Do the math: Bill McKibben takes on Big Oil

Most Americans own cars. Most cars run on gasoline.

Can we be persuaded to think of the oil industry as the enemy? What about the coal industry, which supplies more than a third of the electricity we use?

“Movements need enemies,” declares Bill McKibben, the author, activist and leader of grassroots group So last week, with allies including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, McKibben and began a 20-city, month-long coast-to-coast tour called Do the Math that targets the fossil fuel industry. It’s designed to invigorate the climate movement by calling upon colleges, foundations and governments to sell their stock in coal, oil and natural gas companies.

The campaign is modeled after the 1980s South Africa divestment campaign, which helped pressure the government to enter negotiations that eventually led to the end of apartheid. To underscore that point, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu will make appearances, on video, during the tour.

It’s time to focus on the polluters, McKibben said last week by phone from Seattle, where the tour kicked off. “We’ve spent so much time focusing on our elected officials, and so little time focusing on the players behind them,” he said.

“The fossil fuel industry is now the tobacco industry,” he told me. “They are now a rogue force in our society.”

Not surprisingly, the oil companies aren’t happy about any of this. Rayola Dougher, a senior economic advisor at the American Petroleum Institute, told me that McKibben’s attacks on U.S. oil companies, if they lead to higher carbon taxes or caps, would raise energy prices and risk American jobs, while doing little or nothing to curb greenhouse gas emissions. “Demonizing an industry is not a good starting point for dealing with a big and complex issue like this one,” she said.

Interestingly, though, Dougher did not challenge the basic math behind McKibben’s campaign. If  fossil fuel companies burn all or even most of their known reserves of oil, coal and natural gas, he argues, , the result will be an all-but-unlivable planet. McKibben unveiled the math last summer in a must-read article in Rolling Stone magazine called Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. (It generated 122,000 Facebook “likes” and more than 5,000 comments.) The argument is summed up this way in the FAQs on the website:

To grasp the seriousness of the climate crisis, you just need to do a little math. Fossil fuel corporations have 5 times more oil and coal and gas in known reserves than climate scientists think is safe to burn. We have to keep 80% of their fossil fuels underground to keep the earth in livable shape.Here are the three numbers you shouldn’t forget:

2 degrees— Almost every government in the world has agreed that any warming above a 2°C (3.6°F) rise would be unsafe. We have already raised the temperature .8°C, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the climate dice are loaded for both devastating floods and drought.

565 gigatons — Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. Computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 levels now, the temperature would still rise another 0.8 degrees above the 0.8 we’ve already warmed, which means that we’re already 3/4s of the way to the 2 degree target.

2,795 gigatonsThe Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists, estimates that proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies, equals about 2,795 gigatons of CO2, or five times the amount we can release to maintain 2 degrees of warming.

If McKibben’s math is right–and no one has challenged it, he told me–we will spend all of our “carbon budget” in roughly 18 years at our current rate of fossil fuel consumption of about 31 gigatons a year.

Because the fossil fuel companies are hellbent on discovering, extracting and selling as much oil, coal and gas as they can, the industry should be regarded as “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization,” McKibben wrote.

When we talked, I raised a couple of possible objections to his campaign. The first is a practical one–divestment probably won’t work. To be sure, McKibben announced a small victory last week: An environmentally-oriented college in Maine named Unity College voted to sell the stocks of fossil fuel companies in its endowment, but its holdings amount to $13 million. By comparison, the endowment at Harvard, where McKibben went to school, was recently valued at about $30 billion. It’s hard to imagine major institutions turning against the fossil fuel industry.

McKibben conceded as much, but added: “A good part of the reason to do this is not just to win divestment but to have the debate….but to convey this picture of the fossil fuel industry as an outlaw industry. Not an outlaw industry against the laws of the state — because they write those laws — but against the laws of physics.”

A second objection, as noted earlier, is that most people who travel to the Do The Math rallies will get there by car.

