Wishful Thinking About Natural Gas: Why Fossil Fuels Can’t Solve the Problems Created by Fossil Fuels

Yves here. We’ve featured a series of post by Gaius Publius (see here, and here) on why Obama’s climate change plan is a huge headfake, since it fails to include the methane emitted during the fracking of natural gas. Naomi Oreskes, a professor at Harvard who has previously posted at Naked Capitalism on fossil fuel divestment campaigns, raises more doubts about the “clean” natural gas party line.

By Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor 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). Cross posted from TomDispatch

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 “greenfuel.

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% less compared with coal, and 20% to 30% 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% 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%.  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 twenty-first century technology, you get a better result than with late nineteenth or twentieth 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%, the substitution of natural gas as a transportation fuel actually carries a 10%-35% 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% for gas to represent an improvement over coal in electricity generation, and below 1% for gas to improve over diesel and gasoline in transportation.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently estimates average leakage rates at 1.4%, 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%.  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%.

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% and “in all probability” less than 0.1%. 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%.  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.

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  1. mellon

    Why didn’t Naomi Oreskes mention the hugely scary and dangerously irreversible TTIP trade deal to irreversibly increase fracking, freeze environmental and chemical protections, and export our cheap energy, letting liquid natural gas rise to global normal prices which are 3 to 5 times higher than current prices in the US.

    Thats a big omission, considering the TTIP deal’s many problems. Other problems are- the chemicals they use are in many cases, toxic endocrine disruptors at environmentally relevant levels. The water from fracking also carroes heavy metals, and sometimes, for example, this is common in Pennsylvania, dangerously high levels of radiation.

  2. sd

    A great public works project in response to the crash would have been a federal bicycle pathway program. The crash was a lost opportunity for innovation.

    1. rusti

      I couldn’t agree more with this. This line of the article implies a false narrative in saying lower carbon output means a lower standard of living:

      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.

      I live in a Scanadinavian city with robust cycling infrastructure, I don’t own a car personally, many people own cars but mostly walk or bicycle anyway. I consider my standard of living to be higher here than in the US when I drove everywhere. I’m healthier, I never sit in traffic or worry about parking, drunk driving is almost unheard of here.

      Bicycles are incredibly efficient and cars are incredibly inefficient. The 2000+ mile Tour De France requires about 30 kWh of energy output from a rider (65 kg * 5 W/kg * 90 hours), about the same as is containted in one gallon of gasoline. The order of magnitude in this calculation stays the same for a more average rider on a less efficient bike. Plus bikes can be easily modified to have powerful gel lead-acid or lithium-ion battery assist for longer daily commutes.

      To say that the US was built for cars and this couldn’t be done is a complete fallacy. Even if people in only some cities biked only some days per week that would result in a huge dent in emissions, traffic, and result in healthier people, while allowing for an explosion in the bicycle industry and all the tangential industries that could latch on to this.

      1. pretzelattack

        i think a lot of cities in the southwest and west were built for cars, with an inner core surrounded by sometimes distant suburbs. i’m not sure how long it would take to commute 50 miles each way by bike, but i assume people would have to move closer to their jobs (which isn’t a bad thing of course)., and some cities may not be sustainable anyway due to climate change; las vegas comes to mind.

        1. rusti

          I’d venture to say that very few people commute 50 miles each way to work, and even those who do could benefit from a commute where the last leg was done on a bicycle to avoid parking issues or to save gas and get some exercise. The idea is to replace a bunch of driven-miles with cycled-miles rather than eliminate cars entirely.

          A lot of those cities, particularly in the Southwest, have qualities that make them especially attractive for cycling. The weather is pleasant year-round and the lack of freeze-thaw means the additional infrastructure wouldn’t be as costly to maintain. Portland has some of the best cycling infrastructure among US cities even if it’s still relatively poor compared to say, Copenhagen.

          I used to sometimes bike about 10 miles to work in San Diego and could occasionally beat a neighbor making the same commute by car during rush hour. If I’d added some batteries on my bike I bet I could have been within 5-10 minutes of driving time even with no traffic. I was tempting fate though by logging so many hours on roads with high speed limits and narrow shoulders.

          1. neo-realist

            I know a So Cal transplant to the Seattle area who told me that 50 mile drives each way to work was very commonplace in those parts.

            A problem in some of the bigger cities with regards to suburban people moving closer or into the cities is that for the most part, it’s much more expensive to rent in the city than an exurb, or outlying suburban area. In the Seattle proper situation for example, the lack of affordable rental housing for poor and working class people is driving many of them to faraway, yet cheaper suburban rental housing. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to building more mass transit in those areas to ease the ability of poorer working people to get to their jobs in the city, or maybe government intervention and investment in creating working class/working poor housing in the city, e.g., Mitchell Lama types of programs?

