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The methane gun

By Julian Cribb  

In all the sound and fury over climate change, too little public and media attention has been devoted to the ‘methane gun’ [1] – and yet this terrifying phenomenon could usher humans unceremoniously off Earth’s stage for good.

Like CO2, methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas that helps trap the sun’s heat within the Earth’s atmosphere. The big difference is that it is 25-84 times more potent at doing so.

The planet has massive stores of methane, locked as frozen ice in the seabed (the world’s largest natural gas reserve), in the frozen soils of the Canadian, US and Russian Arctic, and buried in the sediments of tropical swamps and peatlands. Like the bubbles in a stagnant pond, the gas is mostly the work of bacteria digesting organic matter over millions of years.

How large these reserves of methane are is still a matter for scientific debate – but estimates fall between 1.5 and 5 trillion tonnes. Very, very large indeed. If released suddenly, these are thought more than capable of driving the Earth’s temperature up by another 7-10 degrees, on top of the 2-5 degrees likely to result from human emissions from burning fossil fuels and clearing land (currently rising at record rates [2]).

The worst-case scenario – a large-scale, rapid release of trapped gas known as the ‘methane gun’ – could potentially render the Earth uninhabitable by humans and other large animals. This is why we need to pay attention. Now.

What has some scientists concerned – and others frightened – is that atmospheric levels of methane which have doubled since the Industrial Revolution and have been rising for steadily for the past 30 years, began to rise more steeply in the past five years, as the following graph shows:

Atmospheric methane concentrations up to October 2019: Mauna Loa Observatory, USA.

The source of the new methane is debated. Is it mainly caused by the mining of natural gas, petroleum and coal – as several lines of evidence suggest? Is it released by expanding world cattle and rice production, the draining of tropical swamps and burning of tropical forests? Is it the frozen gas seeping out of the oceans and tundra as the planet warms and its ice vanishes? Or is it all of the above? The evidence is starting to favour the latter view [3] – but the scientific jury remains undecided.

We know that a mass-release of methane can be catastrophic for life on Earth, because that’s exactly what took place 55 million years ago in an event known as PETM – the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum – when global temperatures shot up by 5-10 degrees, wiping out a number of species. [4] There were no humans round then to release carbon, so it was probably due to one or more of the natural sources rapidly giving up its gas. Recently opinion has narrowed in favour of tropical swamps and peatlands drying out and catching fire during a warming cycle, as the main source. The frozen methane, apparently, remained largely undisturbed in the ocean and tundra.

But that is not the case today. Not only are tropical forests burning and swamps being drained, but scientists have observed major escapes of methane from the Arctic tundra in the form of exploding pingos – mounts of frozen methane, mud and water – and the eruption of melted methane ice from the seabed. In October 2019 veteran Russian researcher Igor Semiletor, from Tomsk Polytechnic University, reported “the most powerful seep I have ever been able to observe” venting in a potent eruption of gas bubbles in the East Siberian Sea. [5]

Two years earlier, in June 2017, Russian reindeer herders reported a violent explosion that left a 50- metre deep crater in the tundra of the Yamal Peninsula, Siberia, which scientists attributed to a methane blast. In recent years researchers have reported numerous craters left by explosions across Siberia, the Canadian and Alaskan tundra – and even craters in the seabed. Many are recent – but some are up to 12,000 years old, and still leaking gas. Therein lies the uncertainty: are the methane explosions observed today part of a process that occurs more or less constantly through Earth history – or do they represent the start of a sudden release, ramping up to runaway global warming? The scientific jury is at odds.

Pennsylvania State climate scientist Prof Michael Mann, for instance, characterises the methane bomb idea as “catastrophism” and claims it is being exploited by the climate denial lobby to discredit climate theory generally. He says the amount of methane released will be “small compared to human emissions” of carbon. [6] Other scientists, like Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute, argue that it is highly unlikely that a large volume of seabed methane would be released suddenly, i.e. over a period less than thousands of years, because it did not do so in past warming events. Instead it will continue to trickle out.

