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Why fossil fuels can’t solve the problems created by fossil fuels

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Albert Einstein is rumored to have said that one cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that led to it. Yet this is precisely what we are now trying to do with climate change policy. The Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, many environmental groups, and the oil and gas industry all tell us that the way to solve the problem created by fossil fuels is with more fossils fuels. We can do this, they claim, by using more natural gas, which is touted as a “clean” fuel—even a “green” fuel.

Like most misleading arguments, this one starts from a kernel of truth.

That truth is basic chemistry: When you burn natural gas, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced is, other things being equal, much less than when you burn an equivalent amount of coal or oil. It can be as much as 50 percent less compared with coal, and 20 percent to 30 percent less compared with diesel fuel, gasoline, or home heating oil. When it comes to a greenhouse gas (GHG) heading for the atmosphere, that’s a substantial difference. It means that if you replace oil or coal with gas without otherwise increasing your energy usage, you can significantly reduce your short-term carbon footprint.

Replacing coal gives you other benefits as well, such as reducing the sulfate pollution that causes acid rain, particulate emissions that cause lung disease, and mercury that causes brain damage. And if less coal is mined, then occupational death and disease can be reduced in coal miners and the destruction caused by damaging forms of mining, including the removal, in some parts of the country, of entire mountains can be reduced or halted.

Those are significant benefits. In part for these reasons, the Obama administration has made natural gas development a centerpiece of its energy policy, and environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, have supported the increased use of gas. President Obama has gone as far as to endorse fracking—the controversial method of extracting natural gas from low permeability shales—on the grounds that the gas extracted can provide “a bridge” to a low carbon future and help fight climate change.

So if someone asks: "Is gas better than oil or coal?" the short answer seems to be yes. And when it comes to complicated issues that have science at their core, often the short answer is the (basically) correct one.

As a historian of science who studies global warming, I’ve often stressed that anthropogenic climate change is a matter of basic physics: CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which means it traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. So if you put additional CO2 into that atmosphere, above and beyond what’s naturally there, you have to expect the planet to warm. Basic physics.  

And guess what? We’ve added a substantial amount of CO2 to the atmosphere, and the planet has become hotter. We can fuss about the details of natural variability, cloud feedbacks, ocean heat and CO2 uptake, El Niño cycles and the like, but the answer that you get from college-level physics—more CO2 means a hotter planet—has turned out to be correct. The details may affect the timing and mode of climate warming, but they won’t stop it. 

In the case of gas, however, the short answer may not be the correct one. The often-touted decrease in greenhouse gas production applies when natural gas replaces other fuels—particularly coal—in electricity generation. That’s important.  Electricity is about 40 percent of total U.S. energy use. Traditionally, coal has been the dominant fuel used to generate electricity in this country and most of the world. (And no one has any serious plan to live without electricity.) Any measurable GHG reduction in the electricity sector is significant and gains achieved in that sector quickly add up.

But a good deal of the benefit of gas in electricity generation comes from the fact that it is used in modern combined-cycle gas turbine plants. A combined-cycle plant is one in which waste heat is captured and redirected to drive a mechanical system that powers a generator that creates additional electricity. These plants can be nearly twice as efficient as conventional single-cycle plants. In addition, if combined with cogeneration (the trapping of the last bits of heat for local home heating or other purposes), they can reach efficiencies of nearly 90 percent. That means that nearly all the heat released by burning the fuel is captured and used—an impressive accomplishment.

In theory, you could build a combined-cycle plant with coal (or other fuels), but it’s not often done. You can also increase coal efficiency by pulverizing it, and using a technique called “ultra super-critical black coal.” An expert report compiled by the Australian Council of Learned Societies in 2013 compared the efficiencies of a range of fuels, including conventional gas and shale gas, under a variety of conditions, and concluded that greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation using efficient forms of coal burning were not that much more than from gas.

What this means is that most of the benefit natural gas offers comes not from the gas itself, but from how it is burnedand this is mostly because gas plants tend to be new and use more efficient burning technologies. The lesson, not surprisingly: If you burn a fuel using 21st century technology, you get a better result than with late-19th or 20th century technology. This is not to defend coal, but to provide an important reality check on the discussion now taking place in this country. There is a real benefit to burning gas in America, but it’s less than often claimed, and much of that benefit comes from using modern techniques and new equipment. (If the coal industry weren’t so busy denying the reality of climate change, they might publicize this fact.)

It’s Not Just Electricity

Replacing coal with gas in electricity generation is still probably a good idea—at least in the near term—but gas isn’t just used to generate electricity. It’s also used in transportation, to heat homes and make hot water, and in gas appliances like stoves, driers, and fireplaces. Here the situation is seriously worrisome.

It’s extremely difficult to estimate GHG emissions in these sectors because many of the variables are poorly measured. One important emission source is gas leakage from distribution and storage systems, which is hard to measure because it happens in so many different ways in so many different places. Such leaks are sometimes called “downstream emissions,” because they occur after the gas has been drilled.

Certainly, gas does leak, and the more we transport, distribute, and use it, the more opportunities there are for such leakage. Studies have tried to estimate the total emissions associated with gas using well-to-burner or “life-cycle” analysis. Different studies of this sort tend to yield quite different results with a high margin for error, but many conclude that when natural gas replaces petroleum in transportation or heating oil in homes, the greenhouse gas benefits are slim to none. (And since almost no one in America heats their home with coal any more, there are no ancillary benefits of decreased coal.) One study by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University concluded that while the probability of reducing GHG emissions at least somewhat by replacing coal with gas in electricity generation was 100 percent, the substitution of natural gas as a transportation fuel actually carries a 10-35 percent risk of increasing emissions.

In the Northeast, the northern Midwest, and the Great Plains, many builders are touting the “energy efficiency” of new homes supplied with gas heat and hot water systems, but it’s not clear that these homes are achieving substantial GHG reductions. In New England, where wood is plentiful, many people would do better to use high efficiency wood stoves (or burn other forms of biomass).

How Gas (CH4) Heats the Atmosphere Much More than CO2

Isn’t gas still better than oil for heating homes? Perhaps, but oil doesn’t leak into the atmosphere, which brings us to a crucial point: Natural gas is methane (CH4), which is a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2.

As a result, gas leaks are a cause for enormous concern, because any methane that reaches the atmosphere unburned contributes to global warming more than the same amount of CO2. How much more? This is a question that has caused considerable angst in the climate science community, because it depends on how you calculate it. Scientists have developed the concept of “Global Warming Potential” (GWP) to try to answer this question.

The argument is complicated because while CH4 warms the planet far more than CO2, it stays in the atmosphere for much less time. A typical molecule of CO2 remains in the atmosphere about 10 times longer than a molecule of CH4. In their Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that the GWP for methane is 34 times that of CO2 over the span of 100 years. However, when the time frame is changed to 20 years, the GWP increases to 86!

Most calculations of the impact of methane leakage use the 100-year time frame, which makes sense if you are worried about the cumulative impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the world as a whole, but not—many scientists have started to argue—if you are worried about currently unfolding impacts on the biosphere. After all, many species may go extinct well before we reach that 100-year mark.  It also does not make sense if you are worried that we are quickly approaching irreversible tipping points in the climate system, including rapid ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

It gets worse. CH4 and CO2 are not the only components of air pollution that can alter the climate. Dust particles from pollution or volcanoes have the capacity to cool the climate.  As it happens, burning coal produces a lot of dust, leading some scientists to conclude that replacing coal with natural gas may actually increase global warming. If they are right, then not only is natural gas not a bridge to a clean energy future, it’s a bridge to potential disaster.


A great deal of recent public and media attention has been focused not on gas itself, but on the mechanism increasingly used to extract it.  Hydraulic fracturing—better known as fracking—is a technique that uses high-pressure fluids to “fracture” and extract gas from low permeability rocks where it would otherwise be trapped. The technique itself has been around for a long time, but in the last decade, combined with innovations in drilling technology and the high cost of petroleum, it has become a profitable way to produce energy.

The somewhat surprising result of several recent studies (including one by an expert panel from the Council of Canadian Academies on which I served) is that, from a climate-change perspective, fracking probably isn’t much worse than conventional gas extraction. Life-cycle analyses of GHG emissions from the Marcellus and Bakken shales, for example, suggest that emissions are probably slightly but not significantly higher than from conventional gas drilling. A good proportion of these emissions come from well leakage.

It turns out to be surprisingly hard to seal a well tightly. This is widely acknowledged even by industry representatives and shale gas advocates. They call it the problem of “well integrity.” Wells may leak when they are being drilled, during production, and even when abandoned after production has ended. The reason is primarily because the cement used to seal the well may shrink, crack, or simply fail to fill in all the gaps.

Interestingly, there’s little evidence that fracked wells leak more than conventional wells.  From a greenhouse gas perspective, the problem with fracking lies in the huge number of wells being drilled. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there were 342,000 gas wells in the United States in 2000; by 2010, there were over 510,000, and nearly all of this increase was driven by shale-gas development—that is, by fracking.  This represents a huge increase in the potential pathways for methane leakage directly into the atmosphere.  (It also represents a huge increase in potential sources of groundwater contamination, but that’s a subject for another post.)

