What would happen if we burned all of the world’s fossil fuels?

A new study models what would happen if all available fossil fuel reserves were transferred from the Earth to the sky. 

James Durbin/Reporter-Telegram via AP
A dust storm blows in over a pumpjack located on South County Road 1150, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015 in Midland, Texas.

What would the world look like if we burned all of the world's available oil, coal, and natural gas?

According to a study published this week in the journal Science Advances, it wouldn't be pretty. The entirety of Antarctica's ice sheet would melt into the ocean, raising sea levels by between 50 and 60 meters. Metropolises that define our civilization, including New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, would become underwater archaeological sites, with sea levels continuing to rise for at least another 100 centuries.

"This would not happen overnight," Ricarda Winkelmann, lead researcher for the study, said in a press release, "but the mind-boggling point is that our actions today are changing the face of planet Earth as we know it, and will continue to do so for tens of thousands of years to come."

In this study, the first to project the effects of completely unrestrained fossil-fuel emissions on Antarctica's ice sheet, Dr. Winkelmann calculated effects of positive feedback mechanisms, such as ice instability, that may accelerate the melting, as well as negative ones, such as snowfall, that may offset it.

Despite the many variables and imperfect datasets, the researchers expressed confidence in their conclusions, even though they could not give a precise timeline.

"It is much easier to predict that an ice cube in a warming room is going to melt eventually than it is to say precisely how quickly it will vanish," Winkelmann explained.

The researchers relied on estimates that all of the world's available fossil fuel reserves are equivalent to 10,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide. By comparison, humanity collectively emits about 32 billion tons of CO2 each year, according to the US Energy Information Association.

"The idea was to compute what we have already started by emitting greenhouse-gas emissions from burning coal or oil – and to analyze where that will take us in the future," says co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University.

The world's industrialized nations, as well as several developing countries, came together in Copenhagen in 2009 in an attempt to work out a successor agreement to the 1992 Kyoto Protocol. The talks were widely seen as a failure, but the delegates did manage to agree, in a non-binding fashion, on "the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius" above preindustrial levels.

As environmentalist Bill McKibben pointed out in an influential 2012 piece for Rolling Stone magazine, titled "Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math," the planet has already warmed 0.8 degrees, and the carbon dioxide we have already emitted is set to warm it another 0.8, which means that, even without burning another hydrocarbon molecule, we are three-quarters of the way to our limit.

Another 565 billion tons more, Mr. McKibben writes, and we are likely to meet the two degree threshold. We are on pace to burn this amount in the next 16 years.

What's more, McKibben points out, the proven coal and oil and gas reserves owned by fossil-fuel companies amount to 2,795 billion tons of carbon emissions, or five times the limit.

"We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn," he writes. "We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate."

Winklemann's study broadly confirms McKibben's assessment, noting that, to avoid a 2-degree warming, cumulative global emissions need to be restricted to about 600 billion tons.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.