            1. mellon

              The government has intentionally tied its own hands on housing by pushing free trade agreements that prohibit (our own and other) governments from offering “public services” in competition with corporations. Thats why we no longer see any public housing being built, only quasi-private for-profit operations are compliant with these new free trade agreements. (its similar to the problem with FTAs and health care) As we saw yesterday the US even has a problem with other countries giving food to their poor people which the US trade office frames as “illegal agricultural subsidies”.

          2. fresno dan

            I am all for as many bike paths built as possible.
            But I wish there was more emphasis on making them bike safe. Its my understanding that bike paths in Scandinavia are to the interior of parked cars (the parked cars form a barrier between the bikes and rode traffic The bike travels a path between the sidewalk and the parked car, instead of the bike traveling RIGHT next to 50 mph cars).
            Even in a supposedly environmentally and bike friendly city like Sacramento Ca, biking on a city street is perilous. The average older person won’t do it due to concerns about safety (I ride down the alleys – I was hit on a clear sunny day at 9 am even to the interior to the bike lane — i.e., as far away from the auto lane as possible–, while wearing a lime green t-shirt – I have no faith that bike lanes provide any protection what so ever) . And we have bike lanes that just…..end. Imagine driving a car and you just run out of road.

            1. rusti

              There’s a lot of variation in layouts, but street parking isn’t nearly as common on larger roads so it’s generally not an issue. If there is street parking, sometimes it is relegated to one side and the other side has two lanes for bicycle traffic in each direction. The only time I’m ever conscious about getting “doored” is in residential neighborhoods that are low traffic anyway.

            2. mellon

              I have never seen a motorist prosecuted for killing a bike rider. They just claim they didn’t see them.

              Many towns don’t have sidewaks, either.

              The US is probably one of the least bike friendly nations on the planet.

              1. William C

                If I have undertstood correctly, in France, the motorist is automatically guilty if involved in an accident with a cyclist. Certainly, having driven there, it is obvious motorists give bicycles a very wide berth.

          3. different clue

            Or maybe suburbanites could bike to bicycle parking centers/ bus pickup points. Then buses could take them to work . . . . or if they are still too dispersed even at the pickup points, pickup-point shuttlebuses could take bunches of them to heavier-populated bus stops or train stops. So the bicycle miles could be the “first” miles to the pickup point. Perhaps the pickup points would also need carparking for when commuters can’t bike due to bad weather or winter.

            1. sd

              The beauty is custom tailored bikeway projects based on local needs rather than one size fits all. Obama blew a significant opportunity for innovation.

      2. Carla

        Walkability is very important, too. I live in an inner ring suburb of a rust belt city. Forty years ago, when I first moved to this neighborhood, there were two grocery stores a 1/4 mile walk from where I then lived, and two larger ones each 3/4 mile away in opposite directions. Later I moved, but within the same neighborhood, and so did one of the neighborhood stores, which is now the only single-store independently owned super-market in the entire region. All of my neighbors and I thank heaven for it. The other three grocery stores closed decades ago.

        From my home, I can (and do) easily walk to the super-market, a couple of drug stores, many independently owned restaurants, a great cinema complex, two independently owned coffee shops, live theatre, a dry cleaner, two public libraries, a book store (remember those?), parks, and many more amenities.

        I don’t ride a bike and can’t stand the idea of having to get in a car every time I want to do something or need to get something.

        1. fresno dan

          I live in the center city now (I want some land to do some serious gardening so I will be out in suburbia at some point) but the idea of zoning and keeping a neighborhood all houses is the worst idea ever. It is so nice to be able just to walk to a bar, or a restaurant (especially one that serves drinks), the pharmacy, hospital, did I mention bar??? and other amenities.

      3. MtnLife

        I second the criticism of a lower carbon footprint meaning a lesser standard of life. Might it mean we shouldn’t be having 4 people in a house, each watching their own 60″ TV with surround sound, ensconced in an array of laptops, tablets, and mp3 players? Maybe, but is electronic isolationism a higher standard of life? Doesn’t higher standard of life include better health outcomes? What about being able to see the stars without light pollution? Vermont has laws against light pollution for this exact reason. I view it as a major improvement in my standard of life. Do we need to poison our lungs and our planet to have 90′ tall commercial advertisements running 24/7? I don’t even waste electricity to grind my coffee 15 seconds faster because really, are those 15 seconds worth the environmental degradation from fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and use? I’ve never said we need to stop all electricity use but fossil fuels need to go, the faster the better.

