Josh Fox: What We Have to Do to Prevent Climate Apocalypse
The so-called fracking revolution has transformed America’s energy landscape. With more than 100,000 oil and gas wells drilled and fracked since 2005, the nation has secured cheap and plentiful energy, forcing a drop in natural gas prices. The oil giant BP believes that with this surging production of shale oil and gas, the U.S. could become energy self-sufficient by 2030, escaping the grip of OPEC, the Saudi-led oil cartel that currently accounts for 35 percent of American oil imports.
But as advocates hail fracking as a savior that can unlock the nation’s energy independence, opponents have raised the alarms about this method of extracting natural gas for its harmful effects on public health and the environment. Fracktivists have also warned that the focus on fracking has derailed the ultimate goal of moving to a low-carbon economy powered primarily by renewable energy. The anti-fracking movement has steadily grown, bringing together environmentalists, public health advocates, supporters of renewable energy and local communities across the country that have felt the negative impacts of fracking projects.
One of the early mobilizers of the nationwide anti-fracking movement was the 2010 Emmy Award-winning documentary Gasland, written and directed by Josh Fox, whose journey into fracking started in May 2008, when he received a letter from a natural gas company offering to lease his family's land in Pennsylvania for $100,000 to drill for gas. In his new film, How to Let Go of The World (And Love All the Things Climate Can't Change), which premieres this month at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Fox travels to 12 countries on six continents to examine climate change through a fresh lens and uncover personal stories of hope.
I had a chance to ask Fox some questions about the current state of fracking, the grassroots anti-fracking movement, his new film and his thoughts on the future.
Reynard Loki: On a scale of 1 to 10, how you would grade COP21, the international climate talks held in Paris last month?
Josh Fox: I'd give it both a 10 and a 1. As far as what governments have pledged and said that they were capable of doing, in a lot of ways, it's the best we could hope for. Having said that, government's approach to this question for the past 25 years has been so lame, so problematic, so full of undue influence by the fossil fuel industry and not heeding or listening to the science — we're in such bad shape. In many ways, this agreement is a step backwards from the 2009 debacle in Copenhagen, which pointed the world toward the idea that we were going to limit climate change to 2° of warming. The INDCs — the “intended nationally determined contributions” — to the current agreement are leading us down a path of between 3.5-3.7°.
That's apocalyptic. It's nowhere near sufficient.
RL: How much of the problem is politics?
JF: The agreement points to the wide gulf between what science and nature are telling us we have to do, and what politics at that level is willing to do. It's simply ineffective. These are not legally binding agreements, let's not forget that. These are aspirational. The idea that somehow this agreement is going to lead us down the path of a 2° warmed world, or a 1.5° warmed world, is completely nonsensical. It is one of the most expensive diplomatic agreements in the history of humankind and is very strong-worded in terms of its language, but it doesn't actually make this problem stop.
We know that the Republican Party will not take serious action on climate change. If the Paris agreement had to be ratified by Congress, it would fail. Congress is so stuck on stupid, and so completely out of touch with the rest of the world, that we know that's not going to happen. We have to get serious in this country about actually stopping fracked gas, stopping all of the other fossil fuels and making the transition toward 100 percent renewable energy.
RL: How dangerous is climate denialism?
JF: The fossil fuel industry has led us down the path of denial of the very thing that runs our entire civilization, which is science. Our civilization runs on science. It doesn't necessarily run on fossil fuels, but it definitely runs on science. When you have the fossil fuel giants creating an atmosphere that is so damning of the very building blocks of civilization, it signals that these people have to go. That system has to be changed, and those proponents are not only both fiscally and environmentally responsible, but I would argue, have a degree of criminal negligence.
If these people know that what they're doing is destroying the planet, and they continue to do it, I would say that that's a case for criminal negligence, as it was with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as it is with all of these fossil fuel disasters that happen on the ground, this is a fossil fuel disaster that's happening in the sky. We have to understand that these people continue to be responsible as they continue to campaign that climate change doesn't exist.
