A climate scientist expresses some of her feelings about the climate debate.
Angry. Worried. Frustrated. Anxious.
Such are some of the words that Australian climate scientists use to express their feelings about the dysfunctional climate debate (which, in Australia, has recently seen the repealing of a carbon tax, a chief objective of the current Liberal Party prime minister Tony Abbott). Their writings appear on a new website, entitled "Is This How You Feel?," run by Joe Duggan, a master's student in science communication at the Australian National University's Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Reached by email, Duggan explained that he "wanted to give scientists the chance to step away from the dry data and clinical prose that laypeople find so hard to engage with."
Here are some particularly striking emotional expressions from the researchers, expressions that the climate "skeptic" blogger Anthony Watts has said make him want to "hurl":
I feel a maelstrom of emotions.
Life would be so much simpler if climate change didn't exist.
I am infuriated.Infuriated we are destroying our planet.
I often feel like shouting…But would that really help? I feel like they don't listen anyway. After all, we've been shouting for years.
It makes me feel sick.
I feel betrayed by our leaders who show no leadership and who place ideology above evidence, willing to say anything to peddle their agendas.
We have so much to lose.
And, perhaps most memorable of all:
I see a group of people sitting in a boat, happily waving, taking pictures on the way, not knowing that this boat is floating right into a powerful and deadly waterfall.
You can read all of the letters here. People often allege that scientists can't communicate, but as these letters show, that's not really true.
When they're actually speaking or writing in the language that they use with other scientists, then yes, scientists can seem incomprehensible. But when they're speaking simply as people, freed up to express emotions, they share thoughts and feelings that we can all instantly understand.
"This is not the only way to communicate climate change, but it is one way," says Duggan. "We need to kill apathy through death by a thousand cuts. Maybe this can be one cut."
As of this writing, it had been retweeted some 1,800 times.
Like the excellent medical analogy (which compares ignoring global warming to ignoring the risk of smoking; or not listening to your doctor when you're told to eat healthier and exercise), this image makes perfectly clear just how irresponsible it is to ignore the overwhelming consensus of experts.
The message also relies on the highly influential "97 percent" study, which found that of scientific papers taking a position on global warming, 97 percent agreed that humans are causing it. There is still some scholarly debate over whether this message is the best one to use to convince those who are in doubt about climate change.
But there's no doubt whatsoever that the message can be viral. Not only does this WWF-UK tweet show that; President Obama himself tweeted out the original "97 percent" study.
A Marcellus Shale gas drilling pad in Pennsylvania, with all the standard accompanying industrial hardware.
On the political right, it's pretty popular these days to claim that the left exaggerates scientific worries about hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." In a recent National Review article, for instance, a Hoover Institution researcher complains that 53 percent of Democrats in California support a fracking ban "despite the existence of little if any credible scientific evidence of fracking's feared harms and overwhelming scientific evidence of its environmental benefits, including substantial reductions in both local and global pollutants."
Three or four years ago, a statement like that may have seemed defensible. The chief environmental concern about fracking at that time involved the contamination of drinking water through the fracking process—blasting water, sand, and chemicals underground in vast quantities and at extreme pressures to force open shale layers deep beneath the Earth, and release natural gas. But the science was still pretty ambiguous, and a great deal turned on how "fracking" was defined. The entire mega-process of "unconventional" gas drilling had clearly caused instances of groundwater contamination, due to spills and leaks from improperly cased wells. But technically, "fracking" only refers to the water and chemical blast, not the drilling, the disposal of waste, or the huge industrial operations that accompany it all.
How things have changed. Nowadays, explains Cornell University engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea on the latest installment of the Inquiring Minds podcast (stream above), the scientific argument against fracking and unconventional gas drilling is more extensive. It involves not simply groundwater contamination, but also at least two other major problems: earthquake generation and the accidental emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
On the show, Ingraffea laid out the science on these issues—and it is certainly not something a reasonable person can ignore. Take earthquakes, for instance. According to Ingraffea, "there is now, in my opinion, scientific consensus that human-induced seismicity does occur" as a result of a particular aspect of unconventional gas drilling (namely, disposing of chemically laden "flowback water" in underground wastewater injection wells).
