More good news about climate change from the IPCC: no sign yet of the methane apocalypse

Summary:  Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and a favorite hobbyhorse of alarmists. It’s also an example of how they’ve abandoned the IPCC — the “gold standard” of climate science consensus. The IPCC’s most recent report, AR5’s Working Group I, is quite clear that methane levels in the atmosphere have grown more slowly than projected by their models — and that the risk posed by methane is real but not yet extreme. This is a follow-up to Some good news about our changing climate. Enjoy it, for it might not last long.

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The report of Working Group I of the IPCC’s AR5 is quite explicit about the risk of methane emissions.

  1. Models’ projections of the growth in methane levels range from small to large.
  2. These projections have come down in each IPCC report.
  3. Methane levels have increased more slowly than in any of their projections.

You can read a hundred alarmist articles about methane and global warming — and never see this information from the IPCC.

Such complex stories are typical of many key questions about climate change (it’s science, not accounting), which is why we need the IPCC to put these things in a context understandable by laypeople.  It’s not that the consensus is always right (it’s not), but rather that the science is not settled.

Let’s start with figure 1.6 from Chapter 1. This shows methane levels in the atmosphere in parts per billion (i.e., very small amounts), over time — compared with several generations of models’ projections.

AR5 WG1: Figure 1.6 of methane
AR5 WG1: Figure 1.6 of methane

Observed globally and annually averaged CH 4 concentrations in parts per billion (ppb) since 1950 compared with projections from the previous IPCC assessments. Estimated observed global annual CH4 concentrations are shown in dark blue. The shading shows the largest model projected range of global annual CH4 concentrations from 1950 to 2035 from FAR ( IPCC, 1990); SAR (1996); TAR (IPCC, 2001); and from AR4 (2007). The bars at the right-hand side of the graph show the full range given for 2035 for each assessment report.

The full story is told in Chapter 2 (citations omitted; red emphasis added):

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2.2.1.1.2 Methane

Globally averaged CH4 in 1750 was 722 ± 25 ppb (after correction to the NOAA-2004 CH4 standard scale), although human influences on the global CH4 budget may have begun thousands of years earlier than this time that is normally considered ‘pre-industrial’.

In 2011, the global annual mean was 1803 ± 2 ppb. Direct atmospheric measurements of CH4 of sufficient spatial coverage to calculate global annual means began in 1978 and are plotted through 2011 in Figure 2.2a.

This time period is characterized by a decreasing growth rate (Figure 2.2b) from the early 1980s until 1998, stabilization from 1999 to 2006, and an increasing atmospheric burden from 2007 to 2011. Assuming no long-term trend in hydroxyl radical (OH) concentration, the observed decrease in CH4 growth rate from the early 1980s through 2006 indicates an approach to steady state where total global emissions have been approximately constant at ~550 Tg (CH4) yr–1.

Superimposed on the long-term pattern is significant interannual variability; studies of this variability are used to improve understanding of the global CH4 budget (Chapter 6). The most likely drivers of increased atmospheric CH4 were anomalously high temperatures in the Arctic in 2007 and greater than average precipitation in the tropics during 2007 and 2008.

Observations of the difference in CH4 between zonal averages for northern and southern polar regions (53° to 90°) suggest that, so far, it is unlikely that there has been a permanent measureable increase in Arctic CH4 emissions from wetlands and shallow sub-sea CH4 clathrates.

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IPCC's AR5: Methane
IPCC’s AR5, WGI, 2.2.1.1.2 Methane

Truth Will Make You Free

For More Information

(a) Reference Pages about climate on the FM sites:

  1. My posts
  2. Important things to know about climate change
  3. Studies & reports, by subject
  4. The history of climate fears

(b)  Posts about the IPCC and climate change:

  1. “Climate Change: what do we know about the IPCC?”, 27 June 2010
  2. Hidden history about Madrid 1995: a look at the conference that changed the world, 11 September 2012 — About the writing of AR2
  3. The IPCC gets better. Climate alarmists freak-out., 19 December 2012
  4. The IPCC gives us straight talk about Extreme Weather, 4 October 2013
  5. The IPCC rebukes the climate doomsters. Will we listen?, 15 October 2013
  6. A summary of the state of climate change and extreme weather, 12 December 2013
  7. The IPCC releases its advice on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”. To be attacked from both sides., 31 March 2014