      4. Rosario

        I’m on board with civilian transit on a bike in theory, though I feel it would be harder than you assume. Expecting manual laborers and service industry people (i.e. a majority of the poor in the US) to ride a bike sometimes over 25 miles round trip everyday is a bit much. There are major physical and psychological stress differences between working at Google and McDonalds. For those working poor that do ride a bike everyday (and there are many) it can be very dangerous and inefficient. Particularly in poorer parts of town. A majority of cities in the US do need major infrastructure changes to accommodate for biking in a manner that is safe and efficient. Particularly in poorer communities where biking to work (assuming work is not clear across town) would be very advantageous. As far as the bigger picture, I’m more concerned with our reliance on vehicles to provide food stuffs and consumer goods. I don’t see many alternatives to vehicles with our current city designs in this respect. The distribution of resources in the US is designed around a heavy reliance on trucking.

        1. rusti

          There are major physical and psychological stress differences between working at Google and McDonalds. For those working poor that do ride a bike everyday (and there are many) it can be very dangerous and inefficient. Particularly in poorer parts of town.

          You make a number of good points. Building the infrastructure isn’t the only major challenge to making bicycling accessible.

          I’m more concerned with our reliance on vehicles to provide food stuffs and consumer goods. I don’t see many alternatives to vehicles with our current city designs in this respect. The distribution of resources in the US is designed around a heavy reliance on trucking.

          Another good point. I work in the industry and there are a bunch of incremental improvements that can improve efficiency numbers, but they tend to increase system complexity (there is no single person alive who understands all the subsystems in a modern Heavy Truck) and cost more money. Electrification isn’t as easy as with passenger cars, even with newer battery chemistries like Lithium-Air it still requires a ton of both energy and power density to move a decent amount of freight around.

          1. mellon

            If the price of electricity rises a lot due to the TTIP energy deal, I would expect the economics of electric car ownership to change somewhat. How much, I guess it depends on the percentage that the cost of natural gas contributes to the cost of electricity, which probably varies a lot around the country.

            1. mellon

              It seems that the amounts given by various industries is usually quite small compared to the cost of the legislation to the citizenry. So it would make economic sense for the people to get organizations together to try to outbid them.

      1. different clue

        The Obama Administration successfully thwarted and destroyed so many opportunities for meaningful change. If one admits to onself that change-prevention was Obama’s secret agenda, one can admit to oneself just how very successful the Obama Administration has really been . . . on its own secret-agenda terms. Historians may debate the size and scope of Obama’s success. I would suggest that the amount of money he is given after office would indicate how successful he was while in office. How much money was every change-prevented worth? And how much money was every decomplishment (destructive change against the majority) worth to the overclass minority who backed Obama? We will get to find out as we behold the size of Obama’s reward.

  3. Paul Tioxon


    Amory Lovins from RMI, http://www.rmi.org/ explains the renewable takeover going on right now, here, in Europe and China. I am not sure who needs to be pounded into the ground about fossil fuels. Certainly not the US Navy:

    “The U.S. Navy’s interest in biofuels is part of its goal to generate 50% of its energy from alternative sources by 2020: nuclear energy, electricity from renewable sources, and biofuels. The Navy currently sources about 17% of its energy supplies from renewable and nuclear sources of electricity. No biofuels are currently included in that percentage.

    The Navy’s interest in biofuels is limited to those fuels that can be used as direct replacements for petroleum-based gasoline and distillate fuels, also known as drop-in biofuels. These fuels require no modification or operational changes to distribution infrastructure, aircraft, or ships. Although biodiesel blends readily with diesel fuel or jet fuel, and is compatible with most diesel engines, it is not a drop-in fuel. Certain properties limit biodiesel blends from being used in some applications: potential fuel system clogging and poor performance at low temperatures prevent its use in jet fuel for civilian or military use, and water separation problems prevent its use as a marine diesel fuel. Drop-in biofuels are available today on a limited commercial basis, and operable U.S. production capacity is about 210 million gallons per year.

    Drop-in biofuels tend to be more expensive than petroleum fuels. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits DoD from paying prices for alternative fuels that are higher than it would pay for traditional fuels. To address these economic issues, the Navy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the Farm-to-Fleet program in December 2013. The program intends to increase the production of drop-in biofuels in the short term to allow producers to improve yields and lower feedstock costs through experience, and to achieve economic competitiveness by 2020.”


