Answering “The Burning Question”: How do we quit fossil fuels?

March 6, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

Ever since Bill McKibben outlined our global carbon budget in his viral July 2012 Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” the enormity of the task before us (both the climate movement and humanity at large) has set in. For those who didn’t read his piece, the founder details three numbers. To keep the Earth at the agreed-upon “safe” level of 2 degrees celsius of global warming we can only emit roughly another 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, which is worrisome considering at the time of his writing, the energy industry had 2,795 gigatonnes worth of proven fossil fuel reserves on their books and ready to burn. That’s five times as much as we can afford to burn – ever. 

Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark attempt “to give a very big perspective on [this] very big challenge” in their recent book “The Burning Question.” Picking up where McKibben leaves off, the authors expand on exactly what this perilous contradiction means for the global economy, international geopolitics and for humanity’s future on this planet. 

Berners-Lee and Clark succeed in tackling the emissions issue on a systemic level. Beginning with the problem of abundant fossil fuels (enough to cook the planet), the book flows naturally from there. First and foremost they make the case for a global carbon cap as the sole solution to the climate crisis. They illustrate why things like alternative energy, efficiency and population control don’t accomplish real emissions reductions on a system level. Next the pair analyze the multitude of forces working against such a cap – the enormous write-off of fossil fuel assets, both financial and physical, that it would entail. Not to mention the short-term pain it would inflict on the wider economy. Towards the end of the book Berners-Lee and Clark herald a call to action. Policymakers need a public push to make this a reality. 

They’ve convinced me. A carbon budget needs to be the crux of an eventual climate agreement. Move beyond pledges of reductions which have failed miserably and attempts at green growth and renewable energy. Take the remaining “safe” emissions we have and divvy them up between the rest of the world. Naturally, developing countries should get the lion’s share of the breathing room, since you can’t simply tell the world “sorry you need to stay poor because we like our long-haul holidays.”

This would require tremendous self-sacrifice by developed nations. Frankly it would be politically impossible at the moment. So, as the authors allude to, concerned citizens have their work cut out for them. The climate movement needs to make it acceptable – even imperative – for world leaders to come to their citizens and their companies with drastic emissions cuts. Persuading the world to abandon its fossil fuel reserves and leave them in the ground is what it will take in order not to bake this planet. It’s the tallest of orders, but never has anything been so important.

Thankfully, technologies like Carbon Capture and Storage, renewable energy, thorium nuclear and huge gains in efficiency make this easier. Berners-Lee and Clark paint these projects not as a waste of time but as making the deal more palatable.  

“The Burning Question” provides the direction humanity needs to overcome climate change, backed by a well-researched and comprehensive argument. Seasoned climate watchers and those new to the subject will find much to take away from the book. At times the authors’ stark analysis can be bleak, but rather than demoralizing defeatism, it delivers a strange kind of hope. Having a clear goal, however daunting it may be, gives an understanding of what must be done and of what we can accept no less. One finishes “The Burning Question” with a sense of inevitability, that one way or another, this is how humanity will make it happen.