There have been enormous disagreements among scientists and industry representatives over methane leakage rates, but experts calculate that leakage must be kept below 3 percent for gas to represent an improvement over coal in electricity generation, and below 1 percent for gas to improve over diesel and gasoline in transportation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently estimates average leakage rates at 1.4 percent, but quite a few experts dispute that figure. One study published in 2013, based on atmospheric measurements over gas fields in Utah, found leakage rates as high as 6-11 percent. The Environmental Defense Fund is currently sponsoring a large, collaborative project involving diverse industry, government, and academic scientists. One part of the study, measuring emissions over Colorado’s most active oil and gas drilling region, found methane emissions almost three times higher than the EPA’s 2012 numbers, corresponding to a well-leakage rate of 2.6-5.6 percent.

Some of the differences in leakage estimates reflect differing measurement techniques, some may involve measurement error, and some probably reflect real differences in gas fields and industrial practices. But the range of estimates indicates that the scientific jury is still out. If, in the end, leakage rates prove to be higher than the EPA currently calculates, the promised benefits of gas begin to vaporize. If leakage in storage and distribution is higher than currently estimated—as one ongoing study by my own colleagues at Harvard suggests—then the alleged benefits may evaporate entirely.

And we're not done yet. There’s one more important pathway to consider when it comes to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere: flaring. In this practice, gas is burned off at the wellhead, sending carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s most commonly done in oil fields. There, natural gas is not a desirable product but a hazardous byproduct that companies flare to avoid gas explosions. (If you fly over the Persian Gulf at night and notice numerous points of light below, those are wellhead fires).

In our report for the Council of Canadian Academies, our panel relied on industry data that suggested flaring rates in gas fields were extremely low, typically less than 2 percent and "in all probability" less than 0.1 percent. This would make sense if gas producers were efficient, since they want to sell gas, not flare it. But recently the Wall Street Journal reported that state officials in North Dakota would be pressing for new regulations because flaring rates there are running around 30 percent. In the month of April alone, $50 million dollars of natural gas was burned off, completely wasted. The article was discussing shale oil wells, not shale gas ones, but it suggests that, when it comes to controlling flaring, there’s evidence the store is not being adequately minded. (At present, there are no federal regulations at all on flaring.) As long as gas is cheap, the economic incentives to avoid waste are obviously insufficient.

Why Gas is Unlikely To Be a Bridge to Renewables

In a perfect world, people would use gas to replace more polluting coal or oil.  Unfortunately, the argument for gas rests on just that assumption: that the world works perfectly. You don’t need to be a scientist, however, to know just how flawed that assumption is. In fact, economists have long argued that a paradox of energy efficiency is this: if people save energy through efficiency and their energy bills start to fall, they may begin to use more energy in other ways. So while their bills stay the same, usage may actually rise. (It’s like going to a sale and instead of saving money, buying more things because of the lower price tags.) In this way, consumers can actually end up using more energy overall and so emissions continue to rise.

To ensure that natural gas use doesn’t follow such a path, you’ve got to do something. You could introduce a law, like AB32, the California emissions control law, or put in place the pending EPA carbon rule just introduced by the Obama administration that mandates emissions reductions. Or you could introduce a hefty carbon tax to create a strong financial incentive for people to choose non-carbon based fuels. But laws like AB32 are at present few and far between, the fossil fuel industry and its political and ideological allies are fighting the EPA carbon rule tooth and nail, and only a handful of political leaders are prepared to stand up in public and argue for a new tax.

Meanwhile, global fossil fuel production and consumption are rising. A recent article by the business editor of the British Telegraph describes a frenzy of fossil fuel production that may be leading to a new financial bubble. The huge increase in natural gas production is, in reality, helping to keep the price of such energy lower, discouraging efficiency and making it more difficult for renewables to compete. And this raises the most worrisome issue of all.

Embedded in all positive claims for gas is an essential assumption: that it replaces other more polluting fuels. But what if it also turns out to replace the panoply of alternative energies, including solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear? In Canada, where shale-gas development is well advanced, only a small fraction of electricity is generated from coal; most comes from hydropower or nuclear power. In the U.S., competition from cheap gas was recently cited by the owners of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear power plant as a factor in their decision to close down.  And while the evidence may be somewhat anecdotal, various reports suggest that cheap gas has delayed or halted some renewable power projects. It stands to reason that if people believe natural gas is a “green” alternative, they will chose it over more expensive renewables.

Exports and Infrastructure: The Road to More Climate Change

We’ve all heard about the Keystone XL Pipeline through which Canada proposes to ship oil from the Alberta tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast, and from there to the rest of the world. Few people, however, are aware that the U.S. has also become a net exporter of coal and is poised to become a gas exporter as well. Gas imports have fallen steadily since 2007, while exports have risen, and several U.S. gas companies are actively seeking federal and state approvals for the building of expanded gas export facilities.

Once coal leaves our borders, the argument for replacing it becomes moot because there’s no way for us to monitor how it’s used. If gas replaces coal in the U.S. and that coal is then exported and burned elsewhere, then there’s no greenhouse gas benefit at all.  Meanwhile, the negative effects of coal have been passed on to others.

All of the available scientific evidence suggests that greenhouse gas emissions must peak relatively soon and then fall dramatically over the next 50 years, if not sooner, if we are to avoid the most damaging and disruptive aspects of climate change. Yet we are building, or contemplating building, pipelines and export facilities that will contribute to increased fossil fuel use around the globe, ensuring further increases in emissions during the crucial period when they need to be dramatically decreasing.

We are also building new power plants that will be with us for a long time. (A typical power plant is expected to operate for at least 50 years.) Once technologies are adopted and infrastructure built to support them, it becomes difficult and expensive to change course. Historians of technology call this “technological momentum.”

Certain forms of infrastructure also effectively preclude others. Once you have built a city, you can’t use the same land for agriculture. Historians call this the “infrastructure trap.” The aggressive development of natural gas, not to mention tar sands, and oil in the melting Arctic, threaten to trap us into a commitment to fossil fuels that may be impossible to escape before it is too late. Animals are lured into traps by the promise of food. Is the idea of short-term cuts in greenhouse gas emissions luring us into the trap of long-term failure?

The institution of rules or incentives in the U.S. and around the globe to ensure that gas actually replaces coal and that efficiency and renewables become our primary focus for energy development is at this point extremely unlikely. Yet without them, increased natural gas development will simply increase the total amount of fossil fuel available in the world to burn, accelerating what is already beginning to look like a rush towards disaster.

Have U.S. Emissions Really Decreased?

Gas advocates say that while these worries might be legitimate, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions nonetheless fell between 2008 and 2012, partly because of the way gas is replacing coal in electricity generation. This claim needs to be closely examined. In fact, it seems as if the lion’s share of that decrease was simply the result of the near global economic meltdown of 2007-2008 and the Great Recession that followed. When economic activity falls, energy use falls, so emissions fall, too. Not surprisingly, preliminary data from 2013 suggest that emissions are on the rise again. Some of the rest of the 2008-2012 decline was due to tighter automobile fuel economy standards.

But how do we know what our emissions actually are? Most people would assume that we measure them, but they would be wrong. Emissions are instead calculated based on energy data—how much coal, oil, and gas was bought and sold in the U.S. that year—multiplied by assumed rates of greenhouse gas production by those fuels. Here’s the rub: the gas calculation depends on the assumed leakage rate. If we’ve been underestimating leakage, then we’ve underestimated the emissions. Though the converse is also true, few experts think that anyone is overestimating gas leakage rates. This is not to say that emissions didn’t fall in 2008-2012. They almost certainly did, again because of the recession. But the claim that there’s been a large decrease thanks to natural gas remains unproven.

So Why Are So Many People So Enthusiastic About Gas?

The reason for industry enthusiasm isn’t hard to discern: A lot of people are making a lot of money right now in shale gas. Chalk up the enthusiasm of the Canadian government, politicians in gas-rich states like Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, and individuals who have made money leasing their properties for gas drilling to the same factor. In those gas-rich states, employment, too, has benefited (even as the familiar social problems characteristic of boom towns have also increased).

On natural gas, the Obama administration seems to be looking for a compromise that Democrats and Republicans can support, and that does not invoke the wrath of the powerful and aggressive oil and gas industry or voters in states like Pennsylvania. In the process, it’s surely tempting to demonize the coal industry, with its long history of abusive labor practices, its callous disregard for occupational health, and its catastrophic environmental record. Since few of us ever see coal in our daily lives, a future without coal seems not only imaginable but overdue.

But when it comes to natural gas, what about the enthusiasm of some environmentalists? What about groups like the Environmental Defense Fund that have a long track record on climate change and no history of love for the oil and gas industry? What about scientists?

