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We are used to the idea that CO2—One atom of carbon, two atoms of oxygen — is a dangerous molecule. Indeed, reducing carbon dioxide emissions has become the way many executives and journalists describe our job. But CH4– a carbon atom combined with four hydrogen atoms, otherwise known as methane – is the evil twin of carbon dioxide. It traps heat about eighty times more efficiently than carbon dioxide, which is why the fact that it stings in the atmosphere scares scientists so much. Despite the pandemic lockdown, 2020 saw the biggest increase in methane in the atmosphere since we started taking action, in the 1980s. It’s a jump which last month a scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called “quite surprising and disturbing.”
If there is good news, it is that the methane surge does not appear – yet – to come largely from the rampant melting of methane-ice formations beneath the polar oceans or in tundra soils. It would be a nightmarish scenario because there was nothing we could do about it – it’s global warming on automatic mode. At the moment, most of the increase appears to come from sources we can struggle: rice fields, livestock, and above all the rapid rise in drilling and fracking for gas. Two decades ago, people thought that natural gas, although a fossil fuel, could help slow climate change because when you burn it in a power plant, it produces less carbon than burning coal. We now understand that natural gas – which is primarily made up of methane – leaks unburned at every stage of combustion fracking, whether in a power plant or on top of your stove, in amounts sufficient to make one. enormous climatic danger. The Trump administration has abandoned all efforts to even reduce this leak, an absurd giveaway to the fossil fuel industry that the Biden administration is preparing to carry. But plugging the leaks is not enough: we must stop the production of natural gas as quickly as possible and replace it with renewable energies that generate neither carbon nor methane. As I wrote last month, it is now entirely possible; sun and wind power have become so cheap so quickly that they are more economical than gasoline, and batteries follow the same type of cost curve, so that nightfall is no longer the problem it once was.
But there are other reasons to get the gas going. A report of the Climate Council of Australia, released last week, finds that the health impact of having a gas cooktop in your home is roughly equivalent to having a cigarette smoker blowing in a corner, and is about 12% of childhood asthma. “It’s odorless, it’s invisible, it’s a bit of a silent enemy,” said the CEO of Asthma Australia. “People might feel different if they understood that their gas appliances emit a range of toxic substances.” This is why the gas industry has lobbied so hard to prevent this perception. In at least fourteen US states, the industry lobby is push bills it would prevent local governments from restricting the use of gas; a particular threat comes from new appliances – mainly heat pumps and air-operated water heaters and induction cooktops – which are now widely available and increasingly cheaper. (Even the the Wall Street newspaper, whose opinion pages are a staunch defender of the oil and gas industry, admitted in a journal that induction cooking is “safer and faster than gas”.) documents disclosed E&E News obtained last week show that fifteen major gas companies have formed a consortium to fight electrification. “None of these companies want to write their own obituaries,” said Deborah Gordon, a former petroleum engineer at the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank. “If you have to bend this curve and we bend it quickly, there will be casualties. Some will transform, some will consolidate, some will disappear. “
For now, however, they’re still very much present, and they might as well call the effort a consortium to promote asthma and melt the poles. But, if we can get the gas going quickly, there is some hope that lies in the structure of this CH4 molecule: it only lasts about ten years in the atmosphere, compared to a century for carbon dioxide. This means that, if we can somehow reduce emissions significantly, they will go away quickly, giving us some time to tackle carbon. “If we can reduce methane enough over the next decade, we will see public health benefits over the decade, and climate benefits within two decades,” said Drew Shindell, research scientist. land at Duke University which has done a lot of work on methane, said to Time. But it had better happen quickly. Here’s Euan Nisbet, a climatologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, reacting to last month’s news of spikes in methane levels: “I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad. It breaks my heart.
Pass the microphone
Christina Conklin, artist, writer and researcher, and Marina psaros, an expert in sustainable development, will publish “The Atlas of Endangered Places: Our Coasts and Oceans Facing the Climate Crisis“in July. With maps and text, he explores port cities and coasts that could be erased by rising seas – Shanghai, Houston, New York, the Cook Islands and Bến Tre, Vietnam. I spoke with Conklin, who lives near the Pacific in Half Moon Bay, Calif. (Our conversation has been edited.)
Humans built many of their most important colonies along the ocean for obvious reasons, but how should we think about it now?
The harsh truth is that the seas will rise for centuries – it could be at least three feet this century and much more afterwards. It’s hard to take in, but we need to have realistic, civic conversations about moving to higher ground in the decades to come. Water always finds its level, so we will need to rebuild over time, finding ways to equitably move vulnerable communities away from flood-prone areas.
Reinforcing storms and rising seas may be the easiest climate challenges to overcome – all we need to do is step aside. In fact, altering the chemistry of the oceans and warming the waters are much more critical in my opinion, as they alter the living system of the ocean itself, which is the foundation and source of life on earth. The point is, our current dependence on fossil fuels is causing the acidification, deoxygenation and warming of the oceans that is throwing many marine ecosystems into crisis. Half of the stories in “The Atlas of Missing Places” cover these impacts on food webs, feedback loops and basic biological processes. I illustrated it with ink maps on seaweed to convey the scope and magnitude of the problems.
Where is one place that really illustrates our problems?
The Cook Islands are a good example. It is a small island nation in the South Pacific that voted in 2017 to designate its territorial waters as the largest marine protected area in the world. This commitment reflected the values and heritage of the Cook Islanders as an indigenous people sailing the sea, and also enabled sustainable development. Around the same time, a few powerful people called on seabed mining companies to ‘explore’ the possibility of scraping manganese nodules from the seabed in these waters, potentially destroying the ecosystem – and the Prime Minister relented. under pressure to get a quick profit. [Last year, the government said that it would allow mining to offset the loss of tourism business during the pandemic.] This type of conflict between local communities and extractive industries is often out of sight, but every choice we make has an environmental impact somewhere.
We all have a responsibility – the capacity to respond – to imagine and build healthy societies. Each of the book’s twenty chapters envisions a ‘future story’ from the year 2050, showing things we can do to change the story from reckless consumption to a resilient and regenerative culture.