Hope can be powerful in leaving behind the mess of the old order and taking action.
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.
There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.
Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system. They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.
I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.
As you probably know, the actual oceans are rising — almost eight inches since 1880, and that’s only going to accelerate. They’re also acidifying, because they’re absorbing significant amounts of the carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere at record levels. The ice that covers the polar seas is shrinking, while the ice shields that cover Antarctica and Greenland are melting. The water locked up in all the polar ice, as it’s unlocked by heat, is going to raise sea levels staggeringly, possibly by as much as 200 feet at some point in the future, how distant we do not know. In the temperate latitudes, warming seas breed fiercer hurricanes.
The oceans are changing fast, and for the worse. Fish stocks are dying off, as are shellfish. In many acidified oceanic regions, their shells are actually dissolving or failing to form, which is one of the scariest, most nightmarish things I’ve ever heard. So don’t tell me that we’re rocking a stable boat on calm seas. The glorious 10,000-year period of stable climate in which humanity flourished and then exploded to overrun the Earth and all its ecosystems is over.
But responding to these current cataclysmic changes means taking on people who believe, or at least assert, that those of us who want to react and act are gratuitously disrupting a stable system that’s working fine. It isn’t stable. It is working fine — in the short term and the most limited sense — for oil companies and the people who profit from them and for some of us in the particularly cushy parts of the world who haven’t been impacted yet by weather events like, say, the recent torrential floods in Japan or southern Nevada and Arizona, or the monsoon versions of the same that have devastated parts of India and Pakistan, or the drought that has mummified my beloved California, or the wildfires of Australia.
The problem, of course, is that the people who most benefit from the current arrangements have effectively purchased a lot of politicians, and that a great many of the rest of them are either hopelessly dim or amazingly timid. Most of the Democrats recognize the reality of climate change but not the urgency of doing something about it. Many of the Republicans used to — John McCain has done an amazing about-face from being a sane voice on climate to a shrill denier — and they present a horrific obstacle to any international treaties.
Put it this way: in one country, one party holding 45 out of 100 seats in one legislative house, while serving a minority of the very rich, can basically block what quite a lot of the other seven billion people on Earth want and need, because a two-thirds majority in the Senate must consent to any international treaty the U.S. signs. Which is not to say much for the president, whose drill-baby-drill administration only looks good compared to the petroleum servants he faces, when he bothers to face them and isn’t just one of them. History will despise them all and much of the world does now, but as my mother would have said, they know which side their bread is buttered on.
As it happens, the butter is melting and the bread is getting more expensive. Global grain production is already down several percent thanks to climate change, says a terrifying new United Nations report. Declining crops cause food shortages and rising food prices, creating hunger and even famine for the poorest on Earth, and also sometimes cause massive unrest. Rising bread prices were one factor that helped spark the Arab Spring in 2011. Anyone who argues that doing something about global warming will be too expensive is dodging just how expensive unmitigated climate change is already proving to be.
It’s only a question of whether the very wealthy or the very poor will pay. Putting it that way, however, devalues all the nonmonetary things at stake, from the survival of myriad species to our confidence in the future. And yeah, climate change is here, now. We’ve already lost a lot and we’re going to lose more, but there’s a difference between terrible and apocalyptic. We still have some control over how extreme it gets. That’s not a great choice, but it’s the choice we have. There’s still a window open for action, but it’s closing. As the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Society, Michel Jarraud, bluntly put it recently, "We are running out of time."
New and Renewable Energies
The future is not yet written. Look at the world we’re in at this very moment. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was supposed to be built years ago, but activists catalyzed by the rural and indigenous communities across whose land it would go have stopped it so far, and made what was supposed to be a done deal a contentious issue. Activists changed the outcome.
Fracking has been challenged on the state level, and banned in townships and counties from upstate New York to central California. (It has also been banned in two Canadian provinces, France, and Bulgaria.) The fossil-fuel divestment movement has achieved a number of remarkable victories in its few bare years of existence and more are on the way. The actual divestments and commitments to divest fossil fuel stocks by various institutions ranging from the city of Seattle to the British Medical Association are striking. But the real power of the movement lies in the way it has called into question the wisdom of investing in fossil fuel corporations. Even mainstream voices like the British Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and publications like Forbes are now beginning to question whether they are safe places to put money. That’s a sea of change.
