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The Great Carbon Bubble

Posted on Feb 8, 2012
AdamCohn (CC-BY)

By Bill McKibben

(Page 2)

Still, they could theoretically invest all that cash in new clean technology or research and development for the same. As it happens, though, they’ve got a deeper problem, one that’s become clear only in the last few years. Put briefly: their value is largely based on fossil-fuel reserves that won’t be burned if we ever take global warming seriously.

When I talked about a carbon bubble at the beginning of this essay, this is what I meant. Here are some of the relevant numbers, courtesy of the Capital Institute: we’re already seeing widespread climate disruption, but if we want to avoid utter, civilization-shaking disaster, many scientists have pointed to a two-degree rise in global temperatures as the most we could possibly deal with.

If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons—five times more than we can ever safely burn. It has to stay in the ground.

Put another way, in ecological terms it would be extremely prudent to write off $20 trillion worth of those reserves. In economic terms, of course, it would be a disaster, first and foremost for shareholders and executives of companies like ExxonMobil (and people in places like Venezuela).


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If you run an oil company, this sort of write-off is the disastrous future staring you in the face as soon as climate change is taken as seriously as it should be, and that’s far scarier than drought and flood. It’s why you’ll do anything—including fund an endless campaigns of lies—to avoid coming to terms with its reality. So instead, we simply charge ahead.  To take just one example, last month the boss of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donohue, called for burning all the country’s newly discovered coal, gas, and oil—believed to be 1,800 gigatons worth of carbon from our nation alone.

What he and the rest of the energy-industrial elite are denying, in other words, is that the business models at the center of our economy are in the deepest possible conflict with physics and chemistry. The carbon bubble that looms over our world needs to be deflated soon. As with our fiscal crisis, failure to do so will cause enormous pain—pain, in fact, almost beyond imagining. After all, if you think banks are too big to fail, consider the climate as a whole and imagine the nature of the bailout that would face us when that bubble finally bursts.

Unfortunately, it won’t burst by itself—not in time, anyway. The fossil-fuel companies, with their heavily funded denialism and their record campaign contributions, have been able to keep at bay even the tamest efforts at reining in carbon emissions. With each passing day, they’re leveraging us deeper into an unpayable carbon debt—and with each passing day, they’re raking in unimaginable returns. ExxonMobil last week reported its 2011 profits at $41 billion, the second highest of all time. Do you wonder who owns the record? That would be ExxonMobil in 2008 at $45 billion.

Telling the truth about climate change would require pulling away the biggest punchbowl in history, right when the party is in full swing. That’s why the fight is so pitched. That’s why those of us battling for the future need to raise our game. And it’s why that view from the satellites, however beautiful from a distance, is likely to become ever harder to recognize as our home planet.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben

New and Improved Comments

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By RecoveringCatholic, March 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm Link to this comment

Every one of the climate change deniers are either some type of industry insiders, paid shills, or uncritically stupid ‘conservatives’ who lap up the industry lies like it was dog vomit.

We have to get past them somehow.

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By Oktulsa, February 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Temperatures having been flutuating for billions of years.  This is not the hottest it’s ever been nor the coldest.  This is also not the highest levels of CO2 the earth has experienced.  The 10’s of years of data (or 100’s) being used to show ‘Global Warming’ is not even a drop in the bucket compared to earth time.  Statiscally it’s not relevant.  There have been scores or 100’s of ice ages with intermittant warming periods over geologic time.  Show me what caused those and what is different about those warming(or cooling) periods compared to today.

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By prosefights, February 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm Link to this comment

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
To: “mary homan” <>
Sent: Friday, February 10, 2012 6:04:23 PM
Subject: concealed hand gun permit?

Hello Ms Homan,

Does Elizabeh Hurst possess a New Mexico concealed hand gun carry permit?

Please respond before Monday meeting.


Ms Hurst threats.

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By prosefights, February 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm Link to this comment

Ted Geoca emails on Friday February 10, 2012


One of the downsides to China is the pollution. It is like something we saw in the 1960s in the US. When we arrived in Beijing, it was hazy and the air was brown with little visibility. In Shanghai, the Huangpu River was brown and filthy.

I have been to the mouth of the Mississippi River numerous times and it looked like a clear mountain stream compared to this. The pollution in China is horrible. How the United States was tagged with “global warming” from CO2 pollution while China’s pollution is destroying the planet is a testament to the value of a good PR operation. Compared to China, the United States is a Garden of Eden when it comes to pollution. We should send the top one thousand environmentalists in the United States to China so they can see firsthand what pollution is really like and they can appreciate what a good job industry has done in the United States.

The message I got out of my trip to China is that business is slowing down and they are very concerned about Europe, their largest export market. China’s problems are twofold. Its largest export market, Europe, is heading into a recession and its real estate market is in big trouble.

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By prosefights, February 10, 2012 at 5:10 pm Link to this comment

Cramer on Mad Money Friday January 10, 2012 appears to be backing-off on natural gas fracking investments?