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3 thoughts on “More good news about climate change from the IPCC: no sign yet of the methane apocalypse

  1. Fabius,

    You present yourself as objective and open minded on this issue. You say that you don’t take sides, and that seeing climate science in such terms is juvenile. However, you are guilty of hypocrisy in this regard, because you ‘take sides’ by favouring scientists that hold views that are either in line with, or more conservative than the IPCC, and dismiss those who view climate change as worse/more dangerous than the IPCC’s view as “alarmists”. You also have a tendency to castigate “alarmists” and environmental activists as fearmongers, privileged white middle class brats who misrepresent the views of the scientific community.

    Perhaps environmental activists do emphasize the views of those within the scientific community who argue that climate change is more dangerous than the IPCC’s consensus views it. Perhaps some do frame the risk of methane and other powerful feedback dynamics as more certain and more imminent than the prevailing consensus view of the scientific community as a whole. However, climate “alarmists” and activists’ guilt in this regard pales in comparison to that of skeptics and deniers, who misrepresent the views of the scientific community much more egregiously than environmentalists do.

    Oil and gas companies, and aligned powerful corporate interests spend billions every year on propaganda and funding ‘research’ that casts doubt on the anthropogenic origin of climate change or at least downplays the risks of climate change. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/who-funds-contrariness-on/

    You label environmental activists and “alarmists” as part of the problem, when in fact, activists are far more informed and acutely aware of the real problems with this country (the same problems you regularly discuss) than the average American. Environmental activists, far from being apathetic, cowardly sheep are on average, highly knowledgeable, politically engaged, and courageous (willing to risk arrest as they protest in disgust of the status quo). The forces driving the relentless increase in human GHG emissions are the same forces behind the oligarchic, unconstitutional transformation of America. You are alienating key allies against unAmerican and anti-democratic plutocrats with your thinly veiled contempt for environmental activists.

    Regardless whether the “alarmists” or the IPCC has it right, the clear consensus of the scientific community is that climate change poses an intolerable risk to our future. Disagreement between moderates (the IPCC) and “alarmists” is over the sensitivity of the climate – the timing and magnitude of feedbacks – but there is clear agreement that over the coming decades climate change will threaten crop yields, fresh water supplies and living conditions for billions, and sooner or later, heavily populated coastal regions will be underwater, and even the IPCC agrees that eventually, if current trends continue unabated, arctic methane release will pose a serious threat to humanity. The only major disagreement is over timing. While “alarmists” believe that dangerous feedbacks (like arctic methane) pose a threat on a timescale within our lifetimes, the IPCC views the danger on a scale of a century or more. They certainly do not view arctic methane release as implausible if current emissions trends continue over the 21st century and into the next.

    My critique is that these climate change posts on your blog place disproportionate emphasis on criticizing “alarmists” for misrepresenting the scientific community when the reality is that powerful corporate interests, with tremendous financial stakeholdings in fossil fuel energy misrepresent climate science to confuse the public and minimize concern on the issue when the consensus in the scientific community is there are very legitimate reasons to be concerned, and to take serious action to decarbonize our economies. Powerful petro-capital interests spend billions every year on public relations campaigns knowingly designed to misrepresent climate science, to defend their interests. Activists and “alarmist” ENGOs spend a tiny fraction of the resources that fossil fuel corporate interests spend on getting their message out.

    In sum, the disproportionate criticism you level against “alarmists” and activists is misplaced. I have not seen one post on this blog discussing corporate climate skeptic/denier propaganda, although the numbers clearly show this form of misrepresentation of science is far more prevalent than the “alarmist” type you rail against.

    You’re mistaking David for Goliath on the issue of misrepresenting expert opinion.

