Blair Horner: The Reality Of Climate Change Clashes With Fossil Fuel Expansion

Oct 14, 2019

The United Nations’ Climate Action Week wrapped up with intense speeches, promises and emotional pleas for action.  Here in New York, the battle over how best to respond to the unfolding climate catastrophe is intensifying.

Let’s start with the science. 

Since the beginning of industrialization in the second half of the 18th century, humans have released so much CO2 into the atmosphere that the global average temperature has increased by around 1 degree Celsius (nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit).  And temperatures currently continue to rise by a further 0.2 degrees Celsius each decade.  The amount of carbon dioxide in the air—the key metric of greenhouse gas pollution over time—is at 408 parts per million, well beyond the safe level of 350 ppm and 46% more than pre-industrial level of 280 ppm.

The consequences of global warming have long since become tangible in the form of heat waves, rising oceans, floods and droughts.  And the costs could be much more dramatic, far-reaching and lasting than anything the civilized world has ever had to contend with.  Heatwaves, droughts, storms, forest fires, floods, disruption to the entire food chain: The impacts are becoming more visible all the time.

In October 2018, the world’s climate experts (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) issued a report examining whether the world will meet the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times—a target contained in the 2015 Paris Agreement.  Their conclusion was that every nation needs to do a lot more, much more than they are currently doing.

According to the experts, there is only one way to meet the 1.5-degree goal: the world’s CO2 emissions must be cut nearly in half by 2030.  By middle of this Century at the latest, the world must reach a carbon "net zero."  That means that if CO2 is released at all, the same amount must be removed from the atmosphere.  If the climate warms by 2 degrees Celsius (nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit), the future looks even more dire.

Two degrees would mean a complete destruction of the coral reefs, huge crop losses, the melting of the Greenland icepack and catastrophic threats to millions of people.

It bears noting that more recently climate scientists have stated that the climate crisis is accelerating even faster than they believed and that things are perhaps even more dire than the 2018 report indicated.

Which brings us to the fight in New York.

Despite the growing existential climate crisis, some continue to advance plans seemingly without concern for the consequences.

For example, National Grid—a United Kingdom company which provides power to much of New York State, wants to build a new $1 billion natural gas pipeline under the Hudson River. The rationale for this expansion is that the company expects there to be a 10 percent increase in gas demand over the next decade due to a growing New York's economy and as building owners stop using oil as a source of heat.  

The pipeline would take time to build and would have to operate for decades for its investors to make a profit from the construction of the pipeline.  Organizations concerned about the threat posed by the burning of fossil fuels have opposed the plan (and others like it) stating that expansion of the use of any fossil fuel makes no sense due to the growing threat from global warming.  Governor Cuomo has pledged to block the pipeline.

What should be done?  Instead of building new natural gas hook-ups, many customers should look at relying on electricity for their needs.  While much of the power for electric use comes from polluting sources, ultimately those will be replaced with renewable sources and thus building for that future makes more sense than building out new fossil fuel infrastructure.

No one is arguing that people should stop driving cars, turn off the lights, eat only cold foods and live in homes with freezing or hot temperatures.  But the planet must stop building for a fossil fuel future.  The fossil fuel era, like the steam engine before it, has passed.  We are now living with the consequences.  It’s time to focus our resources and planning on a non-fossil fuel future.

New York cannot invest in long-term fossil fuel capital projects at the same time that state law mandates a rapid transition to renewable energy in all sectors—housing, transportation and industrial and commercial.  The policy in New York is settled and we must move quickly away from fossil fuels.  As the world’s experts have said, there is no time to waste.  Actions to curb such use must be taken now.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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