Renewable energy has become more efficient, technologically sophisticated, and cheaper — the price of solar power in relation to the energy it generates has plummeted astonishingly over the past three decades and wind technology keeps getting better. While Americans overall are not yet curtailing their fossil-fuel habits, many individuals and communities are choosing other options, and those options are becoming increasingly viable. A Stanford University scientist has proposed a plan to allow each of the 50 states to run on 100% renewable energy by 2050.
Since, according to the latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fossil fuel reserves still in the ground are "at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level," it couldn’t be more important to reach global agreements to do things differently on a planetary scale. Notably, most of those carbon reserves must be left untapped and the modest steps already taken locally and ad hoc show that such changes are indeed possible and that an encouraging number of us want to pursue them.
We can do it. And we is the key word here. The world is not going to be saved by individual acts of virtue; it’s going to be saved, if it is to be saved, by collective acts of social and political change. That’s why I’m marching this Sunday with tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of others in New York City — to pressure the United Nations as it meets to address climate change. That’s why people who care about the future state of our planet will also be marching and demonstrating in New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Berlin, Melbourne, Kathmandu, Dublin, Manila, Seoul, Mumbai, Istanbul, and so many smaller places.
Mass movements work. Unarmed citizens have changed the course of history countless times in the modern era. When we come together as civil society, we have the capacity to transform policies, change old ways of doing things, and sometimes even topple regimes. And it is about governments. Like it or not, the global treaties, compacts, and agreements we need can only be made by governments, and governments will make those agreements when the pressure to do so is greater than the pressure not to. We can and must be that pressure.
The Long View from One Window
I lived in the same apartment for 25 years, moving into a poor but thriving black community in 1981 and out of the far more affluent, paler, and less neighborly place it had become in 2006. A lot of people moved in and out in that period, many of them staying only a year or two. Those transients always seemed to believe that the neighborhood they were passing through was a stable one. You had to be slower than change and stick around to see it. I saw it and it helped me learn how to take a historical view of things.
It’s crazy that anyone speaks as if our world is not undergoing rapid change, when the view from the window called history shows nothing but transformation, both incremental and dramatic. Exactly 25 years ago this month, Eastern Europe was astir. Remember that back then there was still a Soviet bloc, and a Soviet Union, and an Iron Curtain, and a Berlin Wall, and a Cold War. Most people thought those were permanent fixtures, but in the summer of 1989, Hungary decided to let East Germans (who were permitted to travel freely to that communist country) stream over to the West.
Thousands of people, tired of life in the totalitarian east, fled. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, as well as East Germany, were already electrified by a resurgent civil society and activist communities that had dared to organize in the face of repression. At the time, politicians and pundits in the West were making careers out of explaining, among so many other things, why German reunification wasn’t going to happen in anyone’s lifetime. And they probably would have been proven right if people had stayed home and done nothing, if they hadn't begun to hope and acted on that hope.
The bureaucrats on both sides of the Berlin Wall were still talking about the possibility of demilitarizing it when citizens showed up en masse and the guards began abandoning their posts. On that epochal night of November 9, 1989, the people made whole what had been broken. The lesson: showing up is half the battle.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been so unnerved by developments in the Soviet Union’s Eastern European holdings that she went to Moscow, two months before the fall of the wall, to implore Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to prevent any such thing. That was early September 1989. "No dramatic change in the situation in Czechoslovakia can be expected," predicted a Czech official two months before a glorious popular uprising, remembered as the Velvet Revolution, erupted and abolished the government in which he was an official.
There are three things to note about those changes in 1989. First, most people in power dismissed the possibility that such extraordinary change could happen or deplored what it might bring. They were comfortable enough with things as they were, even though the status quo was several kinds of scary and awful. In other words, the status quo likes the status quo and dislikes change. Second, everything changed despite them, thanks to grassroots organizing and civil society, forces that — we are now regularly assured — are pointless and irrelevant. Third, the world that existed then has been largely swept away: the Soviet Union, the global alignments of that time, the idea of a binary world of communism and capitalism, and the policies that had kept us on the brink of nuclear annihilation for decades. We live in a very different world now (though nuclear weapons are still a terrible problem). Things do change.