    And the US Army is already installing solar on all of its bases so it will not have to depend on grids that could fail during times of crisis, weather, economic embargoes or other. It’s not even an argument any more, it’s a pitched political battle. People want out of fossil fuels and in on electric, from the solar and wind that they know will be more stable than the grid that’s falling apart right now because it was installed around WWII and has not been modernized with the latest technology and materials.

  4. Lawrence Rupp

    And no mention of the taboo topic, and fundamental cause of our predicament: OVERPOPULATION

    RS AND NAS STATEMENT is the official 1992 statement of the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences.
    WORLD SCIENTISTS’ WARNING TO HUMANITY is from the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992.
    Science Summit” on World Population: A Joint Statement by 58 of the World’s Scientific Academies.
    ESA Passes Resolution on Human Population from the Ecological Society of America (1994)

    1. Lawrence Rupp

      And no mention of the taboo topic, and fundamental cause of our predicament: OVERPOPULATION


      RS AND NAS STATEMENT is the official 1992 statement of the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences.
      WORLD SCIENTISTS’ WARNING TO HUMANITY is from the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992.
      Science Summit” on World Population: A Joint Statement by 58 of the World’s Scientific Academies.
      ESA Passes Resolution on Human Population from the Ecological Society of America (1994)

    2. different clue

      Most especially the overpopulation of overconsumers. As a billion Chinese and a billion Indians move to become overconsumers in the rich-country mode, we will discover what that means. The rich-country population itself is desperately too overconsumer-high already. The easiest way to solve that problem is for overconsumers to become deconsumers. But past a certain point that would require winning a class war against the Overclass who have engineered the overconsumptionist lifestyle we all ratrace in to the further enrichment of the Overclass.

      1. mellon

        Its projected that population of the world will stop growing in a few years and start shrinking. Look at Brazil, they have seen dramatic drop in the number of children families have in just a few years. When societies become literate, they start using birth control. Many countries populations are falling now. The US population would be falling now, I am pretty sure, were it not for immigration.

        1. different clue

          Then all we have to do is achieve full Consumption Control and Deep Deconsumption and then we will have reversed the Consumption Explosion.

  5. Bunk McNulty

    [Fracking]…”also represents a huge increase in potential sources of groundwater contamination, but that’s a subject for another post.” Well, yes. Soon?

  6. charger01

    I still don’t understand how renewable energy can replace fossil fuel in a utility or industrial application. Renewables are by definition intermittent. Fossil fuels are stable and best yet manageable for use when you need it- like during a snowstorm or a high demand hot summer day. This climate papers that Yves and others post seem to always miss the point that we’ll still be using vast quantities of fossil fuels well into the next century- unless we have a new battery technology or some sort of manageable renewable energy.

    1. Uahsenaa

      Hogwash. Studies have shown that the Mississippi alone, which, btw, is ALREADY DAMMED, has the potential to generate the equivalent of 70 nuclear power plants. Hydroelectric is also incredibly stable, creates basically no emissions and would easily replace every coal burning plant in the midwest without even upgrading the existing grid. Add to that, the surplus electricity would make it cost effective to replace a number of residential appliances that use gas (water heaters, boilers, furnaces, etc.) with electric ones, and you would see a substantial decrease in emissions with the only “pain” being the initial investment, which, I hasten to add, would create a number of high paid jobs in construction, engineering, and manufacturing. I fail to see what the quibble with “renewables” is here.

      1. jonboinAR

        Everyone (that is, folks who seem to study the possibilities) say there’s an actual problem having to do with the widespread implementation of renewables, having to do with their intermittency and demand being real, as in DEMAND, NOW!, and somewhat variable. The solution posited, very often, is some kind of electrical storage. You mention damming the Ole Muddy, or maybe it’s making better use of the dams already there, I don’t know. That interests me. You are acknowledging, I take it, that intermittency is at least a potential issue with renewables. Another solution posited is expanding the use of electric vehicles a whole bunch and incorporating their electrical storage capabilities into the grid. So far: 1) Intermittency is a real problem that has to be solved before we can go the full monty with renewables; 2) There are, at least, potential solutions.

        1. Uahsenaa

          If we were talking about something like the Three Gorges plant on the Yangtze, you might have a point, but what hydro on the Miss would mean is a number (upwards of 29) of smaller plants along a large geographic expanse, which deals with two problems quite tidily. 1) distribution throughout the grid means the source of generation is much closer to where the power is being used, decreasing the number of potential faults along the transmission path and the need for fewer high voltage towers. 2) The catastrophic failure of any one plant can be mitigated by others nearby, so fewer brown-outs and blackouts overall. Plus, smaller individual plants can be eased into the grid rather than having to make a sudden switch over from one large, centralized generation plant to another.