Oceanography and ice expert Prof Peter Wadhams disagrees. He says loss of Arctic sea ice from the shallow continental margins could trigger such a release which “could happen very suddenly and … is the greatest single threat that we face”. He says that mainstream science, represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), does not generally recognise the threat. [7]

Australian National University earth scientist Prof. Andrew Glikson cites the Global Carbon project finding that there are 1.4 trillion tonnes of accumulated methane stored on land and 16 trillion tonnes in the ocean, available for release if the planet grew warm enough, and this ‘could have catastrophic effects on the biosphere’.  He points out there is already clear evidence for the explosive release of methane, on land and at sea. With Arctic temperatures already 3-8 degrees warmer due to global warming, the risks of a sudden methane release “have not yet been fully accounted for in climate projections.”  [8]

At temperatures above +4 degrees, many scientists now consider the risk is increasing of the planet becoming partly or wholly uninhabitable to humans and large animals. Certainly, such heat and climate instability would destroy most of our current food production systems, spilling billions of climate refugees across the planet and causing wars to break out between and within nation states. [9]

How many would die in such an event is not knowable, because we cannot predict how humans will respond, how many wars we will start, or how many nukes we will unleash in the ensuing chaos. Potsdam Institute climatologist John Schellnhuber has said: “At 4 C Earth’s… carrying capacity estimates are below 1 billion people.” Prof Kevin Anderson of the U.K.’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change concurs: “Only about 10 per cent of the planet’s population would survive at 4 C.” Several scientists have voiced the view that the human population will be reduced from 9-10 billion to around 1-3 billion in the long run. [10]

We already know that our physical survival is in jeopardy in extended periods above 35 degrees Celsius – that is, where daytime temperatures constantly reach 40-50 degrees C or more. Such temperatures will occur frequently with +7 degrees of global warming and will render large parts of the earth uninhabitable – including the most heavily populated. Above +12 degrees of global warming, human survival becomes physically impossible. [11] However long before our heat tolerance limits are reached, local and global food and water supplies will collapse, prompting mass migration and war. Without urgent worldwide action, the global economy – and with it civilized society – are predicted to go down as we approach +4 degrees. Such warnings come, not from ‘radical greens’, but from authorities no less conservative than Bank of England governor Marc Carney [12], who states that the global financial system is currently investing in catastrophe by backing new fossil fuel projects. [13]

These numbers represent the current most-informed estimates of the impact of the unfolding climate crisis, should world efforts to halt it fail and should the climate deniers triumph.

The risk for humanity posed by the ‘methane gun’ is that rapid global mass-release may be ‘locked and loaded’ and firing before we have sufficient scientific data to confirm it. It is, as they say, an event of low probability – but very high impact. Is it a risk that a rational person would take?

Once the gun has begun to fire, there is practically nothing humans can do to stop it. It will unleash other dangerous feedbacks, potentially leading to runaway warming. It will shift the planet from its present warming state to a ‘hothouse Earth’ state [14] where human survival comes into question.

The only viable strategy – possibly – is preventative: to move civilization far faster towards total elimination of all fossil fuels and land clearing worldwide – and plant billions of trees as quickly as possible, to slow the global warming trend before it triggers the methane gun.

This means that countries like America, Australia, Brazil and Russia must cease their dangerous do-nothing policies, and stop mining coal, oil and gas, and clearing land. Countries like India and China need to cease building coal-fired power stations immediately. And every country needs to scale back carbon emissions on an accelerated time-scale from transport, agriculture, concrete and industry.

While some scientists urge geoengineering solutions, such as the artificial release of sulphate aerosol particles to erect a giant sunshade over the Earth, this represents a counsel of despair. It means allowing the atmosphere to attain virtual temperatures that would cook humans, then trying to chill them down with a planet-sized ‘air-conditioner’. The consequences, should our air conditioner fail, would be terminal. That really only leaves us with the option of trying to contain global warming by eliminating human carbon emissions – before the methane gun fires.