In such cases, I think the positive response to the exploitation of natural gas lies in a combination of wishful thinking and intimidation.

The fossil fuel industry and their allies have spent the past 20 years attacking environmentalists and climate scientists as extremists, alarmists, and hysterics. Their publicists have portrayed them as hair-shirt wearing, socialist watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) who relish suffering, kill jobs, and want everyone to freeze in the dark. Extremists do exist in the environmental movement as everywhere else, but they represent a tiny faction of the community of people concerned about climate change, and they are virtually nonexistent in the scientific community. (Put it this way: If there is a hair-shirt wearing climate scientist, I have not met her.)

While the accusations may be false, that doesn’t mean they don’t affect our thinking.  Too often, environmentalists find ourselves trying to prove that we are not what they say we are: not irredeemable anti-business job-killers. We bend over backwards to seek out acceptable compromises and work with business leaders, even to the point of finding a fossil fuel that we can love (or at least like).

And that leads to the wishful thinking.  We want to find solutions, or at least meaningful steps in the right direction, that command widespread support. We want gas to be good. (I know I did.) Climate change is a gargantuan challenge, and it’s bloody hard to see how we are going to solve it and maintain our standard of living, much less extend that standard to billions more around the globe who want it and deserve it. If gas is good, or at least better than what we have now—then that feels like a good thing. If gas moved us substantially in the right direction, then that would be a good thing.

After all, can’t the leakage problem be fixed? Our panel spent considerable time discussing this question. Industry representatives said, “Trust us, we’ve been drilling wells for 100 years.” But some of us wondered, “If they haven’t solved this problem in 100 years, why would they suddenly solve it now?” A strong system of monitoring and compliance enforcement could help create incentives for industry to find a solution, but the odds of that developing any time soon seem as remote as the odds of a binding international treaty.

Sometimes you can fight fire with fire, but the evidence suggests that this isn’t one of those times. Under current conditions, the increased availability and decreased price of natural gas are likely to lead to an increase in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Preliminary data from 2013 suggest that that is already occurring. And global emissions are, of course, continuing to increase as well.

Insanity is sometimes defined as doing the same thing but expecting a different result. Psychologists define perseveration as repetitive behavior that interferes with learning. Whatever we call it, that seems to be what is happening. And whatever it is, it doesn’t make sense. Natural gas is not the bridge to clean energy; it’s the road to more climate change.

Naomi Oreskes is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University, and co-author, with Erik Conway, of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. She is also a co-author of Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction published by the Council of Canadian Academies in 2014.  Her new book with Erik Conway is The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (Columbia University Press, 2014).

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Copyright 2014 Naomi Oreskes

Photo by Fotolia/fkruger



"Climate departure" will be the next phase as extreme weather becomes normal.

One of the challenges with changing people’s views and behaviors in regards to climate change is that it’s difficult to see how scattered weather and environmental anomalies fit into the bigger picture. However a team of researchers organized by Camilo Mora, a University of Hawaii biogeographer, is hoping to catalyze a sense of urgency by showing that, in many of our lifetimes, we will experience a transition from climate change to "climate departure."

Mora explains, “The timing of climate departure is an index that calculated the year after which the climate will become like something that we’ve never seen ... At the broadest [average] scale, we calculate that year, under a business as usual scenario, is going to be 2047. Basically, by the year 2047 the climate is going to move beyond something we’ve never seen in the last 150 years.”

The researching team analyzed five billion data points and came up with two sets of projections for climate departure—one based on current emissions numbers and one based on stabilized greenhouse gas emissions. They then applied these to both cities around the world as well as various flora and fauna which will have to rapidly adapt or face extinction. For instance, in the U.S., if you live in Phoenix, climate departure will arrive in 2043 assuming we continue at the current rate of emissions. If emissions slow, then it’s delayed until 2073. For coral reefs, climate departure will take effect in 2034 assuming there are no environmental efforts to slow changes and 2070 with environmental improvements.

One of the more counterintuitive points they found was that the tropics will be hit hardest (not the poles where a lot of focus on melting has typically been). That’s because temperatures in the extreme north and south change more throughout the seasons, whereas weather in the tropics is relatively constant throughout the year. This stability leaves less room for species to adapt as climate starts to fluctuate more dramatically.

Additionally, the study looks at the affects climate departure will have on humans, particularly for those in the developing world where it will likely have the most impact. These regions will be susceptible to food insecurity, disease, economic challenges, and even conflict.

Mora adds, “These results should not be reason to give up.  Rather, they should encourage us to reduce emissions and slow the rate of climate change. This can buy time for species, ecosystems, and ourselves to adapt to the coming changes.”

Photo by Tim√, licensed under Creative Commons.



Apps, crowdsourced funding, and reverse auctions find a role to play in conservation efforts.

For migrating birds, the dwindling amount of wetlands on the West coast has caused a major, even species-threatening problem. During migration, birds rely on the wetlands as rest stops along their routes which extend from Canada to South America. Wetlands areas are also an integral source for water and shelter.   

A new program called BirdReturn aims to increase the remaining 5-10 percent of wetlands available for migrating birds, a situation made worse by recent droughts. Apps such as BirdLog enable users to send bird sightings into a database which then allows researchers to predict migration patterns. Using that information, deemed "precision conservation," The Nature Conservancy in conjunction with the California Rice Commission has organized reverse auctions where the lowest bidder is paid to flood their fields, creating pop-up habitats. Douglas Thomas, a rice farmer outside of Sacramento was one of the farmers chosen in the reverse auction. Of the project, he says “It’ll push back our planting cycle. We can’t get into our fields earlier. So we’re putting harder, longer hours on our tractor and our crew. We’re taking a greater risk doing this.” However Thomas adds, “Northern pintail is my favorite bird. It’s such a graceful, amazing creature. And that we’re part of that annual cycle, that’s a neat, special thing.”

So far, the program is seeing success on many fronts. The cost of “renting” the habitat as compared to creating permanent wetlands is 0.5-1.5 percent according to Eric Hallstein, The Nature Conservancy’s Chief Economist. Additionally, in the first round of reverse auctions, approximately 10,000 acres of land were turned into temporary wetlands which saw bird densities 30 times higher as compared to average fields.  

Now efforts are focusing on how to expand the program. The Nature Conservancy hopes to raise enough money to create a million acres of land to be used as pop-up habitats. Organizations are also looking at how to apply this economic and conservation model to other habitats such as fisheries and streams.

Image by David Jenkins, licensed under Creative Commons.


the African savannah

Let Them Eat Carbon

This post originally appeared at

In the 1980s, encountering regulatory restrictions and public resistance to smoking in the United States, the giant tobacco companies came up with a particularly effective strategy for sustaining their profit levels: sell more cigarettes in the developing world, where demand was strong and anti-tobacco regulation weak or nonexistent. Now, the giant energy companies are taking a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook. As concern over climate change begins to lower the demand for fossil fuels in the United States and Europe, they are accelerating their sales to developing nations, where demand is strong and climate-control measures weak or nonexistent. That this will produce a colossal increase in climate-altering carbon emissions troubles them no more than the global spurt in smoking-related illnesses troubled the tobacco companies.

The tobacco industry’s shift from rich, developed nations to low- and middle-income countries has been well documented. “With tobacco use declining in wealthier countries, tobacco companies are spending tens of billions of dollars a year on advertising, marketing, and sponsorship, much of it to increase sales in... developing countries,” the New York Times noted in a 2008 editorial. To boost their sales, outfits like Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco also brought their legal and financial clout to bear to block the implementation of anti-smoking regulations in such places. “They’re using litigation to threaten low- and middle-income countries,” Dr. Douglas Bettcher, head of the Tobacco Free Initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO), told the Times.

The fossil fuel companies—producers of oil, coal, and natural —are similarly expanding their operations in low- and middle-income countries where ensuring the growth of energy supplies is considered more critical than preventing climate catastrophe. “There is a clear long-run shift in energy growth from the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of rich nations] to the non-OECD,” oil giant BP noted in its Energy Outlook report for 2014. “Virtually all (95%) of the projected growth [in energy consumption] is in the non-OECD,” it added, using the polite new term for what used to be called the Third World.

As in the case of cigarette sales, the stepped-up delivery of fossil fuels to developing countries is doubly harmful. Their targeting by Big Tobacco has produced a sharp rise in smoking-related illnesses among the poor in places where health systems are particularly ill equipped for those in need. “If current trends continue,” the WHO reported in 2011, “by 2030 tobacco will kill more than 8 million people worldwide each year, with 80% of these premature deaths among people living in low- and middle-income countries.” In a similar fashion, an increase in carbon sales to such nations will help produce more intense storms and longer, more devastating droughts in places that are least prepared to withstand or cope with climate change’s perils.

The energy industry’s growing emphasis on sales to these particularly vulnerable lands is evident in the strategic planning of ExxonMobil, the largest privately owned oil company. “By 2040, the world’s population is projected to grow to approximately 8.8 billion people,” Exxon noted in its 2013 financial report to stockholders. “As economies and populations grow, and living standards improve for billions of people, the need for energy will continue to rise … This demand increase is expected to be concentrated in developing countries.”