          I’m not saying there wouldn’t be difficulties implementing hydro (political will being a major stumbling block), but both Brazil and China managed to create massive generation plants using the same basic tech used in the US (i.e. the Hoover Dam), so I don’t see why we wouldn’t at least try.

          1. jonboinAR

            Now, do you see this as possibly being used primarily as storage for renewable electrical generation? That would be exciting to me. People mention pumped storage a lot, but I can’t see it as being scalable.

          2. different clue

            Does “political will” mean the forcible destruction of millions of acres of farmland, wildlife habitat, towns/cities, etc. to drown them all under hundreds of new dams?

            1. Uahsenaa

              The Mississippi is, as I originally said, ALREADY DAMMED in many many places, as are many rivers in the US. It was done to make them navigable. They would need to be altered, of course, by the ecology would change very little.

        2. jonboinAR

          Another thing, though, none of the storage solutions I’ve heard of are exactly environmentally friendly. I don’t think, for example, that damming watersheds further can have a neutral impact. Manufacturing massive quantities of batteries necessitates, I think, an enormous increase in mining of certain metals. Etc. etc.

          1. rusti

            There was a big influx of news about 6 months ago about metal-free “Organic Flow Batteries” after a Harvard press release. Though anyone who follows battery news is used to seeing “the next big thing” every week or two.

          2. Uahsenaa

            Hydro and wind can be ramped up and down as needed, so, unlike, solar, require little in the way of storage. Hydro, however, does make use of pumped storage (of water) to smooth out the electrical flow, so there is a decent amount of electrical input back into the system.

            Increasing use of rare earths is, of course, problematic, but it would be nice if the conversations that take place in DC and statehouses revolved around those problems rather than how better to dig things out of the ground and burn them.

            1. different clue

              And of course hydro could be ramped down if rising windspeed allowed ramping up wind power fed into the same grid, thereby allowing a kind of storage through water not released through turbines to begin with when wind is blowing sufficiently.
              Providing a kind of passive “virtual pumped” storage right there.

    2. Expat

      In the industry, “baseload” is a term of art. The clearest explanation I have read was published a couple of years ago: The myth of baseload by David Brown Kinloch, July 12, 2011, http://www.kentucky.com/2011/07/12/1809690/the-myth-of-baseload.html

      As Kinloch explains it, “baseload” refers to demand for electricity, which is traditionally provided by the cheapest means. Shifting the definition of “baseload” from a concept of demand to a concept of supply has been immensely profitable for an industry unwilling to change. Evidence suggests that utility companies would rather overpay their executives than innovate and upgrade from behemoth centralized plants to more resilient, less polluting decentralized networks.

      Moreover, these utilities are terrified that the electricity consumer will wake up one day and realize that — unlike coal, gas, oil, and, yes, nuclear — wind and solar plant fuel is free and abundant. That is the day of reckoning the casual use of words like “baseload” is designed to delay.

  7. Mark from California

    To further amplify Yves’ comment that President Obama’s climate change policies contain “headfakes”: as noted in the article, the U.S. is now a net coal exporter. Per an article in today’s HuffPo (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/28/export-pollution-dirty-coal_n_5626093.html?utm_hp_ref=green), the U.S. in 2012 counted for 9% of worldwide coal exports, and U.S. west coast terminals have been recently built to handle increasing coal exports. By exporting its pollution, the Obama administration will be able to tout misleading domestic pollution reduction numbers. But what comes around goes around: coal combustion will affect people negatively where it’s burnt, and resulting pollution will spread over the atmosphere and come back in part to the U.S.

    1. Synapsid

      The US is not just a net exporter of coal–the US is the fourth largest exporter of coal in the world. The largest market for our exports is Europe.

      The IEA predicts that 70% of future increase in coal use will be in the Asia-Pacific region, and that’s likely to be the case. China, the largest coal user, is trying to reduce the rate of increase in its coal use; the result, though, will still be an increase. I expect that the major increase will occur in India and SE Asia, as the total population of India plus Indonesia alone (leaving out the rest of E and SE Asia) is 1.8 billion (China’s, remember, is 1.3 billion) and coal is the preferred fuel in the region. Populations are increasing throughout the region and I know of no plans there to limit that growth.

      1. different clue

        Didn’t China adopt a fairly rigid one-child-per-family policy which really did slow down its population growth?

