Subscribe to The New Yorker and save 50%, plus get a free tote. Cancel anytime.
Annals of a Warming Planet
Build Nothing New That Ultimately Leads to a Flame
February 10, 2021
Every time you build something new that connects to a flame, you’ve chosen not to build that solar panel, not to build a wind turbine.Photograph by David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / Getty
Subscribers to The Climate Crisis newsletter received this piece in their in-boxes. Sign up to receive future installments. A
couple of weeks ago, I said that the first principle
of fighting the climate crisis was simple: stop lighting coal, oil, gas, and trees on fire, as soon as possible. Today, I offer a second ground rule, corollary to the first: definitely don’t build anything new
that connects to a flame.
It’s obvious, of course, that we’re not going to stop burning fossil fuel tomorrow: there are, for instance, 1.42 billion cars on the planet’s roads, and, at the end of 2019, less than one half of one per cent of them were fully electric. You can’t simply force conventional vehicles off the road, any more than you can instantly turn off every gas-fired power plant. That’s why global warming is such a wickedly difficult problem: two hundred years of constant development with fossil fuels at the center of our economy has left all of us deeply entangled.
On the other hand, we do have to stop burning fossil fuel. Climate scientists have told us that, if we don’t cut emissions in half by 2030, we’re not going to meet the targets set in the Paris climate accord. Renewable energy has gotten so cheap so fast that the economics of such an endeavor are no longer insane. It would require an all-hands effort, grander in scale but similar in kind to the green-infrastructure program that President Biden has promised
to propose, and one conducted around the world. But we have no chance if we simultaneously keep building new infrastructure for fossil fuels. If you’re already in a hole that would take a decade to climb out of, why would you dig yourself another decade’s worth of pit?
That’s why, as I noted last month, it was so useful to have John Kerry declare, early in his run as global climate czar, that he didn’t think we should be building more natural-gas infrastructure. (Coal is moribund, and oil is mature, headed towards senescence; it’s gas that still has potential for growth.) In a panel discussion that included the C.E.O. of Royal Dutch Shell, as part of this year’s virtual Davos meeting, Kerry said, “The problem with gas is, if we build out a huge infrastructure for gas now to continue to use it as the bridge fuel—when we haven’t really exhausted the other possibilities—we’re going to be stuck with stranded assets in ten, twenty, thirty years.” Biden, Kerry told the forum, had asked
for “a plan for ending international finance of fossil-fuel projects with public money.” That’s a big deal: according to Climate Home News
, “the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and its predecessor, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, approved around $4 billion for overseas fossil fuel projects over the past five years. Since 2018, the US Export-Import Bank greenlit over $5 billion for fossil fuel investments abroad.”
But, last week, the former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, ahead of her confirmation hearing to be the Secretary of Energy, seemed to offer a slightly different take. As the hardworking scribes at Natural Gas Intelligence explain
, “Granholm signaled continued support for liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. Her responses come as one of the first indications of how President Biden may utilize what’s become a potent foreign policy tool for the United States.” Here’s Granholm’s quote: “I believe U.S. LNG exports can have an important role to play in reducing international consumption of fuels that have greater contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.”
That’s the voice of a decade ago speaking, the familiar tones of the Obama years. Since then, we’ve learned a good deal more about how gas really works—even used domestically, the leaking methane from frack wells and pipelines is enough to make natural gas almost as bad as coal for trapping heat. When you super-chill the gas, pump it on a boat, sail it across the ocean, unfreeze it, and pump it through yet another network of pipes, that brings a lot more leaking methane. But it’s easy to understand why Granholm is wary of changing course: according to a report
from the European Union, the United States, under Trump, went into the L.N.G.-export business in a big way: “36% of U.S. LNG exports went to the EU in 2019,” and since July, 2018, when Trump met with then-President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, “U.S. LNG exports into Europe increased by 760 percent.” The United States has six L.N.G.-export terminals in operation; there are plans
to have a total of eighteen.
