Two very different news items on climate change have emerged in recent weeks, one a source of pessimism, the other a source of optimism.
First, the pessimism: a May 30 report from Greenpeace headlined “Dramatic surge in China carbon emissions signals climate danger.” The document declares:
Led by increased demand for coal, oil and gas, China’s CO2 emissions for the first three months of 2018 were 4% higher than they were for the same period in 2017…. Analysts have suggested the country’s carbon emissions could rise this year by 5%—the largest annual increase in seven years.
Second, the optimism: a June 7 report from National Geographic headlined “This Gasoline Is Made of Carbon Sucked From the Air.” In the words of that story:
Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company, is already making a liquid fuel by sucking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere and combining it with hydrogen from water. This is an engineering breakthrough on two fronts: A potentially cost-effective way to take CO2 out of the atmosphere to fight climate change and a potentially cost-competitive way to make gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel that doesn’t add any additional CO2 to the atmosphere.
Yet interestingly, despite the media’s enormous—some would say relentless—focus on climate change, neither of these items have gained much traction.
And why is that? Perhaps it’s because neither story fits the mainstream media’s preferred narrative these days. That narrative insists that the road to success on climate change runs through Washington, D.C., which means rolling over—and thoroughly stomping on—Donald Trump and his administration. In such a context, any climate change story that doesn’t involve piling the blame on Trump isn’t of interest to the media gatekeepers.
Returning to the Greenpeace item, the one offering a bleak assessment of China’s CO2, we can observe that neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post—nor any other mainstream media news outlet that this writer could find, save one story in the Financial Times—has touched it.
Still, some might ask: could this blackout simply be a gauge of Greenpeace’s credibility in the eyes of the MSM? Actually, probably not, because just in the last few weeks, the media has cited many other Greenpeace reports concerning everything from orangutans to renewable garbage to oceanic plastics.
So it’s more likely that untoward news about China and CO2 gets the spike because it doesn’t fit the preferred narrative—everyone knows that the real villain is Trump and his Republican enablers.
Since in this dramaturgy Trump is the bad guy, China must be the good guy. Indeed, ever since his appearance at the World Economic Forum in January 2017, China’s leader-for-life, Xi Jinping, has typically been cast as the valiant defender of the international order, including its Davos-friendly, politically correct environmentalism.
And on the international proscenium, China’s promises tend to taken at face value; hence this New York Times headline from December: “China Unveils an Ambitious Plan to Curb Climate Change Emissions.” See? It says right here, in this official Beijing document—the Chinese are on it.
To be sure, China is big into solar power, but then, these days, China is big into everything. Notably, the People’s Republic seems focused on selling solar panels to the West, and who can blame them? It’s one more market for them to conquer.
And yet every now and then a contrary indicator peeps through. For instance, there was this New York Times headline from January, which confirms the gist of the Greenpeace item: “China’s Emissions: More Than U.S. Plus Europe, and Still Rising.” As the story details, “Much of the extra demand was met by burning more coal, a particularly dirty fuel. Oil use has also risen as China has become the world’s largest car market, and so has natural gas consumption.” So we can see: the Chinese are saying one thing and burning another. Such double-dealing is a phenomenon not unheard of in world affairs, and yet it certainly blows off China’s green halo.
Moreover, a May 24 report from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies added another not-small detail to China’s carboniferous profile:
China…is increasingly feeding and clothing its growing middle classes with imported products from Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other countries with fast-expanding economies driven by fossil fuels. The upshot could be that China’s promises to stabilize its own CO2 emissions will be achieved by super-charging emissions generated in other countries in order to feed the consumption patterns of its 1.4 billion inhabitants.
So in addition to piling up emissions from within their country, the Chinese are piling up still more emissions from without by shifting CO2-heavy production to nations that tend to escape scrutiny. Indeed, as Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, China is actively helping to finance coal-burning plants in countries such as Vietnam and Pakistan. Thus can we fairly conclude that this is not climate leadership; this is a climate shell game.
To be sure, many will say that whatever China is doing, the U.S. is doing it worse. For instance, while China’s CO2 emissions are nearly double those of the United States, it’s still true that the U.S. produces much more CO2 on a per capita basis.
Yet this compounding of climate sinfulness should lead us to wonder: if the world’s two largest economies are both way out of line on CO2, then what are the chances that smaller economies are going to deal with the problem, let alone solve it?
In point of fact, the 2015 Paris climate agreement is starting to look distinctly forlorn, as leaders realize that it’s easier to give a pious speech than it is to de-energize their national economies. And so the Paris agreement seems destined to join the roster of international undertakings for which hopes were highest the day they were launched and then fell steadily thereafter—including the League of Nations, the United Nations, and the European Union.
Indeed, even the Canadians, those self-effacing pillars of internationalism, seem to be backing away from their globalist duties. Just last week, the populist conservative forces of Doug Ford, a north-of-the-border Donald Trump, won a sweeping victory in Ontario, the country’s largest province. One of Ford’s key campaign planks was opposition to the Trudeau government’s plan to add a climate change-fighting tax on carbon.
Of course, it should be no surprise that most Canadians don’t want to mess with their underground golden goose. As oil prices move up to $70 a barrel, Canada’s reserves of 172 billion barrels are worth more than $12 trillion. To put the dollar total another way, that’s roughly $330,000 per Canadian. In other words, “black gold” can be reckoned, simply, as gold—and history tells us that gold, once found, is always dug up.
In the meantime, here in the U.S., Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have co-authored an op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News in which they extol the vast energy potential of Alaska—and they aren’t talking about solar.
Most notably, Murkowski and Perry highlight the potential value of methane hydrates—that is, natural gas trapped in underground and underwater ice. The worldwide value of methane hydrates is estimated in the several quadrillions of dollars, so if the U.S. could gain only a fraction of that wealth, our fiscal problems would be solved.
So resource extraction could turn Alaskans, and maybe even all Americans, into millionaires. But what about climate change? Will we take the wealth from below ground, leaving the above-ground climate to…an uncertain fate? It seems clear that, yes, we’ll take the wealth, as will the Chinese, as will the people of probably every other country—even those avowedly green Germans.
But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story, even as the lesson is clear: if there’s going to be a solution to the climate-change concern, it’s not going to come from the abnegating politics, but rather from empowering technology. So the moral of the story: if we’re going to extract, let’s at the same time protect.
Thus we come back to that second news item, the one about pulling gasoline from the atmosphere. It’s impossible for a layman to know whether or not that particularly counterintuitive approach will work, and yet it’s easy to see that something like it will succeed. After all, through the process of photosynthesis, green plants have been pulling carbon out of the air for eons.
Overall, this idea is called direct-air capture, and many scientists, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists—including Bill Gates, the biggest giver of all—are hard at work on it, even if, for reasons that we have seen, the media is paying little attention.
So perhaps we can look forward to an epic historical switcheroo. That is, by the time the mainstream media admits that China is not the Great Anti-Trump Hope they have been begging for, science will be cueing up the deus ex machina that we all need.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at TAC. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.