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The dirtiest word in the climate lexicon
I’m going to tell a story about the week that should have been the worst ever for the oil industry, and actually may have turned out to be the best ever.
It’s December, 2015, and the world is focused on Paris, where climate negotiators from every nation on earth are on the verge of successfully hammering out a real agreement for the first time. And the language, at least, of that agreement is strong. The world’s nations declared that they were committed to:
Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change
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That language—especially the 1.5 degree pledge, included at the insistence of small-island and African nations who’d adopted the slogan “1.5 to Stay Alive”—has formed much of the climate change agenda in the years since, as countries and companies adopt policies designed to keep themselves within a “1.5 framework.” That should spell constant decline for the hydrocarbon industry.
Except that, that very same week, the U.S. Congress, with almost no notice or debate, did something that may completely undercut the chances for a 1.5 or even a 2 degree world. It repealed the longstanding ban on exporting U.S. oil abroad. The GOP-led House had passed a similar bill earlier in the fall, but it took concurrence from the Senate—and, in this case, from several key Democratic senators, who took a deal that extended “production tax credits” for wind turbines in exchange for lifting the export ban that had been in place since the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s.
I can remember sitting in a Paris cafe writing an oped against lifting the ban—Sierra Club ED Mike Brune, there in Paris with his family for the talks, edited and co-signed it with me.
Ending the oil export ban is a poor idea on many grounds: Unions oppose it because it will cost refinery jobs, conservationists oppose it because it will lead to more drilling in sensitive areas and increased pollution in communities of color. It makes a mockery of the idea that we're actually interested in "energy independence." We'd get 4,500 more rail cars a day full of explosive oil. It's such bad policy that 69 percent of Americans, across both parties, oppose lifting the ban.
Even as we worked on the piece, though, we knew it was likely a lost cause. Exxon wanted it (“the sooner this happens, the better for us,” its spokesman explained), and there was simply no way to rally a fight against the change with every environmental journalist on earth focused instead on the outcome of the Paris talks.
And so the ban was lifted, and the damage has been massive. America is now the largest exporter of gas and oil on earth, having roared past Russia and Saudi Arabia. What Colombia is to cocaine, the U.S. is to hydrocarbons—a supplier/pusher of molecules so dangerous that the two poles are now melting fast.
Sadly, the damage is set to get far worse: As Oil Change International said in a landmark September report, the US is responsible for more than a third of planned fossil fuel expansion around the world between now and 2030, far more than any other country. We are, it concluded, the “Planet Wrecker in Chief.” (The other biggest troublemakers include Canada, Norway, and Australia, which is to say rich well-educated countries that can find plenty of other ways to make a living).
Our status as planet-wrecker is most obvious when it comes to liquefied natural gas. I wrote a few weeks ago about the plans for 20 more massive LNG terminals, mostly along the Gulf of Mexico. The proponents justified them as “cleaner than coal,” arguing that gas would serve as a transition fuel in Asian nations; as I pointed out, the world no longer officially believes in this kind of transition, but instead is committed to net zero policies; the International Energy Agency has called for an end to all such new infrastructure.
But it turns out that even on those narrow grounds—”better than coal”—American gas exports are absurd. As I reported yesterday in the New Yorker, new data from the dean of methane scientists, Cornell’s Bob Howarth, shows that so much methane excapes from the ships carrying LNG abroad that when all is said and done it’s at least 24 percent worse for the climate than coal.
This new data perhaps will help persuade the Biden administration to do the right thing—to announce a halt to licensing any new LNG facilities until they have spent a few years doing a careful analysis to figure out what a piece of folly this is. And they can make that announcement with political cover: then as now, polling data shows Americans hate fracking up our nation only to export the results, understanding that it will drive up the cost of energy for Americans.
They must do it, because the numbers are simply astonishing. As Jeremy Symons has calculated, if the industry gets to build out all those facilities, they will be associated with an extra 3.2 billion tons of greenhouse-gas emissions annually, which is close to the entire annual emissions of the European Union. That is insane.
But Biden could—again, without doing himself political damage, and perhaps recouping some of the goodwill lost when he opened up Alaska to new oil drilling this summer—begin to stuff this export genie back into the bottle, undoing at least a little of the enormous damage that this Obama-era concession produced.
We’ve got to hold exporters responsible for the greenhouse gases those exports produce—otherwise we’re just paying games. America is number one here, a truly ignoble distinction. But that means that we have the single greatest remaining chance to limit the damage of fossil fuels. We’re very much in the endgame; the question is who will play it better. The oil industry won in 2015; they’ve got to lose in 2023.
In other energy and climate news:
+Also on LNG—the companies wanting to build these transit terminals are big on having US taxpayers foot the bill for their “carbon-capture” schemes—which, remember, don’t capture 99 percent of the greenhouse gases that the plants will be associated with.
+Students have filed legal complaints against six American universities for failing to divest their holdings in oil and gas stocks
“Fossil fuel companies have long engaged in a well-documented campaign to undermine climate science and distort public debate about how to deal with the climate crisis – including through efforts targeting Penn scientists and researchers,” University of Pennsylvania students wrote in their filing. “The industry’s spread of scientific misinformation undermines the work of Penn faculty and students who are researching and designing solutions for a sustainable future.”
The filings estimate that each of the schools has tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars invested in fossil fuels.