This assessment, explained Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, will govern the company’s marketing plans in the years ahead. “The global business environment continues to provide a mix of challenges and opportunities,” he told financial analysts at the New York Stock Exchange in March 2013. While the demand for energy in the developed economies “remains relatively flat,” he noted, “energy demand for the economies of the non-OECD countries is expected to grow about 65% to support anticipated growth.”

In recognition of this trend, Exxon has undertaken a wide variety of initiatives intended to boost its sales capacity in China, Southeast Asia, and other rapidly developing areas. In Singapore, for example, the company is expanding a refinery and petrochemical facility that make up its “largest integrated manufacturing site in the world.” The refinery is being modified to produce more diesel, so as to better service the growing fleets of trucks, buses, and other heavy vehicles in the region. Meanwhile, the hydrocarbon processing facility at the chemical plant is being doubled to meet the rising demand for petrochemicals used in making plastics and other consumer goods, especially in China. (“China alone is expected to represent over half of global demand growth” for these products, Tillerson observed last year.)

To promote its products in China, Exxon has established a “strategic alliance” with the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), one of China’s state-owned energy giants. A key goal of the alliance is the establishment of an “integrated world-scale refinery and petrochemical complex” in eastern China which, Exxon officials noted, is to “become a major marketer of petrochemicals throughout China and petroleum products throughout Fujian Province.” A major component of this joint effort, the Fujian Refining and Ethylene Integrated Project, came on line in September 2009.

Exxon is also expanding its capacity to supply liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Asia. In partnership with Qatar Petroleum, it has built the world’s largest LNG export facility at Ras Laffan in Qatar and is building a mammoth LNG operation in Papua New Guinea. This $19 billion project, which began operation in April, includes a 430-mile pipeline to deliver gas from the island’s interior highlands to an export terminal near Port Moresby, the capital. “The project is optimally located to serve growing Asian markets where LNG demand is expected to rise by approximately 165% between 2010 and 2025,” said Neil W. Duffin, president of ExxonMobil Development Company.

Next on the company’s agenda is a plan to draw on the natural gas being extracted in ever greater quantities from domestic shale formations in the United States via hydro-fracking and convert it into LNG for export to Asia. Although various American politicians have been pushing the strategic export of such supplies to Europe to “rescue” that continent from its reliance on Russian gas, Exxon has other ideas. It sees Asia, where gas prices are higher, as the natural market for its LNG—and U.S. foreign policy be damned. “By exporting natural gas,” Tillerson told the Asia Society in June 2013, “the United States could shore up the energy security of Asian allies and trading partners and stimulate investment in American domestic production.”

Big Energy’s “Humanitarian” Mission

In promoting such policies, Exxon’s executives are careful to acknowledge that growing concerns over climate change are generating increased resistance to fossil fuel consumption in Europe and other First World areas. When it comes to the rest of the planet, however, such concerns, they claim, should be outweighed by a “humanitarian” impulse to provide cheap fossil energy to poor people. Drawing on the arguments of Danish environmental renegade Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, they argue that tending to the needs of the poor constitutes a greater priority than curbing global warming. “We must also recognize that there is a humanitarian imperative to meeting these growing global energy needs,” Tillerson typically asserted in 2013.

Asked why global warming shouldn’t be of greater concern, the Exxon CEO parroted Lomberg’s anti-environmental perspective. “I think there are much more pressing priorities that we ... need to deal with,” Tillerson told the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2012. “There are still hundreds of millions, billions of people living in abject poverty around the world. They need electricity...They need fuel to cook their food on that's not animal dung...They'd love to burn fossil fuels because their quality of life would rise immeasurably, and their quality of health and the health of their children and their future would rise immeasurably. You'd save millions upon millions of lives by making fossil fuels more available to a lot of the part of the world that doesn't have it.”

Although the leaders of the other giant energy firms, including BP, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell, are less outspoken than Tillerson, they are pursuing a similar marketing strategy. “Demand growth [for petroleum products] comes exclusively from rapidly growing non-OECD economies,” BP noted in its recent report on the global energy outlook. “China, India, and the Middle East account for nearly all of the net global increase.” Like ExxonMobil, BP and the others are hard at work expanding their capacity to sell fossil fuels in these growing markets.

Nor are only the oil and gas companies pursuing this strategy. So is Big Coal. With coal demand declining in the U.S., thanks to the growing availability of low-cost natural gas generated by fracking, the coal firms are shipping ever more of their American output to Asia, which will contribute significantly to increasingly the carbon emissions there. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the Department of Energy, U.S. coal exports to China rose from essentially zero in 2007 to 10 million tons in 2012. Exports to India increased from 1.5 million to seven million tons and to South Korea from virtually nothing to nine million. Exports to just these three countries jumped by more than 1,000% during these years.

The EIA summarized the situation this way: “Companies in key parts of the U.S. coal supply chain—both producers and railways—have increased sales to Asia because of rising Asian coal demand, overall strong export prices, and lower U.S. consumption of coal to produce electric power.” Looked at from another perspective, diminished carbon emissions from coal in the United States—much touted by President Obama in his embrace of natural gas—has no significance when it comes to climate change, because of the greeenhouse gases being produced when all that coal is consumed in Asia.

To increase sales yet more, the giant coal companies are promoting the construction of new shipping terminals on the West Coast, including two each in Oregon and Washington State. The largest of these, the Gateway Pacific Terminalnear Bellingham, Washington, will handle up to 48 million metric tons of coal a year, most of it destined for China and other Asian countries.

Although the terminals are often promoted by local officials as sources of new jobs, they are sparking fierce opposition from community activists and Native Americans who view them as posing a severe threat to the environment. Claiming that coal dust and spills from trains and loading facilities will harm fishing sites they deem vital, members of the Lumni tribe are citing longstanding treaty rights in their efforts to block the Cherry Point Terminal, one of the planned Washington State facilities.

In the Pacific Northwest, opposition to the coal terminals and the rail lines that will be so crucial to their operation—some of which will traverse Indian reservations and pass through green-minded cities like Seattle —is gaining strength. The process has been similar to the way climate activists mobilized against the Keystone XL pipeline that, if built, is slated to bring carbon-dense tar sands from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. But the coal companies and their allies are pushing back, insisting that their exports are essential to the country’s economic vitality. “Unless the ports are built on the West Coast,” said Jason Hayes, a spokesman for the American Coal Council, U.S. suppliers won’t be viewed as “reliable business partners” in Asia.

Although community and tribal opposition may succeed in blocking or delaying a terminal or two, most analysts believe that, in the end, several will be built. “There are two billion people in Asia who need more power, so eventually more U.S. coal will get onto global markets,” says Matt Preston, an analyst for the energy consultancy firm of Wood Mackenzie.

Perpetuating the Fossil Fuel Era

In the end, all these efforts to boost fossil fuel sales in Asia and other developing areas will have one unmistakable result: a sharp rise in global carbon emissions, with most of the growth in non-OECD countries. According to the EIA, between 2010 and 2040 world carbon dioxide emissions from energy use—the main source of greenhouse gases—will rise by 46 percent, from 31.2 billion metric tons to 45.5 billion. Little of this increase will officially be generated by the planet’s wealthiest countries, where energy demand is stagnant and tougher rules on carbon emissions are being put in place. Instead, almost all of the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere—94 percent of it—will be sloughed off on the developing world, even if a significant part of those emissions will come from the combustion of U.S. fossil fuel exports.

In the view of most scientists, an increase of carbon emissions on this scale will almost certainly lead to a global temperature rise of at least four degrees centigrade and possibly more by the end of this century. That’s enough to ensure that the changes we are already seeing, including severe droughts, stronger storms, ragingwildfires, and rising sea levels, will be eclipsed by exponentially greater perils in the future.

Everyone will share in the pain from such warming-induced catastrophes. But people in developing lands—especially the poorest among them—will suffer more, because the societies they live in are least prepared to cope with severe catastrophes. “Climate-related hazards exacerbate other [socioeconomic] stressors, often with negative outcomes for livelihoods, especially for people living in poverty,” the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change observed in its most recent assessment of what global warming will mean for planet Earth. “Climate-related hazards affect poor people’s lives directly, through impacts on livelihoods, reduction in crop yields, or destruction of homes, and indirectly through, for example, increased food prices and food insecurity.”

Certainly, the giant fossil fuel companies bear a moral, if not as yet in our society a legal, responsibility for the intensification of climate change and the lack of serious response to it. Beyond this, their carefully planned strategy of selling carbon products to those most at risk can only be viewed as outright immorality. Just as health officials now condemn Big Tobacco’s emphasis on cigarette sales to poor people in countries with inadequate health systems, so someday Big Energy’s new “smoking” habit will be deemed a massive threat to human survival.