Maybe, in fact, there’s a fourth point to note as well. That, important as they were, the front-page stories about the liberation of Eastern Europe weren’t what mattered most all those years ago. After all, hidden away deep inside the New York Times that autumn, you can find a dozen or so articles about global warming, as the newly recognized phenomenon was then called. And small as they were, anyone reading them now can see that so long ago the essential problem and peril to our world was already clear.
The thought of what might have been accomplished, had a people’s movement arisen then to face global warming, could break your heart. That, after all, was still a time when the Earth’s atmosphere held just above 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide, the maximum safe level for a sustainable survivable planet, not the 400 parts per million of the present moment ("142% of the pre-industrial era" level of carbon, the World Meteorological Organization notes). In other words, we’ve been steadily filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and so imperiling the planet and humanity since we knew what we were doing.
The Great Smog and the Big Wind
In that fall a quarter of a century ago, the world changed profoundly right before our eyes. Then we settled back into the short-term, ahistorical view that things are really pretty stable, that ordinary people have no power, and that the world can’t be changed. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at Germany today. Maybe because Germans know better than us that things can change for the worse or the better fast, that the world is not a stable and settled place, and that we do shape it, they have been willing to change.
At one point last spring, cold, cloudy Germany managed to get almost 75% of its electricity from renewable sources. Scotland — cold, gray, oil-rich Scotland! — is on track to achieve 100% renewable electrical generation by 2020 and has already hit the 40% mark. Spain now generates about half its electricity through clean and renewable sources. Other European countries have similar accomplishments. In fact, many of the changes that we in the United States will be marching for this Sunday have already begun happening, sometimes on a significant scale, elsewhere.
To remember how radical this new Europe is, recall that most of these places were burning coal not just in power plants or factories but in homes, too, not so many decades ago. Everyone deplores the horrific air of Beijing and other Chinese cities now, but few remember that many European cities were similarly foul with smoke and smog from the industrial revolution into the postwar era. In December 1952, for instance, the “Great Smog” of London reduced daytime visibility to a few yards and killed about 4,000 people in three days.
A decade before that, in response to the war Germany started, North Americans radically reduced their use of private vehicles and gasoline and planted more than 20 million victory gardens, producing vast quantities of food by non-industrial means. We have done that; we could (and must) do it again.
At least, we don’t burn coal in our homes any more, and in the U.S. we’ve retired 178 coal-fired power plants, phasing out many more, and prevented many new ones from being built. The renewable energy sources that were, people insisted, too minor or unreliable or expensive or new are now beginning to work well, and the price to produce energy in such a fashion is dropping rapidly. UBS, the European investment giant, recently counseled that power plants and centralized power generation are no longer good investments, since decentralized renewables are likely to replace them.
Of course, Germany and Britain are still burning coal, and Poland remains a giant coal mine. Europe is not a perfect renewable energy paradise, just a part of the world that demonstrates the viability of changing how we produce and consume energy. We are already changing, even if not fast enough, not by a long shot, at least not yet. The same goes for divesting from fossil-fuel investments, even though dozens of universities, cities, religious institutions, and foundations have already committed to doing so, and some have by now actually purged their portfolios. The excuse that change is impossible is no longer available, because many places and entities have already changed.
If you want to know how potentially powerful you are, ask your enemies. The misogynists who attack feminism and try to intimidate feminists into silence only demonstrate in a roundabout way that feminism really is changing the world; they are the furious backlash and so the proof that something meaningful is at stake. The climate movement is similarly upsetting a lot of powerful people and institutions; to grasp that, you just have to look at the tsunamis of money spent opposing specific measures and misinforming the public. The carbon barons are demonstrating that we could change the world and that they don’t want us to.
We are powerful and need to become more so in the next year as a major conference in Paris approaches in December 2015 where the climate agreements we need could be hammered out. Or not. This is, after all, a sequel to the Copenhagen conference of 2009, where representatives of many smaller and more vulnerable nations, as well as citizens’ groups, were eager for a treaty that took on climate change in significant ways, only to have their hopes crushed by the recalcitrant governments of the United States and China.
