The Gulf, Gas Leaks, and Climate Change
Reactions to the fire on the Gulf of Mexico show both the importance of ditching fossil fuels and not falling prey to climate "doomerism."
Before saying anything else, I need to be unequivocally clear: climate change is real. Climate change is here. Climate change will only get more devastating. We need to take action to stop it and one of the most important ways to do so is to transition away from fossil fuels as fast as possible to cleaner forms of energy like solar, wind, and — I’ll save this rant for another day — nuclear.
However, a lot of people are acting as if a fire that broke out on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico is indicative of how bad things have gotten. Do they think water becomes flammable at a certain temperature rather than simply becoming steam? But I even saw people I know with a strong grasp on science evoking this as proof of how bad things have gotten.
The fire broke out because an underwater pipeline connected to the adjacent oil well ruptured and started leaking. The incident is described as a “gas leak” — presumably specifically gasoline (or petrol for you Brits), a product of refinery work done in some cases on-site off-shore on oil drilling wells.
Gasoline floats to the surface, forming a puddle within the larger body of water. If you’ve ever seen a weird rainbow-colored slick on the top of a puddle in a parking lot, it’s almost always because of gasoline or oil contaminating it in a thin layer on the top.
Even more importantly, it is hydrophobic — that is, it resists mixing with water. Water only extinguishes fire when it is able to mix with or soak into the fuel. Photographs and videos of efforts to extinguish the flames show them guzzling water around the fire rather than directly in it, doing what they can to keep the fuel around the fire mixed with water. Left to its own devices, it will quickly reform a slick on top that could enable the fire to further spread.
When people talk about how this would just be the stuff of “post-apocalyptic movies” just decades ago, they ignore that this kind of risk is not new. Nothing about climate change triggered this event, it was merely the product of a leak that could have happened at any point after the existence of undersea pipelines. In 2010, a fire broke out on the off-shore platform Deepwater Horizon, and stopping the leak that fueled it took months instead of hours.
One can very fairly make the argument that the demand for fossil fuels leads to the continued drilling and pipelining of fossil fuels — that if we had already solved climate change, this would not have happened, because the consumption of gasoline simply would not be there any longer. But to bear witness to what can happen with any oil-based substance floating on water is not a sign of an apocalypse.
This understanding is important to combat what is often called “climate doomerism” on the internet — the idea that we are, frankly, fucked and things have gotten so bad that there is little hope of righting this ship. This kind of fear demotivates people from taking action.
Things are bad. Quite bad, in fact. It’s important to recognize that and let it inform our actions. But there is a fine line between view the reality of climate change with hope versus hopelessness. Falsely ascribing events to climate change, rather than spurn people into action, risks making them think they are already too far into disaster to return — or too jaded to act when they learn the actual truth.
There is hope. Humanity has shown time and time again the potential for rapid transformation. Most people reading this here in 2021 can probably remember a time before iPhones. Sure, profit drove their adoption, but the potential for profit existed because the demand was there. When we, collectively as a society, want something that is within reach, we get it. We went to the freaking moon!
Many correctly realize the problem of convincing those who do not believe in climate change — still somehow, yes they exist — but few see the pitfalls for those who recognize the problem exists. Morale dampens the ability to affect change, and “big scary fire in the ocean I’m going to talk about as an apocalyptic event” destroys that morale.
We can triumph against climate change. But whether or not we do relies in part on those who care not being terrified beyond the point of hope. Humanity is only doomed if we convince ourselves that we are. A leak in an underwater gas line certainly does not spell doom, it is just reflective of yet another inherent danger to fossil fuels. All the more reason to kick our addiction to them, which is by far the biggest hurdle to overcome with climate change — but a brighter future awaits!