Written by Nathaniel Berger

During the past several years, the United States has experience numerous events of extreme weather patterns ranging from massive wildfires in Colorado to the 4th warmest winter in U.S. history.[1] Many parts of the country experienced seventy degree days in December.

Ninety-seven percent of scientists say man-made climate change is real.[2] However, the remaining 3% of scientists are quite loud in their efforts to deny climate change. Those who deny the occurrence of climate change take the scientific truth, and mislead, deny, and suppress it so much that little progress can be made. The media further exacerbate the problem when they give each side equal air time, insinuating whether intentionally or not, that these messages are both equally supported and valid.

However, despite the 3% of scientists’ denial, climate change is happening, and the U.S. needs to do its part to lower carbon emissions. The European Union and many other nations around the world have made pledges through the Kyoto Protocol and other initiatives to lower carbon emissions through renewable energy creation, carbon offsets, and more. Germany’s solar energy accounts for nearly a 1/3 of the nation’s energy.[3]

Unfortunately, the U.S. has not embarked on such a serious renewable energy path, refusing to join the Kyoto Protocol or even establish a national energy policy. While many states have set forth renewable energy standards, these acts are insufficient as the U.S. is one of the top carbon emitters.

Despite the minimal efforts made in the United States to reduce carbon emissions, the U.S. experienced the lowest carbon emissions in 20 years in the first half of 2012.[4] Many are claiming that the U.S. has finally decided to truly work to reduce carbon emissions. Sadly, I think that these people are far too optimistic. Few scientists actually think that these reductions in carbon emissions will last.

When the CO2 emissions reductions were analyzed, researchers found that 43% of the decline was a result of the mild winter that much of the U.S. experienced, 21% of the decline was attributed to coal-to-gas generation, and only a measly 6% was left for increased wind generation.[5] In terms of weather conditions, the mild winter is not likely to be a recurring theme in coming years, and even if it is, it will likely bring with it increasingly hot summers that will require more energy consumption through increased air conditioning.

While natural gas usage has increased significantly, the switch to natural gas is only a temporary fix for carbon emissions. First, the switch to natural gas is largely a result of economic factors that have resulted in shockingly low natural gas prices. According to Michael McElroy, Professor of Environmental Studies at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the impact of the decreased price of natural gas was most prevalent in the East South Central and South Atlantic regions of the U.S. because those regions have the highest level of electricity generation from coal.[6] Few economists expect these low prices to remain long term, which may result in a small comeback of coal. However, McElroy does argue that if the United States wanted to continue to economically impact the relative price of electricity generation between coal and natural gas, a carbon tax of only $5 per ton of CO2 would make a significant difference in electricity generation. The U.S. would save 31 million tons of CO2, and the price of electricity would rise only minimally.[7] I think this solution is perfectly reasonable especially when one considers our growing national debt. However, it is unlikely to be part of any tax reform due to the unwillingness of major political figures to put the environment and climate change on their political agendas.

Second, natural gas brings its own environmental impacts. Natural gas obtained through hydraulic fracturing is associated with water contamination and earthquakes. Many states such as, Ohio and Pennsylvania, are already noticing some of these impacts. Because of the fast-paced nature of the industry, it has been difficult for many states to develop the regulatory system fast enough to keep up with the production goals of companies interested in hydraulic fracturing. North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources has worked to assess the potential impacts. Currently, they are recommending that with the proper guidelines and safety regulations that hydraulic fracturing can occur safely with minimal environmental impact. The only problem is that they are still unsure of what the potential impacts are, the size of those impacts, and how quickly they may impact human health.[8]

Natural gas will not lower carbon emissions sufficiently to prevent continued climate change. It has a different set of problems from coal, but it has problems all the same. Therefore, it is only one part of the solution to climate change. It should not be seen as the end all be all. Therefore, it is vital for people to only see natural gas as a transition fuel from coal to renewable energy. People need to remember that renewable energy means that we can never run out. No one can say that about coal or even natural gas. Renewable energy is the only long-term way to reduce carbon emissions before the impacts of climate change become more extreme, and people are less able to adapt. Renewable energy is also economically crucial to the United States. Renewable energy technology is the technology of the future. If the United States wants to maintain at the forefront of the world economy, it will have to invest in renewable energy. And, if we want to maintain the world, we need to transition to renewable energy sooner rather than later.