At Home on Earth

Let’s Not Blow the Budget

A few years back, financial analysts and scientists alike began to figure out a “global carbon budget ” we would need to stick to if we want to avoid radically overheating our planet. In other words, there’s a fixed amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide we can emit globally by 2050 at the time, it was about 565 billion tons (gigatons, or Gt) total. Currently, human activity produces about 36 Gt of carbon dioxide a year. That means that at our current rate, we’ll blow through our budget decades before 2050, since the global emissions rate keeps growing.

At the same time, researchers determined that there were enough proven coal, oil, and gas reserves to produce almost 2,800 Gt of carbon dioxide five times our global carbon budget. To avoid serious harm to the environment, 80 percent of these reserves need to be left in the ground, unburned.

Unfortunately, that’s not happening because leaving the reserves unburned means fossil-fuel companies would have to write them off their books as worthless “stranded assets. ” Doing so would tank a company’s stock price. Put simply: it’s a business necessity for them to burn these reserves, but an environmental necessity for them not to. Remember the overinflated housing bubble that caused the recent Great Recession? Now there’s talk about a carbon bubble.

We can’t expect fossil-fuel companies to do the right thing for the environment when it would mean economic suicide for them. And given the priorities of the current federal administration, we can expect little governmental pressure on them, like regulation or a carbon tax.

The pressure, then, will need to come from us, especially us billion-plus Catholics, whose Church takes climate change seriously, and whose pope has told us we need to move away from fossil fuels. We can use less fossil fuel through efficiency measures, alternative energy sources, and lifestyle changes. Those fortunate enough to have retirement or other investments can ensure that our portfolios don’t include fossil-fuel companies both to avoid personal financial risk of carbon bubbles and to send a signal to these companies that they need to shift their business model or watch their stock prices plummet.

We can’t afford to blow our carbon budget right out of our car tailpipes and power plant exhaust stacks. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., we once again face the “fierce urgency of now. ”

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