Look, the story of Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate is the very public evisceration of former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg. But hey, some other stuff happened, too! Even some climate stuff, including letting Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Bloomberg’s mutilated corpse perpetuate one of the biggest myths in climate politics.
The climate portion of the debate was actually pretty solid from a moderator standpoint (maybe climate reporters should be involved in more debates), if once again too short given the magnitude of the challenge. And Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the candidates with the best grasp of the crisis we face, each delivered crisp answers that got at both the moral case for enacting sweeping climate action and the practical one. Even former Vice President Joe Biden was pretty solid. Former South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg was also present (okay, even he had a good line).
But it was Klobuchar and Bloomberg who stood out as wildly out of touch with the realities of climate change. The biggest tell was them calling natural gas a “transition fuel.” Klobuchar invoked the phrase after being pressed on why she wouldn’t ban fracking, and Bloomberg brought it up in relation to China, saying “we’re not going to get rid of fracking for a while... But it’s a transition fuel, I think the senator said it right.”
The whole natural gas as a “transition” or “bridge” fuel is a frequent trope invoked by centrists and the gas industry, and it has to stop. Yes, natural gas has lower carbon emissions than coal. But transitions, by definition, end. And the time to end this one is far past its sell-by date.
The notion that natural gas is a bridge to a renewable future was first put in writing in 1979 by environmentalist Barry Commoner in his book The Politics of Energy. He called it a “bridge between the present, unsatisfactory reality and the still abstract, hoped-for future.” This is more than 40 years ago. We should be near the end of the bridge, yet it feels like we’ve actually walked backward as emissions have continued to rise rapidly. In a 1997 interview with Scientific American, Commoner called for the phaseout of natural gas (emphasis ours):
“In turn, many power plants now fueled by oil, natural gas or uranium can be replaced by zero-emission photovoltaic cells or wind generators.
What is needed now is a transformation of the major systems of production more profound than even the sweeping post-World War II changes in production technology.”
Fast forward to the year of our lord, 2020, and the reasons to retire the transition tag for natural gas are even more obvious. The United Nations has made it clear the world needs to cut carbon emissions nearly 80 percent this decade to have a good shot at keeping heating within 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of pre-industrial times. That means rapidly winding down the fossil fuel industry.
As if that weren’t enough, just hours before the debate, a paper was published in Nature showing that human activities are emitting 25 to 40 percent more methane than previously thought. Digging up, transporting, and burning natural gas is one of the biggest sources of methane emissions. Oh, and methane is a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent heating-wise than carbon dioxide.
A paper in Science published two years ago was even more dire, showing that U.S. methane emissions from the oil and gas may be 60 percent higher than Environmental Protection Agency inventory shows. A good chunk of these fugitive methane emissions is due to flaring natural gas and leaky infrastructure. So yes, tighter regulations (like, oh, say, the ones the Trump administration is rolling back) would serve as a valuable way to tamp down emissions, though it wouldn’t eliminate them completely.
Bloomberg’s plan includes a call to do just that and make any new gas plants use carbon capture technology, which is essentially a way to stop them in their tracks. Klobuchar’s plan includes banning fossil fuel extraction on federal land. Those are great and important steps if we were talking about climate policy a decade ago, but today they’re simply not enough. The world’s goal is to avert ecocide, and a few tweaks around the edges aren’t enough to do that. We need to strap on a jetpack to leap over the chasm in front of us, and that jetpack is damn well not going to run on gas.