Methane’s Contribution to Global Warming is Worse than You Think
By Jason Mark
“Methane is 21 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide.” If you’re a frequent reader of environmental websites, no doubt you’ve seen some version of that sentence many times. The “twenty-times” figure is the most common way of explaining how methane (or CH4, or uncombusted natural gas) reacts in the atmosphere.
Just one problem: It’s not entirely accurate—at least not in the time-scale we should be using to think about how to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.
Actually, any CH4 released today is at least 56 times more heat-trapping than a molecule of C02 also released today. And because of the way it reacts in the atmosphere, the number is probably even higher, according to research conducted by Drew Shindell, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Center. So why is the 21 times figure the one that gets bandied about? Because methane breaks down much faster than carbon dioxide. While CO2 remains in the atmosphere for at least a century (and probably much, much longer, according to Stanford’s Ken Caldeira), CH4 lasts only about a dozen years. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had to come up with a way for comparing different greenhouse gases, it decided to use a century baseline to calculate a molecule’s “global warming potential.”
See this graph on global warming potential values for some key GHGs by the GHG Management Institute (you'll have to scroll down a bit to get to it).
While these various comparisons are well understood by climatologists and climate change policy wonks, I’m guessing they’re not that well known among the general public.
Why does it matter? Because we don’t have a century to get serious about the impacts of runaway greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is upon us now. And we appear to be approaching some irrevocable tipping points that will create powerful negative feedback loops, the most worrisome being the release of methane stores at the bottom of the ocean and locked into sub-Arctic permafrost.
Carbon dioxide’s longevity means that the warming we’re experiencing now is actually the result of fossil fuel burning that happened a generation ago. And the emissions we’re causing today won’t be felt for decades to come. At our current rate of emissions, we’ll be toast 100 years from now.
What if we were to use the IPCC’s 20-year comparison instead of its 100-year comparison? For starters, it would force us to get much more serious about tackling the sources of methane emissions. Here in the US, the top methane sources are the decomposition of wastes in landfills, agriculture (from ruminant digestion), and leaks from natural gas drilling and transmission. A new emphasis on methane would require us to get smarter about capturing methane at landfills, reduce the market incentives that encourage Americans’ meat-heavy diets and ensure that methane isn’t leaking from fracking operations.
But beyond the policy specifics, adopting the 20-year global warming potential comparisons would be useful for changing how we think about climate change.
In his much discussed Rolling Stone essay, Bill McKibben lays out three numbers everyone should know to understand the global warming threat. Two degrees centigrade—the global average temperature increase we dare not cross; 565 gigatons—the amount of CO2 we can afford to emit and still stay within that temperature; and 2,795 gigagtons of C02—the amount of fossil fuel reserves we know we have. But there are some numbers McKibben neglected: the numbers on the calendar, figures like 2022, 2032, 2112. These are just as important to keep in mind. If scientists and policy makers (and journalists and advocates) continue to use a century-mark to measure and compare emissions, well then it seems like we have plenty of time; complacency remains an option. If we use the 20-year measurements, the immediacy of the global warming threat is more apparent.
We’re running out of time, and the luxury of fudging the numbers. Which is reason enough for me to start making sure that whenever I’m writing about methane emissions, I’ll be using a different set of figures from now on.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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World's Richest One Percent Are Producing More Than Double the Carbon Emissions as the Bottom 50 Percent
A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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