Being very careful about choosing a “less bad option”

Seth Kaplan

When someone offers you a simple answer to a complicated and big problem be very suspicious.

Global warming, the ultimate in complicated and big problems, can only be addressed by deploying a wide array of tools aggressively and with honest awareness of what each tool can and can not do.

Some measures, like reducing energy use through efficiency and conservation or generating electricity from the wind or from sunlight, have a clear pollution reduction effect although measuring that effect and managing those resources to ensure they are as clean, affordable and effective as possible is not simple.

Other resources can best be thought of as being a choice between “less bad options” – a powerful example of this is the discussion of the relative greenhouse gas emissions (when you look at the full life cycle of the fuel and its uses) from coal and natural gas.

A paper by Cornell University Professor Robert Howarth has started a valuable dialogue about this important topic.  For a good discussion of that paper and the responses to it take a look at the New York Times blog post and news story about it as well as coverage in The Hill (a political publication in Washington) – and you can even read the paper for yourself.  MIT’s Technology Review also offers a perspective on this study.

The paper also figured in the Senate Committee hearing about hydraulic fracturing and natural gas held this morning.  If you really have nothing better to do check out the archived webcast.

Is natural gas only half as bad as coal?  Are they comparable? Is in fact gas worse under some circumstances?  These are all important questions but overlay the critical reality that both of these fossil fuels are simply not something we can rely upon in the long term to power our societies and our economies.

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