Everything you wanted to know about the climate crisis (but were afraid to ask an economist)

As the 19th round of intergovernmental climate negotiations are closing in Warsaw with no reasonable outcome at sight, perhaps it is timely to have a ‘season recap’ of the story so far. The unfolding drama is of epic proportions, but how to explain the climate crisis in the times of ever-shortening attention span?

As an introduction, the animated video Wake Up, Freak Out (2008) is still relevant (and aesthetically unsurpassed), but the science and the politics have evolved since then. Released one year ago, the following visualisation by Information is Beautiful comprehensively presents both current facts and future possibilities:

The key concept here is the carbon budget: the total amount of fossil fuel that is ‘safe’ to burn to avoid crossing the treshold towards irreversible, unpredictable and catastrophic global warming scenarios. Unless we start decreasing fossil fuel today, this point will be reached in 12 years with the current —ever-increasing— level of emissions. The later we start reversing this tendency, the faster we will have to eliminate burning fossil fuels.

There is however a bigger problem than the pace of decrease we have to achieve: proven fossil fuel reserves are five times more than this carbon budget. In other words, at least 80% of all the oil, coal —plenty of coal— and gas that is known to exist has to remain underground —out of reach. Not only the states and private companies owning the reserves intend to exploit them entirely, but they are busy searching for new, unconventional reserves that are costlier, dirtier and riskier.

There is no political will in intergovernmental climate negotiations to even consider abolishing fossil fuel exploitation, simply because this is not where power resides. It is in the boards of the top fossil fuel companies publicly traded in stock markets. As the most profitable industry of all time, they alone have already more in their reserves than the carbon budget; no wonder why they are litterally fighting to the death against anything that would impede their business.

How do you transform or dismantle the most unaccountable institutions against their will? Occupy Wall Street demonstrated that, while it is possible to mobilise broad support by directly targetting big money, it takes time to grow alternatives —a luxury we cannot afford. A more time-effective offensive has to combine the moral struggle for justice with practical, achievable actions that disturb business-as-usual —by hitting where it hurts, by going after the money.

Following a report by Carbon Tracker, there is a new narrative emerging among climate campaigners. According to estimations, the reserves that are supposed to remain underground (‘stranded assets’) are worth half of the share vaule of fossil fuel companies —trillions of dollars, most of it invested in oil, and primarily exchanged in New York and London stock markets. Here is how the Unburnable Carbon report warns investors about the mess they are in:

“Investors are thus left exposed to the risk of unburnable carbon. If the 2°C target is rigorously applied, then up to 80% of declared reserves owned by the world’s largest listed coal, oil and gas companies and their investors would be subject to impairment as these assets become stranded.”

This risk is best expressed in the notion of the carbon bubble. Just like any other financial speculation —from tulips to houses— overconfidence in future returns of a commodity generates fictional value that has no equivalent in the present. But when the realisation inevitably hits, prices collapse, markets crash and companies go bankrupt. It is yet uncertain whether the carbon bubble will burst soon enough, or will it be mitigated by some precautionary divestment.

This is what the fate of a viable planet, the survival of countless species, and possibly the prospects of a decent future for humans are currently reduced to: numbers that slide on LED ticker displays. Perhaps two addresses —Wall Street & Paternoster Square— are the closest thing to a Death Star or the Dark Tower of Mordor: the most concentrated form of destructive financial power, that is otherwise massively distributed across the planet, in every pocket of fossil fuel.


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