Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why Lie to Ourselves About Methane?

Welcome to another packed Radio Ecoshock show. I'm your tour guide, Alex Smith.

This week we look into why the U.S. government, and governments around the world, continue to kid themselves about the power of methane, the number two global warming gas in the atmosphere. With a threat this serious, coming from the melting Arctic, warming oceans, fracking, agriculture, and all or natural gas use - it isn't "kidding". It is lying to ourselves at great cost. A group of esteemed scientists have written to top levels of American government calling for a change toward reality on methane.

Then we'll investigate some of the costs of carbon pollution, with seasoned journalist and author Mark Shapiro. His new book is called "Carbon Shock" The show wraps up with a turn toward the spiritual, a kind of scientific change in our whole story. Andrew Beath is our guest.

Onward and upward.

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While the world's focus is on carbon dioxide, a group of powerful scientists have written an urgent letter to the directors of five U.S. government agencies. More than 21 scientists wrote the letter on July 29th, 2014. It's just now surfacing in public, brought to my attention by Paul Beckwith.

The scientists worry the American government, like other governments around the world, is not paying attention to the big risks posed by methane. That's methane from the Arctic, as you've heard on this program, but also methane from gas fracking, which our guest Robert Howarth warned us about years ago.

One of the lead agents behind this letter is Anna Moritz, known as Mickey. She's a legal fellow at the Center for Biological Diversity. Moritz has published a lot, including as co-author of this just released paper on "The Worst Case and the Worst Example: An Agenda for Any Young Lawyer Who Wants to Save the World from Climate Chaos". She's also a co-author of the university level book "Climate Change: A Reader".

This letter is one of those rare historic and extraordinary warnings from scientists to top levels of government. It reminds me of the letter written by Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt, warning atomic power is real, and could be used to make a super-bomb never seen before on Earth. Now we have the methane bomb.

Read the letter for yourself here.


I am not a scientist. I've learned from my guests and research. I welcome any corrections to this primer.

Here is the situation in a nutshell: carbon dioxide is measured as a global warming by it's climate forcing over a 100 year period. That is given the value of 1. There are other greenhouse gases that are many time more powerful than carbon dioxide, so they get a higher number which is meant to compare them to CO2.

Methane (CH4, also known as "natural gas") deteriorates in the atmosphere, devolving into more carbon dioxide, among other things. The life of methane at it's most powerful levels is around 12 years. In order to compare methane to carbon dioxide, it was given a comparative number of 20. If we look at the warming potential of methane over 100 years, pound for pound, or kilo by kilo, it would be 20 times more powerful at trapping warmth than CO2.

Here's the trouble: during it's (approximate) 12 year life in the atmosphere, methane is actually at least 86 times as powerful as the same amount of CO2, according to the most recent science, and it's very good and dependable science. Other scientists suggest that for very short periods, perhaps a year, methane could be 150 times more powerful than CO2, or even higher. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has moved a bit, raising methane's Global Warming Potential (GWP) from 20 to 34 - but that's still based on 100 years, and is still misleading and dangerously low.

Previously, say in the 1990's, governments took the long-term view of global warming. It was something that would develop over centuries, and wouldn't likely be seen much until later in this century. They talked about limits for greenhouse gases for the year 2100. Then big impacts of climate change showed up at the START of this century. Arctic sea ice melted away to levels not seen in human history. Glaciers began to disappear. The weather went strange, heat records climbed, ocean acidity rose, and the weather went wonky. It turns out the Earth's sensitivity to greenhouse gases was far great than science previously thought.

So now it matters very much what happens in the short term, including in the 12 years methane is in the atmosphere. Worse: that 12 year term assumes methane appears, and then disappears. But what if we have a steady source of methane, something that keeps on replenishing the load in the atmosphere, or even increases it annually, and decade by decade?

We've found many such steady sources of methane. As the human population increases, and there is more demand for meat all over the world, methane from crops (like rice paddies) and from animals (principally cows) goes up. Let's add the big expansion of natural gas drilling, especially fracking. Over-flights measuring methane in the United States found certain fracking regions are "super-emitters" of CH4. "Natural gas" is also leaking from transmission pipelines, and aging city delivery systems. We've had several guests on Radio Ecoshock explain this, including Dr. Robert Howarth (blog and interview here), Dr. Adam R Brandt from Stanford (blog item and interview available here) and Scott Miller (interview here)

Paradoxically, the Environmental Protection Agency has a chart on their site saying methane emissions from the United States have actually gone down a little in the 12 years from 1990 to 2012. They don't post more recent information, which would include fracking. Radio Ecoshock guest Scot Miller from Harvard was part of a group of scientists that found real methane emissions in the atmosphere are at least 50% greater than EPA calculations. The EPA used a ground-up figure, trying to add up things like gas wells, wetlands, and cows. Meanwhile other scientists flew in the air and measured what was up there. It's almost like the Agency doesn't want to know, or is stuck in the past. Can this letter give them a push in the right direction?


