To better understand why it is so important to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and why tens of thousands rallied in DC on Sunday and why activists participated in acts of civil disobedience, you must understand the math of global warming.
Unfortunately, the media has often framed the fight over the tar sands pipeline as a matter of regional concern over risks to the water supply. And while those concerns are valid, Keystone is dangerous to the entire world and a threat to regional water supply.
Bill McKibben did a superb job explaining the basics of the climate crisis with three key numbers in his must-read post for Rolling Stone last summer. Really, you must read the full article, because he has some great metaphors and context, but for the basic explanation of why people are willing to go to jail for this cause, here are those figures and takeaways from his piece:
The first number: 2° Celsius
Paraphrasing McKibben: So far we've raised the average temperature of the planet 0.8 degrees Celsius. World leaders at the Copenhagen Climate Summit agreed to aim to keep warming below two degrees Celsius. But NASA scientist James Hansen - one of those arrested at the White House last week - warns that two degrees of warming is "a prescription for long-term disaster." African leaders see two degrees as a two degrees as a "suicide pact" due to drought. They would like no more than one degree of warming. Again, we've already warmed 0.8 degrees.
The second number: 565 gigatons.
McKibben writes, "Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees." However, "study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year – and at that rate, we'll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today's preschoolers will be graduating from high school." Furthermore, "computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we're already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target."
Catch that? If we could magically just stop putting carbon into the atmosphere today, the climate would still continue to rise for some time because of what we've already released. Put another way, the 0.8 degrees of warming we've already created is from carbon we released years ago. When we talk about stopping pollution now, it is to reduce warming in the future.
The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons
This is the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves. As McKibben explains, "it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher."
You see where this is going?
We're currently trending towards warming the planet 6 degrees Celsius or almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit. And more than 2 degrees will be a disaster. Just 0.8 degrees of warming has contributed to record drought, wildfires and storms, but we're on pace for 6. We should be at 2 or less and we're heading for 6.
In other words, we're screwed if we keep going on like this.
Climate change is not just another pet issue of the green movement. This is a big freaking deal for humanity and it is not hyperbolic to say that time is running out.
This is what people getting arrested at the White House understand. This is what the tens of thousands of people that rallied on Sunday likely understand. Major action is needed.
This is what led activists to spend 85 days living in trees to block construction of the southern portion of the Keystone pipeline in Texas.
This is what led Oklahoma resident Elizabeth Leja to lock her neck to equipment that would be used to build the pipeline.
This is what led Oklahoma youth pastor, Stefan Warner, to suspend himself from construction equipment.
This is what led protestors to occupy the Houston offices of TransCanada.
This is what led Gulf Coast activists Diane Wilson and Bob Lindsey, Jr. to endure a 45 day hunger strike.
This is what led Matt Almonte and Glen Collins to lock themselves inside two pipes in East Texas.
And these are just a handful of the many actions that activists have already taken to physically and peacefully put their bodies on the line to keep carbon in the ground and slow our climate's warming.
Unless you understand the severity of the issue motivating these actions, I think it's easy for people to look at climate change protests as just another item on a long list of pet issues of environmentalists. But this crisis, climate change, really is different. And the more people understand the science and the limited time we have to act, the better chance we'll have to turn things around and prevent global disaster.