Mad Money prorams areusually posted. Let’s possibly see and more important, listen to.

New Mexico Gas Company appears not to be happy with interrogatory filings

Friday conversation attests to New Mexico judical problems.

which may be linked to energy?  And money.

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By Fullblad, February 10, 2012 at 2:28 pm Link to this comment

I believe we’re too late to avoid climate change. All we can do now is try to mitigate the final results of our stupidity by acting in our own best interests.I saw a sign held by a young woman at an Occupy site which read “where’s my electric minivan?” Well where is it? Where is the national media to champion for the cause and mobilizing the people for making sure we have a suitable climate for life on our planet?

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By Franny, February 10, 2012 at 12:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

diman - An appropriate screen name. I hope you do. Are you in the oil business? Or a fracking fracker?!

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By xtofury, February 9, 2012 at 9:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So therefore, pay your carbon tax and eventually pay double for everything you do now without a single pay increase.  You are responsible for the climate change, certainly not these manipulative oil companies.  Oh and NASA’s video admitting LENR is a reality, plus the plasmerg and e-cat are nothing but hoaxes, nothin to see here, move along.  No your system isn’t trying to screw you all into slavery under a one world government.  Nope the pope and soros aren’t calling for one world currency.  Nope occupy wasn’t basically UN agenda, predicted by UN, predicted by SOROS, puppeteered by these people, soros says violence within a week later occupy delivers.  Seriously this world is chock full of sock puppets and the worst ones of all are the greenwashed who believe that technology has not reached a point of maturity to solve these problems only because the system has held the technology back from maturation in order to take care of that enslavement to orwellian society first.  Seriously there should be a million red flags over these proposed solutions because they always involve more indentured economic slavery.  How did nature turn into a 4 months venture building a house for oneself on a plot of land to slaving away 30 years to get some inferior constructed mold infested bento box domicile?  Any way you slice it your carbon tax is rule by force and that involves taking away people’s liberty.  I think humanity can do far better for itself to come up with an answer that gets rid of the problem (most of these greedy corporations that have accumulated wealth as people do with rights on par or even sometimes beyond the rights of any individual).  If humanity settles for where the chips have landed, there’ll be an elite few riding the backs of the masses and using the good old excuse that it’s for the environment which their rotten greed has unfortunately ended up soiling.  Problem reaction solution—their greatest conjob was to convince you (and the rest of society) to literally be the groom of the stool for them.

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By prosefights, February 9, 2012 at 5:13 pm Link to this comment

From: “dmccoy” <>
To: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Sent: Thursday, February 9, 2012 2:58:26 PM
Subject: Re: Possible fracking earthquake damage Shake Rattle and Roll


On Thu, 9 Feb 2012 21:17:34 +0000 (UTC), .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:
> Thursday February 9, 2012 14:07
> Hello Mr Broadhead,
> Your verbal comments on possible earthquake fracking damage perhaps
> should be included in a report?
> Please ack if you receive this email.
> Regards,

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By Rafael Ravenet, February 9, 2012 at 2:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I shared floor at talk last night with an extraordinary man.  William McPherson was an Environment Diplomat with State Dept. for 25 years. His book (Debunking Denial, Amazon)examines denial logic with light on politics, law, science, myth and more. I ardently suggest this brilliant look at the who and how of climate denial. Meanwhile, I’ve noticed a change in the mix of individuals attending these climate presentations. I now see young, middle age and old fogies like myself pitching in.  This is a positive note as it seems the standard political belief set is beginning to fall and be replaced with a sustainable values.  It’s everywhere and we have to thank Bill McKibben for his long lasting struggle to bring this issue deserved attention.

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By gregorylkruse, February 9, 2012 at 10:31 am Link to this comment

This all goes without saying except that those who want to collect their share of the carbon money are paying to say the opposite.  What Bill is saying has to be said loudly and often by all those who are not invested in carbon oxidation.  It’s like before the banking collapse of the thirties, when people who had money in the banks and were privy to the coming collapse managed to get their money out before the collapse.  They didn’t spread the word.  Those people did very well during the depression, and I expect the people with money in carbon to do well after the CO2 bubble snuffs out life as we know it in many places.

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By Devon J. Noll, MPA, February 9, 2012 at 9:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I took some time before I wrote this comment to go and find the original Earth photo.  It was not just the missing weather clouds that struck me, but rather the lack of green vegetation.  In the original photo, there were wide swaths of forests in South America and through our central Midwest along the Mississippi River.  These are missing in the new photo.  Now at first I thought it was just because of the time of year the photo was taken, so I kept looking, and you know what, you can see the progressive deforestation process and the affects of drought and flooding over the years in a sequence of the photos.  In other words, we are stripping this world barren and dry, and climate change is inevitable when that happens in an ecosystem. 