Added to those human sources of methane, we have two new giants on the block. The first is frozen methane in the ocean, blobs of methane and ice called clathrates. These are found in both the Pacific and the Atlantic. The Japanese talked about mining them for energy. But the biggest threat appears to be clathrates located on shallow sea beds in the rapidly warming Arctic. There's a lot of hurried, almost desperate, research going into that now, with a focus on the shelf off the coast of Eastern Siberia. Scientists have already found funnels of methane bubbling to the surface, more than a kilometer across.

How methane erupts. Source:

Here is an interesting article about that "Arctic Seaved Methane Stores Destablizing and Venting" from


The second fearsome giant is more widespread, and possibly impossible to measure at this time. There is methane trapped below the permafrost, the permanently frozen cap covering the northern part of this planet. At least we thought it was permanent. Now with Arctic temperatures soaring 10 or even 20 degrees Fahrenheit above the previous normal, the permafrost is starting to melt. Check out this NASA factsheet on permafrost methane: "Is a Sleeping Climate Giant Stirring in the Arctic?" NASA is trying to monitor Arctic methane with a project called "Carve".

As I understand it, melting permafrost opens two great methane risks. The first is release of methane trapped in pockets below. This is thought to be the cause of at least two explosions and craters found recently in Siberia.

The second is more insidious. As the surface levels melt, there are plant materials that have been kept frozen for many thousands of years. These are already starting to melt, and then rot. Plant materials on the ground will release CO2. Those under the millions of shallow ponds in the Arctic will decay without oxygen, and release methane, clouds of methane.


For all these reasons, it is a dangerous fallacy to only count methane as "20", as though it comes up once in 100 years and then disappears. That is why a group of illustrious scientists have written the American government, asking for the higher scientific standard of 86 to be used, instead of the old number of 20.

If we use the new standard, the real risks of methane become apparent, and that adds heat to the government's responsibility and effort to limit methane emissions in every way we can. It certainly means new regulations to force gas drilling companies to stop venting methane, at drill and storage sites, and to repair leaking equipment and pipelines. It certainly means going further to capture methane from land-fill sites, and push an international effort to change agriculture to minimize methane emissions.

I ask Mickey Moritz why the standard hasn't changed already. After all, as she tells us, other standards for gases have been changed as new information comes along. We can guess the natural gas industry, with all its political donations, is against the change. But Mickey also says there is a problem with international reporting. Countries calculate their emissions using the old standard of 20. If America leads the way to the new methane standard, U.S. emissions will suddenly appear to go up. The scientists suggest America could use a double accounting standard for now: a value of 86 for domestic regulation, and a value of 20 for international reporting, until that can be changed by international agreement. That can easily be done, Moritz says.

For me, and I'm sure for the scientists involved, this urgent letter is more than about book-keeping. To get the kinds of action that have any hope of saving a habitable climate, we need to stop lying to ourselves about the power of methane. It's the second largest source of warming on the planet. Paul Beckwith tells me the "Present radiative forcing of methane is 1 W/m2 [Watts per square meter] compared to 1.7 W/m2 for CO2".

Be sure and listen to this interview with Anna "Mickey" Moritz, available in CD Quality, or Lo-Fi.

Among the 21 scientists who signed this letter are some names you may recognize from Radio Ecoshock. You can find their interviews or speeches by search our program archive at

* Robert W. Howarth, * J. David Hughes, * Michael C. MacCracken, * Scot M. Miller, * Drew Shindell

The letter was addressed to letter to John Holdren, Gina McCarthy, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ernest Moniz, the Secretary of the Department of Energy, among others. That was a month and a half ago. So far there has been no reply, but Mickey thinks the wheels are turning.

When America leads on methane, we need to see the world community act in the 2015 Climate Summit in Paris. At the very least, we can stop lying to ourselves about methane.


There are two kinds of climate denial running around: theirs and ours. Some people and politicians still say climate change isn't happening, even as extreme weather events pummel the globe. Others know global warming is coming on much too hard and too fast. That can become to a despair so deep we don't want to talk about the phoney solutions coming from business, national governments, and those failed international talks.

Despite all the green hype, carbon emissions are rising, and the increase is increasing. Face the facts: this is a human problem requiring human solutions. If you don't like the idea of new taxes on carbon, our next guest says we are already paying plenty for climate damage.

As an experienced journalist, Mark Schapiro tackles the whole messy climate problem. His new book is "Carbon Shock, A tale of Risk and Calculus on the Front Lines of the Disrupted Global Economy". Schapiro has appeared everywhere intelligent reporting is allowed, from PBS specials, to features in magazines like Harpers and the Atlantic Monthly. As an award winning environmental journalist, one of his previous books was "Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products."