  2. I’m not trying to troll you and annoy you with my criticism, I’m trying to persuade you to consider a different perspective, and perhaps recognize that climate change “alarmists” and activists may in fact have more merit than you give them credit for. Instead of responding impatiently and dismissively, I ask that you seriously consider the following thoughts before replying to my critique.

    Regardless of whether so called “alarmists” overemphasize the risk of feedbacks (like methane), is it not rational to take the risk seriously?

    Whether truly devastating climate changes are decades away or a century or more into the future, is it not our responsibility to act in order to sustain hospitable climatic and biospheric conditions for future generations?

    Is it not among the most serious political failings of the US Republic and the capitalist world at large that we have failed to take any kind of substantive action to act on this issue, and global emissions continue to climb every year? And that our corrupt elites and failed institutions have deepened our dependency on a non-renewable form of energy that is fast being depleted?

    Is it not a legitimate proposition that perhaps we should now prioritize returning to a balanced, sustainable relationship with nature above relentless short term economic growth?

    I would like to know, what exactly is your problem with climate change “alarmists”/activists? What negative effects do you think will come of their efforts to raise public concern with climate change and motivate political action toward systemic change? Do you feel that the more people are concerned with climate change the less likely they will be to inform themselves and take political action on other important issues?

    Regardless of climate change, fossil fuel energy driven economic growth is impossible in the medium to long term. Unless we take major action to transition to a post-carbon economy quite urgently we will face very serious economic crises in the near term as economical fossil fuel supplies run out and energy prices skyrocket and there is minimal infrastructure in place to enable a reasonably smooth transition to renewable and alternative energy sources. What “alarmists” are advocating for – urgent, large-scale economic transition to a post-carbon economy – is rational, desirable, and indeed, necessary regardless of how quickly climate change brings about dangerous consequences. It is simply common sense http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/09/17/climate_change_economics_new_report_says_nixing_fossil_fuels_won_t_be_expensive.html

    Surely you don’t disagree with that. Do you?

    Its an inescapable fact that compound economic and population growth cannot be sustained indefinitely on a finite planet with finite resources, and real limits to the extent we can exploit our planet’s resources without destabilizing the biosphere. Yet our global capitalist system is dependent upon such growth; the system requires compound growth in perpetuity to sustain capital accumulation – capital circulation must always expand, profits from yesterday’s investment must be reinvested profitably today. Without profitable investment opportunities, the flow of capital stops and unemployment and collapsing asset values results. We need a democratic and meritocratic socio-economic system that maintains stability rather than relentlessly pursues endless growth. We need a social system that can sustainably remain in balance with nature in order that future generations can live well. We can have growth in knowledge and technology based sectors. But material-based growth that depends on expanding, intensifying exploitation of natural resources is impossible.

    This fact is rarely acknolwedged because it falls outside the parameters of normal discourse. Western modernity and the social relations of neoliberal capitalism have entrenched ideological norms and belief systems constitute a powerful, widely held ontology which frames our relationship to nature in terms of anthropocentric domination, unlimited exploitation, and control over nature through technology and unlimited faith in human ingenuity to adapt to whatever changes our disruption of the natural world may bring. There’s another word for such an ontology. It is hubris.

    Is it not reasonable to question this? Is it not reasonable to take a critical perspective of historically-ideologically based assumptions of our relationship to nature, and challenge the reigning paradigm that legitimizes the status quo?

    Most activists don’t agree with schemes to burden consumers and average citizens with the cost of decarbonization. Most favour the wholesale transformation of the status quo, the disempowerment of the corrupt elite, and the democratization of our institutions and political-economy. Drawing attention to the dangers of climate change is not cowardly fear mongering. It is a strategy to incite people to take action and rise against the status quo. There is nothing wrong with raising the “alarm” on climate change to motivate systemic change. The more climate “alarmists” efforts are successful, the more informed and less apathetic people would be.

    Frankly, I see no difference between “alarmist” activists who emphasize the dangers of climate change in order to rouse people out of their apathy and your own alarming, dire perspectives on civil rights and constitutional liberties, the military industrial complex and our corrupt, unequal economy in which plutocratic elites manipulate market conditions in their favour. The difference is tactics. The ends are the same – disempowerment of corrupt elites and transformation toward a democratic and enlightened society.

