A tale of two realities: how individual choices could pull us back from the brink of climate chaos

A murmuration of starlings. Photo by Jeremy Bolwell via Wikimedia

It was the best of summers, it was the worst of summers. It was the summer the United Nations declared a healthy environment a universal human right, and a summer that shattered heat records across the globe. The U.S. enacted a historic climate bill not long after the Supreme Court struck down the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. Climate scientists said there was still hope for keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, while the American West’s worst drought in 1,200 years continued for its 22nd summer.

The struggle to keep climate change from spinning out of control feels nothing short of epic, as if ordinary mortals were powerless observers to a battle between giants that will determine whether and how we survive. Yet if we weren’t collectively doing what modern humans do — burning fossil fuels, clearing land for agriculture, raising and eating billions of animals, driving on the roads we paved, making things in factories, consuming and consuming — there would be no epic struggle. We are the giants.

But being integral to the problem also makes every person integral to where we go from here.  Powerlessness is an illusion. Like a murmuration of starlings wheeling through the air in a synchronized but unchoreographed ballet, small choices by individuals cascade across society and shift its direction, unpredictably and sometimes radically.

This is why there remains a case for hope, if not actual optimism, even as climate change accelerates toward climate chaos. Humans, working individually and collectively, have removed the biggest technological barriers to stopping the rise in greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the policy and economic barriers continue to crumble too, especially when it comes to replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar. As a result, our power supply will continue to get cleaner even in states that prefer their air polluted.

Government must still do much more, and many technical challenges still need to be worked out. For the first time, though, a decarbonizing grid finally gives ordinary people a role in determining the continued habitability of our planet, through individual actions that collectively push society in a new direction.

We’ve done this before. Consider the anti-littering campaign of the 1960s that made a once-commonplace behavior unthinkable for millions of Americans. Or take the public response to the ozone hole crisis of the 1970s, when scientists discovered that the chemical aerosols emitted by spray cans were migrating up to the stratosphere and reacting with sunlight to eat away at the Earth’s protective ozone layer. While the federal government dithered, consumers acted. They abandoned aerosols in favor of pump bottles for cleaning products, roll-on deodorants and sprays reformulated to remove the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) causing the problem. The public response led to government action, culminating in the 1987 Montreal Protocol phasing out CFCs worldwide.

Individual choices change history when people recognize the need to alter their behavior, but only if they have acceptable alternatives that others can copy easily. Once it becomes commonplace, the planet-friendly choice can even feel like the only morally acceptable option. Individuals and even companies want to avoid the stain of public opprobrium — the reason so many corporations today have adopted sustainability goals.

Many threats are too great to leave to voluntary action, or too hard for enough people to understand or act on individually. We needed top-down policies to decarbonize the electric sector; voluntary investments in rooftop solar alone could never do it. We will always need government agencies like the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration to regulate toxins and dangerous products. Simply trying to empower consumers can backfire, as Californians found when a right-to-know law enacted by proposition led to companies labeling pretty much everything as cancer-causing, just to be on the safe side.

But consumer choice will be a key factor in decarbonizing buildings and transportation now that renewable energy is taking over the electric grid. As people learn about the dangers of using natural gas indoors, they will opt instead for high-efficiency heat pumps and electric induction stoves, and builders will respond to changing demand by no longer connecting homes to gas lines. The new Inflation Reduction Act, with its generous rebatesfor home electrification, sped up the timeline for the demise of gas, but consumer preference will be the deciding factor.

Similarly, the IRA’s rebates for electric vehicle purchases will make consumers the killers of Big Oil. The transportation sector makes up the biggest slice of U.S. carbon emissions, and most of that is attributable to personal automobiles. Getting people out of their cars and on to bicycles or mass transit has been frustratingly hard because most of our communities were built around the automobile. The arrival of electric vehicles finally offers such an attractive alternative to the gas guzzler that it’s just a question of when, not if, the internal combustion engine goes the way of the horse-drawn buggy.

