One of the hot-button issues in this presidential campaign is fracking. All the Democratic candidates for president support either limiting or outright banning the process.
Rather than a knee-jerk tribal response, this is an issue that deserves serious consideration as it pits the uncompromising laws of physics against the conventional wisdom of politics.
As a drilling technique that allows extraction of natural gas and oil in shale rocks that would otherwise be inaccessible, fracking has allowed the United States to become one of the world’s dominant energy producers.
While many people are making money from fracking, it comes with high environmental costs that must be eventually paid. The sooner we transition to clean energy, the lower the bill when it arrives.
Fracking causes many problems, such as earthquakes and air pollution. But the most serious environmental impact of fracking is climate change. Fracking often vents methane (natural gas) directly to the atmosphere, where it’s 20 times as powerful at heating the planet as carbon dioxide. Because of this, it is an important contributor to climate change: Methane released from all human activities contributes about 25 percent as much warming as carbon dioxide.
While we have yet to feel the full impact of rising levels of pollution, climate change is costing us a lot of money. Damages from Hurricane Harvey, for example, cost at least $125 billion. Not all of this came from climate change, but climate change made the storm worse by increasing the rainfall by about 15 percent. So, conservatively, at least 15 percent of those damages can be attributed to climate change — or at least $600 per resident of Texas.
And this is just one storm. Factor in the extra expense from Harris County having to invest in flood infrastructure ($2.5 billion), or the expense from having to build our houses off the ground to account for more severe future floods, and you see that we’re already paying a steep cost.
And this is just one impact (more severe rainfall) in one place (Houston). Add in the expenses from hotter temperatures (i.e., running your air conditioner more, outdoor workers suffering more heat injuries, agricultural decline, livestock deaths, etc.), and then multiply this by millions of locations, and you can see how unchecked climate change will be an existential economic threat.
Addressing climate change cannot be done as long as we are reliant on fossil fuels. The science on this has been crystal clear for decades, so it is well past time we start planning for how to phase out fossil fuels over the next few decades.
Viewed this way, the Democratic candidates’ positions on fracking make complete sense. To cease our reliance on fossil fuels will require us to cease fracking. The debate facing us should not be whether to do that but rather on what schedule and through what policy.
There are lots of potential ways to go about this, each with its own sets of benefits and drawbacks. A carbon tax is favored by many across the political spectrum, and indeed will likely be a component of any comprehensive climate plan. But if enacted alone, without other policies to buffer the associated rise in energy costs, it can mean those with the fewest resources end up paying the largest share of their income.
Other policies can make a more just transition by assisting not only those hurt most by climate change, but also those in the fossil fuel sector who will need to find new employment.
Those who are employed by the industry are just as beholden to our fossil-fuel-driven economic system as those suffering its consequences, and policies to address climate change should treat both groups fairly.
The reality is that innovation has been rapidly driving down the price of renewables — at this point, they are competitive with fossil fuel energy in many locations. So we’re almost there, and it seems certain that the cleverness of American business can get us to the point where the transition is seamless. To believe the alarmists is to not believe in the ability of the market to innovate to a stable climate. This is something we can absolutely do.
Whichever approach to solving the problem you prefer, make no mistake: The science of climate change does not compromise. Lofty campaign promises, constant TV commercials and carefully crafted catchphrases may sway political opinions, but they can’t change physics.
Andrew E. Dessler is a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University who studies the science and politics of climate change.
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