Here are some of the stories we talk about in this interview:

* the many ways the real cost of fossil fuels is hidden from us (direct subsidies to oil and gas companies, huge health care costs of carbon pollution, all those taxes going into roads, it's a big wild list!)

* the reasons for the California drought (one huge factor: the snow pack is now falling more as rain, and melting too fast and too early to be stored for summer crops)

* why cherries need some cold in the winter (and aren't getting it in recent years in the big California cherry orchards)

* the scandalous loop-hole in carbon accounting, where humans pretend airplanes are not a major source of emissions, and no-one has to take responsibility for aircraft greenhouse gas emissions (Schapiro alerts us to aircraft emisisons as the first shot in an international trade war over climate change)

* a few hopes for the 2015 Climate talks in Paris

* some climate initiatives "breaking out all over the world" you may not have heard about

* why some "Conservatives" want to fight climate change with carbon taxes and clean energy (no, the climate movement is not just something that happens in New York or San Francisco).

* the thorny problem of China, verging on being the world's biggest polluter, and needing still more development

Mark Schapiro is now out on a large-scale book tour to promote "Carbon Shock". He'll be blogging all over the place. Keep track of Mark and his work via his Twitter feed: @schapiro.

You can download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock interview with Mark Schapiro in CD Quality or Lo-Fi.

(I apologize for mis-spelling Mark's last name in the file name, but that can't be changed at this point)

Along with the book I received a fact sheet which says "Just ninety companies are responsible for two-thirds of greenhouse gase emissions". We all need to know who those biggest polluters are. It shows once again that real climate talks can't just be in New York, Lima or Paris. They need to happen in the Board Rooms of multinational corporations.

"Carbon Shock, A Tale of Risk and Calculus on the Front Lines of the Disrupted Global Economy" is just out from Chelsea Green books. Find it here.


When I consider the climate movement, it seems almost split into two camps. One is very science-oriented, fending off any suggestion of spirituality. The other is spiritual, where science is almost a side-line. While most of Radio Ecoshock is devoted to science, we all know there are deep movements within us that science can't really touch or fulfil.

I used to think if you gathered all the science-oriented people in one room, and all those concentrating on the spiritual approach in another, you would have more men in Room A, and more women in Room B. Is that sexist, or does there tend to be that difference between genders? But then, all those preachers, mullahs... old-time religion was not just created by men, to worship a man-God. It continues to promote sexism, including denying women leadership roles in the church. So it's little wonder some women are looking for spiritual alternatives.

While science has been dominated by men for a generation, there is a whole crop of really smart women scientists coming up now. It's a breath of fresh air for sure. Meanwhile more men are realizing just staying nailed to jobs and football, while avoiding our inner needs is harmful, if not fatal.

Our next guest has been a green activist for 30 years. He founded the environment group Earthways Foundation in California back in 1985. More recently, Andrew Beath has been considering our green needs for spirituality. For example, he's the author of the book "Consciousness in Action, The Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in A Violent Time." The Earthways Foundation is still going, with some helpful projects in Los Angeles, but also in Latin America. Beath was also instrumental in founding "Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs" which guides people into setting up non-profits for social change.

Beath has helped save Wetlands in L.A., and assisted in starting up Amazon Watch. He's got a long trail of organizations he helped birth.

Now Andrew is publishing a trilogy of books which look at a new story of creation, one based on the amazing discoveries of science, but also new ways of looking at the world. The Trilogy is called "The New Creation Story, Spirit, Eros, and Climate Chaos". Find out more here at the book web site.

Books One and Two are already on sale. Book Three will be released shortly. The new creation story goes right from The Big Bang to modern times, with illustrations of life in between.

Previous religions have begun with an act of God, followed by just a few thousand years of history. Then the bones of dinosaurs and the study of geology showed that timeline was flawed. Now we have amazing views into the galaxies, and with it, into deep time. We need new narrative about the beginnings of things, to know where we are.

We also discuss whether life on this planet has a consciousness, something we could call "Gaia".

We don't really know how human consciosness connects us, or why sudden waves of thought pop up all over the world. The psychiatrist Carl Jung called it "synchronicity". There are lots of people out there who hope, maybe even pray, that a wave of awareness could spread rapidly across the globe, driving us toward action not just on climate change, but in our whole relationship to nature. I ask Andrew if that is his hope, and are there any signs of it? Ever the realist, Beath says right now it looks more like we are going the wrong way. "Business as usual" is still in triumph.

But, in the end, Andrew Beath has not given up. He knows and feels the depths of our damage to the Earth. But Beath tells us: "the destruction we've caused is the catalyst for the next step in human consciousness".

You can listen to or download this Radio Ecoshock interview with Andrew Beath in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


Once again, we are totally out of time. Thanks for sticking with the program.

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I'm Alex Smith, and let's get together again next week.

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