I have to say, regretfully, that my local newspaper, the Canberra Times, has published the worst scaremongering story about ‘climate change’ that I have read this year. It appeared on August 18, was entitled ‘Beware the dragon’s breath’, was sub-titled ‘It’s time to address Australia’s wilful ignorance and goggling stubbornness about runaway climate change’, and was written by Julian Cribb. He ought not to be held responsible for these titles, which are designed to get you to read the article. They nonetheless are, as the IPCC likes to say, ‘consistent with’ its message.
What’s it about? Methane, or CH4. It’s familiar to most of us, because it’s the principal component of Australia’s natural gas, which we used every day to cook with, and in winter to heat our houses. When used to generate electricity natural gas produces about half the equivalent emissions of carbon dioxide than the amount of coal that would be needed to do the same job. AGL proudly markets it, and tells us all how virtuous it is.
Isn’t that a good thing? Well, Mr Cribb somehow forgot to mention any of it, because his worry is about something else, runaway climate change induced by the escape of methane from the frozen tundra in the Arctic. How would that work? As he explains it, there may be ‘as much as 4 trillion tonnes of the stuff locked in permafrost and shallow marine deposits’, and people have noticed its escaping, in the form of gas on land and bubbles in the sea. And that’s a problem, because Mr Cribb tells us that methane is a gas with 20 to 25 times the climate-forcing potential of carbon dioxide.
You thought CO2 was bad enough. Whoa! Think of the extra power of of CH4, and be very, very frightened. At about this point into the article I realised that something was wrong, and who better to explain the error than one of the pillars of the IPCC and orthodox climate science, the somewhat famous Raypierre, or more grandly, Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences Raymond Pierrehumbert of the University of Chicago, who has said this:
It’s meaningless to sound off about how much more ‘potent’ a greenhouse gas methane (natural gas) may be, compared to CO2, unless you also take into account how small methane emissions are relative to CO2. The important thing to understand is that essentially all of the climate effects of methane emissions disappear within 20 years of cessation of emissions…
And how small are methane emissions? According to one straightforward source, when CO2 was 368 ppm (a few years ago), methane made up another 1.7 ppm. Today the ratio is about 400 to 1.8. That’s what Raypierre was on about. Most carbon dioxide, incidentally, is from natural sources, but we humans do produce some of the methane, mostly through gas leaks from gas wells and gas piping, which may be diminishing as producers tighten up their management (no pun intended). Mr Cribb’s 20 to 25 times the potential of CO2 seems to me an exaggeration, too.
But of course I’m missing Mr Cribb’s point. The planet, as we all believe, has been warming, well, until a decade or so ago, and as that continues the icy tundra will melt and the methane will escape — and of course the ice seas will warm, and doom will come. So let’s look quickly at what is involved here.
The area of tundra in the Arctic region is huge indeed. A large part of northern Canada and northern Russia and Siberia falls into this category. Arctic tundra can be defined as soil below which is permafrost, which is frozen soil that can be metres or hundreds of metres thick. No trees will grow in it, and it is colonised by small plants which have a small and vigorous growing season before snow causes dieback, the process to be repeated in the following season.
The temperature in winter can be far below zero, and summer temperatures are not hot at all. It would take an extraordinary amount of energy to begin to melt the permafrost. The increase in temperatures that has been experienced over the past century is not out of the ordinary (there is of course a dispute about this) and in any case every winter brings the thawing process to a halt. We await indication of whether or not the current absence of surface warming is to continue.
The Arctic Sea has a common temperature of around 2 degrees C, and much more attention is given to the amount of sea ice there than to the actual temperature of the water, which cannot go below about minus 2 degrees C because of salinity. In fact the Arctic Sea is not the coldest sea on the Northern Hemisphere — oddly enough, the sea ice keeps it comparatively warm. Since we don’t have many thermometers on Arctic land or sea, and methane is currently fashionable, people are discovering things that may or may not have been there before. We just don’t know.
It would have been nice for Mr Cribb to said some of this, without relying on me to provide some balance. But no, that would get in the way of his diatribe, in which he suddenly switches from methane to carbon dioxide, and to our governments’ giving the green light to vast new coal and gas extraction projects. They appear not to comprehend the probable consequences. This is gambling with the lives of every Australian, indeed every human… Even if the risk of runaway warming is remote, is it rational to ignore it…
I think this is terrible stuff, and he makes it worse with the following fantasy: The good tidings are the United States, India and China appear, finally, to have decided to do something about the climate threat and a global consensus is rapidly building towards the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Paris…
I will believe that when I see it. Oh, by the way, Mr Cribb is a science journalist who has written 8000 articles, and books called The Coming Famine and The Poisoned Planet, just in case you were wondering. I wonder if they are all like this piece. Good science journalism it is not.[Update: a new paper describes the discovery of hundreds of methane seeps off the Atlantic coast, and suggests that there may be ten thousand or more of them. Oh, and other evidence suggests that these ones have been there for thousands of years.
Sharke et al. Nature Geoscience (2014) doi:10.1038/ngeo2232]