“If universities say, ‘We’re climate leaders, we stand for justice,’ but then on the other hand financially contribute to the climate crisis, we just see that as unacceptable,” said Moli Ma, an undergraduate student at Tufts, who helped lead the complaint against her university. “There’s an incongruence there. It doesn’t match up.”
+Those who have worked on climate action the last few decades will not be surprised to learn that their compatriots working to end factory farming of livestock have found the same barrier: a greenwashing machine that never quits:
The Dublin Declaration of Scientists on the Societal Role of Livestock, launched at the Irish government agricultural agency Teagasc in October last year, is a short document that argues for the nutritional, environmental and social benefits of meat-eating.
It says that livestock is “too precious to society to become the victim of simplification, reductionism or zealotry”.
It has been signed by over 1,000 scientists, and was covered by newspapers including the Telegraph and the New York Post, which headlined its piece: “Scientists blast ‘zealots’ pushing plant-based diets”.
But hundreds of pages of emails, meeting minutes and other documents obtained through freedom of information requests reveal that the Declaration was written, released and promoted by agribusiness consultants, and has been used by trade groups and lobbyists to oppose green policies in Europe.
+Doctors around the world issued an impassioned plea for climate action last week:
Global health bodies are demanding international governments urgently phase out fossil fuels and fast-track renewable energy as health professionals increasingly see patients suffering from harm caused by climate change.
The world’s leading GP and health bodies, representing more than three million health professionals worldwide, will deliver an open letter on Saturday calling for urgent action against climate change to protect the health of communities.
“We the family doctors, doctors and health professionals of the world call on world leaders to take urgent action to safeguard the health of global populations from the climate crisis,” the open letter reads.
+Author Andy Schmookler on the need to rethink the idea that we should have “dominion over” the natural world.
Unsurprising that things would change, given that Human Domination has accelerated to the point where our civilization
• supports a world population of 8 billion people, who
• utilize technologies unimaginable just a few generations ago, to
• operate an economy wielding undreamt of levels of productive power;
Unsurprising that -- with such rapidly expanding impact -- civilization has now visibly run up against a requirement of the systems of life so profound that irresponsibility has become a ticket to self-destruction.
+Those of you interested in the history of the climate movement might enjoy this movie documenting the march across Vermont that some of us organized in 2006, the precursor to 350.org. It’s beautifully captured by Jan Cannon, so donate a few dollars to him if you enjoy it.
+The new speaker of the House thinks SUVs have nothing to do with climate change, and also that environmentalists are the devil. I mean, okay, but it’s the oil industry that’s turning our planet into hell, no?
+Great news from Grist—a quiet is descending on more of the nation, as many communities enact bans against gas-powered leaf blowers:
Outright bans on the gas-powered machines have recently taken effect in Washington, D.C.; Miami Beach, Florida; and Evanston, Illinois. California will end the sale of gas-powered blowers next summer. Their hum will also be silenced in Portland and Seattle in the coming years. Barring a sudden acceptance of lawns scattered with leaves, rakes and battery-powered devices will slowly replace them.
Long the dream of noise-sensitive people everywhere, bans started taking off after pandemic lockdowns in 2020 forced office workers into their homes. Stuck in their neighborhoods all day, people discovered the beauty of birdsong, along with a newfound loathing for the whine of the leaf blowers.
+Bangladesh’s Saleemul Haq, one of the true veterans of the climate fight, died of a heart attack over the weekend at age 71. As the Washington Post recounts,
He was a leading advocate of requiring the world’s most developed, industrialized nations — those producing the most emissions — to compensate poorer countries for “loss and damage” from climate change.
He attended all 27 Conference of the Parties (COP) talks of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Last November, at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Dr. Huq was instrumental in obtaining an agreement to establish a loss and damage fund.
That accord culminated a 30-year quest to set up such a fund separate from money to be used to help countries adapt to climate change. But meetings and workshops are still underway to “design” the fund and resolve issues such as its location and contributors, said Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at the Climate Action Network. Among the other outstanding issues are how much money the fund would contain, who would benefit and who should run it.
+It’s possible that Sam Bankman Friend, among other depredations, may have figured out a way to set personal carbon emissions records: he was chartering private planes to fly his Amazon packages to the Bahamas more quickly.
+Hopefully the snows of November will soon begin to extinguish some of the wildfires still blazing across Canada. The Times has a remarkable writeup on the damage, physical and psychological
It was, all told, an ecologically unprecedented event. By the end of September, more than half of the world’s countries could fit inside the land burned this year in the Canadian wilderness. Since the 1970s, the average area burned in the country had already doubled; this year, wildfires consumed that average six times over. The modern single-year record had been set in 1989, when almost 19 million acres burned across the country. In 2023, the total has passed 45 million.
“I can’t think of any analogy for the extent to which the modern records were not only broken but destroyed here,” says the fire scientist John Abatzoglou, who in July told me that the 8.8 million hectares on fire was “chart redefining,” then watched as the burn area doubled from there. The fire historian Stephen Pyne calls it “mythology becoming ecology” — “a slow-motion Ragnarok.”
The climate activist Tzeporah Berman put it even more sharply to me: “It’s like our country exploded.”
+The Post’s Shannon Osaka is very much worth reading on the phenomenon of climate scientists getting ever more politically outspoken.
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