Above all, Big Energy is insuring that one small ray of good news when it comes to climate change—the contracting use of coal, oil, and gas across the developed world—will prove meaningless. The economic incentive to sell fossil fuels to developing countries is undeniably powerful. The need for increased energy in developing countries is no less indisputable. In the long run, the only way to meet these needs without endangering our global future would be through a mammoth drive to expand renewable energy options there, not by shoving carbon products down their throats. Rex Tillerson and his cohorts will continue to claim that they are performing a “humanitarian” service with their new “tobacco” strategy. Instead, they are actually perpetuating the fossil fuel era and helping to create a future humanitarian catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Michael Klare

Photo by Fotolia/Oleg Znamenskiy


Helen Slottje 

Goldman Environmental Prize winner Helen Slottje is a former corporate lawyer who is single-handedly shutting down fracking in the state of New York.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is rising quickly as an alternative to rapidly depleting conventional sources of fuel, but the practice of extracting shale gas from sedimentary rocks is steeped in controversy. Opponents warn that it is destructive to the environment, and although some countries have banned fracking in response to these concerns, the practice is becoming increasingly common in the United States and several other nations. For environmentalists who oppose fracking, the fight against state governments and big oil corporations can be a daunting battle.

Helen Slottje, however, is more than willing to face the challenge. She and her husband, David Slottje, have been fighting fracking in New York City since 2009, when they worked on a case against an industry project in Chemung County. In 2010, they were able to successfully ban fracking in Ulysses, a small town in Tompkins County, and in 2011, Dryden followed suit. Their success is attributed to a loophole they discovered regarding the regulation of oil drilling in individual towns. Although the Environmental Conservation Law maintains that state law comes before local regulations regarding oil and gas drilling, the law is not clear on the definition of regulations. Rather than trying to regulate drilling, the Slottjes are working pro bono in New York towns to prohibit altogether any “high-impact industrial uses of land” such as fracking.

Helen Slottje is one of six recipients of the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest award for grassroots environmentalists in each of the six continental regions. As the United States winner, Slottje will receive international visibility and recognition for her persistence and success, as well as a grant of $150,000 to pursue her vision of a world without fracking.

Utne Reader spoke with Slottje about her efforts and the power of community activism. Below is a condensed transcript of our interview.

Utne Reader: How did you and your husband discover the loophole that allows towns to ban fracking?

Helen Slottje: Early on, we joined a task force that was working at figuring out what could be done. Everyone said, “There’s going to be a train wreck and you should prepare for it, but you can’t stop it.” We started looking at the preemption statute, which says you can’t “regulate the industry.” Well, what does that mean? What is “regulating the industry”? We believed that a zoning prohibition was not a regulation of the industry. It was a regulation of land use that affected and prohibited gas drilling, but you weren’t regulating the operation or processes of the industry. That was the idea that we had. It had been so soundly dismissed by everyone from industry to people at big environmental law groups that we wanted to make sure we were right and we weren’t somehow missing anything.  We spent a bit of time doing a lot of research.

UR: How many bans and moratoria have been upheld so far?

HS: There are around 180 towns that have done something. There are 75-80 permanent bans. The other 100-120 towns have passed a moratorium or some sort of temporary measure to buy time to deal with passing a final law.

UR: How much time does it take to go through the zoning laws and pass new laws for each community?

HS: It takes less time now than it used to. Our original work was all with full-blown zoning. As that grew, people wanted to do something more quickly, so we started doing more moratoria, which are basically temporary laws you can pass without going too far into the zoning code or the comprehensive plan. There’s the actual legal drafting, which is a few hours for a moratorium and could be thirty to forty hours for a zoning code, depending on the complexity.

What really takes time is going to town board meetings. This isn’t something you just do over the phone. We only go to places where we’re requested. We have enough to do; we don’t need to go anywhere that doesn’t want us. [laughs] Typically, the citizens want us to come. They’ve gone out and done their petitioning. They’ve shown the board that there’s interest in the town. Then we go out and give an educational presentation. That would take a whole night or three quarters of a day— learning about the town, preparing for the presentation, traveling to the town, giving the presentation, answering questions afterward, and coming home.

We would give that presentation to the planning board, and then they would ask for a public information presentation for the town. So, we would often go out to the town two or three times before they would decide whether they wanted to do something. Then they would have a town resolution meeting to ask us to prepare either a moratorium or a zoning amendment. If it was a zoning amendment, we would go out and meet with the townspeople to work on it, whereas with a moratorium, you could just draft it up. You have to pass the local law, so you have to have a public hearing. You go out for the public hearing, then you might have another public information session separate from the hearing, and then there would be another meeting where the board would vote to pass the law.

The traveling and the time involved going back and forth—and there wasn’t anywhere in the state we wouldn’t go—took a tremendous amount of time.

UR: You had to be completely dedicated to the cause.

HS: This is all we do. There was no yard work. There was no gardening. There hasn’t been any house-cleaning in a long time. All of that has been completely neglected. I’m now keeping slightly more normal hours, but for a solid four years, we were up at seven or eight in the morning and would often work until two. There were plenty of days on end where we were pulling all-nighters, and I would repeat to myself, “I am too old for this; I am too old for this.” [laughs] But it seemed so important to us that we did it anyway. Now it’s a little more reasonable, but it is a lot of work.

UR: How has your background as a former corporate lawyer helped you?

HS: You don't stay in business as a young lawyer at a firm by telling clients no. The lawyer's job is to get the deal done. If you don't get the deal done, the client's not going to come back. They want a lawyer who's going to get the deal done, and that's how we approached our work.

That's very different from the typical progressive environmentalist in general. Environmental lawyers tend to view the world as a nice place, where you should talk to people, find out what they want, and build up your political capital. They have funders to deal with, who are oftentimes corporations, and they really don't want to rock the boat or take a fight they can't win. We didn't have any of that baggage. We didn't have any funders. We didn't have to worry about alienating them. We said, "Maybe we go down in flames, but we're going to go out hard. We're going to be aggressive, and we're not going to take no for an answer. Maybe we can't do that, maybe we can't do this. Let's find out what we can do."

I think everything would be different if we had started out as environmental lawyers with comfortable jobs, where we thought, "If we just had better regulations, it would all be wonderful. I want to be in the hands of power, sipping wine in Aspen with the oil companies and talking about what they might do differently." Those types of environmental lawyers want a seat at the table. We don't want a seat at the table. We want to upend the table and call the party over, and that is not typical for activists in general.

There are lots of people on the activist side who really don't want to upset anybody. They have this very nice world view where everybody is just trying to get along. No! If they want to rip your eyes out, asking them why they want to rip your eyes out while they're ripping your eyes out is not a good answer. You need to punch the guy in the head! [laughs]

So, we have a different mindset. When people told us, at the very biggest environmental law firms, "No, you can't do that; you can't win that," we said, "We don't care that you think we can't do it. There has got to be a way to do this. It can't possibly be that there's nothing we can do. That's just too fatalistic."

That was really how our background helped, more so than any particular law that we knew about. It was this mentality that a good lawyer will basically get anything done. Lawyers are profoundly arrogant in that way and tend to believe that they can do anything. [laughs] You think, "There's a job to do here, and there has to be a way to do it." That was what our corporate experience gave us. If we had done the environmental movement first, we probably would have had a different take.

UR: Would you say you had to learn the role of activist as you went along?

HS: As lawyers, we never saw ourselves as activists. Even now, it's a line between being an advocate and being an activist. It can be an interesting line to navigate, but we had to learn a lot about it. In the very beginning, I don’t even know that I knew the word "fracking" versus "natural gas development," but we had a background idea that something was going on and it was important. One day, in May of 2009, there was a meeting in a nearby community and I decided I needed to learn about fracking. Seeing the pictures and envisioning large-scale industrial destruction coming through upstate New York seemed like a terrible tragedy.

Not being steeped in a history of environmentalism and environmental lawyers, I literally went back and bought books about how environmental movements have been successful in the past, what sort of local actions have worked, what made those groups work. We're accustomed to a more visible hierarchy; you tell somebody to do something and they just do it. With the language and culture of activism, with volunteers, you don't get to tell them, "Go do this." You have to ask them, and it's a very different way of getting things done in this very cooperative, egalitarian way. It was a real experience for us. I didn't have anything like that before to compare it to.

UR: Did you find any methods of activism more effective than others?

HS: When you come down to it, in most towns, there are two or three people who are the real core in any small group. There is a larger group of ten to fifteen people who will work on a dedicated basis, but they're not those two or three people who really drive the movement. At first, you're asking, "Why are there only two or three people in this town?" Then you realize, "All right, there are always only two or three people," and you can still get things done. You need these looser, broader connections with the larger groups, but what really makes the change on any of these issues whether it's fracking or something else is a very small group of people who truly drive the train. That makes it much more doable, in a way. When people from a town call us up and say, "I'm disappointed, there are only three of us," we can say, “That’s okay! Three people, that’s good! Three people is better than two people—and two people got it done in that town!”

