Climate change, Obama, and methane

President Obama’s carbon plan announced this summer finally moves the United States to take much needed steps toward reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, but unfortunately the plan largely ignores the low-hanging fruit to slow the rate of global warming: reducing emissions of methane, another type of carbon.

The president’s focus on carbon dioxide is perhaps no surprise, given the environmental community’s decades-long emphasis on this as the most important greenhouse gas.  But rapid advancements in the scientific understanding of the role of methane as a driver of global warming strongly show the danger of tunnel vision on carbon dioxide. 

By once again failing to announce strong, decisive action to combat methane at the recent Climate Summit at the United Nations,  Obama missed a major opportunity to demonstrate global leadership on climate change. Neither an afterthought treatment of methane, nor an indirect, passive public-private partnership will be sufficient to address the potent greenhouse gas’ role as a major factor in global warming.

In scientific terms, the important 2013 fifth synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that current global emissions of methane equal or exceed the global emissions of carbon dioxide, when the methane emissions are converted to their equivalency for causing global warming using an integrated 10-year time period.  The actual mass of methane emitted is less than carbon dioxide, but at this decadal time scale methane traps more than 100 times more heat per mass emitted.  Over 20 years, methane still traps 86 times more heat; over 100 years, 34 times more heat.

In other words: methane is a very potent form of carbon in the atmosphere….

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission