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News + PoliticsEnvironmentCan Burning Man ever be carbon neutral?

Can Burning Man ever be carbon neutral?

We hear a lot of talk. The reality on the ground is different—and a professor from SF State is gathering the data

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The climate is changing in Black Rock City. That’s true around the world, which has seen record hot temperatures this year. But the climate within Burning Man Project leadership is remarkably stable — it’s as insular, immovable, grandiose, and self-serving as ever — even as it makes bold claims about reducing our carbon footprint.

It’s getting dangerously hot, and all the hot air we’re spewing at Burning Man about addressing climate change and “changing the world” just ain’t helping much.

A tower measured emissions in 2013. It’s coming back this year. Photo by Andrew Oliphant

Climate change drew me back to the playa this year after taking a several years off. I’m camping with my climatologist friend Andrew Oliphant who, along with some academic colleagues, is reprising his 100-foot-tall flux tower experiment from 2013 that measures Black Rock City’s carbon emissions, heat and vapor exchanges, and other micrometeorological data as the city rises and falls.

His findings last time were fascinating. Our dense little city spews carbon pollution at levels comparable to central London and Mexico City—very dirty, that is. But unlike those cities, or almost any city in the world, the transportation sector in bike-friendly BRC is a very small contributor to that carbon pollution, at least during the week (yes, carbon emissions peak during Exodus as cars idle for hours).

“It’s the only city I know where the transportation sector is one of the smallest contributors to carbon emissions,” Oliphant, a professor at San Francisco State University, told me. “In fact, carbon contributions by the transportation sector are less than human respiration.”

Yes, we’re actually exhaling more carbon dioxide than our art cars and fire poofers. And all that hot air is measurable.

By far the biggest source of BRC’s greenhouse gas emissions is the generators that run most camps. That’s why, 10 years ago, Oliphant and his team found that one of the lowest carbon emission times was on Saturday evening leading up to the Man burn — because so many camps power down as everyone gathers in the inner playa—only to shoot back up to some of its highest levels right afterward when people return to camp.

Oliphant is very curious how things have changed over the last decade. Solar technologies have advanced and been adopted by more camps, as well as being pushed hard by Burning Man’s leaders as they’ve tried to green the event. Will he measure major reductions in carbon emissions this year?

“Now that everyone races around on scooters and e-bikes, they need to be charged. So how will that affect it?” Oliphant said. “The organization is either greenwashing or trying hard to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because they tout that a lot on their website.”

Roadmap to Sustainability

The Burning Man Project has claimed big environmental goals for itself since 2019, when it published its 2030 Roadmap to Sustainability report, announcing an intent to make Burning Man carbon negative by the end of this decade.

That’s a very ambitious goal for a city that cranks out more than 100,000 tons of carbon pollution, by the organization’s own estimate. But delve into the details of their plan and it looks a lot more like greenwashing rather than a bold effort to reduce BRC’s greenhouse gas impacts.

While organizers have added some solar capacity to its operations and encouraged theme camps to do the same, most of the plan’s strategy for carbon neutrality involves so-called carbon offsets—“planting mangroves, removing carbon dioxide from the air, sequestering carbon in rocks”—rather than significantly reducing BRC’s carbon pollution.

In late July, Burning Man released its annual update on its progress, a two-hour Zoom session of its employees and allies congratulating each other. It was long on true-believer happy talk and empty aspirational claims—“if you’re on this call, you’re already part of the solution”—and short on anything resembling actions that might actually make a big difference.

“That’s why it’s a 10-year plan. It’s meant to be deliberate and cautious way of how to look at things,” Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell said on the call, later adding, “It’s a global problem. It’s a global crisis. Burning Man wants to be a player in the solution.”

Player? On combatting global climate change? How about first working to make BRC less polluting? On the call, Marian also undercut the focus on environmentalism that she claims by noting that her employees had to pester her for six months before she reviewed the roadmap.

Despite emphasizing their focus on green partnerships, nobody from Burning Man ever reached out to Oliphant and his team about their project 10 years ago or since, even though its the only academically rigorous study of BRC’s actual carbon emissions that’s out there, one that earned him wide acclaim in the climatology profession. And they did nothing to help his experiment return.

In the meeting, BM’s Director of Civic Activation Christopher Breedlove focused on this “meta-goal: By the end of the next decade, we want it to be better for the ecology of Earth for Burning Man to exist than not to exist.”

Yet it’s hard to see how that might happen. Even if the org can convince most camps to switch from generators to solar power—and that’s a big fucking “if”—the organization admits that over 90 percent of its carbon footprint is transportation to and from the playa.

So instead, we get aspirational statements like that of Lauren Day, BRC’s associate director of operations, saying, “We need to focus our collective creativity to make this a sustainable city. And it’s happening.”

Really?

Climate and weather

During this sweltering summer, most burners are probably focused more of the immediate concerns about the weather than about long-term climate change. How hot is it going to be this year? It’s a source of anxiety for some after last year’s scorching and windy weather and this year’s record-breaking heat waves.

In Black Rock City, the person most in change of weather—except for maybe God or your chosen deity—is Ted Hullar, a UC Davis weather researcher who serves as the weather marshall in Black Rock City. It’s his job to track incoming weather and issue alerts to playa volunteers and big projects when needed.

Hullar has been doing the job for more than 20 years. And while he says it’s hard to measure climate change through a few week’s worth of annual weather forecasting, Hullar has noticed a change. Late-August weather can either follow typical summer patterns (hot and dry) or autumn patterns (cooler and changeable), depending on the year and weather dynamics.

But more and more as the years go by, Hullar said its the summer pattern that predictably guides the weather during Burning Man.

“It seems to be changing,” he said.

And that change will likely continue, particularly as long as Black Rock City LLC insists on creating a city of 80,000 carbon-spewing souls or even more. And as long as the climate within Burning Man allows its leaders to brag about developing renewable geothermal power on its Fly Ranch property while taking legal action to block a massive geothermal plant in Gerlach.

But how is that social climate affecting climate change? What are the realities on the ground and in the air? Are solar panels and other green initiatives making a measurable impact on Black Rock City’s carbon footprint? Or are e-bikes and other conveniences making things even worse?

Oliphant and his colleagues are trying to answer those questions, right here on the playa: “That’s what brings me back this year.”

Oliphant and his colleague will hold discussions of their BRC climate data and findings on Tuesday and Thursday from 5-7pm at LandPhil Camp, 8:30 & Bigfoot. Scribe will be bartending.

Steven T. Jones is a longtime journalist and the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture (2011, CCC Publishing)

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