set.

June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the "largest temperature departure from average of any season on record." The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet's history.

Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world's nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn't even attend. It was "a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago," the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls "once thronged by multitudes." Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I've spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we're losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.

Global Warming's Terrifying New Math (via 3 Quarks Daily)

(Image: Climate change rally on Parliament Hill, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from peterblanchard's photostream)


    1. I think we should have a debate about how hot it was during a rainfall…I mean that is REAL important, isn’t it?

    2. It actually said “the hottest rainfall ever recording” not, as you said “the hotest rainfall in our planet’s history”. 

      1. Well, it ACTUALLY says, “planet’s history.” As in, “the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.” as in, I cut n’ pasted it.

    3. “Please don’t say Eric Clapton is the best guitarist ever. The universe is enormous, and unless you can prove that alien lifeforms somewhere in the cosmos didn’t develop guitars and play them better than him, your entire argument is meaningless.”

      1. Well, hold up a minute, are we making a scientific argument about Eric Clapton? Because if so, yeah, it probably is a terrible idea to say that, for a lot of reasons, not least among them that there are tons of other historical guitarists, & a dearth of historical records of other guitarists, & a long history of stringed instruments outside of the historical record. So yeah, that would be an irresponsible thing to argue scientifically. Maybe I’m crazy for saying that exaggeration doesn’t belong in a politically polarized topic; the evidence is irrefutable but being refuted, & I don’t want deniers to have hyperbole to treat like a straw man.

  1. Actually history mean since written records were kept, making the statement much more plausible. 

  2. I feel like rain during 100+ heat isn’t uncommon in my part of Texas.  Maybe not 109, but 104-106?  I’d imagine that’s happened plenty of times.  Is it really that odd or crazy a thing?!  I didn’t know.

    1. In my experience in Arizona and New Mexico during the summer monsoons, the temperatures usually drop as the rain comes in.  I don’t think I remember it ever being anywhere near that hot once it was actually raining.  Earlier in the day, sure, but not during the actual rain.

      1. It rains here when it’s in the one-teens.  It just doesn’t make it to the ground.

    2. I could have sworn the temperature was at least 109 when I was in New Delhi during monsoon season, and it rained all day long there. Of course, the humidity was so damn high that sometimes it was hard to tell if you were being rained on or just sweating, so maybe it only felt like 109+….

  3. And to anyone who will still defy reason in the face of all this, I ask you: Even if it is a ‘historically cyclical weather pattern’, then, why not stand with the opposition and do something about it anyway?

      1.  One question I like to ask when discussing the climate is “Would you, if you could, magically replace all the world’s coal fired power plants with up to date reactors using the most current safety features?”

        If they answer “Hell yes” then I know they are concerned about climate change.

        If they shrink back in terror, I know that their concern about the climate is just one aspect of their overall Luddism.

        1. If they shrink back in terror, I know that their concern about the climate is just one aspect of their overall Luddism.

          Ah. The everyone who disagrees with me is a Luddite argument. As compelling as it is mature.

          1.  On the contrary, you can disagree with me about copyright law, US foreign policy, the TSA, gay marriage, or countless other things and I won’t consider you a Luddite.

            However, someone who is opposed to generating energy via burning coal, burning oil, burning natural gas, uranium reactors, thorium reactors, or building dams for hydropower…. yeah, old Ned would be proud.

          2. For starters, Ned Ludd was apparently just a worker with learning disabilities who broke something because he was angry. The Luddites were protesting the loss of jobs due to industrialization, not advances in technology.

          3.  “Ned Ludd was apparently just a worker with learning disabilities”

            In much the same way, when I see a picture of someone wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, I can assume that he/she wants to overthrow a representative government and put the Pope in charge.

          4. Well, some of us think that Guy Fawkes masks are ridiculous for that very reason. Guy Fawkes is about as admirable as Timothy McVeigh, if not as competent at explosives.

        2.  “Luddite” is a pejorative.  The purpose of the term is to stop thought and stop discussion.  It serves no other purpose.