  8. susan the other

    This was excellent info. Long, but not a wasted sentence. So I guess methane hydrates are solidified natural gas as opposed to LNG? The Japanese are working on it as a new source of fuel. They are mining it off the ocean floor. But bringing it up decompresses it and it just turns to vapor. Also, I watched a segment last nite on Archimedes’ water screws still in use today but in reverse as turbines in a stream making electricity for nearby buildings (Windsor Castle). Couldn’t every town on the Mississippi do that too? So much conventional electricity is lost in transmission, and so much NG is likewise lost in transmission (escaping as CH4) that it is probably far more inefficient and polluting than anyone, even this post, will dare to say. I don’t think we will be long for this earth if we do not find a substitute for electricity production that is efficient. But with irresponsible government refusing to take effective action on any issue, pretending that a free market will take care of it, conservation – mass conservation – is the only other alternative. Mass spontaneous conservation. I’m not holding my breath.

  9. docg

    So, if natural gas isn’t going to save us, and coal and oil are going to sink us, then I’m really curious to know what it is exactly that will liberate us from fossil fuels over the next hundred years or so. Nuclear power? Solar power? Wind power?

    Nuclear looks to be far more dangerous, potentially, than any other option, including fossil. Solar and Wind are definitely the future, but at present they just aren’t economically viable.

    Sure, we can drastically cut back on our fuel consumption, but only by issuing draconian laws that will be stubbornly resisted all over the world. Building more bicycle trails just isn’t going to cut it.

    So what is the solution? Totalitarian government? To save us from ourselves? Drastically raising the price of coal, oil and gas, which would be a death sentence for literally hundreds of millions at the bottom of the economic ladder worldwide?

    I’m seeing lots of gloom and doom about the effects of climate change all over the Internet, but the very few and far between solutions offered seem either naive or far fetched. I’m really curious to learn if anyone has actually come up with a truly viable solution that won’t be worse than the problem.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      Peter Dorman has a series of posts at econospeak.blogspot.com dealing, in his words, with “policies to combat climate change, with an emphasis on clearing away the misconceptions that have grown up around the subject and now practically strangle it”, This valuable series helped me to understand the issues and the directions that solutions might need to take. Of course, there doesn’t seem to be one simple elegant solution, but there are a number of things that might help in combination. Here is the link to the to the first post in Professor Dorman’s series, which supplies its own links to all the others:


      Even if the hyperlink does work when you click it, the address worked for me when I copied it and pasted it into my browser. I hope this helps.

    2. TimR

      I did not realize, until reading this article excerpted below, that JFK was a big supporter of nuclear power. I guess though, pre-Chernobyl, pre-Fukushima, there was much more optimism. Perhaps it could be the answer even despite those catastrophes, but has been intentionally stifled? Or are we not capable of harnessing it properly?

      This article is also fascinating in raising the point about how the World Wildlife Fund was created as a front to protect oligarchic wealth. This sort of strategy by the elites is critical to bear in mind when confronting an issue like AGW, which inspires well-meaning people to want to “do something.” That is when the shears come out, perhaps.

      Anton Chaitkin, “JFK vs. the Empire”

      John F. Kennedy’s Presidency announced to mankind that the 1960s and the life of the rising generation should be the era of peaceful cooperation to explore the stars, to advance man’s scientific powers, to end imperial resource-grabs and reverse colonial poverty.

      The British Crown disagreed.

      Two months after Kennedy’s inauguration, a royal family project issued a document aimed at organizing the ultra-rich and world opinion to prevent precisely this American objective.

      Their “Morges Manifesto” of April 29, 1961, proposed to deal with the “crisis” and “emergency” in the Congo and throughout Africa, and the “vast numbers” who “are losing their lives, or their homes, in an orgy of thoughtless and needless destruction.”

      But the “crisis,” in the British view, was that “advancing civilization” was bringing farms and dams to what they viewed as useless dark-skinned people. The dying “vast numbers” they were concerned about were animal wildlife—not impoverished humans.

      This was the founding document of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), whose founders were Prince Philip, consort of Queen Elizabeth II, and Prince Bernhard, husband of Netherlands’ Queen Juliana, and a former intelligence officer for Hitler’s SS.[17]

      The royals’ Manifesto stated that “a supporting Club of leading citizens of many countries, … an active group of men of affairs,” was to finance “an international Trust.” A “sort of ‘war room’ at the international headquarters” was to coordinate “all the main international bodies concerned in this world campaign … to raise massive support for the cause” of the royals’ new, Green movement, or “environmentalism. “

      The indicated sponsoring group, later called the “1001 Club,” was comprised of members of the financier families in the City of London, billionaire owners of natural resources in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, and leading strategists of imperial covert action.