Right now, we are in a churning sea of change, of climate change, of subtle changes in everyday life, of powerful efforts by elites to serve themselves and damn the rest of us, and of increasingly powerful activist and social-movement campaigns to make a world that benefits more beings, human and otherwise, in the longer term. Every choice you make aligns you with one set of these forces or another. That includes doing nothing, which means aligning yourself with the worst of the status quo dragging us down in that ocean of carbon and consumption.
To make personal changes is to do too little. Only great movements, only collective action can save us now. Only is a scary word, but when the ship is sinking, it can be an encouraging one as well. It can hold out hope. The world has changed again and again in ways that, until they happened, would have been considered improbable by just about everyone on the planet. It is changing now and the direction is up to us.
There will be another story to be told about what we did a quarter century after civil society toppled the East Bloc regimes, what we did in the pivotal years of 2014 and 2015. All we know now is that it is not yet written, and that we who live at this very moment have the power to write it with our lives and acts.
A TomDispatch regular, Rebecca Solnit has 16 books out, the latest of which is the indie bestseller Men Explain Things to Me.
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Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit
Photo by Fotolia/Jaroslav Moravcik
The People's Climate March is designed to serve as a loud and pointed reminder to our leaders that the next great movement of the planet’s citizens centers on our survival and their pathetic inaction.
Reprinted with permission by TomDispatch
On Sunday, September 21st, a huge crowd will march through the middle of Manhattan. It will almost certainly be the largest rally about climate change in human history, and one of the largest political protests in many years in New York. More than 1,000 groups are coordinating the march—environmental justice groups, faith groups, labor groups—which means there’s no one policy ask. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a loud and pointed reminder to our leaders, gathering that week at the United Nations to discuss global warming, that the next great movement of the planet’s citizens centers on our survival and their pathetic inaction.
As a few of the march’s organizers, though, we can give some sense of why we, at least, are marching, words we think represent many of those who will gather at Columbus Circle for the walk through midtown Manhattan.
We march because the world has left the Holocene behind: scientists tell us that we’ve already raised the planet’s temperature almost one degree Celsius, and are on track for four or five by century’s end. We march because Hurricane Sandy filled the New York City subway system with salt water, reminding us that even one of the most powerful cities in the world is already vulnerable to slowly rising ocean levels.
We march because we know that climate change affects everyone, but its impacts are not equally felt: those who have contributed the least to causing the crisis are hit hardest, here and around the world. Communities on the frontlines of global warming are already paying a heavy price, in some cases losing the very land on which they live. This isn’t just about polar bears any more.
But since polar bears can’t march, we march for them, too, and for the rest of creation now poised on the verge of what biologists say will be the planet’s sixth great extinction event, one unequalled since the last time a huge asteroid struck the Earth 66 million years ago.
And we march for generations yet to come, our children, grandchildren, and their children, whose lives will be systematically impoverished and degraded. It’s the first time one century has wrecked the prospects of the millennia to come, and it makes us mad enough to march.
We march with hope, too. We see a few great examples around the world of how quickly we could make the transition to renewable energy. We know that if there were days this summer when Germany generated nearly 75 percent of its power from renewable sources of energy, the rest of us could, too—especially in poorer nations around the equator that desperately need more energy. And we know that labor-intensive renewables would provide far more jobs than capital-intensive coal, gas, and oil.
And we march with some frustration: why haven’t our societies responded to 25 years of dire warnings from scientists? We’re not naïve; we know that the fossil fuel industry is the 1 percent of the 1 percent. But sometimes we think we shouldn’t have to march. If our system worked the way it should, the world would long ago have taken the obvious actions economists and policy gurus have recommended—from taxing carbon to reflect the damage it causes to funding a massive World War II-scale transition to clean energy.
Marching is not all, or even most, of what we do. We advocate; we work to install solar panels; we push for sustainable transit. We know, though, that history shows marching is usually required, that reason rarely prevails on its own. (And we know that sometimes even marching isn’t enough; we’ve been to jail and we’ll likely be back.)
We’re tired of winning the argument and losing the fight. And so we march. We march for the beaches and the barrios. We march for summers when the cool breeze still comes down in the evening. We march because Exxon spends $100 million every day looking for more hydrocarbons, even though scientists tell us we already have far more in our reserves than we can safely burn. We march for those too weak from dengue fever and malaria to make the journey. We march because California has lost 63 trillion gallons of groundwater to the fierce drought that won’t end, and because the glaciers at the roof of Asia are disappearing. We march because researchers told the world in April that the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun to melt “irrevocably”; Greenland’s ice shield may soon follow suit; and the waters from those, as rising seas, will sooner or later drown the world’s coastlines and many of its great cities.