RL: Were you surprised that the Paris accord agreed to the 1.5° mark?
JF: I thought that was a surprise, but I don't think it is a surprise if you know the strength of the environmental indigenous network that made that goal such a prominent part of the Paris talks. It was the indigenous people from the Pacific Islands and the Amazon who were saying, "Listen, two degrees is a crazy idea." A 2° warmer world is so dangerous and such a problem that you simply cannot aspire to a 2° warmer world, because 2° is not a limit. It's an average.
RL: What does a 2° warmer world mean?
JF: A 2° warmer world on average means that Africa is going to warm by three or four degrees. Desmond Tutu came out and said if you agree to two degrees, you agree to cooking the continent. Similarly, our coastal cities in the United States would suffer a six-meter rise in sea level. That's the end as we know it for New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Miami, Washington DC. You're talking about an East Coast that no longer has a stable coastline. That's unimaginable, even just for the United States, let alone thinking about the Marshall Islands, or Tuvalu or Samoa or Fiji — all of these places across the southern Pacific.
Here's the problem, though: We already have warmed the earth by about a degree right now. Carbon dioxide sits in the atmosphere for 30 or 40 years or longer. We already have enough CO2 in the atmosphere right now to get us to 1.5°. A 1.5° limit means shut off all emissions right now. That's not happening.
RL: What’s the alternative?
JF: There is one way to start to get toward that 1.5° goal. That's by radically reducing methane emissions. Methane emissions warm the earth faster, and it sticks around for less time. If you cut methane emissions, it's your fastest way toward cooling the planet back down. Unfortunately, the United States is in the process of making a wholesale transition from coal to natural gas. What we should be doing is making a transition from coal and natural gas to renewable energy immediately.
RL: Can natural gas act as a lower carbon bridge from coal to renewable energy, as President Obama and others have suggested?
JF: You've got 300 new gas power plants being proposed in the United States alone. This is a disaster. It is a total contradiction to the Obama administration's stated goal of keeping the planet well below 2°. John Kerry was a big part of saying, "We need to keep the planet well below 2°." We can't do that and build 300 new fracking power plants. We can't do that and frack two million more wells for natural gas and build hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines, compressor stations and LNG [liquefied natural gas] terminals — and lift the oil export ban.
All of these things the United States is doing are in direct contradiction with its aspirational goals stated in Paris. We should be phasing out natural gas—period. Not planning for its future. We cannot possibly keep using fossil fuels if we want to keep our major cities on the East Coast from going underwater. Period. That story has been written.
We know how much methane will go into the atmosphere. We're already at 1.5 degrees. We have no budget left for carbon at all. Even if you stopped all the methane, you're still talking about half the carbon of coal. Even if you stopped and you built those power plants, you're still talking about huge emissions of carbon dioxide. There's simply no way around it. You have to start to convert immediately to 100 percent renewable energy and do that on a very fast time scale.
RL: So what has to happen?
JF: Actual participatory democracy in the streets. Right now all of those power plants, pipelines, compressor stations and LNG terminals have really significant opposition at the local level. People in upstate New York are fighting the Constitution pipeline. In Massachusetts they’re fighting the NED pipeline. In Seattle and Portland and across the Gulf Coast, they're fighting LNG terminals. In Denton, Texas, the birthplace of fracking, they're fighting fracked gas power plants. These local fights have to be invested in and supported by the elements that support the fracking fight, by the people who are supporting the climate change fight.
RL: Who should be financing the movement?
JF: There are millionaires and billionaires and ordinary people who are putting tons and tons of money out there to try to create this movement against climate change, and movement for global environmental justice. Those fights at the local level in the United States have to be supported. We're talking about hundreds of groups across the United States that are fighting these fights at an individual level. It's like Keystone XL times 100. It's like Tom Steyer, Bill Gates, and Michael Bloomberg and all those powerful people who believe that climate change is a bad thing. They need to start talking to the activists because fracked gas running the show in the United States for the next 40 years definitely means we're going underwater here in New York. We're going underwater in Philadelphia. We're going underwater in Miami. That's what it means.
You're signing the death warrant for those cities unless you realize that fracked gas is the worst possible fuel for climate.
RL: Is natural gas really cleaner than coal?
JF: Fracked gas at the power plant burns cleaner in terms of less CO2 and has less particulate matter than coal. However, methane itself, natural gas, fracked gas, is according to IPCC, 86 times more potent a global warming agent than CO2 is in the atmosphere. That means that if you're leaking significant portions of natural gas directly into the atmosphere rather than having it all burned, then the leaked methane plus burned CO2 adds up to a worse greenhouse gas emission profile than coal. What we're seeing out there in the field is huge amounts of natural gas, fracked gas, are leaking out of the process at every stage. Gas lines leak, the compressor stations leak, the fracked gas drilling process itself liberates and vents methane directly into the atmosphere. It's something that we reported on in Gasland 2. Scientists at Cornell estimated several years ago that between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of all the gas harvested through fracking and shale gas, leaked into the atmosphere at methane. That means that when you combine the total emissions profile for fracked gas, with respect to climate change, you're actually doing worse than coal. Fracked gas is substantially worse than our worse fuel.
Look at what's happening right now in Porter Ranch in California — a methane geyser that has erupted out of a natural gas storage facility that currently is the largest single climate emissions source in the world. It is emitting 25 percent of California's methane every single day. That is one facility that went awry. There are hundreds of thousands of these facilities across America right now with antiquated equipment.
RL: But coal isn’t better than natural gas.
JF: I'm not campaigning for coal. I think coal is a disaster. We have to phase out coal. Unfortunately, however, 10, 15 years ago, the natural gas industry's propaganda was so pervasive and insidious that they were able to misinform the world that they were cleaner than coal in terms of climate change emissions. It is absolutely 100 percent not true. That is a myth that the natural gas, the fracked gas industry, propagated out into the world to get people to buy into the idea that natural gas, or fracked gas, is clean. Fracked gas is anything but clean. It pollutes the groundwater when you do the fracking. It pollutes the air in the sites all around it and causes health problems.
We know now that so much of this process leaks, that we're talking about something that's worse than coal, especially if you're talking about expanding it. Methane's not even a part of the Paris agreement, okay? That's a huge problem. It's all about carbon. Right now, we're talking about a huge, huge upswing in methane emissions in the United States that will only get worse if we permit these frack gas power plants, these frack gas pipelines, and these LNG terminals.
RL: How close are we to getting the entire nation powered by renewable energy?
JF: Very far away. I think it's something like less than 10 percent. But when Americans have had our backs up against a wall, we've done the impossible over and over again. When JFK said we're going to put a man on the moon, we did it, and we did it really fast. We did it inside of a decade. When the Nazis were militarizing in Europe, FDR went to the automobile industry and said, Okay, we're going to build the largest war machine the world has ever seen because we need to defeat fascism in Europe.
The car industry went back to FDR and they said, Well, we're going to try our best, but it's going to be pretty hard to do that at the same time as we make all these cars. FDR said, No, I don't think you understand what I'm saying. We're going to ban the sale of private automobiles in this country.
In seven years, they built the largest war machine that the world has ever seen and defeated the Nazis in Europe. We did that in six years. We can do this.
RL: Let’s talk about China for a moment. According to new data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, for the first time ever, developing countries account for the majority of global clean energy investment. Over the last year, China alone outpaced renewable energy investment in the U.S., U.K. and France combined.
