Earth to DNC: We need a price on carbon

The Democratic National Committee’s platform committee has been at loggerheads about climate and energy. It’s not even a glass 1/2-full scenario. According to Inside Climate News. John Cushman, Jr. writes,

The committee drafting a platform for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party unanimously called on Friday for the Justice Department to investigate fossil fuel companies, such as ExxonMobil Corp., accused of misleading shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change.

At the same time, in a session Friday night, the group brushed off calls by environmental activists for the platform to support several stronger actions to move away from fossil fuels. The policies, favored by Bernie Sanders, include a carbon tax and a ban on fracking.

The effect of the session, one of several forums around the country, was to intensify the partisan heat around criticism of Exxon’s climate record, while allowing the Clinton camp to stake out political territory that is not quite so harsh on oil, coal and natural gas companies.

Some context. As of May we had a run of thirteen heat record-setting months. If you’re under 31 you’ve never experienced a year with heat below the average since records were kept. You have lived in an atmosphere with an ever-thickening and warming blanket of carbon dioxide, methane, and greenhouse gases coming from us burning fossil fuels, deforesting, and engaging in carbon-polluting agriculture.

If we are to meet the aspirational goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a limit that might prevent disastrous impacts to poor and low-lying island nations, we have between about 5 years (66% chance) and 16 years (33% chance) of fossil fuels to burn at current levels. In a year when we have seen an alarming melt in the Arctic and a melting spike in Greenland, the “fundamentally unstable” Antarctic ice sheet from warming, news of the pending migration of United States climate refugees from Louisiana and Alaskan coastal islands, and record floods in West Virginia and Texas, there’s some clear problems to the Democratic National Committee’s lack of action. The lack of action by the DNC will make every one of those problems worse.

Well, on the brighter side, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both put out platforms championing renewable energy like solar PV and wind as well as increased energy efficiency in buildings. And as Inside Climate News reported, the DNC has taken aim at fossil fuel corporations for covering up what they new about climate change and misleading their investors in the risks their business (and thereby our carbon-intensive lives) pose to us. We should all be glad to see action on #ExxonKnew reaching the federal Justice Department. These are both necessary for us to clean up the energy sector, but insufficient to materially slow and eventually stop carbon emissions.

During the DNC sessions, Michael Mann, Bill McKibben, and a handful of others described the necessity for rapid cutting carbon emissions. Mann said, “If we are going to tackle this problem, we will need a price on carbon.” Sanders has consistently argued for this position. Clinton has not. They’ve acquiesced to that thing called “political reality” that stops pushing for what is good for the country and the world because extremist fossil fuel peddlers have rigged the Congress against people and the planet. Political reality, I’m sorry to say, is politically easy and lacks courage. It’s all the more mind-boggling that Clinton has stayed quiet on putting a price on carbon when economists, environmentalists, conservative business leaders like Mike Bloomberg and Hank Paulson, and former Reaganite George P. Schultz all agree would start curbing carbon emissions. It’s not called risky business for no reason.

The DNC have also refused to incorporate a ban on fracking in the platform. We know that Clinton boosted fracking on her visits abroad. She is among the good-meaning Democrats who believe that we can reduce our carbon footprints by burning natural gas. This is misguided because it ignores or puts off big problems.

Burning natural gas produces about half of the carbon dioxide that burning coal produces. That leads some to conclude fracked natural gas is useful in preventing further climate change.  But here’s the rub: fugitive methane emissions. Methane is 72 to 105 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide twenty years and 20 times as potent over 100 years. Measurements of fugitive methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure are disputed, but a recent study concludes that the energy sector accounts for about 84% of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas. The United States Greenhouse Gas Inventory shows that 33% natural gas industry’s emissions come from gathering and boosting, 14% from processing, 33% from transmission and storage, and 20% from distribution. Much of that leakage comes from compressors and compressor stations (43%) and leaking cast iron and steel pipe and service lines (33%).  Of those emission 60% are accidental or fugitive and 40% are deliberately vented. The majority of this gas in the United States comes from fracking operations today. According to well-known but hotly contested and unpopular studies by Robert Howarth, fracking operations they could be driving climate change worse than coal is. And I’ve said nothing about the community, land, seismic, air, or water impacts from fracking operations.

Natural gas has been boosted as a bridge fuel. It looks, as many observers have called it, to be a bridge to nowhere, not a bridge to cleaner renewable energy. I myself support a fracking ban and a rapid transition to cleaner renewable energy though a set of policies more or less on the lines of the Solutions Project. If we are not going to get a ban, then we need regulations that would curtail the availability of fracked gas to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Clinton’s and the DNC’s climate and energy platforms are talking out of both sides of their mouths. This isn’t very different from the Democratic platforms of the past. I’m not that surprised. But it is still disappointing. And what makes it so much more disappointing is that we have the tools right here today to work this out. Wind, solar, and energy efficiency technologies hooked can be deployed rapidly. A carbon tax could help fund such endeavors while we take down fossil fuel subsidies. Add to that smarter stewardship of our agricultural and forested lands and the United States could become the world’s healthiest and greenest economy while remaining vibrant and powerful. The DNC could do this. So far, it has not. They need to hear our voices.

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