Natural Gas: Now A Bridge to Climate Catastrophe

Press coverage of natural gas fracking controversies in Pennsylvania and other places where natural gas fracking has boomed in the last few decades has mostly focused on disputed claims about gas development’s adverse environmental impacts to water, air, forests, and land, while largely ignoring natural gas’ continuing contribution to ominously rising atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations.

When the natural gas fracking boom began about two decades ago, proponents of natural gas combustion often sold it as a “bridge fuel” for climate change because natural gas combustion only emits only 53% of the CO2 emitted by coal combustion provided that methane leakage from the gas production and distribution system is less than 3% of the produced gas. Although the actual amount of methane leakage from gas production remains somewhat contentious, even if there is no methane leakage from gas production, because the international community has understood for at least a decade that the world must move toward zero carbon emissions within several decades to prevent climate catastrophe, government action to replace natural gas with non-fossil energy should have been an imperative at least throughout the last decade of natural gas fracking expansion to make the transition to non-fossil energy needed to avoid planetary disaster feasible.

The failure to move quickly to non-fossil energy in the last decade is partially responsible for the rise of atmospheric CO2 to reach 415 ppm, a concentration never experienced in human history. Because even modest amounts of additional warming above current global elevated temperatures create the risk that certain thresholds, or “tipping points,” in the climate system may be exceeded causing much more abrupt climate change, human-induced climate change creates grave threats to life on Earth. For this reason, every country in the world agreed in Paris in 2015 to act to limit additional warming as close as possible to 1.5 0C but no more than 2.00 C.  

Yet, to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals will require an “all hands on deck” by all governments at all levels to completely decarbonize their economies by 2045 to keep warming below 1.5 0C and by 2070 to achieve the 2.00 C limit. Making matters worse, when the 2.00 C goal was adopted in Paris, many scientists believed that achieving this warming limit would prevent abrupt climate change that would be caused if the Earth’s climate tipping points were exceeded. Yet, recent evidence has frightened many climate scientists because a few of the tipping points, including rapid increases in methane and CO2 emissions liberated when artic permafrost melts, are already beginning to appear, making the climate crisis a staggering global emergency.

Yet climate change is not only a horrific future calamity, the 1.1 0 C temperature rise the Earth has experienced since the beginning of the industrial revolution has already caused brutal suffering by causing increases in killer hurricanes, unprecedented flooding, droughts, forest fires, storm surges, climate refugees, increases in vector-borne and tropical diseases, killer heat stresses, loss of valued ecological systems including coral reefs around the world, and human conflict in Syria and parts of Africa. Because natural gas combustion has contributed to raising atmospheric GHG concentrations which is causing these horrors, nations have both a moral and legal duty under the “no harm principle,” a provision of customary international law agreed to by the United States in the 1992 United Nations climate convention to not harm citizens in other countries. Thus, all levels of government in the US must replace energy technologies which emit GHGs with technologies that don’t raise atmospheric GHG concentrations ASAP.

In addition, the two most compelling arguments that proponents of rapid natural gas expansion sometimes made in opposition to ambitious proposed policies that would replace fossil fuels with renewable energy are no longer viable if they ever were.  First, although at one time wind and solar energy were more expensive than gas, renewable energies are now competing favorably with fossil energy on cost. Second although renewable energies need backup sources of energy when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining, energy storage technologies including batteries, are rapidly improving in capacity while lowering price. This is the reason that growing numbers of national and local governments have set targets to achieve 100% renewable energy in the electricity sector and ambitious targets to replace fossil fuel powered vehicles with electrically powered transport in the next several decades.

For these reasons, Pennsylvania and other places where natural gas fracking has boomed must acknowledge that the only bridge that natural gas is now a bridge to is a bridge to world catastrophe and therefore must adopt policies to replace all fossil fuel technologies with technologies which don’t emit GHGs ASAP.


Donald A Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School


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