The battery technology that makes electric vehicles possible also allows every gasoline-powered tool to be electrified, including lawn mowers, weed-whackers and leaf blowers. Gasoline-powered lawn equipment is astoundingly polluting, in terms of both carbon emissions and smog-creating volatile organic compounds. It’s also so noisy that neighbors will pressure neighbors to switch to electric as the technology gets better and cheaper. California, Washington, D.C. and many localities have banned gas-powered leaf blowers, but consumer preference alone should eventually eliminate the market for them.

Consumer choice could also lower carbon emissions in sectors of the economy that are famously difficult to electrify. Within a few years you may be able to fly on a plane using biofuel or live in a building made with low-emission steel and concrete that sequesters carbon. As we’ve seen with other technologies, though, mass adoption depends on these alternatives being cheaper, better-performing or both. That will take time.

Eating a plant-based diet stands out as the individual action with the greatest climate impact, according to the climate solutions handbook Drawdown. People are beginning to catch on to the meat industry’s outsized impact on climate change, but it’s the second condition — people having alternatives they really like — that keeps the meat industry in business. Veganism is on the rise (led, of all people, by athletes), but meat consumption continues to grow too.

If some visionary thinkers are right, in a few years we will all happily be eating lab-grown meat and healthy plant-based meat substitutes because they will outcompete animal products on price, taste and convenience. Removing animals from our food supply will have cascading beneficial effects as it frees up land now used to grow animal feed for more planet-friendly uses such as carbon-sequestering forests and wildlife habitat.

For now, as anyone who has tried to stick to a diet can tell you, knowing what you ought to do is the easy part. Getting all of humanity to adopt a carbon diet is the challenge of our time. If we’re lucky and make the right choices, we may still have time to redirect the human murmuration toward a sustainable economy.

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 8, 2022.

What new Virginia laws reveal about how the natural gas industry sees its future 

Natural gas is having a moment. The war in Ukraine spotlighted Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian gas and the challenge of replacing it with new supplies from elsewhere. Suddenly the Biden administration, after talking so much about the need to get off fossil fuels, wants to expand oil and gas production and boost exports of liquified natural gas. 

The president still intends to address the climate crisis, just not right now. The sudden shift brings to mind St. Augustine’s prayer: “Lord, make me virtuous, but not yet!”

Don’t be fooled, though. In fact, natural gas is facing an existential crisis. Back when it was cheap, it wasn’t profitable; now that prices are high, U.S. consumers have better alternatives. Europeans will want to import our expensive LNG only until they have other options. Today’s tight supplies obscure the big-picture reality that the gas industry is in the fight for its life. 

The fracking industry likes to bill its product as the cleaner and cheaper alternative to coal in generating electricity. And indeed, advances in fracking technology produced a years-long glut of gas, driving prices so low that gas overtook coal as the top fuel in U.S. power generation beginning in 2015. Gas made up 38.3 percent of electricity in 2021 compared to coal’s 21.8 percent. 

But competition from ever-cheaper wind and solar have stalled the gas industry’s growth in the power sector. Today utilities are more interested in building renewable energy and battery storage than new gas plants. Natural gas was projected to make up only 16 percent of new U.S. electricity generating capacity in 2021, compared to 39 percent for solar and 31 percent for wind. 

High prices will exacerbate this trend. Natural gas prices today are higher than at any time since 2008, having more than trebled in just the past two years. The rise began well before the war in Ukraine, and now international market demand has pushed it higher. This is good for fracking companies that spent the last 10 years losing money, but from a utility’s perspective, price-stable renewables just look better and better. 

Graph of 5 years of natural gas prices in US dollars.
Natural gas (USD/MMBtu) https://tradingeconomics.com/commodity/natural-gas

Fortunately for the gas industry, making electricity is just one use for its product. Methane remains the dominant fuel for heating buildings, with about half of U.S. homes and businesses using it for space heating, water heating, cooking and other appliances. It is also a feedstock for many industrial operations, including fertilizer and plastics manufacturing. Protecting the first use, and expanding the second, are critical to staving off obsolescence. 

