The Greenhouse Gangplank
Few challenges are more urgent than climate change, which the Pentagon and many other national-security experts describe as the nation’s top security threat. Yet Michael Levi [“Fracking and the Climate Debate,” Issue #37] says we should replace coal with gas and “shouldn’t bet on” reaching a 100 percent renewable-energy standard by 2050, even though it’s quite feasible.
The problem with betting on natural gas is the huge amount of methane released during fracking and other stages of the production and distribution process. Levi claims methane’s short lifetime limits its impact on climate change. Yet its heat-trapping potency is 85 to 105 times more powerful than CO2 during the first 20 years after being emitted—i.e., the time period most critical to stopping climate change from irreversibly spiraling out of control. We are closing in on climate pollution levels that could put us over a “tipping point” to cascading consequences.
Levi also gives gas too much credit for reducing climate pollution. The CO2 Scorecard Group has concluded that substituting gas for coal accounted for just 11 percent of the decline in U.S. CO2 emissions between 2006 and 2011, while “both renewables and energy efficiency measures independently outperform the CO2 savings from coal-to-gas displacement.” U.S. emissions actually rose 2.9 percent in 2013, largely due to increased methane emissions.
Newly proposed regulations could reduce methane emissions from fracking and other point sources, but no one knows exactly how much methane pollution there is to begin with. The new regulations could be partially offset by increased production, riddled with exemptions, and weakened or delayed by legal challenges and attacks on enforcement budgets. Given the stakes, the new methane regulations are necessary but not enough. We also need a moratorium on new fossil fuel leases, a carbon tax, and policies that level the playing field for renewables.
Like coal, gas enjoys a significant share of the $5 trillion in subsidies that the IMF estimates fossil fuels receive each year. Levi says drilling is the biggest cost factor, yet tax rules allow the industry to write off as much as 70 percent of its exploration and development costs. The good news is that renewables are quickly becoming cheaper than anyone predicted, and storage technologies are being rapidly developed, commercialized, and mandated by governments, which could soon obviate the need for new gas-generated power. When utility commissions factor in the social costs of carbon, renewables are consistently cheaper.
Meister Consultants Group recently compared U.S. Energy Information Administration and other past projections, concluding that Greenpeace’s description of the global path to nearly 100 percent renewables by 2050 most accurately predicted the recent explosion in clean energy. Natural gas is not a “bridge fuel” to a carbon-free future, as Levi asserts. It’s actually a greenhouse gangplank. We need to stop walking toward the edge and turn around.
Research Specialist, Greenpeace
This is one of the most insightful articles I’ve ever read [“Our Puritan Heritage,” Issue #37].
I spent five years at Groton, as a token middle-class Jew, and agree completely with Jim Sleeper. It was a monastery in my time—really, more an orphanage—filled with boys with dazzlingly famous last names. The tension between piety and plutocracy was still strong in 1965 when I arrived, the year after Reverend Jack Crocker left. He famously took 50 boys to march with Martin Luther King Jr. in Boston in 1963.
Success is valued much more than principled stands nowadays. Since the school went co-ed in 1975, babies and balancing family and career are the only issues discussed in the alumni magazine. Like the rest of journalism, it’s written for a hip, 25-year-old, careerist woman who, to be fair, had no place in the Puritan compact.
David W. Moskowitz, M.D.
A Broken System
Nice sentiments, but our policies need substantial attention and improvement [“Shared Security, Shared Growth,” Issue #37]. The only nod to retirement is a match to a 401(k)? The 401(k) system has demonstrably failed, and shouldn’t be endorsed.
More importantly, there are alternatives to help secure retirement being proposed, including a second layer on Social Security, Teresa Ghilarducci’s proposal for secure retirement accounts, etc. Several states (California, Maryland, Connecticut) are taking these ideas up.
While the spirit behind the article is appreciated, the authors need to do more policy homework and not recommend programs like the 401(k) that have helped get us into this mess and cannot get us out.
Jersey City, N.J.