Ingraffea isn't the likeliest scientific foe of fracking. His past research has been funded by corporations and industry interests including Schlumberger, the Gas Research Institute, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman. His original doctoral work, in the 1970s, involved the study of "rock fracture mechanics"—in other words, how cracks in rock form and propagate, a body of knowledge that is crucial to extractive industries like oil and gas. "I spent 20, 25 years working with the oil and gas industry…helping them to figure out how best to get oil and gas out of rock," Ingraffea explains.
But he has since become an outspoken critic of unconventional gas development. He recently appeared in the HBO film Gasland II, and was recognized in 2011 by Time (alongside actor Mark Ruffalo and his Cornell colleague Robert Howarth) for his work highlighting the environmental risks of shale gas development.
So what happened? In a word: Science. On Inquiring Minds, Ingraffea laid out the developing science on earthquakes and methane emissions as they relate to unconventional gas development—and even if you don't fully agree with everything he said, you still will find it unnerving. Let's take these topics in turn:
Fracking fluid is blasted underground at "pressures approaching what you would get if you put, say, 10 SUVs on your fingertip," says Ingraffea.
Fracking and Earthquakes. Somewhat surprisingly, the earthquake issue may actually be the least contentious scientific topic in the fracking debate. As Mother Jones has extensively reported, it now seems clear that wastewater injection—the underground storing of the chemical-laced water that comes back out of wells after fracking—can contribute to seismic activity. In fact, in a study published just last month in Science, researchers suggest that a dramatic increase in recent seismic activity in Oklahoma—including a 5.7 magnitude earthquake in 2011—is partly linked to the proliferation of wastewater disposal wells.
Granted, it may seem hard to understand (at least if you're a non-geologist) how underground disposal wells can cause an earthquake. Let Ingraffea explain: "We've mobilized pre-existing, stable faults," he says. Underground water from waste disposal "lubricates those faults and changes the pressure on them." Naturally, the waste injection wells at issue are the ones that are closest to faults. Here's a visualization:
As for the fracking process itself? That, too, can cause earthquakes, Ingraffea says, although earthquakes related to fracking (as opposed to injection wells) have been smaller ("so far," as Ingraffea puts it). When you think about what we're doing to the Earth, maybe that's not so surprising. Fracking water, after all, is blasted underground at "pressures approaching what you would get if you put, say, 10 SUVs on your fingertip," says Ingraffea.
Fracking and Fugitive Methane Emissions. Perhaps we can manage the earthquake issue. Certainly, it would help to stop injecting wastewater near faults. "That would be a design objective, yes," deadpans Ingraffea. (It happens, he contends, because of a lack of EPA regulation.)
But there's a potentially even graver issue—fugitive methane emissions from shale gas operations. This is the topic on which Ingraffea made his name in the fracking debate, and it's probably the most momentous one of all.
In 2011, Ingraffea and two other Cornell researchers published a highly discussed scientific study in the journal Climatic Change, arguing that between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of methane gas from shale drilling operations actually escapes into the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming. If true, then considering the unique atmospheric potency of methane—"methane is about 80 to 90 times…more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide" over a two-to-three-decade time period, says Ingraffea—the implications could be dramatic. Natural gas could swing from being a net climate benefit (because it burns cleaner than oil or coal) to a climate harm, because of all the escaping methane.
Four Fayetteville shale well heads in Arkansas. Critics like Ingraffea say significant amounts of fugitive methane gas are escaping from fracking operations around the country (though not necessarily the one above). Bill Cunningham, US Geological Survey.
Granted, it all depends on the leak rate from natural gas operations, across all the myriad stages of the process, from the initial release of the gas from the Earth all the way through to its transportation. And that's where the debate lies. "Every single measurement has concluded that the percentage of methane leaking into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations is far greater than two and a half percent," says Ingraffea. "I think the best estimate right now is somewhere around 5 percent"—an amount, he says, that would be more than big enough to doom the idea of natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to a clean energy future.
Ingraffea isn't the only researcher suggesting that methane leakage is troublingly high. In a 2013 study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers from both US universities and national labs found that the EPA is currently underestimating methane emissions from the energy industry (including both conventional and shale gas drilling). However, in another paper in Science earlier this year (covered here by Mother Jones), researchers again faulted EPA's methane measurements, but nonetheless concluded that natural gas can still contribute to a cleaner future if methane emissions are policed adequately. (The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reached a similar conclusion.)