In her hearing, Granholm said that carbon-capture
schemes might be able to help the oil-and-gas industry offset its climate destruction. That’s both highly theoretical (America’s only commercial carbon-capture facility closed last week, due to the absurd economics) and highly superfluous, in an age when a solar panel can provide energy just by capturing sunlight, leaving no emissions to collect. Every time you build something new that connects to a flame, you’ve chosen not to build that solar panel, not to build a wind turbine. Every time you build or buy a new internal-combustion vehicle, you’ve chosen not to build or buy an electric vehicle. And, since cars and power plants are only occasional purchases, each new one puts off a solution to the climate crisis for a few more years or decades.
This principle—don’t build anything new that eventually leads to a flame—means that the Biden Administration should look askance at new pipelines. It has already taken care of Keystone XL, but the same logic says to shut off the Dakota Access pipeline (which is facing new legal trouble)
and stop construction on Line 3 in Minnesota (especially during the pandemic
). This logic means not building new L.N.G. facilities, such as Jordan Cove, in Oregon, or the Weymouth compressor station, in Massachusetts. It means not letting new homes and buildings hook up to natural gas. (Mayor Bill de Blasio just announced
this plan for New York City, though full implementation won’t come until 2030.) It means stopping the construction of new gas stations, in favor of building out a network of E.V. chargers (and electric trains). If flame is a necessary part of our life for the moment but we need to douse it as soon as possible, then not building new bonfires is a sensible first step.
Passing the Mic
Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (I.E.E.F.A.) has co-authored a report on the prospects for rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power grid, which was badly damaged in 2017, during Hurricane Maria. Since the reconstruction comes as renewable-energy prices keep falling and the Biden Administration pushes clean tech, it’s possible that the island could become a fascinating example of clean development for tropical regions. (Our conversation was edited for length.)
VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER
Our bad! It looks like we're experiencing playback issues.
We all remember the fight to get power restored in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. What’s the situation like on the ground right now?
There is certainly much more public interest in rooftop solar and other distributed renewable-energy solutions. And people who are getting rooftop solar systems installed are now much more likely to be pairing those systems with battery storage, so that they can continue to power their homes in the event of an extended blackout.
But, unfortunately, this interest isn’t really being supported by policy decisions. The hurricane was used as an excuse by those who have long desired the privatization of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (prepa) to move forward with those plans, in a manner that has prioritized the shortsighted goal of cutting labor costs and eroding workers’ rights, not developing renewable energy. prepa’s plan for the use of long-awaited fema grid-reconstruction money, which may end up being privately administered, includes over eight hundred and fifty million dollars in new natural-gas plants, and zero dollars for renewable energy and storage.
There’s a plan to put a lot of natural-gas power there. From a distance, that seems archaic before it begins. What are the forces fighting for and against it?
There have been efforts to bring natural gas to Puerto Rico for many years, and this push was renewed after Hurricane Maria. Of course, there are private interests that have been pushing this, including New Fortress Energy, a U.S. firm that won a contract, in 2019, to convert one of Puerto Rico’s existing power plants to natural gas, and to build a new natural-gas-import terminal in San Juan.
Really good organizing work is being done against these gas developments. Queremos Sol (“We Want Sun”) is a coalition of environmental, consumer, and labor organizations advocating for a decentralized renewable-energy future for the island.
And, over the last couple of years, the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, the energy-regulatory agency in Puerto Rico, conducted a long-term planning process with significant input from civil-society groups and experts. The bureau ultimately concluded that renewable energy was the least-cost path for the island, and ordered prepa not to move forward with new natural-gas projects. So it is pretty incredible that the authority is still trying to advance these gas projects. And there is a real possibility that prepa could get its way. So this is a very active fight right now.
In the best-case scenario, what could a rewired Puerto Rico show the world about the potential for renewables as the mainstream, not the alternative, source of power?
