Methane: the overlooked troublemaker
When it comes to climate change, carbon dioxide is like the eldest child in the family; the flashy, charismatic, overachieving first kid who gets all the attention and praise and expectations heaped upon its well-brushed, glowing head. Captain of every team, winner of every debate, lead in every play, CO2 has the great gifts and innate capabilities to be voted Most Likely To Succeed (in dismantling the climate).
However, as in many families, CO2 has a host of younger siblings, who, though less lauded and universally well known, are also supremely capable of wreaking climatic havoc. Chief among these is the greenhouse gas family’s woefully ignored middle child methane — nickname CH4.
Methane is much like the second kid who’s not terribly attractive, outgoing or self-promoting. But, rather than just possessing the regular innate family talent for heating up the atmosphere, methane turns out to be a full-on, stone cold genius at it, with 84 times the impact of CO2.
Where this all gets both relevant and ominous is that 15 scientists from places like Harvard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory just issued a report stating that the U.S. is releasing far more methane than the EPA previously estimated, and that much of that CH4 comes from the production and distribution of natural gas, heretofore misrepresented as a “bridge fuel” to a low carbon future.
The Vermont Legislature wisely banned fracking last year as an environmentally and socially destructive means of extracting natural gas. However, the Public Service Board is currently considering a Vermont Gas proposal to extend a natural gas pipeline the length of the state, and seems to be seriously accepting of the “bridge fuel” argument as a certificate-worthy public good. Which, not to understate the case, it isn’t.
It’s also worth noting that Vermont Gas is owned by Canadian firm Gaz Metro, which in turn is owned by pipeline giant Enbridge, a company responsible for a 2010 spill that devastated a tributary of the Kalamazoo River.
We’re in a tough situation. Throughout our long history, we humans have always sought to amplify the amount of work one person can do, and from an energetic perspective, fossil fuels are pretty magical. A liter of gasoline, for example, contains the equivalent of about a month’s worth of hard manual labor. We’ve taken all these miraculous Jurassic substances, and in less than 200 years, built a civilization out of them. All of our systems of energy production, economy, manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture are inherently dependent upon an unexpected transmogrification of ancient sunlight and organic matter.
As we’ve learned from the best of our childhood stories, all magic has a price. Tragically, the price of the immense power of fossil fuels isn’t an innocent fairy tale at all. Our concrete reality is that we’re rapidly rendering the planet incapable of sustaining civilization as we know it. How many more Irenes, Sandys, and Haiyans will we endure before we can’t afford to clean up the damage anymore, before the fabric of our communities starts to unravel?
Climate change is happening now, not in the distant future, and it is accelerating. Greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide will keep heating up our atmosphere until we stop emitting them all together. And that only happens when we stop burning oil, gas, coal, and natural gas — and stop as fast as we possibly can. Faster, even.
Yes, it’s hard to admit that we have had such a consequential impact on something as large and substantial as our entire planet. No, it’s not going to be easy to make the necessary changes. Yes, we will all have to make choices we’d prefer not to make — from how we get around to where we live to making the sources of our energy production quite, quite visible. But like it or not, resist it or not, believe it or not, there is, as journalist Duncan Clark of The Guardian put it, “no substitute for phasing out fossil fuels.”
Kathryn Blume is an artist and climate activist from Charlotte.