The Bottom Line? It is certainly not the case that every expert agrees with Ingraffea. For instance, both publicly and in print, Ingraffea has regularly debated Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University, who argues that the benefits of shale gas development still outweigh the risks.
Engelder certainly doesn't deny the problem of fugitive methane emissions. Rather, his view is that "by fixing leaks, green completions and what not, that can take care of the methane leaking into the atmosphere." ("Green completions" refers to a new EPA rule that will require natural gas operators to capture volatile organic compounds on site rather than allowing them to escape to the atmosphere—a process, the EPA says, that would also "significantly reduce" methane emissions.)
But Ingraffea counters that that's not enough. The new regulation, he says, only covers "one part of the whole supply train for natural gas, and it only applies to new gas wells, not the old ones." Plus, it only applies to gas wells, not oil wells that also release methane.
With mounting scientific evidence behind him, then, Ingraffea makes a pretty strong case today that natural gas is a wolf in sheep's clothing. The methane issue may not be settled fully, but it is undoubtedly grave—and certainly not something that we can afford to be wrong about. To still support President Obama's "all of the above" approach to energy (which favors renewables, but also natural gas), you have to assume we can mitigate the methane leakage problem somehow. And you shouldn't assume that without first listening, hard, to Ingraffea's warning. As he concludes the Inquiring Minds interview:
For those who say we can regulate our way around this, just give us time and we'll fix the problems—I'm sorry. We've had 100 years of commercial oil and gas development at very large quantities, around the world. Time is over. We've damaged the atmosphere too much, and it would take too long, it would take decades and billions of dollars, to begin to fix the problems that we know have existed for decades. And by then, it will be too late.
To listen to the full Inquiring Minds interview with Anthony Ingraffea, you can stream below:
This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of the science on racial prejudice and guns, and, in the wake of the suicide of the beloved actor Robin Williams, the science of depression.
To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes orRSS. We are also available on Stitcher. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.
Early on in the new Netflix documentary "Mission Blue" (preview here), a voice off camera asks Sylvia Earle—ocean explorer, scientist, conservationist, and the film's main character—if she's a "radical."
"If I seem like a radical," Earle answers slowly, "it may be because I see things that others do not."
Unlike 99.9 percent of us, Earle actually gets to say stuff like that. As a woman who has spent almost a year of her life underwater, she really has witnessed things that we cannot imagine. Unfortunately, that includes not only the awe of swimming with a pack of whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico (and hundreds of other underwater adventures), but also visiting once vibrant coral reefs that today look like desiccated moonscapes, or finding trash entangled in kelp and office chairs sitting on the sea floor.
Dr. Sylvia Earle in a scene from the Netflix documentary “Mission Blue.” Netflix
In Mission Blue (directed by Fisher Stevens, who also brought us "The Cove"), we follow the now 78-year-old Earle from her Florida childhood as a nature-loving kid all the way through her career as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's chief scientist, and now on to her role as a leader of ocean conservation initiatives. Along the way, the film samples her ultra-nerdy research on algaes, travels around the world with her for dives, and lets us hear from her biggest fans, including filmmaker and ocean explorer James Cameron.
There are also some very powerful scenes, in which Earle is shocked and devastated as she visits Japanese fish markets where young tuna are slaughtered before they've even had a chance to reproduce, and in which she vigilante-dives with a camera to film industrial fishermen sucking up gigantic hauls of fish, like something out of a high seas version of The Lorax. You can watch that scene above.
No wonder Earle herself refuses to eat fish. As the above segment ends, Mission Blue unveils an incredible statistic about the damage we have done to our oceans since the year 1950. Now, compared with then, only 5 percent of bluefin tuna remain; only 10 percent of sharks remain; and only 5 percent of Atlantic cod remain. It's really that bad.
Anybody can point out such statistics, though; what is so amazing about Earle is how she motivates you to want to change them.
"If I could be born anywhere in time," says Earle at the end of the film, "it would be now. It would be now because this is the time, as never before, that we know, we understand, what we didn't know 50 years ago. If we wait another 50 years, opportunities we now have will be gone. This is the moment. Our decisions, our actions, will shape everything that follows."