That explains three pieces of legislation passed in Virginia in the past two years, all modeled on bills enacted in other states. One, which I’ll discuss in a minute, originally would have prohibited local governments from banning new gas connections within their jurisdiction, protecting the industry’s access to new retail customers. Another sets up a way for gas companies to include methane from pig waste lagoons and other non-fossil sources in their pipelines, allowing them to claim green credit — and subsidies — for marketing what they call renewable natural gas. 

Finally, 2021 legislation promotes “advanced recycling” of waste plastics — using a process called chemical conversion to turn plastic into other plastic or into fuel and then burning it — in part to forestall efforts to phase out single-use plastics like Styrofoam food containers and plastic bags. As a technology, chemical conversion is inelegant, being energy-intensive and highly polluting. As a business, the economics are questionable (and the main company benefiting from the law canceled plans for a facility in Virginia). But as PR, the reframing is brilliant. Why not expand plastics production forever if we can turn the waste into fuel or new plastic?

Indeed, the success of the law can be seen in Gov. Glen Youngkin’s new executive order ostensibly promoting recycling while overturning a previous order from Ralph Northam that required executive agencies to give up single-use plastics by 2025. General Assembly members are also falling for the propaganda, proposing via the state budget to delay the ban on polystyrene food containers that was to have taken effect beginning next year. 

Banning the bans: the gas industry fights building electrification

RNG and plastics are important for the gas industry, but protecting its market share in the building sector is central to its future. Ultimately it is doomed to failure. All-electric buildings are a requirement for a fully decarbonized economy, and their health and safety advantages make a compelling case for localities that want to help meet climate targets by preventing new homes from being connected to gas lines. Some cities in solidly blue states have banned new gas hook-ups; elsewhere, red state legislatures are passing laws to ban the bans.

Public support for these bans will grow as people learn more about the hazards of using gas in their homes. Read enough stories about methane leaking from underground pipes and in homes (and occasionally exploding and setting fire to buildings), or about the health impacts of indoor air pollution from gas heaters and stoves, and you may wonder why we ever thought it a good idea to have open flames in our homes. Yet once a house is built with a gas furnace and appliances, it is much harder for a homeowner to go all-electric. 

To be clear, though, no Virginia jurisdiction has sought to ban gas connections, and it’s not clear whether they could do so in a Dillon Rule state like Virginia. Right now, a law to keep them from doing so sounds a little on the hysterical side, like prohibiting people from walking tigers off-leash. 

Indeed, the proponents of HB1257 could cite only a much narrower threat. The City of Richmond recently committed itself to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Unlike almost any other city in Virginia, Richmond owns a gas utility that serves its residents and businesses. Sometime in the next 28 years, if the city is serious, it will have to sell the utility or shut down gas service, forcing customers to look elsewhere if they want gas. 

The gas industry and its industrial customers used this far-off threat as a pretext for a Virginia ban-the-ban bill. In its original form, HB1257 (Kilgore) declared it the right of every person to access natural gas, calling this “energy justice,” and explicitly forbidding any public entity from doing anything to interfere with this sacred right. (Oh, except that gas utilities don’t have to supply gas even to willing customers if they can’t make money doing so, and they are free to cut off service to anyone who can’t pay their bills. Justice stretches only so far as profit permits.) 

The Republican-led House passed the whole bill, but the Democratic-led Senate pared it back to deal just with a locality that gets out of the gas utility business, requiring that it give three years’ notice and try to sell or auction off the utility. The final version omits the “energy justice” language that was such an inspiring tribute to George Orwell, but it solves the “immediate” problem in Richmond. 

But it’s not likely that we have seen the end of legislative efforts in Virginia to ban local restrictions on natural gas connections. The gas industry needs to lock in new customers now, because its future is looking very bleak indeed. 

This column originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on April 21, 2022.