Money Monkey Trap

Noted climate change activist, Bill McKibben, recently published an article in Rolling Stone magazine titled Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.  In this piece McKibben encourages us to focus on these three numbers:

1st Number  -  2° Celsius
2nd Number  -  565 gigatons
3rd Number  -  2,795 gigatons

The first number is the limit on temperature rise set as a goal at the international climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009.  A two degrees Celsius rise has long been considered an upper limit on global warming which we must not transgress.  But recent thinking suggests this number may be too high.  Thus far the Earth has only warmed eight tenths of one degree Celsius.  But we’ve already been visited by numerous violent weather events which have created serious economic damage around the globe.  And this is only the beginning!

The second figure is the tons of CO2 scientists predict we can add to the Earth’s atmosphere before bypassing the two degree temperature increase just mentioned.

The third number, 2795 gigatons, is the amount of carbon which will be released into the atmosphere by using the oil, coal, and gas reserves already on the books as assets for major fossil fuel companies and fuel-states, like Venezuela and Kuwait.  The key point is that this massive tonnage is almost five times more than we can afford to actually burn without sending Earth’s climate into a hellish spiral!

The logic of these numbers reminds me of the folklore of the Monkey Trap.  Monkeys are too smart to be caught by most traps.  But it has long been known that most monkeys can be trapped by putting a piece of food inside a coconut or jar.  The container has an opening which is only big enough for the monkey to get his hand in.  As soon as the monkey grabs the bait, the hole is no longer big enough for him to pull his hand out of the container, which has been chained to the ground to keep the monkey in place.

The monkey is free to release the bait at any time, in which case he will be able to extract his hand from the trap.  But in practice the vast majority of monkeys fail this intelligence test.  Greed drives them to desperately hang onto the bait, even though doing so will condemn the monkey to being caught.

The situation today is not so different for the lords of fossil fuel.  They too are trapped by the dire consequences which will flow from hanging onto the resources they have stuck their hands in the Earth to possess.  Like the monkeys, the lords of fossil fuel can escape the trap by letting go of the bait.  Will humans pass the intelligence test which has baffled so many of their fellow primates, or can they learn to let go of the poisoned prize in the trap?

This question concerns us all.  An individual monkey trapped by a refusal to release a handful of food affects only his own fate.  But the human monkeys who insist on exploiting the 2795 gigatons of carbon inside the fossil fuel trap will release a climate catastrophe which will devastate us all.

4 Responses to Money Monkey Trap

  • rich coco says:

    well put. sadly, history shows us that it generally takes an avoidable catastrophe before collective action responds to the root-cause. Unfortunately, given the time-latency associated with climate change may render recovery action moot.

  • elaine says:

    I’ve read a number of the recent posts. It’s good stuff to know written in a way that informs with ease and stimulates thought- I’m glad you’re back.

  • rob says:

    great peace. posted it on facebook

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