It’s an easy way to get into activism at a very basic level—going to town board meetings, talking to your neighbors, participating in very reasonable actions that resonate and have the potential to have a truly significant impact. For us, and for the people we work with, that has felt really good compared to the idea that there’s a train wreck coming, and there’s nothing you can do.  People are able to say, “There are a few things I can do. Number one, I can just say no and tell you that you can’t come to my town.” [laughs]

The other side says that we’re always against things. Fine, we’ll be for something. We’ll go out and be for renewable energy and decentralized energy. We’ll be for getting to a time of energy security and moving toward a more resilient, robust, local system that’s not as dependent on larger world activities.

UR: How important is community involvement in this movement?

HS: We have the idea and a template for how to do this, but it is completely dependent upon the people in the community, the people with the equivalent of pitchforks and torches demanding that their town take action and protect them. It was really only successful because of them. Without that level of going out, talking to neighbors, getting people to go to meetings, and really getting involved in democracy, this wouldn't happen. These people are a part of this movement that is reflective of so many other things, like localism and sustainable agriculture and taking back control. All these things tie together various people. We've worked with winery owners and bed-and-breakfast people and hotel people. They all see this as a very serious issue and are working together.

In Ulysses, it was volunteers from the town who were behind it all. It was really encouraging that there was so much support. People had spent a fair amount of time really preparing and developing fact sheets and answers to questions, and they really enjoyed talking to their neighbors. They were asking people to commit to go to town board meetings, and all of a sudden people were going. They were really getting involved in the community and with their neighbors and feeling like they were making a difference, like there was something that they could do. It was really very empowering for everyone involved— for us to see that we could make this difference and help people, and for the various groups we worked with who were having fun going to town board meetings, as strange as that sounds.

There was a whole community of people working on this, connected through email lists and other more regional educational events. There really was this larger community of activists. Sometimes there were people who had never been involved in anything. I’ve never been an activist before! It just sort of had a life of its own. We didn’t set out planning to be involved for this long— on any cause, let alone gas drilling! It’s like the Energizer bunny. It just keeps going.

UR: It must be nice to have a network of people to rely on.

HS: We've met so many wonderful people across the state. When you go to their town board meetings and read their zoning codes and comprehensive plans, you really get a sense of their town. So many of the people we work with all know each other, too, and that's what the really neat thing is. There are attorneys that we can call for help, there are people in communities who can help when we need something. When another community needs advice, you can say, "I know somebody in this town two over from you, and they have the answer to that." It's a very friendly, very supportive, and very engaging community and movement. It's very empowering for everybody involved.

UR: You've faced a lot of criticism over the years. Who are your biggest opponents?

HS: The biggest opposition has been from the industry front this group Energy in Depth, which is a front for the American Petroleum Institute, and particularly this guy named Tom Shepstone, the campaign director of the Marcellus Division of Energy in Depth. They would go to meetings and film us at every opportunity. At one point, somebody even chased David into the restroom with a camera, trying to keep talking to him. [laughs] He was like, "Please, would you just leave me alone for five minutes?" Even today, they wrote a negative article about us. They remain the most negative and personal of the attacks.

The second biggest opposition would be lawyers for industry. The day before the Dryden decision came out, one lawyer was at a town board meeting talking about how there was no way the court was going to come out for the town, that we were wrong about everything, that we couldn't be trusted. The next day, the first court case came down and the town won. Needless to say, he did not send us an apology.

UR: It must have felt incredibly satisfying to win.

HS: It did. Oh, it did! [laughs] The drillers were basically telling town board members, “We’re not just going to sue the town. We are going to sue you personally. You’re going to be found liable. They are going to take everything you own away from you if you vote for this law.” People were worried about that, so we went out and gave these educational presentations. Now we have people saying, “I resent you coming in here and saying that to me. We’re going to pass this law. Go ahead and sue us. That took some backbone to say.

Then they sue and they say, “We’re going to win these lawsuits. You’re going to get thrown out on your rear.” OK, well, we won the two lawsuits. Clearly the state saw local charges. We got this to the appellate court, and they made the right decision. They unanimously upheld us. Anyone who is generally familiar with the law understands the issues here. Even industry lawyers will probably tell you that they think they're going to lose. People do not think the industry is going to win on this. That has been very nice given how personal the attacks were on the "stupidity" of this idea. Hundreds of towns don't think it's stupid. The courts never thought it was stupid. It looks like the only ones who wanted to believe that towns couldn't do this were the industry people, and their arrogance did not pay off for once.

Persistence and fighting for what you believe in is what pays off. An attack we hear often is, “This is just NIMBYism.” Well, what are you going to fight for besides the place you care about? Of course you’re going to fight for the places and things that you love! Wanting to protect your backyard is entirely reasonable. Until that comes to your backyard, until you see the face of something, you may not realize how important this is.

There’s no right to pollute your neighbor’s backyard. There’s all this talk about freedom and individualism, and “Don’t regulate me!” If they can get that gas off their property without using a public road, without using eminent domain, without putting a pipeline through their neighbor’s backyard, without dumping waste, without polluting the air— well, fine, do it. But they can’t. In fact, they need the community to acquiesce them this, because they can’t just do it on their own.

UR: Have you had a moment where you realized you were truly making progress?

HS: The two lower court victories and the appellate court victories were incredibly sweet, although we couldn’t envision losing. [laughs] It wasn’t as if were thinking, “Oh my god, we dodged a bullet!” We were thinking, “Well, of course we were going to win.” But that was immensely satisfying. And we worked with FracTracker and Karen Edelstein in the very beginning. In addition to being NIMBYs, there was this extremist, very vocal minority on the fringes of environmentalism. We thought that part of what we could show with these town bans is that this isn’t the lunatic fringe. This isn’t the peripheral few, very vocal people. We have a map, and we can show town by town what this looks like and that it is growing from east to west and north to south. It’s not done, but tremendous progress has been made. I think I’m happiest when I look at that map.

UR: Do you have a specific goal in mind for your work?

HS: We would like to see that there is never any fracking in New York. And I would really like to see this move to different states—and it has been moving, across the country. It would just be terrific to really recognize fracking for the ridiculous proposition that it is. Is this really the 21st century, and this is what we’re doing? This is a good idea? Are you kidding me? If we live long enough to come out of this consumerism, to pay attention, and to realize that, no, this is the stupidest idea we’ve ever had— that would be terrific.

UR: How do you think the Prize is going to help your efforts?

HS: It really gives legitimacy to this. We got some legitimacy when we won the court cases, but there are still so many people who really don’t understand what fracking is about and why it’s happening here, or they do know but they believe that it’s hopeless and there’s nothing they can do, so they don’t even think about it. This will raise the level of awareness and will help inspire other people to see that there is something they can do, even if they are only one or two people in a town who really feel strongly about this. They can work with their neighbors and their town board to get involved. There's a whole support network of other towns that have already done this.

We continue to get calls from all over the country from people asking what they can do. Even in places where the law is not as favorable as New York, people think, “Well, we should be able to say no. And if the game has been rigged, and the corporations and the big oil companies have gone in and lobbied and gotten a law that’s not fair, we’re going to pass our law anyway— even if it’s not legal or can’t be enforced! We want to make this statement.” That’s been really encouraging to see.

In the beginning, we were trying to work with as many New York communities as we humanly could, hoping for and taking great pride in the movement spreading in New York. To now see this concept of local bans and people liking the idea is tremendous. People are thinking, “State government may be bought and paid for, federal government may be bought and paid for, but they haven’t bought the people in my town yet. I can go out and work with my neighbors and go to my town board meetings, and we can take a stand.” They’re standing up for issues that are both very local, as far as what land uses you want in your community, and very global. By banding together with other community members, we can actually put a dent in fracking and open up the space for renewable energy.

It sends a very powerful political message that all of these towns in New York say no. That has to count for something. It’s a very important statement to add your voice to the people opposing fracking, because if it’s a loud enough voice, we will win.

UR: What would you say to a community that doubts they can bring about real, lasting change?

HS: It brings to mind the words of Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” That is so true. There will be naysayers; there will be people who tell you that you can’t do what you want to do. It’s possible that, technically, by the letter of the law, in your town or your state, you don’t have the right to do this. But our government is also based on the consent of the governed. People can say, “We are not going to allow this industrial activity to take place next to our schools, next to our hospitals, next to our daycare centers.” 

We often think that politicians have so much power and that there’s nothing we can do to stand up to them, but town supervisors will tell you that if you’re looking out at that crowd and they’re going to riot? [laughs] You are not the one in control. A small number of people have the ability to activate a larger group, and when the larger group fully believes that a fundamental right of theirs is at stake, there are things that can be done above and beyond even the letter of the law.

Photo by the Goldman Environmental Prize.



The climate of change and the danger of stasis. 

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch

As the San Francisco bureaucrats on the dais murmured about why they weren’t getting anywhere near what we in the audience passionately hoped for, asked for, and worked for, my mind began to wander. I began to think of another sunny day on the other side of the country 13 years earlier, when nothing happened the way anyone expected. I had met a survivor of that day who told me his story.