That’s because most people have no choice, McKibben said. “There’s really no way for most of us to divest ourselves of fossil fuels in our daily life, completely,” he said. “If there is no train, you can’t take it.”

A third objection came from Rayola Daugher, the oil-industry advocate, who says focusing on US oil companies will do no good because most of the world’s reserves are controlled by state-owned oil companies. (See chart below) You can’t divest from the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. or PDVSA, which is owned by the government of Venezuela, because they don’t issue stock.

“The template has to be broader,” Daugher said. “He’s totally out of touch with energy realities.”

Of course, the American Petroleum Industry has fiercely opposed government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions–a sign that API is out of touch with environmental realities.

As it happens, McKibben and take a global approach to the climate crisis. Today (November 10) they helped organize a day of action against coal in India and they are organizing young people in the Arab world as well.

McKibben and make three demands of the fossil fuel industry. First, companies should stop lobbying. Second, they should stop exploring for new hydrocarbons. Third, they need to transform themselves into energy companies and leave 80% of their reserves underground.

It’s a tall order, to put it mildly, but McKibben is undeterred.

“The warmest year in America, the epic drought, the melting Arctic and the damage caused by Sandy are all fresh in our minds,” he said. “I’ve never felt more hopeful. The movement is finally beginning to coalesce.”

Your thoughts?


  1. Brett says

    I think it’s a gimmick that won’t work and waste resources. Apartheid divestment worked because the crime – racial oppression – was obvious and relateable to by many Americans. But, realistically, do you think any students or donors are going to avoid a college because they have stock in oil/gas energy companies? I doubt that very much.

  2. Ed Reid says

    “McKibben and make three demands of the fossil fuel industry. First, companies should stop lobbying. Second, they should stop exploring for new hydrocarbons. Third, they need to transform themselves into energy companies and leave 80% of their reserves underground.”

    McKibben has a particularly cavalier attitude regarding the First and Fifth Amendments to the US Constitution.

    He also seems strangely focused on a temperature anomaly which occurred ~6 years ago and has not been duplicated since. His 0.8C number is 60% higher than the average anomaly over the past ~16 years, approximately 1/2 of which appears to be the result of adjustments to the data, rather than the data itself.

    I suspect this McKibben effort will be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

  3. Jim says

    I think this campaign will work over time. Just look at the US coal industry. Just a few years ago, coal companies were riding very high. But there has been a wise deployment in a coordinated Beyond Coal campaign, a greak with gas, and enforcement of existing law, that has systematically undermined every defense the coal industry uses, and now their product is irreversibly tainted and nw many coal companies are bankrupt or struggling. The clean coal campaign has been perhaps the biggest failure in a US marketing campaign since New Coke.

    My bet is that in five years,with unavoidable Sandy after Sandy, oil companies will be much more diversified into renewables, and deadly high-carbon unconventional oils will be left undeveloped.

    Its almost a certainty.

  4. Stuart says


    Why are the producers of oil more of a villain than the makers of the products that make oil exploration so attractive such as car and airplane manufacturers?


  5. says

    The best analogy I’ve heard for our current reality is that of Wile E. Coyote flapping his arms, hoping for flight, long after having run off the edge of the cliff. His look of bemusement at being unable to break the laws of physics is a key part of the analogy for me.

    Fossil fuels are a vast, one-off bank of energy which we have drained in the pursuit of industrial capitalism. In just 15 decades, we’ve gone from an abundance of cheap and easy shallow onshore reserves of good quality oil to kiddding ourselves that tar sand oil and shale gas are just the same as conventional oil & gas. Flap! The energy bank is now struggling to pay out what we require to keep growth economics growing. Flap, flap! We refuse to reduce energy demand (for that’s what’s needed, not just reducing carbon emissions) and we carry on hoping for some technological breakthrough. But technology uses energy, it doesn’t create it. Uh-oh! All renewable devices have a fossil fuel input and it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to know that biofuels grown today can never release an amount of energy comparable to that contained within fossil fuels, which took millions of years to form. At this point, Coyote waves solemnly and plummits.