          There are real reasons to worry about nuclear power.  Folks who believe the Magical Market will take care of everything cannot understand these reasons because they don’t seem to understand that corruption and incompetence trump market forces every time.

  4. And if it make you feel any better, 2013 is supposed to be an El Nino year in North America, which means even hotter and drier.

    If you have any sort of home garden, go on Craigslist and pick up a couple 275 gallon “IBC totes” and collect rain water in the spring. 

    1. Yeah, La Nina just ended really frying the Midwest and its grain. And true, it’s suggested an El Nino could happen next year.

    2.  Funnily enough, collecting rain water is actually illegal in my state. Gotta love those water right laws

        1. That’s how it works across ALL of the UK.  Although rediculous, it does kind of make sense.  If everyone collected the rainwater that landed on their land the water table would be fucked and you could say goodbye to fresh running water from your taps.

          Unfortunately we need stupid laws to stop us from doing sensible things because we’re grossly overpopulated.

  5. Does saying that a new record is also the new record for deviation from the mean really adding anything?

    Oh, wait. I think it means that the new record for hottest Spring it is a more extreme record than equivalent records for the hottest Winter, hottest Summer or hottest Fall.

    None of this seems like good news. Even more depressing is the near-certainty that we’re too selfish (on average) to do anything much about it. I’m perhaps more selfish than most.

  6. I do hope Mr McKibben is talking about probability and not odds (against). If he isn’t, then the number of stars in the universe suddenly dropped to zero. We know what he means, but that kind of carelessness hardly lends authority.

  7. Just FYI, forget stars, 10^99 is considerably greater than the number of particles in the observable universe.

    1.  Perhaps. But 3.7 x 10^-99 (the number in the article) is considerably smaller than the number of particles / stars in the observable universe.

  8. Good article.  The science of the numbers is the kind of unblinking factual information that I prefer to hear: don’t sugarcoat the whirlwind. 

    However, the ‘solution’ of keeping the carbons in the ground -forever- by convincing all nations to enforce such expensive offsets that the stuff never gets burned up seems to me…implausible.  That’s the nice way of putting it.

    The Robin Hood suggestion that the poor won’t be affected because we’ll just split the tax largesse up and send everyone a check every year…well, that’s just fucking ridiculous.

    Blaming the oil companies, sure, go ahead: finally…The Bad Guys.  But the mirror awaits the 7 billion and growing, and the reflection looks pretty groovy to the majority: it’s those other wasteful assholes that are messing up the earth, not us: we’re too nice. 

    I have no doubt that every last drop of available oil, from ANWR to the California coast will be drilled and burned…by someone.  Sooner or later.  It’s silly to assume otherwise.

     “Hello desperate wild-eyed cocaine addict, I really need you to break this terrible habit of yours, and I’ll give you a few grams to tide you over.  Yes, I left ten kilos in the basement, but that’s not for you: please leave it where it is.  Ok?  Bye…”

    If you choose to believe that voices of reason and human unity trump myopic greed, xenophobia and profit at all costs; I hope your world view comes true.  Really, I do.

    But the party is winding down…and the hangover is going to hurt.  Bad.

      1.  What could have possibly happened since 2006 that would reduce the carbon output of the US economy…such a mystery…

        Take a look at a graph of oil prices vs. GDP for the last hundred years and tell me with a straight face that the reduction mentioned constitutes progress.

    1. Yep, I’m betting there’s going to be a world of hurt.  Would be really nice to think that humanity is collectively smart enough to work together towards softening the blow – but as usual we will have to do it the hard way, which will probably mean millions or billions dying horribly, and a large reduction in freedom and quality of life pretty much across the board.  Yay for that!  I hope I’m somewhere else when that happens…

  9. I can’t say I blame Obama for not attending.  What would it achieve, if only some Pyrrhic effect?  America is in no mood to face the reality of climate change, certainly not in an election year.  All he’d be doing is giving Fox and super-PACs fodder for attack pieces.  A Romney presidency, beholden to the neo-Cons, is a guarantee no progress will be made; at least with Obama’s second term, there may be hope.