A high-powered financial executive, he had just arrived on the 66th floor of his office building and entered his office carrying his coffee, when he saw what looked like confetti falling everywhere—not a typical 66th floor spectacle. Moments later, one of his friends ran out of a meeting room shouting, “They’re back.”

It was, of course, the morning of September 11th and his friend had seen a plane crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center. My interviewee and his colleagues in the south tower got on the elevator. In another 15 minutes or so, that was going to be a fast way to die, but they managed to ride down to the 44th floor lobby safely. A guy with a bullhorn was there, telling people to go back to their offices.

Still holding his cup of coffee, he decided—as did many others in that lobby—to go down the stairs instead. When he reached the 20th floor, a voice came on the public address system and told people to go back to their offices. My storyteller thought about obeying those instructions. Still holding his coffee, he decided to keep heading down. He even considered getting back on an elevator, but hit the stairs again instead. Which was a good thing, because when he was on the ninth floor, the second plane crashed into the south tower, filling the elevator shafts with flaming jet fuel. Two hundred to 400 elevator riders died horribly. He put down his coffee at last and lived to tell the tale.

The moral of this story: people in power and bureaucrats seem exceptionally obtuse when it comes to recognizing that the world has changed and the old rules no longer apply. The advisors in the towers were giving excellent instructions for a previous crisis that happened to be profoundly different from the one at hand. That many had the good sense to disobey and evacuated early meant the stairwells were less crowded when the second round of evacuations began. Amazingly, the vast majority of people below the levels of the impacts made it out of both buildings—largely despite the advice of the building's management, not because of it.

Going Nowhere Fast

Sometimes the right thing to do in ordinary times is exactly the wrong thing to do in extraordinary times. That’s easy to understand when something dramatic has happened. It’s less easy to grasp when the change is incremental and even understanding it requires paying attention to a great deal of scientific data.

Right now, you can think of the way we’re living as an office tower and the fossil fuel economy as a plane crashing into it in very, very, very slow motion. Flaming jet fuel is a pretty good analogy, in its own way, for what the burning of fossil fuel is doing, although the death and destruction are mostly happening in slow motion, too—except when people are drowning in Hurricane Sandy-style superstorms or burning in Australian firestorms or dying in European heat waves. The problem is: How do you convince someone who is stubbornly avoiding looking at the flames that the house is on fire? (Never mind those who deny the very existence of fire.) How do you convince someone that what constitutes prudent behavior in ordinary times is now dangerous and that what might be considered reckless in other circumstances is now prudent?

That gathering in which I was daydreaming was a board meeting of the San Francisco Employees Retirement System. Ten months before, on April 23, 2013, in a thrilling and unanticipated unanimous vote, the city’s Board of Supervisors opted to ask the retirement board to divest their fund of fossil fuel stocks, $616,427,002 worth of them at last count—a sum that nonetheless represents only 3.3 percent of its holdings. That vote came thanks to a growing climate change divestment movement that has been attempting to address the problem of fossil fuel corporations and their environmental depredations in a new way.

Divestment serves a number of direct and indirect causes, including awakening public opinion to the dangers we face and changing the economic/energy landscape. As is now widely recognized, preventing climate change from reaching its most catastrophic potential requires keeping four-fifths of known carbon reserves (coal, oil, and gas) in the ground. The owners of those reserves—those giant energy corporations and states like Russia and Canada that might as well be—have no intention of letting that happen.

Given a choice between the bottom line and the fate of the Earth, the corporations have chosen to deny the scientific facts (at least publicly), avoid the conversation, or insist that retrenching is so onerous as to be impossible. At the same time, they have been up-armoring political action committees, funding climate change disinformation campaigns, paying off politicians, and, in many cases, simply manipulating governments to serve the corporations and their shareholders rather than humanity or even voters. It’s been a largely one-sided war for a long time. Now, thanks to climate activists worldwide, it’s starting to be more two-sided.

The Things We Burned

An extraordinary new report tells us that 90 corporations and states are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all the carbon emissions that have changed our climate and our world since 1751. Chevron alone is responsible for 3.52 percent of that total, ExxonMobil for 3.22 percent, and BP for 2.24 percent. China since 1751 is responsible for 8.56 percent—less, that is, than those three petroleum giants. It’s true that they produced that energy, rather than (for the most part) consuming it, but at this point we need to address the producers.

The most terrifying thing about the study by Richard Heede of Climate Mitigation Services in Colorado, and the chart of his data that Duncan Clark and Kiln, a data-visualization firm, made for the Guardian is that 63 percent of all human-generated carbon emissions have been produced in the past 25 years; that is, nearly two-thirds have been emitted since the first warnings were sounded about what was then called “global warming” and the need to stop or scale back. We on Earth now, we who have been adults for at least 25 years, are the ones who have done more than all earlier human beings combined to unbalance the atmosphere of the planet, and thus its weather systems, oceans, and so much more.

It’s important to note, as so many have, that it’s we in the global north and the rich countries for whom most of that fuel has been burned. And it’s important to note as well (though fewer have) that, according to the opinion polls, a majority of individuals north and south, even in our own oil empire, are willing to change in response to this grim fact. It’s the giant energy corporations and the governments in their thrall (when they’re not outright oil regimes) that are stalling and refusing, as we saw when a meaningful climate compact was sabotaged in Copenhagen in late 2009.

The most stunning thing about that chart illustrating Heede’s study is that it makes what can seem like an overwhelming and amorphous problem specific and addressable: here are the 90 top entities pumping carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere. With its own list of the 200 biggest fossil fuel corporations, the divestment movement is doing something similar. Next comes the hard part: getting universities, cities, states, pension funds, and other financial entities to actually divest. They often like to suggest that it’s an impossible or crazy or wildly difficult and risky move, though fund managers shuffle their funds around all the time for other reasons.

Once upon a time, similar entities swore that it was inconceivable to end the institution of slavery, upend the profitable economics of southern plantations, and violate the laws of “property”; once upon another time, you couldn’t possibly give women the vote and change the whole face of democracy and public life, or require seatbelts and other extravagant safety devices, or limit the industrial processes that produce acid rain, or phase out the chlorofluorocarbons so useful for refrigeration and destructrive of the ozone layer. Except that this country did all of that, over the gradually declining protests that it was too radical and burdensome. When radical shifts become the status quo, most forget how and why it happened and come to see that status quo as inevitable and even eternal, though many of its best aspects were the fruit of activism and change.

We tend to think that sticking with something is a calmer and steadier way to go than jettisoning it, even though that rule obviously doesn’t apply to sinking ships. Sometimes, after the iceberg or the explosion, the lifeboat is safer than the luxury liner, though getting on it requires an urgent rearrangement of your body and your expectations. The value of fossil fuel corporations rests on their strategic reserves. Extracting and burning those reserves would devastate the climate, so keeping most of them in the ground is a key goal, maybe the key goal, in forestalling the worst versions of what is already unfolding.

The curious thing about fossil fuel divestment is that many highly qualified financial analysts and, as of last week, the British parliament’s environmental audit committee suggest that such investments are volatile, unsafe, and could crash in the fairly near future. They focus on the much discussed carbon bubble and its potential for creating stranded assets. So there’s a strong argument for divestment simply as a matter of fiscal (rather than planetary) prudence.

According to many scenarios, divesting energy company stocks will have no impact, or even a positive impact, on a portfolio. The biggest question, however, is what constitutes a good portfolio on a planet spiraling into chaos. The best way—maybe the only way—to manage a portfolio is to manage the planet, or at least to participate in trying. How will your stocks do as the oceans die? Or—leaving out all humanitarian concerns—as massive crop failures decimate markets and maybe populations? Is the fate of the Earth your responsibility or someone else’s?

For the People Who Will Be 86 in the Year 2100

In that pretty room, a few dozen activists and one San Francisco supervisor, John Avalos, a great leader on climate issues, faced off against the San Francisco Employees Retirement System board and its staff who talked interminably about how wild and reckless it would be to divest. And it was then that it struck me: inaction and caution may seem so much more rational than action, unless you’re in a burning building or on a sinking ship. And that’s what made me think of the World Trade Center towers on the day they were hit by those hijacked airliners.

It was as though the people in that room were having different conversations in different languages in different worlds. And versions of that schizophrenic conversation are being had all over this continent and in Europe. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, and across the California system of higher education are launching this conversation with the university regents and I already dread the same foot-dragging performances I’ve been watching here for almost a year.

There’s already a long list of institutions that have committed to divestment, from the United Church of Christ and the San Francisco State University Foundation to the Sierra Club Foundation and 17 philanthropic foundations. Staff leadership at the Wallace Global Fund, one of the 17 divesting, said, "Who in our community could proudly defend, today, a decision not to have divested from South Africa 30 years ago? In hindsight, the moral case seems too clear. How then might we envision defending, 20 years from now, keeping our millions invested in business-as-usual fossil energy, at precisely the moment scientists are telling us there is no time left to lose?"