But this article skirts one big issue and it is part of what drives the oil industry:  oil depletion and climate change are inexorably linked, and you can only address them as a whole.  Since the oil industry, which knows that oil supplies are limited, is facing the steady decline of oil availability and thus lost profits, they are more than willing to attack the damage they are doing, that we are all doing, to the climate as a hoax.  They cannot let the public know what is coming, so they focus on something that is more easily attacked because most people on some level are aware it is happening, even the deniers know it for all their protestations.  Like the magician, they distract us with one issue, so we do not see what they are actually doing.

We must start changing how we function in this society, and by being realistic and addressing both issues simultaneously at the local levels, we can create political will to address them at the state and national levels as well.  If we work at the local level to address climate change and oil depletion as a whole issue, not two separate ones, we can also address local control of policies and other issues that affect us all to create community continuity and longevity, while creating a new generation of leaders who will address these problems in the public sphere. 

Education based on facts plus public engagement in addressing these issues is our only hope.  And we must act now, because within a few years, the perfect storm of climate change, historic oil prices caused by oil depletion, and retirees withdrawing money from the stock market as required by law will cause this carbon bubble to burst, and McKibben is right - it will make the last three years look like a walk in the park!

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By prosefights, February 9, 2012 at 9:08 am Link to this comment

Listen to Mr Ron Broadhead, senior petroleum geologist with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, and me talk about natural gas, shale gas, and fracking [sic] earthquates.

Thursday February 9, 2012 09:05

Hello Mr Broadhead,

Nice to talk to you on Wednesday afternoon.

Written earthquake comments addition to your verbal comments might be valuable to those investigating possible mechanical damages?

Please ack if you receive this email.


Ms Sweeney of EIA has neither acked or responded.

Daniel Yergin points our that fracking only seriously started in 2008.  See and listen to Mr Yergin.

US reliance on natural gas for electric power generation may run into serious problems?

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By John Poole, February 9, 2012 at 7:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Maybe within mankind there is a deeply buried half imagined state of grace in
another realm of being able to swoosh around like Biblical angels. The irony is
our infernal combustion engines -designed to overcome our bipedal limitations-
need the “Devils’s excrement” as fuel. The longing to whisk rapidly on the nap of
the earth or soaring above it unfettered by gravity and friction might already be a
fatal biped mal-adaption.

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Gulam's avatar

By Gulam, February 8, 2012 at 11:40 pm Link to this comment

Between global warming and the nuclear power and
weapons fiasco the United States of America is going
to be a term of opprobrium for all mankind for millennia.
They are going to be right up there with Communists
and the Fascists as the triumvirate of materialist monsters that
killed millions and poisoned minds and bodies for many
generations to come.

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By brandoncosta, February 8, 2012 at 8:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Its amazing how this country’s conservative elite have managed to set us
20 years back in the “debate” about global warming. The data is
overwhelming.  The proof is all around us. We live in it. How someone
could argue that the industrial revolution on a global scale has not
drastically changed the future of our environment is absurd. But yet many
do. We let it. Everything we touch seems to have some form of crude oil
base. Demand more advancement of green tech.  Its the only real solution
to our consumer driven world. And pray the earth can repair itself to keep
this a hospital planet

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Blueokie's avatar

By Blueokie, February 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm Link to this comment

I’ve seen the articles that dimwit is talking about.  The give-away to me was they were written in crayon by “creation scientists” on fossil fuel cartel letterheads.  Interestingly on the same search page you could find articles that said that knuckle dragging, mouth breathing, tiny headed, white, middle class, middle aged, conservative men who believe that the more money you have the more correct you are, have intelligence and integrity.  Try http://www.WTF???  (not an actual site deniers).

Mr. McKibbens thesis is essentially correct.  Supply is up, demand is down, and the U.S. has become a net exporter of oil.  Wall Street speculators are in control of the price.  Obamanation is eager to keep the bubble inflating with his endorsement of fracking, opening more public lands and offshore leases (including north of the Arctic Circle) and his eagerness to go to war to control the Persian Gulf on behalf of the fossil fuel cartel.  Look for this social climbing careerist to approve of the SuicideXL pipeline after his possible reelection when he can no longer be held accountable.

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By Mary M McCurnin, February 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Links please, diman.

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By Vaco, February 8, 2012 at 12:40 pm Link to this comment

@Diman Obvious troll is obvious.

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, February 8, 2012 at 12:24 pm Link to this comment

The polar icecaps are receding, the glaciers are disappearing, and the permafrost is defrosting, but the dim still insist that there’s no global warming.

Catastrophic climate change will result, whether America, Inc. is managed by the corporate party’s Republicans who deny the evidence, or the corporate party’s Democrats who ignore the evidence.

Jill Stein for President:

Voter Consent Wastes Dissent:

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By diman, February 8, 2012 at 11:27 am Link to this comment

“Coverage of global warming has dipped 40% over the last two years”

Because it is what it is - a “hoax”

“the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by “16 scientists and engineers” headlined “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” The article was easily debunked”

And I can find hundreds of scientific articles all based on rigorous research that debunk the global warming theory.

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