      President Kennedy showed his dedication to the advancement of man’s powers over nature in his commitment to nuclear energy, based on the breeder reactor, fuel reprocessing, and the use of thorium, as well as uranium. Kennedy announced on Sept. 26, 1963, at the Hanford Nuclear station, that “by the end of this century … half of all electric energy generated in the United States will come from nuclear sources.” After 2000, virtually all new electric power installations would be nuclear.[18]

      As the use of nuclear power was being accelerated, Kennedy said at Hanford, “We must maintain an aggressive program to use our hydro resources to the fullest. Every drop of water which goes to the ocean without being used for power or used to grow, or being made available on the widest possible basis is a waste….” He supported the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) program to divert rivers from Arctic and North Pacific flow for the use of all North America.[19]

      1. different clue

        James Hansen the (now retired?) NASA climate scientist wrote recently a book called Storms Of My Grandchildren. I skimmed it recently. About in the middle were a sudden two pages about a potentially safe and controllable and low-waste kind of nuclear power called “fast neutron” or “fast” reactor, I believe. It used liquid sodium to move heat from reactor to water-into-steam pipes for driving turbines. He notes with great regret that the Fast Reactor program being developed at Argonne National Lab was very suddenly plug-pulled and all its data and findings were as wet-blanketed and cone-of-silenced as possible. He would like to see it revived. I am not going to try retyping two whole pages from memory so anyone interested in Hansen’s logic can read Hansen’s book Storms Of My Grandchildren.

        Here’s a PBS link about it . http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/interviews/till.html
        There was a Nova program about it too once.
        Here’s an Argonne site about it, so maybe it wasn’t as info-suppressed as Hansen says, just belligerently plug-pulled.

    3. Banger

      We have to remember that the mainstream media and it’s owners are totally opposed to renewable energy for political reasons and any info you gather from that source are misleading at best–I include here most work done in academia as well. Do you own research–the Zeitgeist movement has a lot of stuff online about renewables. We certainly, at minimum have the technology to radically reduce energy use and Germany has done a good job at gradually integrating renewables in its grid. In the U.S. energy companies have veto power over energy policy and information.

  10. Gaius Publius

    Really fine piece, and much to comment on.
    I want to point out this sentence (my emphasis):

    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.

    I think that’s the elephant in the room. I think it’s entirely possible that we can’t do both — (a) solve climate change while (b) maintaining our standard of living [and consumer growth]. We may have to admit that doing (b) means letting go of (a) — and just let go so we can move on.

    Consider the implications of that. To do the massive infrastructure conversion that a total switch away from carbon emissions in all forms will take, we probably have to absorb and redirect much of the wealth and productivity of the economy for at least 10 years. Think WWII and what happened to the consumer part of the economy. This doesn’t mean no growth (that’s a false characterization of what us climate types see or want). But it does mean that the growth doesn’t go into the big-screen, iPad sector.

    In some senses, that’s the real choice we’re facing — climate or better iPhones — and the BP & API ads (featuring LPL, my favorite lying person in a pantsuit) are selling that choice explicitly. (“Like that TV you’re watching? Here’s the mix of energy sources that keeps it lit and working.”)

    And I did say we need to absorb and repurpose both wealth and productivity. We’re going to have to reabsorb some of that carbon wealth. Some call that paying the “social cost of carbon.” I call it the “political price of making yourself so rich doing so many things wrong.” Think of it the way you think about re-confiscated drug wealth. If you did wrong to get it, you don’t automatically get to keep it.

    How to get there … I’ve long thought that the only good answer for those 10 years is something like a command situation, similar to FDR-era command New Deal (he had the political wind at his back, and that was much like a command economy as well); or like the actual command economy of WWII.

    Getting there would take some doing, but it’s not impossible. Who knows? if Miami goes under in the same year that the CA Central Valley runs out of water (or turns back into a salty marsh), maybe the whole country will start screaming for a gov’t solution, just like they always do in a time of national emergency.

    You never know what’s coming — after all Auburn did beat Alabama, right? And they did it using that old standby, by playing until the end of the game. (Of course, that’s another argument for not letting a Wall Street–soaked neoliberal privatizer coach the fourth quarter, but that’s a new subject.)

    Really like this piece. Thanks, Yves and Naomi.