We don’t march because there’s any guarantee it will work. If you were a betting person, perhaps you’d say we have only modest hope of beating the financial might of the oil and gas barons and the governments in their thrall. It’s obviously too late to stop global warming entirely, but not too late to slow it down—and it’s not too late, either, to simply pay witness to what we’re losing, a world of great beauty and complexity and stability that has nurtured humanity for thousands of years.
There’s a world to march for—and a future, too. The only real question is why anyone wouldn’t march.
Eddie Bautista is executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. LaTonya Crisp-Sauray is the recording secretary for the Transport Workers Union Local 100. Bill McKibben is the founder of350.org and a TomDispatch regular.
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Copyright 2014 Eddie Bautista, La Tonya Crisp-Sauray, and Bill McKibben
Image courtesy bjaglin, licensed under Creative Commons
Issues like climate change and race are usually framed individually but they are part of a connected system.
The link between climate change and race may not be immediately apparent, but at least one organization is doing something to connect the dots. In light of the racial tensions stemming from the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, 350.org’s Executive Director May Boeve stated, “We believe unequivocally that working for racial justice is a crucial part of fighting climate change.”
The reasons behind such a statement are many and varied. For one, organizations advocating for racial justice, “could use some of environmentalists’ passion around conservation and the preservation of life” Brentin Mock writes for Bridge the Gulf.
Additionally, climate change has and is expected to disproportionately affect people of color both domestically and internationally. In cases like Hurricane Katrina, the disaster quickly became an issue of race and racism, ranging from accusations of “looting” to at least 11 shootings of African-American men by white men in the days following the storm. In at-risk countries like Bangladesh, the potential for climate change “acts as a threat multiplier” wherein people face food and housing insecurity, as well as social and political instability. At the center of these situations is an imbalance of power where those with the most resources (including money, weapons, and connections) usually win out.
Furthermore, in many ways, the two issues are related by economic priorities which tend to favor profit over everything else—the environmental, the ethical, the future of our communities. Oil companies profit despite disasters such as Deepwater Horizon (where Vietnamese communities in the Gulf who relied on the fishing industry took a particularly hard hit, not to mention the environmental and health effects), corporations like Halliburton contract out armed guards to protect their extraction sites abroad, weapons companies profit in the billions from police departments that acquire tanks and teargas (like the kind deployed in the Ferguson protests), and privatized prisons make money off of discriminatory drug laws.
Lastly, a threat of suppression or actual violence to one group is a signal to anyone else who may want to speak out. In the U.S., such acts can have a “chilling effect” which is intended to quiet the use of our First Amendment rights including the right to free speech and the right to assemble.
So what can be done to bridge the divides between movements? Deirdre Smith, 350.org’s Strategic Partnership Coordinator says it will take a deeper understanding of institutional injustices, a drive to develop stronger alliances, and an acknowledgment of privilege. And although she recognizes that, "we have a lot of learning to do about how to come together," in doing so, collectively, our voices will reach farther, be more resilient, and do more to tip the balance of power.
Photo by Rachel, licensed under Creative Commons.
California's severe drought prompts innovation.
California is in the midst of its third consecutive year of drought conditions while water usage remains relatively unchanged or has even increased. However homeowners are now under restrictions that prohibit hosing off driveways and lawn water runoff, with violations costing up to $500. With the introduction of an app called Dropcountr, readily available regulation of water use may help prevent those fines. The app monitors daily use so users can see long-term patterns (such as more use on weekends). It also warns users if it suspects there is a leak and it shows water usage in houses similar in size for comparison. Dropcountr CEO Robb Barnitt said, "The first response we get from folks is, 'Wow, I had no idea that I used that much water.' That's really the first piece we're trying to deliver—transparency and visibility. It's really tough to gain much insight from your water bill." The company is working to broaden the number of utility districts the app is available for and is also coordinating with property management companies in an effort to expand the app to renters.
