Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Gasland 2

I finally got a chance to watch Josh Fox’s Gasland 2 yesterday on HBO, and it was not what I was expecting, to say the least.

In no particular order…

  • First and foremost, you should find a way to see this documentary, regardless of how you feel about what I say below. It’s worth every second of your time and attention. I would suggest that if you watch it in a context that doesn’t allow you to rewind portions, that you make sure you have a way to take notes. In that vein, please note that everything I say below is from memory; I apologize in advance for errors.
  • It was heartbreaking to see all the individual lives ruined by our headlong rush to frack every last cubic meter of natural gas in the US. The human impacts and landscape devastation in parts of Pennsylvania were particularly hard for me to watch, as my wife grew up not too far from the areas affected, and I lived there for a good portion of my life.
  • Fox covers a lot of ground beyond all the expected material about how fracking contaminates ground water and the air, including climate change, the loathsome Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision, the anti-science efforts of fossil fuel companies (complete with a brief clip from a Skype interview with Naomi Oreskes, co-author of one of the top must-read books for environmentalists, Merchants of Doubt), and, of course, the staggering level of blatant political corruption that’s woven through this entire story. The documentary is a bit long in terms of minutes, but Fox squeezes so much into it that you’re never bored. If anything, I found myself at various points hoping it would run longer so that he could spend more time on some sub-topics.
  • The one moment that made me yell at my TV came when one gentlemen, I believe it was the Viet Nam veteran who Fox said guaranteed the documentary would not get a G rating, thanks to his language, said something to the effect that he’s never been an environmentalist, presumably as a way of saying he wasn’t one of those, you know, extremists who work for clean air and water and soil on general principle. I wanted to talk to that man in person and ask him, “So why the hell weren’t you an environmentalists before it was your hand being crushed in the vise?” I would bet that this gentleman was one of the people we hear all the time who denigrate environmentalists, right up to the moment when someone is polluting their well or the air around their home, and they suddenly become greener than Kermit the frog. The myopia and greed of people today is absolutely stunning, and it’s easily one of the biggest hurdles we have to climb over before we can do something meaningful about climate change.
  • This is not a “rah-rah, let’s go charge up the mountain and beat the bad guys” documentary, nor is it a doom fest, although some people might mistake it for the latter. Fox tells a complex story without major omissions or short shriftings, and does so in very straightforward way, with the occasional artistic touch.
  • Again, make sure you see this documentary.

After watching Gasland 2, I found myself extremely depressed, and it took a little while for me to unpack the experience and figure out why. The resulting epiphany is what convinced me to write this post, in fact. I was not planning to say anything here about Gasland 2, as I had assumed that virtually all of you, Dear Readers, would already know about it and likely much of what’s in it. I also assumed that it would show me little to nothing new, and I would therefore have nothing to say about it. I was wrong.

The revelation I had involved the copious evidence Fox presents that shows not just that the US political system has turned into a bazaar of prostiticians angling to sell themselves to the highest bidder among the wealthiest special interests — like the fossil fuel companies — but that it’s far worse than I realized. I did not come to this film infected with some sanitized-for-your-protection, middle-school vision of how our government works, only to be shocked (shocked, I tell you!) that there’s corrupting mountains of money being pushed around by bulldozers decorated with Exxon Mobile, BP, etc. logos. But I didn’t realize how bad the situation was and how openly field workers for the EPA were acknowledging to US citizens that policy was being steered by fossil fuel money. It was a wrenching experience, and I now know exactly how environmentalists feel when I do presentations and tell them just how bad things are from a science standpoint. These people come into the room thinking they have a pretty good understanding of the situation and how bad it really is, and then I tell them about the very long lifetime of atmospheric CO2, the amount of sea level rise we’ve already locked in, the incredible exposure of coastal farms and cities around the world (Bangladesh being merely the most extreme example I know of from a humanitarian assessment), infrastructure lock-in, the water/energy/climate/food nexus, etc., and scare them spitless and watch them shuffle out of the room looking like they’ve been forced to sit through a slasher movie marathon.

What to make of this? What it taught me, and what I hope to impress on others, is the desperate need for us to remember at all times that climate change is the ultimate example of a super wicked problem. Among other things, that means it cuts across disciplines and we cannot afford the luxury of narrowing our focus. We can’t say that we’ll look at just the science portion and leave all that social science balloon juice (like politics, economics, and psychology) to others[1]. That quickly leads us to champion solutions that have zero chance of ever being implemented on a meaningful scale. Similarly, if we restrict ourselves to merely politics and “the art of the possible”, then we’re very likely to make wildly bad decisions because we didn’t understand the science well enough.[2] Exhibit A in that category is the absurd, zombie notion that natural gas can be a “bridge fuel” to a cleaner future. That’s simply wrong, as natural gas use still emits far too much CO2 for us to make a major commitment to it beginning in 2013, even beyond the serial horrors of fracking it out of the ground.

Where does all this leave us? Is the hill simply too high and too steep to climb? Are we better off feigning ignorance, spending our time on some mindless distraction and waiting for the real world impacts to become so painful they force people to acknowledge what we know now, instead of fighting a lost battle? I emphatically say no. But I do think that a fuller recognition of the nature of this challenge is necessary before we can stop wasting so much time and effort and money fighting the wrong fight or fighting the right fight badly. Because that’s what we’re doing now, and we can’t afford to squander our resources, most notably time.

[1] In private conversations with scientists I run into this mind set all the time. They think that if they can show that a massive deployment of technology X can make a major contribution to our emissions reduction, then it’s self-evident that we should and will do exactly that, with no regard for the social science hurdles involved in making that happen. Trying to talk to some of these individuals about those hurdles is a study in frustration.

[2] I’ve run into many (and I do mean many) environmentalists who don’t come near understanding the basics of our climate mess, and therefore support broad policies and practices on general principle. If they think doing X instead of Y reduces CO2 emissions, then they’re all for it, even if their evidence is nothing more than hearsay. What’s particularly galling is that trying to get many of them to learn even the most rudimentary numerical details, the essential “feeds and speeds”, and how to use them, the foundation necessary for critical thinking about climate change, is just as fruitless as talking politics and economics with some scientists.

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