The numbers 2 degrees Celsius, 565 gigatons, and 2,795 gigatons have taken on increasing importance to a growing variety of people since they were first introduced to the mainstream public by Bill McKibben in his landmark July 2012 Rolling Stone article, "Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math."
Two degrees C represents the maximum temperature increase that most world leaders and scientists agree we can allow, and still hope to avoid climate catastrophe (bear in mind, however, that the increasing severity and frequency of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, tornados, cyclones, typhoons, hurricanes, melting arctic sea ice, ocean acidification, species loss, growing food crisis and other manifestations of climate change that have afflicted our world in recent years occurred with only an 0.8 degrees C rise). The second number, 565 gigatons, is what is thought to be the amount of fossil fuel we could burn and still stay under 2 degrees C. And the third, 2795 gigatons, is the amount of fossil energy -- coal, gas and oil -- we have in the ground right now (estimated in 2012 to be worth $27 trillion.), a figure that is five times the 565 gigatons red line.
In short, what these numbers graphically demonstrate is that, if we are to avoid, not climate change (it’s already way too late for that), but climate catastrophe, we have to leave in the ground 80 percent of the known fossil fuel reserves.
What is interesting (and hopeful) about these numbers is that while they have inspired the growing movement of climate activists in their efforts to shut down coal mines, block gas hydrofracking, and prevent Alberta tar sands from moving through such pipelines as the Keystone XL, they have their origin with and growing impact on the crucial financial markets. In fact, these three numbers first appeared in the March 2012 report, "Unburnable Carbon -- Are the World’s Financial Markets Carrying a Carbon Bubble?" by the UK organization, Carbon Tracker, whose stated goal is "to prevent a carbon crash by working with capital market regulators and investors to assess systemic climate change risks."
The Carbon Tracker initiative focused on the fossil fuel reserves held by publically listed companies and the way they’re valued and assessed by markets. Currently financial markets treat fossil fuel reserves as assets, operating on the assumption that they will all be eventually burned . But if governments move to control carbon emissions, this market faith will create systemic risks for institutional investors; it is feared that fossil fuel assets will become stranded, reminiscent of the severe value destruction that investors suffered following the mispricing in the dot.com boom and the more recent credit crunch. The carbon bubble could be equally serious for institutional investors - including pension beneficiaries - and the value lost would be permanent.
The growing impact of this market-oriented consciousness has been particularly evident in recent weeks in a series of events that began with former Vice President, Al Gore, likening the "absurd overvaluation" of oil and gas stocks to the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe. Then there was the announcement that a coalition of investors, including Green Century Funds and Trillium Asset Management, recently collaborated with 350.org around a guide on how to eliminate carbon from portfolios.
About the same time a group of 700 investors, who manage more than $3 trillion of collective assets, sent letters to the world’s top 45 fossil fuel companies, requesting detailed responses before their next annual shareholder meetings to better assess the financial risks that changes in demand and price would pose for their bottom lines. Coordinated by Ceres, a nonprofit that organizes businesses, investors, and public interest groups interested in climate change, investors signing the letters included the New York State Comptroller, California’s two largest public pension funds, F & C Management, and the Scottish Widows Investment Partnership, one of Europe’s largest asset management companies.
Then came the surprising news in the Dec. 5 New York Times that "More than two dozen of the nation’s biggest corporations, including the five major oil companies, are planning their future growth on the expectation that the government will force them to pay a price for carbon pollution as a way to control global warming." As the recent report of the environmental data company, CDP, pointed out, at least 29 companies -- including ExxonMobil, Walmart, and American Electric Power -- are incorporating a price on carbon into their long-term plans. "It’s climate change as a line item," said Tom Carnac, CDP’s North American president. The significance of this is that, given that these businesses -- especially the five major oil companies -- are charting a financial course to make money in a carbon-constrained future, they might be more inclined to support policies that address climate change.
Finally, in late November there was the quiet unveiling by Bloomberg L.P. of its Carbon Risk Valuation Tool. The latter is available to more than 300,000 high-end traders, analysts and other subscribers, who pay $20,000 a year to view the stream of information that’s provided by Bloomberg’s financial data and analysis service. The tool is intended to help investors move the conversation about fossil fuel companies from uncertainty to risk, and to quantify for the first time how climate policies might hurt the earnings and stock prices of fossil fuel companies. Because Bloomberg is the premier mainstream financial data provider whose information and analysis is used widely throughout the financial community to help guide investment strategies, it is an influential platform from which to launch new valuation concepts.
The significance of these events is, perhaps, best summed up by Scottish Widows sustainability head, Craig Mackenzie, who observed, "People are getting the idea that one of the main risks -- perhaps the main risk -- from climate change for investors and pension funds relates to hydrocarbon investment."
Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and can be reached at 802-869-2141 and firstname.lastname@example.org.