In the end, the worst that can happen by banning fossil fuels and regreening the planet is that we get a new clean energy system, cheaper energy, renewed economic growth and a more sustainable Earth.

If the climate deniers – fifty huge energy corporates and their political and media cheer squad – get their way, the worst that can happen is human extinction.

Which risk do you prefer?


[1] Originally dubbed the ‘clathrate gun’, the theory describes the abrupt release of oceanic methane as a potential driver of major climate changes of the past, from a cool planet state to a hot one. See Kennett JP et al, Methane Hydrates in Quaternary Climate Change: The Clathrate Gun Hypothesis, Volume 54, American Geophysical Union, 2003. https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781118665138.ch0

[2] Cooper R, Global carbon emissions increased at a record rate in 2018. Climate Action. Mar 17, 2019. http://www.climateaction.org/news/global-carbon-emissions-increased-at-a-record-rate-in-2018

[3] NASA.  What is Behind Rising Levels of Methane in the Atmosphere? https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/91564/what-is-behind-rising-levels-of-methane-in-the-atmosphere

[4] Jardine P, The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, Palaeontology Online 1.5. https://www.palaeontologyonline.com/articles/2011/the-paleocene-eocene-thermal-maximum/?doing_wp_cron=1571195797.0936520099639892578125

[5] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/10/08/russian-scientists-find-powerful-ever-methane-seep-arctic-ocean/

[6] Mann M, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LifcMZyCYmc

[7] Wadhams P, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kv_0dpsxsNY

[8] Glikson A, The Methane Time Bomb. International Carbon Conference 2018. www.Sciencedirect.com

[9] Cribb JHJ, Food or War, Cambridge University Press 2019, https://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/food-or-war

[10] Rees WE, Yes, the Climate Crisis May Wipe out Six Billion People, The Tyee, Sep 18, 2019.  https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2019/09/18/Climate-Crisis-Wipe-Out/

[11] Sherwood SC and Huber M, An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress, PNAS, May 25, 2010. https://www.pnas.org/content/107/21/9552

[12] Carrington D, Firms ignoring climate crisis will go bankrupt, says Mark Carney, The Guardian, Oct 13, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/firms-ignoring-climate-crisis-bankrupt-mark-carney-bank-england-governor

[13] Carney, M.  Bank of England boss says global finance is funding 4C temperature rise. The Guardian, Oct 16, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/oct/15/bank-of-england-boss-warns-global-finance-it-is-funding-climate-crisis

[14] Steffen W et al., Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene, PNAS, August 2018. https://www.pnas.org/content/115/33/8252

This article was originally published on Surviving C21.

Julian Cribb is an Australian author and science communicator. He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering (ATSE) and a member of the Australian National University Emeritus Faculty.

His career includes appointments as newspaper editor, scientific editor for The Australian daily newspaper, director of national awareness for CSIRO, member of numerous scientific boards and advisory panels, and president of national professional bodies for agricultural journalism and science communication.

His published work includes over 9000 articles, 3000 science media releases and eight books. He has received 32 awards for journalism. His internationally-acclaimed book, The Coming Famine (2010) explored the question of how we can feed 10 billion humans this century. His book, Poisoned Planet (2014) examines the contamination of the Earth system and humanity by anthropogenic chemicals and how to prevent it. His latest book Surviving the 21st Century (Springer 2016) deals with the existential crisis facing humanity in our time – and what we can do about it.

Twitter: @JulianCribb https://twitter.com/JulianCribb

Personal website: http://juliancribb813.wix.com/jca1

 

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The Bill that Australia despised

Who had the better election campaign?

It is said that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

An extended period of time after an event gives one a better reflection of its context, rather than the usual instantaneous rushed response.

So, it is in that vein that I look back on the last Australian election campaign, Saturday 18 May 2019.

Analysing the election campaigns a few months on gives one a greater understanding of the campaigns of both parties.

But let’s start with the Coalition. What did they take to the election other than some ill-considered tax cuts? (By ill-considered I mean that I struggle with the concept of tax cuts while there is a Royal Commission in place about the treatment of our aged and $1.5 billion is being taken from the NDIS). Well, they took very little, actually. A born to rule party, generally speaking, doesn’t think it needs to.

