Methane Madness

The environmentalist assault on economic growth resembles the old shell game practiced by con artists for centuries. Just when you're sure the pea will appear at the right, it shows up in the middle. Place your bet on the middle, and the pea appears somewhere else.

For decades now, alarmists have claimed that CO2 emissions are warming the earth past the "tipping point" and that only extreme reductions in the use of fossil fuels can avert catastrophe. Yet the earth today is less warm than it was in the middle ages, a period in which it cannot be claimed that human activity was contributing much, if anything, to global warming. Global temperatures in 2010 are colder than they were in 2000, despite a tripling in the annual growth rate of CO2 emissions in the last decade largely attributable to the mushrooming economies of developing nations such as China and India. Alarmists have been predicting catastrophe for over thirty years, yet the earth continues in natural cycles of warming and cooling, just as it has for eons.

Even before the exposure of factual errors and potential misconduct at the IPCC, the East Anglia Climate Centre, and other organizations, the public in America and elsewhere (Australia, New Zealand, and even Britain) had begun to doubt the claims of climate scientists. Now, with these disturbing revelations concerning the way climate science actually works, the public has become even more skeptical. Maybe that's why climate science has shifted its attention to methane.

On Jan. 14, 2010, the British newspaper the Guardian reported dramatic news of a major increase in the amount of methane leaking through arctic permafrost. Between 2003 and 2007, according to a study in Science cited by the newspaper account, there had been a 31% increase (or one ton per year, for a total of five tons) of methane released. Paul Palmer, the British scientist who reported these figures, stated that his study was based on satellite readings of groundwater depths, not on actual measurements of permafrost emissions.

The Guardian was quick to report that some in the scientific community believe that the earth has reached a "tipping point" from which temperatures will rise exponentially. Increased temperatures will then trigger rising oceans, raging storms, devastating floods (or droughts), and the end of civilization as we know it.

There are problems, however, with the "tipping point" theory. Even with the reported increase in arctic methane, the global buildup of methane has flattened out over the past decade. From 1983 to the present, methane levels have fluctuated from year to year, with an actual decline reported in the period between 2004 and 2006. NOAA scientists confess that they have yet to come up with an explanation for the discrepancy between an arctic tipping point theory and reported levels of methane.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the actual recorded level of methane in the atmosphere does not match the predictions of climate researchers aggregated by the IPCC. As of 2009, the atmospheric methane concentration was 1800 ppb, while the IPCC predicted a range averaging over 1850 ppb -- a significant difference. Extrapolating ten years into the future from IPCC projections and recently reported figures, the discrepancy in the model and actual readings would amount to 125 ppb.

The odd thing about the latest shift in environmental scare tactics is that it contradicts nearly everything we have been told about CO2 emissions. Just two years ago, at a time when most of the public actually believed that the use of fossil fuels was responsible for global warming, we were told that fossil fuels must go. Power plants must stop burning coal; oil and natural gas must be replaced with solar and wind; industries must be shuttered; agricultural practices must be radically altered; land use must be restricted. But now that that concern has lessened, the shell game is up and running again. Fossil fuels alone, we are told, may not alter temperatures all that much. The danger is that the use of fossil fuels will warm the planet just enough to reach the "tipping point," and that at that point, billions of tons of methane will come gushing out of the arctic permafrost. Then, much to the delight of the alarmists, the much-heralded catastrophe will actually arrive, but it will be too late to do anything about it.

Unfortunately for the alarmists, this argument has all the marks of desperation. Even climate scientists, whose lucrative salaries and grant monies depend on promotion of the theory of global warming, note that arctic sources constitute only two percent of methane emissions.

Those same scientists admit that five years of data are not indicative of a long-term trend. Even if a trend is underway, a five-year increase of 31% in permafrost release amounts to an increase of less than two-thirds of one percent in global methane emissions. That is not enough to flood the 25% of the Netherlands that lies beneath sea-level, especially since methane is cleansed from the atmosphere by reaction with the hydroxyl free radical (OH).

Global temperatures are now trending downward, so it is reasonable to conclude that the short-term trend in permafrost melting will be reversed. There is also another huge problem with the new methane alarmism: even if CO2 and methane emissions continue to rise (most of them from natural sources), there is no conclusive evidence that these emissions are significantly altering the earth's climate. It is possible, in other words, but not proven that man-made global warming is real. It is possible but not proven that human activity may be a significant factor in global warming. It possible but not proven that global warming will increase arctic methane emissions. Even though these emissions constitute a small percentage of global methane, it is possible but not proven that they will bring about a global catastrophe. It is also possible, and far more likely, that variations in the climate are largely the result of natural forces.

It appears that environmental activists have once again shifted the pea around, hoping that no one will notice.

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published many books and articles on American culture and politics.