By Mitch Jones
Earlier this month, NASA confirmed that February was the hottest month ever recorded. The previous warmest month ever recorded was January. February was 0.2°C warmer. Having just ended the hottest year on record, 2016 is looking like it will easily set a new mark. Climate scientists are alarmed. Jeff Masters and Bob Henson at Weather Underground claim, “We are now hurtling at a frightening pace toward the globally agreed maximum of 2.0°C warming over pre-industrial levels.”
This news should make clear the need to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels. Along those lines, a recent Democratic presidential debate featured a question about the candidates’ positions on fracking. The calls to ban fracking brought out the usual tut-tutting in the media, even in some unusual places.
A piece published by Mother Jones tries out the old line that banning fracking would “make global warming worse.” The piece suggests that decreases in greenhouse gas emissions are a result of a switch from burning coal to burning natural gas. But in fact, a report last year already showed that the decrease is tied to the recession, not to increased use of fracked gas. What’s worse, the argument relies on a false choice: Either we burn more coal or we burn more fracked gas. The idea that we must choose our poison ignores the urgency with which we must transition to 100% renewable energy and keep fossil fuels in the ground. Coal versus natural gas is not a choice; it’s a death sentence for our planet.
It has become increasingly clear that irreparable harm will be done to our climate with just 1.5°C in overall warming. A 2015 study found that even warming below 2°C could lead to “abrupt shifts in sea ice and ocean circulation patterns as well as abrupt shifts in vegetation and the terrestrial cryosphere [including polar ice caps, glaciers, tundra, etc.].” Even below 1.5°C in warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted “recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems,” including violent storms, droughts, floods, acidifying and rapidly warming oceans, and altered growing seasons.
Locking ourselves into a coal versus fracked gas mentality dooms us to the chaotic climate change that is looming just past 1.5°C.
The IPCC has established a carbon budget that shows the futility of engaging in this debate. The IPCC stated that to have a better than 66 percent chance of avoiding a 1.5°C rise in temperature, only about 400 gigatonnes (Gt, or trillion kilograms) of carbon dioxide could be emitted, starting in 2011. Roughly 180 Gt of carbon dioxide was emitted from burning fossil fuels between 2011 and 2015. Given those emissions only about 220 Gt of carbon dioxide can be emitted if we are to have a decent chance of avoiding 1.5°C of warming. That is equivalent to about five more years of emissions under current trends.
Extracting and burning unconventional natural gas (shale gas, tight gas and coalbed methane from fracking) would add 5,600 Gt of carbon dioxide emissions to our atmosphere. If we add in conventional, unfracked natural gas, we would add another 800 Gt of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s 6,400 Gt in potential carbon dioxide emissions just from burning natural gas.
To debate between burning coal and burning natural gas is to fail to see that to continue burning any fossil fuels will lead to climate chaos, and the news from NASA just makes the case even more urgent.
The same power building movement that made fracking a debate topic can speed our transition to keeping all fossil fuels in the ground and getting our energy from renewable sources. We know what must be done. Wind and solar power built out on a scale that rivals recent U.S. drilling and fracking. We must invest in expanded and better public mass transit. We need committed investments in energy efficiency and conservation across residential and industrial sectors. And, we need to end to the era of extracting and burning fossil fuels.
This requires a sense of urgency that is totally lacking in handwringing debates about which fossil fuel to burn. It requires a movement organizing grassroots power to force our elected officials – local, state, and federal – to push for policies that drive the transition to a clean energy future.