It's one of those facts that sweeps you back into an alien, almost unrecognizable era. On July 9, 1970, Republican President Richard Nixon announced to Congress his plans to create the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. By the end of that year, bothagencies were a reality. Nowadays, among their other tasks, they either monitor or seek to mitigate the problem of global warming—actions that make today's Republicans, Nixon's heirs, completely livid.
To give one example of how anti-environment the right today is, just consider this ThinkProgress analysis, finding that "over 58 percent" of congressional Republicans refuse to accept the science of climate change.
So what happened to the GOP, from the time of Nixon to the present, to turn an environmental leader into an environmental retrograde? According to a new study in the journal Social Science Research, the key change actually began around the year 1991—when the Soviet Union fell. "The conservative movement replaced the 'Red Scare' with a new 'Green Scare' and became increasingly hostile to environmental protection at that time," argues sociologist Aaron McCright of Michigan State University and two colleagues.
So is that causal explanation right? Before getting to that question, let's examine the study itself.
For starters, it is pretty much undebatable that Americans today are polarized over environmental issues. In a figure in their paper, McCright and his colleagues visualize this polarization by charting the average League of Conservation Voters environmental scores for congressional Democrats and Republicans from 1970 through 2013:
This figure suggests that the key left-right break point on the environment occurred sometime in the early 1990s. So does the analysis at the center of the new paper: a look at how Americans belonging to different political parties have answered the same General Social Survey question about the environment going back to the year 1974. In that year and at regular intervals ever since, the GSS has asked the following question:
We are faced with many problems in this country, none of which can be solved easily or inexpensively. I'm going to name some of these problems, and for each one I'd like you to tell me whether you think we're spending too much money on it, too little money, or about the right amount.
One of the items then listed is "the environment" or "improving and protecting the environment." Here's how many Americans responded to that question over time by saying that we're spending "too little" on environmental protection, separated by political party membership:
Once again, the key break appears to happen in the early 1990s. (Note: You might think that this just reflects a distaste on the right for government spending in general. But using more GSS data, the authors looked at support for government spending on other issues—like space exploration and foreign aid—and controlled for this general support for spending in their analysis.)
So what happened in the early 1990s? Well, for one thing, Bill Clinton was elected, flanked by a vice president, Al Gore, who had just published a book called Earth in the Balance. That made environmental issues salient in a very political way.
And then, there was the once super-intense fight over habitat protections for the northern spotted owl. Remember that?
The authors, for their part, cite the "rise of global environmentalism with the 1992 Rio Earth Summit," which, they say, "generated a heightened level of anti-environmental activity by the conservative movement and Congressional Republicans." Here, they rely to a significant part on another 2008 paper, noting how the conservative think tank movement mobilized to oppose environmental protections in the early 1990s. The upshot is that as environmentalism became an increasingly global movement, many conservatives tarred it with the label "socialism." "Rio reflected a heightened sense of urgency for environmental protection that was seen as a threat by conservative elites, stimulating them to replace anti-communism with anti-environmentalism," that study observed.
But this is not the only possible explanation for the trends noted above. There has been a great deal of research on why American politics have become so polarized (on all issues, not just environmental ones), and theories to explain the trend abound. For instance, one major factor is clearly "party sorting"—the idea that conservatives have moved more into the GOP over time, even as liberals have, at least to some extent, coalesced in the Democratic Party. So, the Republicans answering a General Social Survey question about the environment in 1996 or so simply were not the same bunch of people who were answering it in 1974.
One intriguing related hypothesis posits that the right wing has become more unwilling to compromise in general because it has become more psychologically authoritarian—closed-minded, prone to black-and-white thinking. That's not a pattern that would uniquely affect environmental issues, though. If anything, it would be felt most strongly on the topics that authoritarians most care about: crime, national defense, religion in public life, and matters of that ilk.
Whatever the cause, the consequence is clear: We can't get anything done in a bipartisan way on the environment any longer. "The situation," conclude the authors, "does not bode well for our nation's ability to deal effectively with the wide range of environmental problems—from local toxics to global climate change—we currently face."