the convert still peddles fossil fuels

August 3, 2012


At the Stop the Frack Attack, protesters called for a fossil-free future.
//photo by Ruth Alice White

 “The conversion of a climate skeptic” was the headline for the New York Times op-ed Sunday. Richard Muller, founder with his daughter of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, wrote that his “total turnaround” was the result of “careful and objective analysis” of the data that indicate “that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.”

Also big news, back in October, was his initial pronouncement. Here was a global warming skeptic, funded in part by the climate-change-denying Koch Foundation, who affirmed the findings from NASA and NOAA and most other climate scientists. Not until his latest essay, however, did he go so far as to say that humans and their CO2 emissions were the culprit.

Muller’s latest declaration, though welcome in a scientists-told-you-so sort of way, is in some sense a Trojan horse. In an interview on the Canadian radio program “As It Happens,” his Koch-funded allegiances seem to surface. The convert says the only way to stop the warming is to get off coal and switch to … FRACKING. Oh, wait, he calls it “clean fracking.”

His biggest concern is China. By the end of the year, China’s CO2 emissions will be about twice that of the United States, he said on the program. “The most important thing we can do is switch the world economy as rapidly as possible from coal to natural gas,” because of the lower CO2 emissions. “The best thing we can do is expedite [China’s] shift from dirty coal to clean fracking.”

In an interview with Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now!,” he acknowledged that: “[I]n the U.S. a lot of people say fracking is bad. It’s dirty, which is true, and it’s a fossil fuel. Well, China can’t afford, will not be able to afford massive solar or wind for several decades. In the meantime, soon they’ll be producing more carbon dioxide per person than we are. … Anything we do in the U.S., if we ignore China, it is not really addressing the problem.”

All points well-taken. But the fear among environmentalists and people living in the shale regions is that “clean” and “fracking” haven’t and won’t ever end up in the same sentence, much less the same community. At first, natural gas looked like a good bet until renewables could come on line, but then came accidents, stories of sick people, dead animals and bubbling, brown and/or flaming tap water. The fracking industry’s exemptions from federal environmental regulations provide giant wastewater-pit-sized loopholes. State regulators can’t keep pace, and some scientists are concerned about methane, the shorter-lived but more potent greenhouse gas linked to fracking for natural gas. Other problems include fragmentation of land, diesel pollution and inadequate techniques for handling the wastewater, which is full of cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting chemicals from the fracking fluid plus radioactive substances that had been locked deep underground. The climate is warming so much more quickly than anticipated that some studies show that switching to natural gas won’t lower CO2 emissions nearly fast enough to avert the worst consequences of our fossil-fuel habit anyway.

That is one point of Bill McKibben’s recent must-read article in Rolling Stone. Reacting to Muller’s reversal, McKibben, the founder of, said on “Democracy Now!”: “It’s scientifically not very interesting because most scientists figured it out 20 years ago, and all [Muller] has done is confirm their work. Politically, it’s interesting because we’re reaching the point where even industry-funded deniers can’t with a straight face say that [the Earth] is not warming.”

McKibben’s Rolling Stone article focuses on three numbers: 2 degrees Celsius, the amount of extra warming human civilization can tolerate, maybe; 565 gigatons, the amount of CO2  we can still add to atmosphere and stay below the 2 degrees Celsius; and 2,795 gigatons, the amount of proven coal, oil and gas reserves owned by fossil fuels companies and company-like countries, such as Venezuela and Iraq. The London-based Carbon Tracker Institute’s calculations aren’t perfect, McKibben says, and don’t “fully reflect the recent surge in unconventional energy sources like shale gas” or some coal reserves. But, he says, “the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher. … We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn.”

At this stage of the climate crisis, McKibben says in the” Democracy Now!” interview, “What needs to be adapted are the business plans of the fossil-fuel industry. They need to stop exploring for more hydrocarbons, they need to stop warping our democracy by buying off the House and the Senate, and instead, we need to put a — I mean, the most obvious thing to do, what every economist now for 20 years has been saying … is put a stiff price on carbon to reflect the damage that it does. And that’s one of the things we work on at”

In addition to McKibben’s article, here are a few others of note from the last week or so:

  • In an editorial, the New York Times encouraged the U.S. State Department to consider climate change when deciding whether to permit the Keystone XL pipeline:

“But the climate question must be addressed, if only to give a full accounting of the range of consequences of developing the tar sands, an effort in which the United States will be complicit if it allows the pipeline. That includes the effect of destroying 740,000 acres of boreal forest (a vital sink for greenhouse gases); the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted in extracting the oil from the tar sands (a highly energy-intensive process); and the gases emitted by burning the oil.”

  • The Washington Post had an article about a South Dakota rancher who will be forced to cede land to the Keystone XL pipeline:

“He doesn’t want it to [cross his land], and he’s even fought to stop it. It’s not a question of how much TransCanada pays him. He just doesn’t want strangers and heavy equipment tearing a 110-foot-wide gash through his land, cutting down trees and burrowing under the sand hills and pasture.

“He worries that it could take years for the land to recover. And the pipeline, buried four or five feet deep, will be sitting in water, the same water that is part of the vast Ogallala aquifer and which lies so close to the surface that his pasture does not need to be irrigated. He worries that a spill or leak will spread because the soil is so porous. …

“But Harter, like thousands of other landowners, doesn’t have much choice. Two days earlier, Harter had been in court trying to stop TransCanada, which had asked a judge to let it exercise eminent domain and force Harter to give it access to his land.

“Harter lost.”

  • Unnerving dispatches are coming from Greenland, where 97 percent of the surface of the ice sheet turned slushy over four warm days in July. “When we see melt in places that we haven’t seen before, at least in a long period of time, it makes you sit up and ask what’s happening,” NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati said in a BBC report. “It’s a big signal, the meaning of which we’re going to sort out for years to come.”  The last such melt happened in 1889, so scientists can’t determine yet the role of climate change.
  • Bill Nye the Science Guy criticized the media for not asking politicians enough about climate change: “I think if the media asked … both of these people who are running for president of the United States about climate change, they’d have to respond.” Talk of the economy dominates the political discussion, he said, but he hopes that during the debates journalists will ask the candidates about the environment and how it fits into their economic plans. “When the quality of your environment goes down, your quality of life goes down, and especially the economics. When you can’t get water to cool power plants, when you can’t get water to water your crops and feed people, it stresses everybody. It makes the economy not do as well.”

(The Science Guy, by the way, has endorsed Obama for president.)

–elisabeth hoffman


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