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The Giant Methane Monster Is Lurking

Climate
The Giant Methane Monster Is Lurking

There's something lurking deep under the frozen Arctic Ocean, and if it gets released, it could spell disaster for our planet.

That something is methane.

We have a chance right now to keep the giant methane monster that's lurking under the Arctic Ocean right where it is, and save our planet in the process.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Methane is one of the strongest of the natural greenhouse gases, about 80 times more potent than CO2, and while it may not get as much attention as its cousin CO2, it certainly can do as much, if not more, damage to our planet.

That's because methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and there are trillions of tons of it embedded in a kind of ice slurry called methane hydrate or methane clathrate crystals in the Arctic and in the seas around the continental shelves all around the world.

If enough of this methane is released quickly enough, it won't just produce the same old global warming.

It could produce an extinction of species on a wide scale, an extinction that could even include the human race.

If there is a "ticking time bomb" on our planet that could lead to a global warming so rapid and sudden that we would have no way of dealing with it, it's methane.

Right now, estimates suggest that there's more than 1,000 gigatons—that's a thousand billion tons—of carbon in methane form trapped just under the Arctic ice. And if stays trapped under the ice, we might have a chance.

But, thanks to the global warming that's already occurring, Arctic sea ice is melting at unprecedented rates.

In fact, as Gaius Publius points out over at America Blog, just about every reputable projection on the loss of Arctic sea ice has been wrong in a very, very bad way.

The lack of sea ice cover in the Arctic that we're seeing today wasn't supposed to happen for 20+ more years according to 13 of the most accurate models.

As all that sea ice melts, the Arctic ice which once reflected sunlight and prevented global warming, becomes a very blue ocean that absorbs heat and causes even more melting.

And this all means that more and more methane is being released into the atmosphere much faster than expected, speeding up the process of global warming and climate change.

It's all one big and vicious cycle, called a "positive feedback loop," something that can spiral out of balance and control very quickly.

But here's where it gets really scary.

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Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks International Arctic Research Center have found that Arctic methane is leaking out from the ocean floor nearly twice as fast as was previously thought.

The researchers found that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is releasing at least 17 million tons of methane into the atmosphere each year.

Natalia Shakhova, one of the lead researchers on the study, said methane releases from the Arctic seafloor are, "now on par with the methane being released from the arctic tundra, which is considered to be one of the major sources of methane in the Northern Hemisphere."

To put this in perspective, just seven years ago, estimates suggested that only 500,000 tons of methane were being released into Earth's atmosphere each year. Now we're measuring 17 million tons of it. Just in the Arctic.

Now, we can't directly stop Arctic sea ice from melting and releasing methane into the atmosphere, but we can help stop what's contributing to that melting in the first place: fossil fuel extraction.

Every day, the fossil fuel industry extracts more and more fossil fuels from the ground, releasing tons and tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

That carbon dioxide warms our atmosphere, which hastens the melting of Arctic sea ice, and the release of even more dangerous methane into our atmosphere.

We need to be keeping the remaining methane right where it is, buried deep under a thick sheet of ice.

And a great way to accomplish that goal is by introducing a carbon tax.

Putting a price on the amount of carbon that the fossil fuel industry takes out of the ground would encourage less fossil fuel extraction, and more reliance on clean and green energy.

With a carbon tax, fossil fuels would become more expensive than renewables.

For every day that America's fossil fuel industry pumps carbon pollution into our skies, our environment is deteriorating quicker, more and more Arctic sea ice is melting, and climate change and global warming are speeding up.

We have a chance right now to keep the giant methane monster that's lurking under the Arctic Ocean right where it is, and save our planet in the process.

The time for a carbon tax in America is now!

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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