Puerto Rico still has the opportunity to reinvent its power system in a radically different way, based on decentralized renewable energy. We all know that Puerto Rico is going to face increasingly severe hurricanes in the future, and that the ability to restore power quickly after a storm is literally a matter of life and death.
Around the world, there are examples of other places—Hawaii, Australia, Vietnam, etc.—that have made rapid advances in integrating renewable energy into their power systems. There are technical challenges to be overcome, but Puerto Rico has the potential to join the ranks of world leaders in this area.
The federal government is about to disburse more than ten billion dollars for long-term grid work. If that money doesn’t go toward building a decentralized, renewable-energy-based grid, there won’t be a second opportunity.
Truly remarkable news: in a suit brought by four environmental groups, the French high court ruled
that the government was not living up to its international climate agreements. “This is an historic win for climate justice. The decision not only takes into consideration what scientists say and what people want from French public policies, but it should also inspire people all over the world to hold their governments accountable for climate change in their courts,” Jean-François Julliard, the executive director of Greenpeace France, one of the plaintiffs, told the Guardian
The science writer Peter Brannen has a better visceral sense of deep time than almost any historian I can think of. His account
in The Atlantic
of how our present moment compares with other bursts of CO2 in the long geologic record should not be missed.
If you wanted one sign of a changing climate zeitgeist, I might nominate Will Ferrell’s Super Bowl ad
for G.M.’s new electric-car initiative.
Sometimes a name really sums up what a campaign is about—so it is with 30millionsolarhomes.org
, which is launching with a call for, among other things, on-bill financing for panels, which will take care of much of the sticker shock associated with the new tech.
A new report notes
that Scandinavian banks poured sixty-seven billion dollars into the fossil-fuel industry since the Paris accord. As the report’s authors point out, this stands “in stark contrast with the generally progressive reputation of the region when it comes to taking effective action on climate change.”
The credit raters at S. & P. have warned
some of the world’s biggest oil companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, that their ratings could fall, because the corporations “face significant challenges and uncertainties engendered by the energy transition, including market declines due to growth of renewables.”
to join Belize, New Zealand, Spain, France, Costa Rica, and Denmark on the list of nations moving to ban oil-and-gas exploration on their territory.
Elon Musk announced on Monday that he’ll offer a fifty-million-dollar first-place award through the X Prize Foundation to whoever comes up with “a solution that can pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans and lock it away permanently in an environmentally benign way.” I hereby submit my proposal
that we let standing forests grow ever larger.
A huge—and hugely important—new study from Harvard
, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester, and University College London, published on Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research
, finds some startling numbers. In 2018, one death out of five was caused by air pollution—that’s more than the number of deaths caused by aids, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. In the United States alone, particulate matter given off by fossil-fuel burning killed about three hundred and fifty thousand people; by comparison, guns killed about 39,470 people in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The fossil-fuel industry is not just killing off the climate system—it’s taking people in enormous numbers.
Connor DeVane hiked the thirty-one-hundred-mile Continental Divide Trail, from Canada to Mexico, in 2016. Along the way, he talked with lots of people working on aspects of climate action, from civil disobedience to the municipalization of utilities. The resulting movie
is free to stream online, and lovely.
is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis
, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.
The Climate Crisis
Coverage of environmental news and the climate crisis from a leading voice in the movement.
Annals of a Warming Planet
On Climate, Biden’s Administration Needs to Combat Zombie Trumpism Quickly
And Montana’s Yaak Valley is a good place to start.
Annals of a Warming Planet
Can Green Energy Power the Cannabis Boom?
We’ve found a huge new electricity hog in indoor industrial production of the crop.
The Seminole Tribe Perfected Alligator Wrestling
“Being able to be so close to an animal who is so powerful and has lasted so long, you have to show it respect."
Subscribe and save 50%, plus get a free tote.Subscribe Cancel anytime.
© 2021 Condé Nast. All rights reserved. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our User Agreement
and Your California Privacy Rights. The New Yorker
may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Condé Nast. Ad Choices