Another solution is the slightly absurd idea of lawn painting which allows homeowners to save water while maintaining curb appeal. It’s a consideration that is quickly gaining popularity throughout California with new companies offering the service popping up, and established ones seeing sales increases of 60 percent. Each paint jobs lasts three to six months and costs about $175 for a 500 square foot lawn. The paint that is used is nontoxic and once it dries, it doesn’t run. One San Bernardino resident remarked, “It became a real eyesore…I heard about a service where people paint your lawn so it looks like the real thing and thought, why not? We've had lots of people stop over and say it looks good.”
Now that homeowners have some innovative options to utilize during the drought, it’s time to focus on controlling the wildfires that have resulted, regulating Nestle’s water bottling plant in Southern California, and finding ways to protect Napa Valley’s vineyards to avoid a wine shortage.
Photo by Robert V, licensed under Creative Commons.
The Nature Conservancy has come under fire for allowing drilling on its land.
The Nature Conservancy is the largest environmental organization in the U.S., operating in all 50 states and backed by over $6 billion in assets. Being such a big operation, it’s bound to face some controversies, whether it’s animal management methodology or the fact that its current president spent 24 years serving Goldman Sachs. However the latest revelation is particularly surprising. In Naomi Klein’s forthcoming book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate she reveals that The Nature Conservancy has made millions of dollars off of oil being drilled on a piece of land it manages in Texas, a fact acknowledged by the organization.
The primary contention for environmentalists is over the welfare of the Attwater prairie chicken, a critically endangered species, that was supposed to use part of the land as a refuge. However it has not been seen there since 2012 (it’s unknown if drilling played a part in this though internal documents from the organization suggested that drilling would disturb the birds). Many activists and environmental groups have been highly critical of The Nature Conservancy in light of the discovery. Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, asserts that The Nature Conservancy “has just lost its moral compass.”
In its defense, The Nature Conservancy contends that it doesn’t have a say in the drilling. The land was donated by Mobil Oil in 1995, in an effort to save the aforementioned chicken which suffered dramatically dwindling numbers due to hunting and habitat destruction. Under a 1999 contract, the organization allowed new drilling that came closer to the breeding grounds of the prairie chicken with profits to be used for conservation efforts. However The Nature Conservancy now says it regrets the decision. Klein argues that the organization could have fought the drilling requests by utilizing termination clauses in the contract. She adds, “We all need to get off fossil fuels. If the largest environmental organization in the world can’t figure out how to stop pumping oil and gas, how are they going to help the rest of us figure it out?”
Photo by Ray Bodden, licensed under Creative Commons.
Why fossil fuels can’t solve the problems created by fossil fuels
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.com
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 burned, and 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
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A new report finds the environmental movement is lacking in ethnic diversity.
Topics surrounding environmental justice disproportionally affect minority communities; for instance, counties in the U.S. with the worst pollution had statistically significant larger numbers of African-Americans. And a new report shows that similar imbalances are apparent in the environmental movement itself. “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” surveyed mainstream environmental groups to gain insight in their employee demographics and found that “the dominant culture of the organizations is alienating to ethnic minorities, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and others outside the mainstream.” Considering the minority population in the U.S. is 37 percent, the sizable gap the study discovered means that areas and issues may be missed or underrepresented, and that opportunities for coalition-building with different groups may be overlooked.
While inroads have been made, (in 1972 a study of environmental volunteers showed just 2 percent minority involvement), the numbers are still lagging. Employees of color at foundations make up 12 percent of the staff while at government agencies, the number sits slightly higher at 15.5 percent. Minorities are also less likely to occupy leadership roles. The working group that undertook the report is called Green 2.0 and was led by Professor Dorceta Taylor of the University of Michigan. Taylor commented that, “a constant is the disconnect between the leadership at highest levels of these organizations who are saying, ‘Yes we want diversity,’ and what they have actually done.” She also points out that there exists a prejudicial perception that people of color don’t care about the environment which is historically untrue. Further evidence shows that a majority of minorities want to see action on problems like climate change.
On a more positive note, the study found that progress has been made in terms of gender equality with women being newly hired at a rate of 60 percent as compared to males at conservation organizations and also making strides in leadership positions.
The report recommends developing diversity assessment plans, implementing more diversity initiatives, making sure job postings are published in a variety of places, and carefully tracking the results to try and improve the sector’s inclusiveness.
Photo by Calinago, licensed under Creative Commons.