Arctic Methane Alarms: A Closer Look at the Debate

Every creation-care advocate knows that climate denial is rampant in the anti-scientific atmosphere that currently shrouds much of American evangelicalism. With so much nonsense circulating among us, it’s painful to admit our own mistakes. We’ve been called alarmists (or worse) so often that it’s particularly awkward coming clean when it’s possibly true.

But whatever the consequences, here goes. Several days ago, I wrote a piece about Arctic methane release, based on an article found in the science journal Nature. The gist of the story was that recent research had calculated a $60 trillion price tag on the effect of a major methane “burp” likely to be released from melting ice and permafrost in or near eastern Siberia. The burp would do most harm to poor people in poor countries, and would accelerate the threshold for global warming of 2 degrees Celsius to 2035, only 22 years from now.

This would be very bad news – perhaps apocalyptic bad new – and we said so.

NASA's Gavin Schmidt questioned methane projections

NASA’s Gavin Schmidt questioned methane projections

But what the Nature article didn’t say is that many respected researchers regard this scenario, in this timeframe, to be unlikely. Not that the Arctic isn’t melting; not that the methane deposits under the permafrost aren’t absolutely enormous; not that the methane released won’t create a huge positive feedback loop capable of driving sudden, catastrophic climate change. Just this: that few researchers view Nature’s timeframe to be realistic.

I picked up the Nature story, and reported to you the worrisome conclusion: that as early as 22 years from now, you are likely to be dealing with a world whose methane-heated climate is completely unrecognizable by – and possibly inhospitable to – the creatures that currently thrive on Earth, including humankind. In so doing, I relied on the prestige of Nature, without much further inquiry. 

Well, it turns out that there has been a robust debate on the topic. Most notably, NASA’s respected Gavin Schmidt has stated pointedly: “We are not currently near a threshold for dramatic CH4 (methane) releases – though we may get there.”

So, first things first: I must retract the unqualified projection of a global methane “burp” leading to runaway heating of the planet beyond 2 degrees Celsius by 2035. Of course, it may still happen, but genuine climate scientists – not “skeptic” bloggers – dispute the forecast. I should have checked the dialogue more closely. My bad!

But lest we breathe a sigh of relief and move on to more pleasant matters, please recall that I invoked King Hezekiah as the patron saint of the climate indifference that grips today’s American church. That’s because we know that the preconditions for a global methane mega-burp are happening now, but the timing of consequences may be later than we were warned by Nature. In Hezekiah’s case, he found great comfort in knowing that it would be his sons – not himself – who would become eunuchs in Babylon; his daughters – not his wife – who would be carried off into slavery.

None of us, I’m sure, wants to emulate that guy.

And if you’re one of the many evangelicals who frequent the “skeptic” blogosphere, I invite you to consider the last time you saw a retraction of the countless debunked “carbon-is-good” or “massive-hoax” offerings you’ve seen there. More importantly, this may be your first window into the honest review and debate that characterizes the real climate science community. No one becomes a great scientist by going along with what was said before him or her, and that’s apparent in this debate.

To our readers, I regret my hasty – but still controversial – warning about the timing of a global methane burp. But to the science community, I’m glad for all the voices we’ve heard. To the Nature authors, you’ve highlighted the economic costs of runaway methane releases. Whether you’ve got the timing right, we need to understand the potential for global economic harm beyond anything we’ve ever seen. To NASA, Gavin Schmidt and others, you’ve stood by the evidence you see, even though it may give momentary comfort to the many who hope to leave the climate bill for our children to pay.

Now, for the rest of us, let’s get back to work to chip away at that bill!

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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