  3. To put my point succinctly: It is unwise, even dangerous to underestimate the risk of climate change. Disseminating a perspective that ridicules and marginalizes “alarmists” not only misrepresents the fact that a substantial and growing proportion of legitimate experts within the scientific community believe the IPCC underestimates climate sensitivity, but it also reinforces public apathy and political docility by affirming a similar message promoted by corporate propaganda in order to defend their economic and political power; that systemic change toward a post-carbon economy is not a particularly urgent or important priority. I base this argument on the following two propositions:

    Proposition 1: If we take climate “alarmists” seriously and act accordingly, we act promptly and decisively to make rational, desirable, and absolutely necessary systemic changes to break our dependency on a limited resource – a form of energy that has many destructive effects in addition to climate change. Even if “alarmists” are mistaken, and the global climate system is more resilient than they believe, the actions they advocate are beneficial and necessary regardless, and acting promptly and decisively to effect such changes would also be conducive to the disempowerment of corrupt elites, the revitalization of political-economic institutions and the rule of law, re-democratize societies, and broad social enlightenment and political awakening.

    Proposition 2: If we dismiss and ridicule climate “alarmists” we legitimize procrastinating necessary change. Not only that, we endanger the well-being, quite possibly even the survival of future generations.

    Do you agree or disagree with these propositions?

    I make these propositions while recognizing that yes, there is uncertainty and legitimate disagreement within the scientific community between dedicated and objective professionals who take their work very seriously surrounding the sensitivity of the climate to human emissions and other impacts (like deforestation and industrial agriculture), yes there is legitimate debate among scientific experts – many affirm the moderate view of the IPCC, many believe the IPCC underestimates the rate and magnitude of climate change going forward because they underestimate the sensitivity of the global climate to human-induced changes and believe that positive feedback dynamics that could drive runaway climate change may be initiated more easily than the IPCC expects, and some (relatively few) hold views that are more conservative than the IPCC (and investigative studies have shown that many who advance this perspective work for, are affiliated with, or otherwise have their research funded by petro-corporate interests, though I acknowledge that there are some who are genuinely independent).

    If you remain unconvinced by my defense of climate change “alarmists” I would like you to answer the following questions:

    First, what harm do you believe could come from taking the so called climate “alarmists” seriously?
    Exactly how and in what ways specifically do you feel that so called “alarmists” are contributing to the culture of fear in American media and political discourse? If climate “alarmists” are part of the problem of fearful apathy and docility, how so exactly? (ie; if more people took their arguments seriously would they not be more likely to question political power more broadly and critically given the magnitude of failure on the part of power elites and institutions on this issue that “alarmists” suggest? Wouldn’t people be compelled to further inform themselves on all serious political issues, engage in politics in a meaningful way, and challenge the corruption and dysfunction of the status quo if they listened to and took the so called “alarmists” seriously… or would they be more likely to sink further into complacency? If you believe that taking climate “alarmists” seriously would cause people to sink further into apathy and complacency, how so? Why would people react passively to a message that calls for urgent and decisive action to secure a better future and warns of a bleak future unless such action is taken?)

    Secondly, why do you feel it is better to advance a perspective of climate change that downplays the potential risks (of the sort that “alarmists” highlight) and strips the problem of any sense of urgency? Specifically, how would such a view contribute to rousing Americans out of their political docility? In what sense is a moderate/conservative perspective on the problem of climate change superior to an “alarmist” perspective on climate change with respect to motivating and encouraging an empowering political awakening and enlightenment on the part of Americans (and the world at large) to challenge the corruption and dysfunction of the status quo in a meaningful way to restore the constitutional rule of law, equality of opportunity, and responsible, representative democratic government by the people, of the people and for the people?

    If you feel that climate “alarmists”/activists undermine such objectives, please be specific in defending this position; instead of getting annoyed and impatient, please provide as thorough an explanation as you can as to why you feel climate “alarmists” are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

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