    So I think we are in freefall, just beginning to wonder if the environmentalists might be onto something. Unlike Coyote, we can make the landing softer – IF we accept the laws of physics and work to change how we live. A shock can sometimes bring us to our senses but I fear we may hit the ground first.

  6. Lewis E. Ward says

    Excellent analogy Mandy.
    ‘“Movements need enemies,” declares Bill McKibben’ I’m not so sure picking enemies is the best strategy and certainly is in my experience poor spiritual practice. People who have been taught to hate are not thinkers, they have not been encouraged to understand and are easily trained to hate something else. We need understanding of what are options are. Unfortunately, there are few. industrial growth and economic expansion only exploits more resources and uses more energy.
    One of the options that most refuse to speak about is greatly reducing our population and the level of comfort we are living at. I often here the arguments that people “can’t” change their lifestyle.

  7. Marc Gunther says

    Thanks for your comments.

    @Ed, I’m not going to debate climate science with you. Bill is not a scientist but he has been writing about climate since the late 1980s. His view of the danger ahead is in accord with those climate scientists I know, as well as major US scientific bodies.

    @Brett, @Jim, I don’t this campaign will achieve its stated goal of divestment, but it may turn out to be a clever way to get “the math” across to more people and to diminish the political clout of the fossil fuel industry.

    @Stuart, I think the oil industry is more of an “enemy” than the automakers or plane manufacturers because they (like most consumers) are indifferent, more or less, about the energy their products use. In fact, I think the auto industry would be thrilled with electrification because they could sell more “new improved” cars as well as reduce their environmental impact.

    @Lewis, I think you’re right about enemies (despite my comment here to Stuart). We’re all the “enemy” here. We’re all the solution. This problem needs a political solution, meaning it is in all of our hands, as well as a cultural change as you suggest. Slowing population growth is part of the solution, too.

    • Ed Reid says

      “McKibben conceded as much, but added: “A good part of the reason to do this is not just to win divestment but to have the debate….but to convey this picture of the fossil fuel industry as an outlaw industry. Not an outlaw industry against the laws of the state — because they write those laws — but against the laws of physics.””

      McKibben appears less interested to “have the debate” than he is to conduct a harangue. He has been invited to debate, but has chosen not to do so. McKibben certainly has the right to speak. However, I hope he does not believe that he has a right to be heard.

      “If McKibben’s math is right–and no one has challenged it, he told me–we will spend all of our “carbon budget” in roughly 18 years at our current rate of fossil fuel consumption of about 31 gigatons a year.”

      Participating in a debate might provide an opportunity for McKibben’s math to be challenged.

  8. says

    So grateful to have found your writing today, Marc! You write about topics I am very interested in (and write about myself.) I applaud your work! I’m going to the Do the Math Tour on Sunday and found this article and the comments that followed a great filter through which to experience the event. I do think, overall, that the environmental movement Bill is working so tirelessly to create will impact the fossil fuel industry and our our relationship to it because 1) he is inspiring youth to take a hard, active look at their future and 2) he is awakening in more and more people a deeper understanding that the effects of extreme fossil fuel extraction are real and must shift. Of course, storms like Sandy sadly help, too. How we go about stopping our addiction to fossil fuels will be many – from stopping fossil fuel subsidies/investments to growing the alternative energy industry to using less energy ourselves. Not that a perfect world lies ahead. We will suffer much in the decades ahead, but, as mom of an 8-year-old, I have to be part of the fight that stops the burning of fossil fuels. When 12,000 of us surrounded the White House to stop the XL pipeline, we had an effect. Those who got arrested to stop the pipeline, got the press they were seeking. None of us know whether we will succeed, but Bill McKibben is to be admired for his extraordinary efforts to bring climate change to the forefront. I, for one – even if we are in free fall – will be fighting for a viable future till death do I part.

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