    That 3.7 x 10^-99 figure isn’t at all persuasive. Deniers can just say “OK, it’s not random: it’s rising.  So what.  Your figure says nothing about the rate at which it rises nor what its consequences will be.”  With climate deniers, there’s always a second, third, and fourth line of defense. 

    In 100-200 years, it will all be over, and they’ll say, like Condi Rice, “Who could have known?”  Then, like Scalia, they’ll say, “Get over it!”

    1. Petz, right. I was thinking the same thing.  American presidents may have good thoughts and intentions on this matter, but as we’ve Europeans have learned from Bill Clinton, they have little power to do anything about it.  All his attendance would accomplish would be delivering munition to Fox and pissing on the US partners’ expectations. 

      1. The US has reduced its CO2 emissions more than any other country in the world. 

        The OECD has at least levelled off.

        But China and India are burning coal like there’s no fucking tomorrow.

        Yet somehow this is America’s fault.

        1. It’s America’s “fault,” if that’s the word we have to use, because we are the World’s One Superpower.  If we lead the world towards a program that’s in all countries’ long-term national interest, they’ll do likewise.  If we listen to Lord Monckton over our climatologist brain trust, and pretend climate change doesn’t exist, they’ll do likewise.

          Yes, China and India use alot of energy.  If you were Chinese or Indian, you’d say it was your manifest right to do so.

          China and India, each, have 4 times our population.  You better hope they don’t use start using energy per capita the way we do.

          If we do nothing, how can we hope to persuade China and India to make systemic changes that will be much more pronounced in their country because they’re still developing?

          1.  So what you are saying is, if the USA voluntarily increases the price of energy inputs to its economy, then our major economic competitors will be so moved by the example that they will follow suit.  Is that about right??

          2. The US has reduced its CO2 emissions more than any other country in the world. 

            True but this is just a by-product of the shift away from coal and towards natural gas, mostly due to hydraulic fracturing making it possible to access stores of gas previously unobtainable at an affordable price.

            In other words, it’s market economics, not any conscious policy that has resulted in the US lowering its CO2 emissions.  It was accidental, not intentional.

            This is important to understand because this means that there’s no guarantee that CO2 emissions will continue to drop. Even now it’s not decreasing as much as we need it to.

          3. The US has reduced its CO2 emissions more than any other country in the world.

            Let’s be clear here: when you got those “Most Improved” trophies as a child it was an attempt to salve feelings of sadness and humiliation.  Improvement is easy when you’re at the bottom of the curve.

        2. “The US has reduced its CO2 emissions more than any other country in the world.”

          Is that by percentage?  Because (and correct me if I’m wrong) the US is also the largest CO2 emitter in the world, which would make that a far less powerful statement, as that would be the least we could expect. I say ‘we’ as a representative of the rest of the world that suffers at your hands (not that we’re much better tbh).

          And do these numbers take other important aspects into account? As I understand it the US is also the largest consumer of food; and last I checked the planetary devastation caused by farming is just as harmful (if not more so, according to some scientists) than the CO2 output.

          Ultimately we shouldn’t be bragging about numbers either way, NOBODY is doing enough; governments are doing the bare minimum to keep the minority of the populace that cares about the planet happy, they couldn’t give a shit if the people that write their donation cheques were destroying the planet or not.

        3. “…primarily due to ongoing switching from coal to natural gas in power generation and an exceptionally mild winter, which reduced the demand for space heating.”.

          So unless climate change continues, and the global temperature keeps increasing, the US might increase its output again because of an increased need for heating.

          What a pickle.

  10. You know how you can beat climate change? Forget magic lightbulbs, forget buying a new “green” television, forget a Chevrolet Volt. Forget buying “green” just because it’s marketed at you like you’re a bad child. Stop being a miserable pathetic sell out hipster surrounding yourself with more things to make you feel less guilty and *send your kids to school*. 


    Encourage them to not be tanned, Jersey Shore pornstar-come-dropouts. Get them to college. Proper college, not a Bachelor of Interpretive Calligraphy. Our children are our future, and if we don’t STRIVE to make sure they have the best possible education, we’ll never be able to solve the problems facing our planet, and believe me – the world has enough singer/songwriters and reality television stars. 

