The Nature of College by James Farrell


The New Math

Some college students major in math, but all college students should be interested in the new math explained in Bill McKibben’s new essay in Rolling Stone. McKibben, who wrote one of the first books on global warming in 1989, synthesizes the scientific literature to show that three numbers matter immensely in the future of the planet.

The first is 2—the 2 degrees Celsius that scientists say is the outer limit for average global warming. Beyond that, conditions on the planet will be so bad that inhabitants may find it basically uninhabitable. So far, we’ve warmed the planet just eight-tenths of a degree, and the catastrophes flow one after the other. We’ve also emitted enough carbon already to warm the planet another eight-tenths of a degree. There’s not much room for error.

The second number is 565 gigatons—the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted in the future without exceeding the limits of habitability. That’s a big number, but not for 7 billion people burning carbon in various forms. Currently, emissions are 31.6 gigatons annually. At the rate humanity is going, we’ll emit another 565 gigatons in 16 years. The math is inexorable—but the future is not. Individually and collectively, we have a choice.

The third number is 2,795 gigatons—the amount of carbon in the proven reserves of fossil-fuel corporations, and countries—like Venezuela or Kuwait—that produce like corporations. As you’ve no doubt noticed, that number is five times larger than 565. There’s five times as much carbon available than we need to destroy the planet. That’s what we might call a margin of unsafety.

Because it’s profitable—very profitable—fossil fuel companies plan to burn it all. AND they plan to discover more fossil fuels in places like the Arctic, which will be free of ice because of global warming. That’s the creative destruction of capitalism at its best—creating profits now but destroying the habitability of the planet in the process.

So what can a college student do? Get engaged. Vote for candidates who understand global warming, and understand the importance of change—economic, ecological, social, political. Vote for the candidates the oil and coal and gas industries don’t support. Get engaged with the movement against coal. Start using Facebook for organizing ideas and protests. And ask demand that your professors address the new math in their classes—and not just in math.