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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 5/14/21

It's Time to Kick Gas

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And do it as quickly as possible.

Break Free from Coal activism.
Break Free from Coal activism.
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We're used to the idea that CO2 -- one carbon atom, two oxygen atoms -- is a dangerous molecule. Indeed, driving down carbon-dioxide emissions has become the way that many leaders and journalists describe our task. But CH4 -- one carbon atom combined with four hydrogen atoms, otherwise known as methaneis carbon dioxide's evil twin. It traps heat roughly 80 times more efficiently than carbon dioxide does, which explains why the fact that it's spiking in the atmosphere scares scientists so much. Despite the pandemic lockdown, 2020 saw the largest single increase in methane in the atmosphere since we started taking measurements, in the 1980's. It's a jump that, last month, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called "fairly surprising and disturbing."

If there's any good news, it's that the spike in methane doesn't -- yet -- seem to be coming in large percentages from the runaway melt of methane-ice formations beneath the polar oceans or those in tundra soils. That would be a nightmare scenario because there wouldn't be anything we could do about it -- it's global heating on automatic. For the moment, most of the increase seems to be from sources we can control: rice paddies, livestock, and, especially, the rapid rise in drilling and fracking for gas. .Two decades ago, people thought that natural gas, though a fossil fuel, might help slow climate change because, when you burn it in a power station, it produces less carbon than burning coal does.

Now we understand that natural gas -- which is primarily made of methane -- leaks unburned at every stage from fracking to combustion, whether in a power plant or on top of your stove, in sufficient quantities to make it an enormous climate danger. The Trump Administration abandoned any effort even to reduce that leakage, an absurd gift to the fossil-fuel industry that the Biden Administration is preparing to take away. But plugging leaks isn't enough: we've got to stop producing natural gas as quickly as possible, and replace it with renewables that generate neither carbon nor methane. As I wrote last month, that's now entirely possible; sun and wind power have become so cheap so fast that they're more economical than gas, and batteries are coming down the same kind of cost curve, so nightfall is no longer the problem it once was.

But there are other reasons to kick gas. A report from Australia's Climate Council, released last week, finds that the health impact of having a gas cooktop in your home is roughly equivalent to having a cigarette smoker puffing away in the corner, and accounts for about 12 percent of childhood asthma. "It's odourless, it's invisible, it's a bit of silent enemy," the C.E.O. of Asthma Australia said. "People might feel differently if they understood that their gas appliances were emitting a range of toxic substances." That is why the gas industry has lobbied so hard to prevent that perception. In at least 14 U.S. states, the industry lobby is pushing bills that would prevent local governments from restricting the use of gas; a particular threat comes from the new appliances -- chiefly air-source heat pumps and water heaters, and induction cooktops -- that are now widely available and increasingly cheap.

(Even the Wall Street Journal, whose opinion pages unfailingly defend the oil-and-gas industry, admitted in a review that induction cooking is "safer and faster than gas.") Indeed, leaked documents obtained last week by E&E News show that 15 big gas utilities have mounted a Consortium to Combat Electrification. "None of these companies want to write their own obituary," Deborah Gordon, a former petroleum engineer now at the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank, said. "If you're going to bend this curve, and we bend it quickly, there are going to be casualties. Some will transform, some will consolidate, some will go away."

At the moment, however, they're still very much here, and they might as well call the effort a Consortium to Promote Asthma and Melt the Poles. But, if we can kick gas quickly, there's some hope that lies in the structure of that CH-4 molecule: it only lasts about 10 years in the atmosphere, as opposed to a century for carbon dioxide. This means that, if we can somehow reduce emissions dramatically, it will fade fast, buying us a little time to take on carbon. "If we can make a big enough cut in methane in the next decade, we'll see public-health benefits within the decade, and climate benefits within two decades," Drew Shindell, an earth scientist at Duke University who has worked extensively on methane, told the Times. But it had better happen fast. Here's Euan Nisbet, a climate scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London, reacting to last month's news of spiking methane levels: "I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was this bad. This breaks my heart."

Passing the Mic

Christina Conklin, an artist, writer, and researcher, and Marina Psaros, a sustainability expert, will publish "The Atlas of Disappearing Places: Our Coasts and Oceans in the Climate Crisis" in July. With maps and text, it explores port cities and coastlines that may be obliterated by rising seasShanghai, Houston, New York, the Cook Islands, and Bến Tre, in Vietnam. I spoke with Conklin, who lives next to the Pacific, in Half Moon Bay, California. (Our conversation has been edited.)

Humans built many of their most important settlements along the ocean for obvious reasons, but how should we be thinking about that now?

The hard truth is that seas are going to rise for centuries to come -- it could be at least three feet this century and much more after that. This is difficult to absorb, but we need to have realistic, civic conversations about moving to higher ground in the coming decades. Water always finds its level, so we will need to rebuild over time, finding ways to fairly relocate vulnerable communities away from flood zones.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
 
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