Burn it all, melt it all. This is an easy-to-understand approach to climate change. It implies that if we burn all fossil fuels on the planet, the resulting carbon dioxide emissions will alter our climate enough to melt all of the ice on the planet.
This would cause a sea level rise of more than 200 feet and would submerge all of Florida, much of the Atlantic seaboard, and coastlines and islands around the world.
Climate change scientists readily admit this draconian scenario will take a long time to materialize.
However, all agree that if you burn some, you melt some, and if you burn more, you melt more.
Several highly regarded scientific organizations, including Carbon Tracker and the Climate Council, have published studies intended to more accurately assess how much of our fossil fuel we can burn and still live with the consequences.
From their work and other reputable sources, a temperature rise of no more than 2 degrees Celsius (2C), measured from the time we began burning coal in earnest, is seen as the maximum tolerable level.
Beyond 2C, consequences become increasingly severe. Other scientists argue that even this target is too high since we are already approaching a 1C rise.
Climate Council has calculated the amount of carbon dioxide that can be released to the atmosphere, and therefore the amount of fossil fuel that can be burned to stay within the 2C limit.
The findings are sobering. Their analysis indicates 62 percent of known fossil fuels reserves need to stay in the ground. This is further broken down as 82 percent of coal, 33 percent of oil, and 49 percent of gas reserves.
These conclusions put the entire energy scenario on its head. We have always seen the energy market as being driven by supply. The value of extraction companies has been largely measured by the fossil fuel reserves on their books. In the future, the market could well be driven by the amount of carbon dioxide that can be discharged to the atmosphere.
Divestiture of fossil fuel companies has been gaining favor over recent years. The emphasis has in large part been driven by a desire to be "green." That is, a rejection of profiting from companies that are providing the materials polluting our atmosphere.
There is also now a case to be made that divestiture makes sense from an investment standpoint. If we take the 2C temperature rise target seriously, and if we begin to leave a major portion of our fossil fuels in the ground, those companies with large reserves on their books will be faced with a crippling writedown of assets.
In a glimpse of the future, the two largest coal companies in the United States have both filed for bankruptcy this year.
We do not live a perfectly ordered and rational world. There is room for debate on the rate of temperature rise, and the precision of calculations regarding the amount of fossil fuel that needs to be left in the ground.
However, climate change trend lines clearly indicate the direction we are heading.
With that perspective, following are just a few of the many questions that need rigorous evaluation:
Why is our government continuing to sell oil and gas leases on federal lands and territorial waters?
Why are corporations permitted to continue writing off oil and gas exploration costs?
How do we structure an economy that permits/forces leaving fossil fuels in the ground?
How can we justify the Bakken Pipeline that will be transporting crude oil across Iowa for 30, 50 or 100 years?
Questions are easy. Answers are difficult. Informed discussion is essential.