In fact, many climate activists point to the divestment movement that focused on apartheid-era South Africa as a model. That was a highly successful campaign, but also a relatively easy one for many of the companies being pressured to withdraw from their investments, subsidiaries, and other involvements in that country. After all, many of them weren’t all that involved, financially speaking, to begin with. What worked then won’t work now, because the situations are so profoundly different.

The San Francisco Retirement Board finally voted to engage in shareholder activism, their first and most timorous step. This is the procedure whereby shareholders chastise a corporation and ask it to change its sorry ways. Such activism, which was meaningful when it came to South Africa, is meaningless when it comes to carbon. Politely asking ExxonMobil or Chevron to divest from fossil fuel is like asking McDonald’s to divest from burgers and fries or Ford to divest from cars. It's sort of like a mouse asking a lion to become vegetarian. The corporations are not going to quit their principal activity and raison d'être; it’s we who need to quit investing in them—the step the board was balking at.

Climate activists speak the language of people who know that we’re in an emergency. The retirement board is speaking the language of people who don’t. The board members don’t deny the science of climate change, but as far as I can tell, they don’t realize what that means for everyone’s future, including that of members of their pension fund and their children and grandchildren. The words “fiduciary duty” kept coming up, which means the board’s and staff’s primary responsibility and commitment are to the wellbeing of the fund. It was implied that selling 3.3 percent of the portfolio for reasons of principle was a wild and irrational thing to support, no less do.

But it isn’t just principle. The pensioners receiving money from the board will be living on Earth, not some other planet. Exactly what that means in 10, 20, or 50 years depends on what we do now. That we, by the way, includes money managers, investors, and pension-holders, as well as politicians and activists, and you who are reading this. What, after all, does “fiduciary duty” mean in an emergency? Can you make sound investments on a planet that’s going haywire without addressing the causes of that crisis? In such circumstances, shouldn’t fiduciary duty include addressing the broader consequences of your investments?

What does the future look like for a person paying into the pension fund who will be 60 in 2050? One of my brothers is a city employee paying into that fund. What will the future look like for his younger son, who will be 87 in 2100? A retirement board fund manager spoke of emulating Warren Buffett, who recently bought Exxon shares. Buffett is 83. He won’t be around for the most serious consequences of his actions or Exxon’s. My sweet-natured, almost-walking, brown-eyed nephew Martin, who turned one on Sunday, will. I likely will, too, because it’s getting wilder on this destabilized planet, and even two decades hence is looking pretty grim.

Here’s what I wrote the board before the meeting:

“Not only prosperity but human health and food supplies depend on a stable climate, but it’s getting less stable all the time. How much we will lose, how much we will salvage depends on whether we act now. I get it that the board’s first responsibility is to the financial wellbeing of the fund. Even more so it’s to the pensioners, from those now receiving benefits to the youngest person paying in. But nothing exists in isolation: the stock market depends, whether or not Wall Street remembers, on weather, crops, strong markets for products, and the rest of what a stable world provides. And even a nice pension would not assuage the need of pensioners afflicted by tropical diseases moving northward, extreme heat that disproportionately affects the elderly, rising sea levels that take away billions of dollars of coastal California real estate—including SFO runways and the city’s landfill areas. Crop failure and rising food prices, water shortages, dying oceans, climate refugees.”

Or as a leaked U.N. report recently put it, “The planet's crop production will decline by up to 2 percent every decade as rainfall patterns shift and droughts batter farmland, even as demand for food rises a projected 14 percent.”

I have great faith in the human ability to improvise, but there are limits to what can be done about a shrinking food supply and a growing population. The word not used in this cautious, conservative report is mass famine, which is very bad for your stocks. And infinitely worse for the people who are starving.

Another new report says, “Europe’s financial losses related to flooding, which now total about 4.9 billion euros a year, could increase almost 380 percent to 23.5 billion euros by 2050.” There are other versions of these dire projections about Asia, the Americas, and Africa. Studies about the future impact of climate change are one thing that’s not in short supply. You can focus on the oceans and fisheries, on polar ice, on species, on food supplies, floods, fires, hurricanes, and typhoons—and in the language of the market, indicators are that catastrophe is going way, way up. How much depends on us.

Your House Is On Fire

A few weeks earlier, I went to a demonstration at the State Department’s San Francisco office with a NASA scientist friend who’s an expert on what makes planets habitable. She told me that we on Earth have been blessed by the remarkable stability of temperatures over the long haul and that for any planet the window of temperature in which life will thrive is pretty small. We’re already at the upper end of the viable temperature for an inhabitable planet, she told me. I’ve heard the news delivered a thousand ways about what we’re facing, but her version made me feel sick—as if she’d told me my house was burning down. Which she had.

I was in Japan for the first anniversary of what they call the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that Americans often call Fukushima (a reference—speaking of the unforeseen and of the failures of authorities—to the six nuclear power plants trashed by the tsunami that began to fall apart in various highly radioactive ways). The country’s earthquake building codes worked well: hardly anyone was killed by the giant quake. Its tsunami alert system worked superbly, too: almost everyone was given plenty of time to evacuate.

But a lot of people didn’t move fast enough, or they trusted the sea walls and sea gates to protect them, or they evacuated to the right level for tsunamis in living memory. In many places, the waves were higher than any tsunami since 1896, and about 20,000 people died in the disaster. The most horrible story I heard as I toured the wreckage and talked to officials, survivors, and relief workers was about an elementary school. Its teachers argued about what to do: one of them took several students to safety; the rest of the school, teachers and small children alike, stayed put and drowned. Unnecessarily. Reacting strongly to a catastrophe is often seen as an overreaction, but the real danger is under-reaction.

During 9/11, survival meant evacuating the south tower of the World Trade Center. In 2011, survival on the northeast coast of Japan meant going uphill or far inland. Our climate crisis requires us to evacuate our normal ways of doing things. That will not always be cheap or easy, but divestment can be done now with no loss, even possibly with an upside, say many financial analysts. In any case, it’s the only honorable and sane thing to do—for the young who will be alive in 2064, for the beauty and complexity of the world we have been given, including all the other living things on it, for the sake of the people who are already suffering and will suffer more because of the disruption of the elegant system that is the Earth we inherited.

Rebecca Solnit is a regular contributor to TomDispatch, and the author of 15 books, including A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. If you're so inclined, you can contact the San Francisco Retirement Board at 30 Van Ness Avenue, Suite 3000, San Francisco, CA 94102. She'd like that.

Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit

Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video, licensed under Creative Commons.  


Congress or no Congress, Obama has plenty of room to address climate change.

At the heart of President Obama’s State of the Union address last week was the message that if Congress won’t pass meaningful legislation, he’s prepared to go it alone. On everything from minimum wage to job training to fuel efficiency standards, Obama laid out a plan to use executive orders to achieve his second-term goals.

Naturally, this didn’t make GOP leaders happy; some even threatened to “go to the courts” (whatever that means). But executive orders are nothing new for presidents. In fact, according to a new report by the Center for a New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, there are over 200 actions Obama could legally take to address climate change without Congress, writes Tim McDonnell at Mother Jones.

First on the list for environmental activists is derailing the Keystone XL Pipeline, a move scientists say is essential to avert catastrophic climate change. Since the State Department released its environmental report on Keystone last week (to much frustration from environmentalists), all eyes have been on the president to make a final decision on the project. “Now we’re going to find out whether John Kerry and Barack Obama are ... captives of the oil industry,” says founder Bill McKibben, “or whether they’re willing to really stand up when it counts for the commitments they’ve made about climate change.”

And why stop there? After killing Keystone, Obama could also dive into the wild west of fracking regulations, says McDonnell. Now, drilling laws are mostly state-level, but feds have the authority to introduce guidelines for fracking on public land. These rules could address everything state lawmakers don’t wanna touch, from methane leaks to finding out just what’s in those mysterious fracking fluids. Obama could also get more specific about how long this “bridge fuel” is supposed to last, writes McDonnell.

That’s not all. The federal government happens to be the nation’s biggest consumer, and Obama has enormous power over what it buys and why. In fact, the president already requires federal agencies to favor energy-efficient products; why not go further? Obama could require agencies to take a product’s carbon footprint into account, or how it’s manufactured. Obama could also double-down on his promise that federal agencies will use 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. Measures like this would help create a larger market for sustainable products, McDonnell adds, bringing everyone’s costs down. 

Speaking of renewable markets, the government’s loan guarantee program for clean tech companies happens to be doing great right now. Last year Tesla paid back $450 million in loans a full nine years ahead of schedule. Today the program’s portfolio includes $32 billion in loans, supporting some 55,000 jobs—much of them in solar. Expanding this program could bring low-cost renewable technology to millions more Americans and bring costs down across the board.

Believe it or not, Obama can push every one of these plans without Congress lifting a finger. If the president is serious about fighting climate change, he should start here.

Image by Glyn Lowe, licensed under Creative Commons.

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