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The Most Influential Climate Science Paper Today Remains Unknown to Most People

Just six pages long, it is stoking a new moral urgency for climate action and forcing the financial world to reconsider the value of fossil fuel reserves.

Feb 14, 2013
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Bill McKibben delivers a speech during his Do the Math Tour

Christopher King, editorial content manager of Thomson Reuters' ScienceWatch, a site that tracks trends in research, said it "unquestionably ranks among the elite."

In science, that many citations reflects a rare consensus, according to Gavin Schmidt, deputy chief of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a climate modeler. He said that while a few minor details in the paper have raised discussion, the overall results are widely accepted.

After impressing scientists, it wasn't long before the findings rippled through the global financial world.

For years, investors had been hearing of carbon budgets and the 2-degree threshold—and they were growing concerned. As much as 30 percent of the value of some of the world’s stock exchanges is in proven coal, oil and gas reserves, which energy companies are banking on mining and selling one day.

But what if governments buckled to activist pressure and decided to require firms to keep some of those reserves in the ground? What would that do to the market values of powerful energy companies? What would that do to the world's financial systems?

A newly formed group, made up of green-minded investors in London and called the Carbon Tracker Initiative, sought to assess those risks in a scientific way. They used Meinshausen's paper as the basis of their own report, "Unburnable Carbon," published in 2011.

The report tackled a question that Meinshausen had answered, but not in any depth: How much CO2 is in the world's fossil fuel reserves? 

Using official records from U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings, among other documents, Carbon Tracker discovered that the world's top 200 fossil fuel companies have 2,795 gigatons of CO2 trapped in their fossil fuel reserves. And that figure didn't include unconventional sources like tar sands, oil shale and methane hydrates.

They also found that in the first 10 years of this century, humans had burned through one-third of Meinhausen's 886 gigaton budget, leaving just 565 gigatons left to use over the next 40 years. In sum, 80 percent of all fossil fuel reserves would have to remain untouched to prevent uncontrollable warming, the report warned.

"Investors need to be wary that stocks may not hold the same value they once did—and companies need to stop putting more capital into finding more reserves," James Leaton,  research director for the Carbon Tracker Initiative, said. "The future won't resemble the past for these industries."

"Unburnable Carbon" was the first, but not the last, study to consider whether energy companies' values were based on assumptions that might never pan out. Last month, global banking giant HSBC released a similar report using Meinshausen's 50-50 carbon budget scenario. It found that the largest oil and gas companies, including BP, Shell and Statoil, could lose 60 percent of their market values if governments proceed with tough carbon reduction targets and force companies to leave reserves untapped.

McKibben Popularizes the Science

Bill McKibben, a mild-mannered college professor and one of the nation's original climate activists, heard about Meinshausen's findings in 2009. But it wasn't until he read "Unburnable Carbon," and saw just how much coal, oil and gas energy companies have in their reserves, that he decided to make the numbers the cornerstone of a campaign to break Washington's silence on climate change.

First, he repackaged Meinhausen's science and the investors' math into a Rolling Stone article called "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math." In November, he launched a Do the Math tour to introduce the public to the numbers.

In a month, McKibben and members of his grassroots organization, 350.org, traveled to 21 cities by biodiesel bus and held rock concert-like events before sold-out audiences to try to make decarbonization of the economy a moral issue.

"It made people understand they are going to have to intervene in a more powerful way," McKibben said of the math. 

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