15 Feb Climate Change Action: Don’t Go Gentle into That Good Night
Climate change. It’s been on my mind for almost 20 years now. Close to two decades ago, I remember being part of a panel at a writing conference and telling the session participants that the one topic that consistently engrosses me as an environmental and outdoor writer—the one that keeps me up at night—is global warming and its consequence, climate change.
Over the past few years, it’s been encouraging to see some positive action on this critical challenge facing the planet, such as the Paris agreement on global warming, and to learn that more and more people are realizing there can be no more denying that our world is rapidly warming, and it’s due to human actions.
Now, however, we have a president who questions the science of climate change. The United States, under his direction, may withdraw from the Paris agreement and promote—rather than move away from—the production of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Even now, “zombie wells” (gas and oil wells that have been abandoned) are leaking methane, adding more of one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. And that’s without building even one more well.
After so many years of deeply caring about climate change, I would be remiss if I stopped being honest with you about the dangers I see coming. I would be derelict if I didn’t note the following facts that will affect all of you who, like me, are fans of wild places, undeveloped environments and outdoor spaces in which we can “play” and find solace.
Denial of global warming and the promotion of fossil fuels
The president has said he will cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to United Nations global warming programs. He has also promised to promote coal power and fracking, and he says he will endeavor to allow for oil and gas drilling on federal lands. He has signed executive orders to revive the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines.
All of these measures are extremely troubling and menacing for the planet.
Pulling out of the Paris pact
Just over a year ago, in Paris on December 12, 2015, 197 countries agreed to limit global warming to below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) and work toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. This accord entered into force on November 4, 2016, and has been ratified by 129 countries so far, including the United States.
In November 2016 in Marrakech, Morocco, diplomats from around the world met to discuss the details of last year’s agreement and move us closer to controlling the industrial emissions that are heating the planet. If the president fails to honor the signed compact, punishing the United States with a carbon tariff—a pollution import tax on all American goods—is an option the diplomats will consider. According to The New York Times, Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo, Mexico’s undersecretary for environmental policy and planning, said, “We will apply any kind of policy necessary to defend the quality of life for our people, to protect our environment and to protect our industries.”
If we Americans won’t stand up for saving our planet from the effects of climate change, perhaps other nations will require and demand that we do so.
Zombies are already here
In December 2014, an astonishing report was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In Pennsylvania alone, abandoned oil and gas wells account for 5 to 8 percent (or 0.04 to 0.07 metric tons) of the annual human-caused methane emissions in the state. This source of methane—a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide—hadn’t been accounted for in previous greenhouse gas budgets.
In the study, researchers looked at historical documents, scientific literature, and state databases and conducted boots-on-the-ground fieldwork to get a better understanding of the number of abandoned wells in Pennsylvania. They measured methane flow from 88 wells across the state. Nearly all nonfunctioning oil and gas wells—90 percent—were found to be releasing methane.
An estimate of 470,000 to 750,000 abandoned wells in the state is probably a conservative one, since records are incomplete, especially for older wells from the early years of our century-and-a-half-long era of oil and gas development. That means that the commonly cited figure of three million abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States also likely understates the situation. And, of course, there are many millions more abandoned wells around the world—numbers that will only increase in the future.
I hope with this article, I’m not writing an obituary for clean, healthy outdoor spaces and climate change action quite yet. Whatever your personal political beliefs, there are some things worth fighting for together. There are some things on a planetary level that should come before anything else.
I find myself repeating a few lines from a Dylan Thomas poem these days: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But I have to admit that, lately, I wonder if we have the will to keep raging for the long term.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,
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