An even tighter carbon budget

When we wrote the fossil fuel divestment brief for the University of Toronto, we thought that humans could “pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees”.

If we’re aiming instead to stay below the 1.5 ËšC limit aspired to in the Paris Agreement, that falls to 353 gigatons more CO2, a figure that means “we’ll need to close all of the coal mines and some of the oil and gas fields we’re currently operating long before they’re exhausted”.

In a way, this makes the politics of climate change simple. Any new project that aims to develop new fossil fuel extraction capacity is either going to need to be abandoned prematurely as part of a massive global effort to curb climate change, or it will be another nail in our coffin as we soar far beyond the 1.5 ËšC and 2 ËšC limit.

Of course, this also makes the politics very difficult. People have a huge sense of entitlement when it comes to both exploiting resources in their jurisdiction and in terms of using fossil fuels with no consideration of the impact on others. The less adjustment time which can be offered to fossil fuel industries, and the more operating facilities that will need to be closed down to avoid catastrophic climate change, the harder it becomes for decision makers to act with sufficient boldness.

Sagan on the always/never dilemma with nuclear weapons

Still, at a fundamental level, it is important to recognize that the military commands controlling U.S. nuclear weapons have been asked to do the impossible. Peter Feaver has used the phrase, the “always/never dilemma” to describe the twin requirements placed on U.S. military commands. Political authorities have demanded, for the sake of deterrence, that the organization always be able and willing to destroy an enormous variety of targets inside the Soviet Union, at a moments notice, under every conceivable circumstance. They have demanded that military commanders always be able to execute such attacks at any time of day, 365 days a year. They have demanded that our nuclear forces always be effective, regardless of whether the U.S. struck first or was retaliating after having suffered a catastrophic nuclear attack. And, finally, they demanded that the military, while doing all this, never have a serious nuclear weapon accident, never have an accidental detonation, and never permit the unauthorized use of a weapon to occur.

In retrospect, it should be acknowledged that while the military organizations controlling U.S. nuclear forces during the Cold War performed this task with less success than we knew, they performed with more success than we should have reasonably expected. The problems identified in this book were not the product of incompetent organizations. They reflect the inherent limits of organizational safety. Recognition of that simple truth is the first and most important step toward a safer future.

Sagan, Scott D. The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons. Princeton University Press. 1993. p. 278–9 (emphasis in original)