Although the Coalition, maybe because it was convinced it would lose, decided the effort really wasn’t worth it.

However, this belies the fact that Scott Morrison campaigned like a drunk looking for a drink. He lied in fact and by omission.

He invented scare campaigns in the best Liberal Party tradition. A retiree tax, The Bill Australia Can’t Afford, franking credits, and a tax on everything all worked a treat. So much so that you would be hard pressed to pick the best.

He upped his pomposity to the point of pure fakery that was a precursor to his conversion to Trumpism, playing his Christ-thin Christianity for all it was worth.

All it amounted to was some more money for domestic violence, a reduction in pensioner chemist scripts before becoming free, a lift in the five-year freeze on Medicare, 307 million for schools, 100 billion for infrastructure over 10 years, a cap on refugee numbers, a cap on immigration, a promise to maintain border security and catch internet trolls.

There was also a promise to reduce our power bills by 25% and of course, the tax cuts.

That was it in all its Liberal glory, shallow with no narrative about our future or where the Prime Minister saw us in an increasing complex world. There were no ideas, no mention of the struggles of our First Nations People or the poorest in our community.

Negativity seemed to be the order of the day, highlighted by a champagne launch held in the shadows of darkness in case the light might reveal how few bothered to turn up.

Hardly the foundation for a winning an election campaign but Morrison, to his credit, furiously pounded Bill Shorten for his inability to explain Labor policy.

He made what – was in my view – good policy look mediocre. His sheer will must have won over many voters.

Aided and abetted by the Murdoch press and the shock jocks; the wealth of Palmer and the inappropriate intervention of Dr. Bob, the Prime Minister created, not a miracle, but an illusion.

Life is about perception, not what is, but what we perceive it to be.

If you tell the people often enough that you are the best to manage the economy … they will believe you.

Hence the campaign slogan“Building our economy, securing your future”.

Speaking of slogans and advertising in general, one has to say that for the first time I can remember the Coalition got it right with the use of television and social media.

They targeted voters judicially with ads aimed at specific groups and individual personalities at the micro level.

If per chance you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned the Deputy Prime Minister and his party it is simply because I cannot remember his name nor what he said he would do for our good country folk.

That Morrison could have won after 6 years of the poorest governance the country has known, together with a policy campaign that berated Labor and overlooked its own hopelessness speaks volumes for his abilities of persuasion.

And what of Labor?

Labor entered the campaign full of running. After all, it hadn’t lost a poll since the Moses parted the Red Sea.

The government had elected yet another leader and had proven to be an accident-prone chaotic mess of people who had no idea how to govern. It had a leader who hadn’t shown an empathetic tear in all the portfolios he had been a minister in. Was he ‘tuff,’ was he a motor mouth. Yes he was.

Labor had everything going for it. It had revealed policy after policy in a calm orderly manner and provided the Australian voter with a stark ideological difference to consider.

Its policies were fair and just, seeking to take a more equitable share of the country’s riches from those that have and create a more just society.

Gone would be the days when the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

Labor’s policies were full of fresh economic ideas that would see an end to trickle-down economics that in conservative eyes at least is the answer to all things economics.

More money would be spent on schools and hospitals and all those things that created a better social cohesion. Nothing wrong with that. The average punter would endorse those moves rather enthusiastically

It undoubtedly had the better power and climate policies, the best proposals on health and infrastructure, and the better and fairer policies on education. The sheer range of policy was enormous, and displayed the vast work the party must have put into them.

But here is the crux of the matter. They fell for the oldest trap in the political Bible. They found themselves in a mire of detail.

Every policy required a truckload of explanation. Did you ever have it explained to you just why the country wouldn’t be able to afford the subsidies for franking credits and negative gearing a few years from now? No, because it would take a month of Sundays to do it. Therefore attempts to do so ended up being bogged down in the inevitable too hard basket.

And you can add to that last but not least the main reason Labor’s campaign fell flat on its face.

