[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Here's a mid-summer offer that, I hope, appeals. For a $75 contribution to TomDispatch, you can get a signed, personalized copy of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future, the ingenious little book Naomi Oreskes has co-authored with Erik Conway. It offers a look back at global warming and humanity from the point of view of a historian of 2393. Written by two historians of science who couldn't be more knowledgeable, it's both a must-read in terms of our present crisis and a genuinely fascinating sci-fi-style scenario about one possible future we could face. The offer will remain open for a week. It's also your chance to keep TomDispatch rolling along! If you're interested, check out our donation page for the details by clicking here.]
Call it the energy or global warming news of recent weeks. No, I'm not referring to the fact this was globally the hottest June on record ever (as May had been before it), or that NASA launched the first space vehicle "dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide." Nor do I mean the new report released by a "bipartisan group," including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and three former secretaries of the treasury, suggesting that, by 2100, $238 billion to $507 billion worth of American property will be "below sea level"; nor that Virginia's coastline is already being eaten away by rising seas and storm-surge destruction in such a striking manner that state Democrats and Republicans are leaving global warming denialists in the lurch and forming a climate change task force to figure out what in the world to do.
No, I was referring to the news that the Obama administration has just reopened the eastern seaboard to offshore oil and gas exploration. To the extent that this has been covered, the articles have generally focused on the economic positives -- for jobs and national wealth -- of finding new deposits of oil and gas in those waters, and the unhappiness of the environmental community over the effect of the sonic booms used in underwater seismic exploration on whales and other sea creatures. Not emphasized has been the way, from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, not to speak of the shale-gas fracking fields of this country, the Obama administration has had an all-of-the-above policy on fossil fuels. Our "global warming" president has consistently championed reforms (of a modest sort) to combat climate change. These, however, fit uncomfortably with his administration's anything-goes menu of oil and gas exploration and exploitation that is distinctly in the drill-baby-drill mode. Unlike that drill-baby-drill proponent Sarah Palin, however, the president knows what he's doing and what the long-term effects of such policies are likely to be.
Part of the way he and his officials seem to have squared the circle is by championing their moves to throttle coal use and bring natural gas, touted as the "clean" fossil fuel, to market in a big way. As it happens, historian of science Naomi Oreskes, an expert on the subject, has news for the president and his advisors: when looked at in a clear-eyed way, natural gas isn't going to turn out to be the fossil-fuel equivalent of a wonder drug that will cure the latest climate disease. Quite the opposite: its exploitation will actually increase the global use of fossil fuels and pump more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, while possibly suppressing the development of actual renewable alternatives. In a magisterial piece today, she explores every aspect of the crucial question of why natural gas is anything but a panacea for our climate change problems.
This couldn't be more important. Science historians Oreskes and Erik Conway have already written a classic book, Merchants of Doubt, on how Big Energy and a tiny group of scientists associated with it sold us a false bill of goods on the nature and impact of its products (as the tobacco industry and essentially the same set of scientists had before it). Together, they have now produced a little gem of a book on climate change: The Collapse of Western Civilization: a View From the Future. Written, so the claim goes, in 2393 by a "senior scholar of the Second People's Republic of China," it traces the events that led to the Great Collapse of 2090. You haven't heard of that grim event yet? Well, you will as soon as you pick up Oreskes's and Conway's "thought-provoking" and gripping work of "science-based fiction" on what our future may have in store for us -- if we don't act to change our world. Tom
Wishful Thinking About Natural Gas
Why Fossil Fuels Can't Solve the Problems Created by Fossil Fuels
By Naomi Oreskes
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% 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 NiÃ±o 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.