      1. I was going to say, calligraphy worked out pretty well for Steve Jobs. If anything, there’s a surplus of MBA’s today who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, as Oscar Wilde put it.

    1.  Send your kids to college and they will farm themselves out to a soul-crushing cubicle job to service their hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.  That will actually make the world a worse place, not a better one.

      You seem to have a serious problem with sensible measures like CFLs, too.  “Magic lightbulbs” my ass.  Can you explain the downside of using 20% of the electricity for the same amount of light?  If households can cut their electricity consumption by 50% the total amount of energy use in the US would drop by 10%.  I get the impression that your position is driven more by your apparent distaste for “hipsters” than for any rational reason.

  11. 3.7 x 10-99 ??? Increasing the number of thermometers measuring the same changes makes for better accuracy and not a better argument. Please do not give the climate change deniers an easy argument by using broken reasoning.

    Myself I mostly follow the Arctic ice volume decreasing, its a depressing trend. A blog discussing these issues can be found here:

    Big capital is “voting” on the same trend by financing Arctic oil and gas exploitation and big countries are “voting”  by arming to contest the resources made available due to climate change.

    1. I think the probability refers to the likelihood of the number of consecutive months (327) being above average, rather than the number of measuring points or “thermometers” measuring the data.

  12. Two quotes from the McKibben article:

    Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders…..People perceive – correctly – that their individual actions will not make a decisive difference in the atmospheric concentration of CO2.

    But what all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.

    The problem is that McKibben’s “Public Enemy Number One” is doing what it’s doing precisely because the world’s population wants “cheap flights to warm places”.  

    The Dr. Evils of the fossil fuel industry are engaged in a devilish conspiracy to inflict on the world’s population ….. (comparatively) cheap energy.

    Until the population starts to want more expensive transportation, more expensive food, and colder houses in winter/hotter houses in summer, I don’t see much happening on the climate change front.

    1. That’s why it would make sense for governments to introduce policy that regulated the energy suppliers.  The solution isn’t to increase energy prices, that is in fact a byproduct of energy companies investing in sustainable energy.

      Energy is going to get more expensive either way, might as well act while we still have something worth saving.

    2. Until the population starts to want more expensive transportation, more expensive food, and colder houses in winter/hotter houses in summer, I don’t see much happening on the climate change front.

      Well of course people want cheap transportation, food, and climate control.  I don’t think anyone’s argued otherwise.  (Why do people always think they’re making such an intelligent, insightful point when they say this?)  It’s about as useful to the discussion as pointing out that the sky is blue.

      As cheap as these things are, we can agree that people would like it if they were even cheaper?  But presumably they can’t be delivered any cheaper or competition would cause it to happen even cheaper.  So the fact that people want cheap stuff doesn’t actually constitute an argument that oil companies are doing everything exactly right.  Even assuming they are doing everything right people would still want cheaper energy. 

      Furthermore, the people coming after us will still want cheap energy after the EROEI has fallen considerably from where it is today.  The higher price they’ll be paying is a direct result of the low prices we pay today.  According to mainstream economics the existence of your grandchildren is worth essentially nothing. 

      There is some question of whether energy is actually priced according to how much it costs.  Surely an economic genius such as yourself has heard of the notion of externalities.

      So we have a few reasons to think that your simplistic “invisible hand” reasoning should not be the end of the discussion on this particular subject.  I know, everything would be so much simpler if people would stop valuing things that aren’t money.

      1. “Well of course people want cheap……Why do people always think they’re making such an intelligent, insightful point when they say this?”

        When climate activists ask, “why haven’t we been able to mobilize public opinion for the last twenty years?” they are showing their ignorance of what to you and me is blindingly obvious.


        1. Yes, they would have. Who do you think caused our energy use to soar through the relentless quest for more, bigger stuff?