JF: China’s decision to close down 1,000 coal mines and not open any new coal mines — that's really significant. If America did the same thing, and said we're going to stop doing coal, and we're going to stop doing our fracked gas, our new infatuation with fracked gas, then we're talking about something that could really be meaningful. The Chinese just committed last year to building one terawatt of renewable energy by 2030. One terawatt of renewable energy by 2030 is about 20 percent of Chinese electricity generation. In the United States, that's 100 percent. If the Chinese can build one terawatt in 15 years, why can't we build it in 10? There's no reason. It's simply the political will on the ground.
We've seen these types of transformations sweep through our society time and time again. Fifteen years ago, no one had a cellphone. Now it's unimaginable that you don't have a supercomputer in your pocket. Don't tell me it's not possible to do. However, it's certainly impossible if we build these fracked gas power plants.
RL: In your new film, How to Let Go of The World (And Love All the Things Climate Can't Change), you travel to 12 countries on six continents. On your website, you say that “the film acknowledges that it may be too late to stop some of the worst consequences and asks, what is it that climate change can’t destroy? What is so deep within us that no calamity can take it away?”
Are you hopeful or pessimistic about the future?
JF: That's a day-to-day question. In the new film, I go through the whole gamut of emotions, from deepest despair to dancing in the street, literally. This film is about the answer. I think when you really encounter the depths of the problem, there's nothing but despair and sorrow and grief, that it has to take you over. However, the depths of that emotional responsibility led me to meeting some of the most inspiring, positive, innovative, creative, willful and resilient people on the planet.
The film takes you to the Amazon, where you're with the indigenous environmental monitors who are trying to get the story out about oil spills that are poisoning the fish in their villages and jungles. We take you to the Pacific Climate Warriors blockading the Port of Newcastle against the largest coal export facility in the world. These people are indomitable. People fighting for human rights in China. People fighting for stopping the fracking and tar sands expansion in America. The stories are incredibly emotionally powerful, and so it's a rollercoaster ride.
RL: What’s the film’s central message?
JF: The idea is how to let go of the world. Well, we've got to let go of the world of greed and competition. We've got to let go of that world to give birth to another one. Climate change is going to claim a lot of places. It's going to create a lot of suffering. It's going to create a lot of havoc. What are all the things that climate can't change? Well, those are community, love, resilience, human rights, democracy, basic decency and generosity. These are the things that we have to pull upon.
When you look in the depths of your heart and the depths of your soul, what are the things that make life worth living? Those are the things that climate can't change.
RL: Those are all great ideals, but isn’t the reality on the ground different in terms of people who are busy dealing with their everyday lives and own struggles?
JF: What we're saying to people is, don't fool yourself right now. This is not going to be an easy task. This is something that you're going to have to sacrifice for, and this is something that you're going to have to actually work for. That means one to two hours a week as a volunteer at your local organization. That means one to two hours a week ... It might mean missing your kid's Thursday night soccer game once in awhile. Well, if that's what it means, fine. It means creating a stronger, and a safer, and a more healthy planet for their future. That's what is required and nothing less. At the same time, this is really just an invitation to a party. The movement is culture. The movement is music. The movement is film. It's having your neighbors over for dinner. That's what this is.
RL: What would you say to someone who’s concerned about climate, but hasn’t yet made the personal leap to become active in the climate movement?
JF: What did other movements do in the history of movements? Look at the civil rights movement. Look at the suffragettes. Look at feminism. Look at the movement to get children out of the workforce in the coal mines. What did those movements do? The answer is everything. They had songs. They had stories. They had plays. They had movies. They had marches. They had civil disobedience. They had conversations around your coffee table. This is what it means to be a participant in democratic civilization. This is what it means to be a citizen, and this is the biggest challenge that democracy and human organization has ever faced.
Of course it's going to take some time, and it's going to take some willingness, but the good part of that is, that's going to be a meaningful experience. It's going to be a fun experience. It's going to be something that brings us closer to what makes life worth living.
Watch the trailer for How to Let Go of The World (And Love All the Things Climate Can't Change):