Why Our Lives Depend on Keeping 80% of Fossil Fuels in the Ground

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

When it comes to climate change, the essential problem is not about industry versus environmentalists. It’s people against physics. Here’s the numbers: We need to keep 80 percent of the fossil-fuel reserves underground. If we dig up the coal, oil and gas and burn them—we will overwhelm the planet’s physical systems, heating the Earth far past the red lines drawn by scientists and governments.

Five years ago, “keeping it in the ground” was a new idea. Environmentalists tended to talk about reducing public demand. On the individual level: changing our light bulbs, etc.. These behaviors tend to bring down carbon emissions overtime. However, will we have enough time? We recently passed 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, with 2015 being the hottest year in recorded history, smashing the recent record of 2014. So we need to attack this problem from both ends and we have to leave fossil fuel in the ground.

What does life after oil look like? Consider food. Modern agriculture has supported expanded population growth, due in part to cheap oil. A shortage of natural gases on the planet would also make it harder to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer, which has helped triple crop yields since 1950. Without a change in energy source, a reduction in oil could plummet food production and lead to a worldwide food crisis.

It will take decades to completely leave behind fossil fuels. This transition will entail costs—including changes in our behavior and expectations. And it will require a renewable energy revolution to replace fossil fuels for alternative ones (wind, solar, hydro, etc.) and there will be hefty challenges along the way. The divest-invest movement is leading the way. You can help—get involved.


Richard Heinberg, “100% Renewable Energy: What We Can Do in 10 Years,” Yes! Magazine, Feb. 22, 2016, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/life-after-oil/100-renewable-energy-what-we-can-do-in-10-years-20160222

Bill McKibben, “Why We Need to Keep 80 Percent of Fossil Fuels in the Ground.” Yes! Magazine, Feb. 15, 2016, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/life-after-oil/why-we-need-to-keep-80-percent-of-fossil-fuels-in-the-ground-20160215

Laurie Mazur, “Without Fossil Fuels, a New Population Puzzle.” Yes! Magazine, March 22, 2016, http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/life-after-oil/without-fossil-fuels-a-new-population-puzzle-20160322

Jenna Nicholas, “Divest-invest and the Future of New Energy Solutions,”TEDxPortland, July 21, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-rCcJkXx9Y

Student Researcher: Janzen Adisewojo (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)