    1. Lambert Strether

      I can see the “command economy” scenario, and perhaps that’s what Rubin, Paulsen et al have in mind for us. So who plays the FDR role? Corey Booker? He’s friends with private equity. Eric Schmidt, “CEO of America”? Sorry to seem dystopian; the coffee hasn’t fully kicked in.

      1. Gaius Publius

        You’re right, Lambert. The U.S. would have to “get lucky” four times running. First, George Washington, the man who would not be king, during the first revolution. Second, Abe Lincoln, during the second revolution. Third, FDR (for all his faults, he created the modern middle-class economy that Reagan took down), during the third revolution, which could have gone south a bunch of ways.

        So, what are the odds we’ll get something like someone who wants to do right in the next do-or-die emergency? Do we get an actual do-good person, or someone who wants to get paid for appearing to do good (like Booker)? It’s a crap shoot, but it may be the only shot we have.


    2. Gaius Publius

      Sorry, gang. I got my a’s and b’s backward. Fixed below:

      I think that’s the elephant in the room. I think it’s entirely possible that we can’t do both — (a) solve climate change while (b) maintaining our standard of living [and consumer growth]. We may have to admit that doing (a) means letting go of (b) — and just let go so we can move on.


    3. rusti

      I share your sentiment about Naomi’s post but couldn’t word it nearly as elegantly.

      To do the massive infrastructure conversion that a total switch away from carbon emissions in all forms will take, we probably have to absorb and redirect much of the wealth and productivity of the economy for at least 10 years.

      The encouraging thing is that our wealth and productivity is so horrendously allocated now that we’d probably be astonished at what could be accomplished if it were focused in this direction rather than waging wars and looting the commons. The scale of the disaster that it might take to trigger it is scary to think about though.

  11. Rosario

    Gas gets sucked out of the ground in a manner similar to oil, ergo, it is the hot new fuel source, and the new energy growth sector. All BS all day. A mountain of capital allows “extraction via pipe industries” (I don’t have a better phrase) to turn every problem into a hole in the ground. They will continue directing our irrational market this way until there isn’t a cubic meter of gas left. All I can hope is that these company’s mountains of money will eventually move toward sustainable energy sources before we have no more easily extractable fossil fuels. That is, unless our politics can be salvaged, and I’m not so hopeful here either.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      “Gas sucked out of the ground ….” is an interesting phrase, because, in truth, burning fossil fuel is not so much the cause of global warming as extraction of fossil fuel from the ground is. If all the natural gas and petroleum extracted from the ground were turned into road paving, plastic pipe, pharmaceuticals, and chemical fertilizer, it would still cause greenhouse gas accumulation when all that stuff degraded as part of the naturual carbon cycle.

      1. pretzelattack

        but the natural cycle takes a lot longer, and i don’t think it would cause as much as getting into the atmosphere where it traps heat.

        1. MaroonBulldog

          The carbon cycle will cycle all of it through the atmosphere, where it traps heat. More carbon in the cycle means more carbon in the atmosphere because carbon in the atmosphere is part of the carbon cycle.

          Yes, it will take longer to get into the atmosphere in the first case, but once it gets there, it will be in the cycle permanently, so it will make a permanent contribution to global warming.

          Taking longer just means the disaster will come more slowly.

  12. different clue

    Since methane itself is such a powerful warmer, keeping methane out of the atmosphere could be a short-term must-focus goal. That might involve raising prices and/ or taxes high enough to pay for leak-proofing every little bit of the whole natural gas chain.
    Since NOXs are also a more powerful warmer than CO2, reducing NOX emissions might also be a short-term must-focus goal. Part of the solution would be managing nitrogen in soil/agriculture well enough that none of it escapes the plants hungry roots and therefor none of it degrades into NOX gassing out of the soil into the air. I also read somewhere that old fashioned low-compression ICengines emitted much less NOXs than the high-compression ICengines of today. Is there a way to redesign a new generation of low compression ICengines to power redesigned vehicles on the lower levels of power which i gather the low compression ICengine can provide?

    1. Banger

      Brookings is a political institution with a particular constituency within the oligarchy and it is not and has not been credible about politically sensitive subjects.

    1. different clue

      In fact, now that I have read the entire article, the last few paragraphs strike me as moral purity stuff-strutting and veganazi special pleading and rampantly vegicidal anti-plantist animal-superiority chauvinism such as “mfoppe” or somebody offered us a few threads ago.
      But as I say, I offer the link. Make of it what one will.

  13. sd

    Sakhalin Island as an LNG source rarely gets mentioned. Yet, I’ve been wondering if there is any connection vis a vis the newly found open hostility to Russia.

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