Averting Climate Chaos
Climate change has been in the news lately, partly due to Donald Trump’s attacks on science. Still, there’s little mention of the extreme urgency or the key drivers of the crisis. And nobody’s telling us the very hopeful news that scientists recently learned how to lower the risk of total chaos: reduce methane emissions from fracking. Here’s what the leading science says on critical fronts: An unprecedented, three-year global heat wave continues, with 2016 breaking the all-time average heat record set the year before. Weather extremes increasingly ravage communities worldwide, including a series of floods that hammered eastern North Carolina last fall, followed by devastating wildfires in our mountains. The incredible rate of recent warming is largely due not to the usual suspect, carbon dioxide, but to the build-up of super-potent methane, which traps 80 to 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Methane (natural gas) is spewing into the air from the U.S. fracking boom, which is driven by the massive expansion of gas-burning by Duke Energy and other utilities.
The “point of no return,” beyond which ongoing global suffering would intensify to even higher levels, through runaway heating and cascading weather disasters, will arrive within a very few years.
We can—and must—slow global warming by curbing methane emissions from the natural gas industry. Simultaneously, we must call out the Koch brothers, Duke Energy executives and others who are impeding the growth of cheaper renewables so they can keep building fracked-gas power plants and raising customer rates. Why isn’t our society discussing this?
The fracking boom of recent years—which poisons air and water in thousands of communities and causes earthquakes—has also accelerated the climate crisis at the worst possible time. The good news is that scientists say reducing methane emissions can slow warming in the crucial short term, buying more time to replace fossil fuels with renewables and slowing deforestation.
Capturing the large amounts of methane leaking and being vented into the air from outdated equipment and lax practices in the natural gas industry is cost-effective and creates jobs, as documented by the Environmental Defense Fund. But gas and power industry executives are fighting against regulation. Are they also suppressing the methane-climate discussion? Since 2015, NC WARN has worked with Cornell scientists and others to foster open public discussion of how the gas and electric industries’ methane pollution is driving the climate crisis. Fracking propaganda sells shale gas as “energy security” and a “cleaner-burning bridge fuel” between coal and renewables when, in reality, methane emissions make fracked gas three times as bad for the climate as coal.
Even as bizarre U.S. weather has ranged from prominent to dominant in the media for years, a gauzy veil somehow disconnects the devastation—and the balmy North Carolina winter—from well-documented climate changes that are accelerating. North Carolina desperately needs debate about what this state can do to help slow the asteroid, not least because we’re home to Duke Energy. The largest U.S. carbon polluter remains a clean energy laggard—with renewable power still less than one percent of its generation in the Carolinas—despite the prodigious green-washing ads.
Ready for the sci-fi plot twist? The massive shift by power companies to burn more fracked gas is premised on industry claims that underground supplies are virtually infinite, a gross exaggeration considered “pixie dust” by prominent analysts who warn that the shale gas supply is a fraction of what the industry and its captive regulators allege. In fact, fracked gas production peaked in February 2016 despite enhanced techniques to squeeze more gas from the shale rock. So, with runaway climate chaos approaching, methane reduction and renewable energy solutions are being blocked as Duke Energy executives, the Kochs and others are gambling humanity’s future on a fracked-gas Ponzi scheme. There might be just enough shale gas to push us over the climate cliff—then we’re out of gas as social chaos accelerates. In North Carolina, our Duke-friendly Utilities Commission has twice refused to even allow debate of the fracked gas supply question despite its impacts on reliability and price, saying it’s not relevant to Duke Energy’s plans to build 20 fracked gas-fired power plants and a $5 billion pipeline.
“We’re running out of time”
Trump voters and climate deniers didn’t create this emergency. For years, our society has dodged open debate and engagement. Now, as climatologist James Hansen says, “We’re running out of time.”
We need more scientists, civic leaders and people of conscience to demand honest debate of these critical questions. North Carolinians might not be able to move Trump, but we can impact decisions made in Charlotte and Raleigh by Duke Energy executives and their undue control over state government.
Shifting to clean energy won’t be easy, but decarbonizing the Carolinas will be good for our economy, as being proven by renewable energy and storage solutions being deployed in free markets.
We simply cannot continue allowing key decisions to be determined by corporate influence instead of democratic debate. We must take a moral stand or choose to gradually succumb to the western fires, eastern floods, food disruption, rising seas, and growing social and economic chaos. Climate scientists say it’s not too late to avert runaway catastrophe. But doing so will require curbing both methane emissions and corporate domination of our society.
Changing light bulbs helps but is not enough to offset the suffering of humanity and all of nature that’s accelerating due to the theft of our democracy by corporate bosses. Right now is the time to rise past our apathy, fear and distraction and embrace this unprecedented challenge together.
Jim Warren is Executive Director of NC WARN.