In my view Labor had the best campaign, the best policies, and the best group to manage the economy and was and is the best party philosophically conditioned and able to take Australia into the future.

However – and it is sad to say this – they had the wrong man as leader. One can hear populism vibrating in the hearts of those who use it and you can tell sincerity when confronted with it. Morrison reeks of populism and Shorten the latter.

My view nevertheless wasn’t that of the majority of Australians. More than enough hated him for reasons beyond my understanding to make the difference between winning and losing.

In a couple of weeks a small group of Laborites will report on why Labor lost to such a group of pathetic individuals unfit to govern our great nation. They will come up with a multitude of reasons, but Shorten probably wont be on the top.

My thought for the day

I found it impossible to imagine that the Australian people could be so gullible as to elect for a third term a government that has performed so miserably in the first two and has amongst its members some of the most devious, suspicious and corrupt men and women but they did.

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Labor are losing their nerve

When the Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull won 76 seats in the 2016 election, it was generally accepted that Turnbull had “blown it” and the knives were quickly sharpened.  Yet when the ad man wins 77 seats, he is hailed as a messiah that has delivered a decisive victory enabling the Coalition to do whatever they damn well please.

Let’s be clear about that election result.

Leaving out Queensland, in the rest of the country, Labor won 62 seats compared to the Coalition’s 54.  That is a resounding victory.

We have the government that Queensland thrust upon us against the wishes of every other state and territory (except WA – the only other state where the Coalition won a majority of seats).

Instead of highlighting that endorsement, Labor are flapping around like a dying Murray cod, desperately trying to find something or someone to blame.

Labor’s agriculture and resources spokesman, Joel Fitzgibbon, told Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute that the ALP should offer “a political and policy settlement” on climate policy “to make 28% the target by 2030”.  Matt Keogh agrees.

This view has nothing to do with science or jobs or responsible governance and everything to do with self-serving politics.

“How many times are we going to let it kill us? Indeed, how many leaders do we want to lose to it?” said Fitzgibbon whose primary vote in his coal-mining electorate fell 14% at the last election.

If Fitzgibbon was worth his salt, he would be pointing out to his constituents that opening Adani will lead to job losses in existing coal mines.  He should recognise that automation will also threaten coal-mining jobs and be transitioning his electorate towards more sustainable industries and employment.

Did I mention climate change?

At the time when we need them most, Labor are losing their nerve.

Fitzgibbon did say one thing with which I agree – “Labor’s equivocation over the Adani coal mine left us in no man’s land,” though I doubt we mean the same thing when we say that.

Speaking of Adani, despite government approvals being fast-tracked and a timetable of what happens next being published by the Coordinator-General, Adani continues to fail to meet deadlines.

The royalties agreement with the Queensland government was supposed to be finalised by September 30.  That deadline has now been put back to November 30.  Worryingly, the timetable now says “Agreement not required for construction of mine or rail to commence.”

Infrastructure and interface agreements with the Whitsunday RC and the DMRT also missed their September 30 deadline with hopes now that they will be concluded mid-October.

Accreditation as a Rail Infrastructure Manager (RIM) and Rolling Stock Operator (RSO) – Stage 1: construction and Stage 2: commissioning of rollingstock – were supposed to be concluded by July 31.  The latest release on October 1 states that “Adani will continue to work with the Commonwealth Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator to obtain necessary approvals. This approval not on the critical path and the Coordinator-General will continue to monitor.”

As climate activists around the world hit the streets pleading with governments to take urgent action, Labor is missing a crucial opportunity, preferring to investigate how they can be more like the Coalition.

Trying to appeal to Queenslanders is a road to ruin.  Have a go at the people they choose to represent them – Peter Dutton, Matt Canavan, George Christensen, Stuart Robert, James McGrath, Andrew Laming, Pauline Hanson, Malcolm Roberts, Bob Katter – what a sorry bunch.

We need strong leadership and conviction to tackle the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.  Sadly, Labor seems more interested in courting votes from those who will never vote for them than in saving the planet.

 

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