By Bill McKibben
Last week, the New Orleans City Council — all Democrats — voted 6-1 to approve a big new gas-fired power plant. Sometime in the coming weeks, in Orange County in upstate New York, another vast new gas power plant is expected to go on line — as soon as it’s hooked up to a new pipeline, one of literally dozens planned across the country. Local opponents — environmentalists, community activists — are fighting hard, but somewhere, almost every day, a new piece of natural gas infrastructure goes up.
When I think about my greatest failing as a communicator — and one of the greatest failings of the climate movement — it’s not that global warming still continues. Stopping it cold was always too high an order: The fossil fuel industry is so rich and powerful, and hydrocarbons so central to our economy, that this battle was always going to be uphill. At best we can limit the damage, and in that we’ve made at least some progress.
It’s not even that Donald Trump managed to win the presidency as a climate denier — in fact, most people regard that stand as stupid, and its not why he took the White House. We’ve more or less managed to persuade Americans that global warming is a real danger. The oil industry’s propaganda effort may have delayed that realization by a generation, but eventually the siege of studies — and of fires, floods, and windstorms — took their inevitable toll.
No, the single most annoying failing is a more technical one, but with huge consequence: Public opinion — and especially elite opinion — still accepts natural gas as a cleaner replacement for other fossil fuels. And this acceptance — nearly as strong among Democrats as Republicans — has meant that we’ve seen huge increases in the use of natural gas. In fact, our essential global warming strategy in America has been to replace coal-fired power plants with ones that run on fracked gas.
With the move to natural gas, it’s as if we proudly announced we kicked our Oxycontin habit by taking up heroin instead.