In 2007, after a marketing blitz for climate change during much of 2006 and the release of a new UN IPCC report, mentioning that methane had 23X the global warming effect of CO2 would get you shouted down and sternly reminded that CO2 lasts far longer.
That is absolutely correct. Yet recently, twice in the same week, two papers warned us that methane will cause global warming regardless of CO2.
What changed? Well, CO2 emissions went down, and it wasn't due to the $72 billion in taxpayer money which included solar panel subsidies or the afterthought of wind power or the other get-rich-quick schemes in alternative energy we have tried since 2009 - it even happened without nuclear power, the best and most viable zero-emissions energy of them all. It also happened without banning existing energy. The big change instead came because America switched to natural gas, and that was thanks to science and the free market. Due to that switch, energy emissions haven't looked this good in 20 years. Coal emissions haven't looked this good in 30 years.
Believe it or not, to environmental fundraisers, that is a really bad thing.
With CO2 emissions dropping, activists have started to wind up the machine against methane and they note it is worse than CO2 - without mentioning that it is short-lived or that it is the primary component in cleaner natural gas. Instead, 'natural' is being removed from the term completely and replaced with 'shale'.
Activists know their framing far better than energy corporations do.
So CO2 is now immaterial?
Marine ecologist Robert Howarth of Cornell was unheard of before environmentalists turned him into an anti-fracking rock star by getting him into the New York Times - as Jon Entine noted, some of the articles beatifying him as the next environmental wunderkind were so partisan and shoddy their Public Editor, Arthur Brisbane, thought they had lost their collective minds, with all of the anonymous quotes and scare-mongering that somehow passed editorial scrutiny. Howarth delivers his apocalyptic message again on cue in Energy Science and Engineering, warning us that we are just a few years away from an environmental tipping point.
Because of natural gas - the thing that environmentalists lobbied for since the 1960s.
"We have to control methane immediately, and natural gas is the largest methane pollution source in the United States," said Howarth in his Cornell press release. "If we hit a climate-system tipping point because of methane, our carbon dioxide problem is immaterial. We have to get a handle on methane, or increasingly risk global catastrophe."
So CO2 is now immaterial? Actual climate scientists are going to be even less thrilled with his latest crazy claim than the last time he tried to help. Then, fellow Cornell academic Lawrence Cathles, who actually is a climate science expert, debunked his claim that natural gas wells are the "methane sieves" Howarth claimed - and using decades-old Soviet Union-era data to massage the results didn't endear him to earth scientists either.
The reality is that emissions have gone down. That is good. And environmentalists are the last group we want messing that up. Emissions would never have been such a critical problem if environmentalists and their well-paid lobbyists hadn't gotten the Clinton administration to destroy energy science in America in the early 1990s. We would have had fourth generation nuclear power by now if American technological leadership hadn't been handcuffed by the politicization of science. Environmentalists never point to themselves as the reason American CO2 emissions got so high - by forcing out nuclear energy, they created a government fiat for coal. Germany is having the same problem right now, activists are forcing them away from science and back to the 1940s. Luckily for America, in the last decade geologists discovered how to really make natural gas work at a cost that doesn't leave poor people freezing in their homes. Germany would love to make that happen too.
When even Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council think you are misguided...
To most of us, it's a little strange to see a marine ecologist debunk all of climate science and claim that CO2 caps are irrelevant and we will warm by 2.0 degree Celsius within the next 35 years anyway - unless fracking is banned. Who disagrees with him? The US Energy Department and all of science. Heck, even the the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council disavow his claims, and they hate everything.
"Society needs to wean itself from the addiction to fossil fuels as quickly as possible," Howarth said. "But to replace some fossil fuels – coal, oil – with another, like natural gas, will not suffice as an approach to take on global warming. Rather, we should embrace the technologies of the 21st century and convert our energy systems to ones that rely on wind, solar and water power."
None of which are viable yet. In 35 years solar might be. Heck, in 50, fusion might be. But lobbying for more solar subsidies now is silly.
The future is bright for solar. But just like you can't spend a lot of money and get time travel or a cure for cancer, wasting more money on solar panel subsidies today accomplishes nothing except keeping Chinese manufacturers in business. Link: activistpost.com
It's a strange sort of American nationalism that afflicts both environmentalists and also partisan academics who know just enough about business and technology to be wrong. As Andrew Beebe of SunTech put it - “You had folks who came in with the hubris to say about solar, ‘I know these guys have been working on this for 50 years, but I’ve got $50 million and I can blow the doors off this thing.’” And he knows what he is talking about. Suntech went bankrupt to the tune of $541 million just in bonds.
And that's the crux of the problem. Environmentalists and marine ecologists who know nothing at all about how real innovation works think they can just throw money at one thing and penalize another and capitalism magic happens. The real world, outside of academia and fundraising brochures, is a lot messier. Like evolution, innovation has starts and stops, sometimes it tries a few times and fails. What has never worked is assuming that if we spend 100X as much money, the process will go 100X as fast.
Citation: Robert W. Howarth, 'A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas', Energy Science&Engineering May 15, 2014 DOI: 10.1002/ese3.35