Skip to content Skip to site navigation

Carl Pope's Posts


The road to climate heaven is paved with ever cheaper oil

Greenpeace recently issued a call for coordinated action to halt development of the 14 most threatening fossil fuel projects on the planet. These coal, oil, and gas projects, by increasing greenhouse gas emissions 6.3 gigatons a year by 2020, would push the world’s climate to a “point of no return.”

chart of 14 dirty fossil-fuel projects

The report suggests to me that we climate advocates need to reexamine our strategies and how we're spending limited resources. Specifically, we need to focus as much on oil and gas as we have been on coal. And, believe it or not, the path to a low-carbon future lies through cheap, and indeed ever cheaper, oil.

It's not just coal, stupid

Coal has long been the big villain for climate advocates, and the focus of most campaigning. But only four of Greenpeace’s 14 biggest threats involve coal, while 10 involve oil and gas. Indeed, by 2020, annual carbon emissions from new “no return” oil and gas projects are expected to exceed those from coal: 3.3 gigatons of carbon from the “cleaner” fossil fuels vs. 3 gigatons from coal. And by 2035, the gap will grow: 6.2 gigatons of oil and gas carbon vs. 3.4 from coal.

There are two reasons why oil and gas will pose more of a threat than coal in the future. First, the assumption that oil and gas resources were very limited, while coal was abundant, has been stood on its head by the emergence of new oil and gas technology -- ultra-deep ocean drilling, horizontal drilling and fracking, and increased efforts to develop both on- and offshore Arctic resources.

Second, where civil society is robust, climate and environmental advocacy is proving effective against coal. In the U.S., anti-coal activism -- led by the Sierra Club, spurred by state-level renewable standards, and lubricated by very cheap natural gas -- has driven coal’s share of electricity generation down from more than 50 percent to 35 percent. Coal industry leaders called 2012 their worst year in history; major companies like Patriot Coal and America West Resources have filed for bankruptcy. All projections of domestic demand for coal show it continuing to decline, which leaves U.S. coal companies scrambling to find new export markets for their product.


How environmental and women’s groups can work together

All together now!Photo: Edu van GelderCross-posted from RH Reality Check. Two experts -- Dr. Carmen Barroso, director of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Western Hemisphere Region, and Carl Pope, former executive director and current chair of the Sierra Club -- explain the connections between environmental and population issues and how the movements can work together. Q. When did you start to see the synergy between environmental and population issues? A. Carmen Barroso: I remember when we didn't see them. In the 1980s, I was living on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, developing a sex-education program with local women's organizations. …

Read more: Living, Population


Original sin

The Clean Air Act story: back to the beginning

In David Roberts' story about Henry Waxman's long struggle to strengthen the Clean Air Act (part one, two), some important lessons were unavoidably overlooked, because Waxman inherited, struggled with, and never did manage to remedy a serious architectural flaw embedded in the original 1970 version of the law. When I first lobbied on clean air in 1970, there was a crucial but often forgotten fork in the road. Environmentalists urged Senator Edmund Muskie, who was leading the charge, to require that all polluting facilities, new and old, be modernized and cleaned up. When the business community pushed back and told …


Finding common ground in green

Sierra Club and Clorox celebrate their partnership

This year, Earth Day was bigger than ever, which prompted some hand-wringing over whether too many people were jumping on the green bandwagon. Wait a minute: Earth Day, too big? Didn't we want everyone on this bandwagon? Sustainability is a challenge we all face; our response to it could well define the 21st century. If we are going to succeed, it will take more than a "business as usual" approach. In fact, we believe the whole definition of "business as usual" needs to be upended. Business can no longer afford to ignore environmental warnings; environmentalists can no longer demonize business. …


An in-depth response to “The Death of Environmentalism”

In December 2004, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope distributed this response to the essay "The Death of Environmentalism." Get the backstory here. There Is Something Different About Global Warming Dear Environmental Grant-Maker: You may have recently received a memorandum entitled "The Death of Environmentalism" by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. Carl Pope. I was one of the twenty-five people interviewed for this piece. While I personally was treated fairly, I am still deeply disappointed and angered by it. I share the thesis that some fundamental changes are needed in the way environmentalists approach the challenge of global warming. But …