          1. Then, there is no hope.  Look, they were the Greatest. It’s right in their name. How could anyone else do better?

  14. Why are we still acting like there are any possible solutions to come from government and the decrepit Industrial Age corporate cabals they’re so wedded to? Why are we expecting solutions from selfish primitives? Why keep propitiating our self-absorbed drunken idiot demigods when it’s quite obvious they will never get it? Why aren’t we actively developing and deploying our own solutions, independent of government and the corporate establishment? Why this notion that passivity is better than the risk of not doing exactly the right thing on the first try? Wouldn’t it be better to know you went out trying? I, for one, would rather go out like a real human being; with a hammer in my hand instead of a bible.  

    Recently I made the radical proposal to the Open Manufacturing community of starting a billion dollar Kickstarter to stop Global Warming by building an OTEC complex. The response was not great. Obviously, that’s not a realistic amount to ask for. There is little hope of realizing that even if, technically, it’s not entirely impossible. The point was to use Kickstarter to make a statement–in part about the sort of things we are and aren’t so willing to throw our own money at–and get exposure for this concept. Everyone complains no one is doing anything about Global Warming. If someone actually offered you a specific plan for something plausible we could actually do now, even if it was just an experiment at this point, would it be worth personally putting a little of your own money into it? There are a hell of a lot of people in the world. Why is it so hard to do anything? 

    The basic idea is this; OTEC plants are powerful engines of carbon sequester and offset that pay for themselves. We’re talking several tens of thousands of metric tonnes sequestered carbon per annum per OTEC and many millions more offset. They function just like the sea pumps proposed by James Lovelock some years ago but on a much larger scale and can produce a large spectrum of renewable products in addition to renewable electric power. Distilled water, cooling, industrial gasses, ammonia, hydrogen, and methanol, sustainably produced food through polyspecies mariculture, now even carbon-negative concrete! The problem with OTEC technology is that people have long regarded the machines as simply solar power plants and for that their necessary remote deployment remains a problem. But if you regard them instead as a power plant for their own local on-site industry–right there on the sea and exporting to the world–they are vastly lucrative. A comprehensive OTEC industrial complex is about a billion dollar proposition. However, it’s potential revenue is also about a billion dollars a year. How many industries have that kind of ROI? This makes OTEC potentially exponentially self-replicating. Build one as a non-profit venture and it can use its own income to self-replicate every one to a few years. In one human generation, they could become a major global impact, environmentally and economically. To paraphrase futurist Marshal Savage, it would be like coming to the poker table of the global market with a fire hose spewing chips hidden up your sleeve. 

    It would take many tens of thousands of such OTECs to completely compensate for our current annual CO2 production–and millions of them before they themselves had any likely negative environmental impact. But that may not be necessary when their offset impacts could radically change the environmental footprint of our civilization, becoming a major renewable carbon-neutral food source, stopping the destruction of the marine environment by overfishing, eventually meeting much of our energy needs, and creating a novel new place for a lot of people to live. We could build this now. We could do it as a global open project. There’s no speculative technology here. There are companies making everything this complex would need, right  now. We could try this experiment. There’s nothing to lose.

    But, of course, Big Ideas just don’t sell in a post-Big-Ideas America. 

    1. Sounds good. So if we can just get  Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Charles Simonyi and/or James Cameron to give an OTEC project some support, and put their asteroid mining on the backburner, maybe it would gain enough credibility to start the ball rolling.
      But I believe the key is to get everyone pushing in the same direction.  If we had one renewable energy source producing massive amounts of energy / electricity, way cheaper than they can with fossil fuels, even the decrepit Industrial Age dinosaurs would have to pay attention.

    2.  ‘The basic idea is this; OTEC plants are powerful engines of carbon sequester and offset that pay for themselves.’
      No.  No they are not.  What they are is a means of producing electricity due to the temperature differences between sea surface water & deep sea water.  That in itself will not sequester carbon.

  15. I’m surprised no one else caught this yet: “… despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.”   I’m afraid I’m going to have to call bullshit on this.  It may, perhaps, be the hottest recorded downpour in the last 120 years but the hottest ever in the history of the planet?  Sorry…  Bullshit.   Facts not in evidence.

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