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The Wrong Way to Debate Methane and Global Warming

August 5, 2013

A few days ago, I wrote a piece melodramatically entitled Methane: be afraid…be very afraid (and that’s putting it mildly). It’s about a Nature article by Gail Whiteman, Chris Hope, and Peter Wadhams called Climate science: Vast costs of Arctic change, and it’s reaches some pretty dramatic conclusions, including a potential cost of a sudden release of sub-sea methane as “an average global price tag of $60 trillion in the absence of mitigating action”.

I was already aware that the paper was controversial. A number of prominent climate scientists were pretty dismissive, and it seemed to me that there was a lack of real scepticism; too much certainty, too much faith invested more in opinion than fact.

Then Skeptical Science (SkS) published an article by Chris Colose, a well-qualified climate scientist with relevant expertise. However, the article left me feeling disappointed.

As a writer, I’m quite sensitive to tone, and the opening paragraph of the article, called Toward Improved Discussions of Methane & Climate, exemplifies my cause for concern:

Here at Skeptical Science, there is an ongoing effort to combat disinformation from those who maintain that climate change is a non-issue or non-reality. From time to time, however, individuals or groups overhype the impacts of climate change beyond the realm of plausibility. Some of this is well-intentioned but misguided…

A few observations; this opening statement is prejudicial and dismissive. It is not the language of science. To imply that the ‘big burp’ methane scenario is ‘beyond the realms of plausibility’, that it is ‘misguided’ reduces the scientific method to that of mere opinion. That Colose felt it necessary to open his article with such a statement is revealing, because it signals not open-minded scepticism, but bias. In a single statement, he positions the work of other scientists as inept, yet he cannot disprove anything that has been claimed, only allude to inconsistencies in what we know so far (“so far” being the key to this issue, I believe).

Too many people within the climate science community have been equally dismissive. Nafeez Ahmed, writing in the Guardian (Seven facts you need to know about the Arctic methane timebomb) makes some good points about the conflicting evidence, clear lines of dissent mirrored in the well-informed comments below the Skeptical Science piece. As a lay person, I’m not qualified to comment either way, but I do note some troubling inconsistencies in the way this is being discussed, but in particular the prejudicial nature of many remarks exemplified by the quote from the SkS piece.

I’m moved to wonder why it is necessary to be quite so insistent about something about which there is so little real information, on which so little work has been done. My theory – and that’s all it is – is that climate scientists are, in fact, very conservative in nature. Extraordinary and dramatic claims like those made in the paper that kicked off this debate seem to have raised the hackles of a community who occupy a most invidious position; messengers with a message nobody wants to hear, or act on.

I don’t think it outrageous either to suggest that climate scientists are being persecuted, vilified, their reputations traduced, their work ridiculed and their qualifications demeaned. In such circumstances, it is inevitable that climate scientists are going to react, to feel defensive, and consequently downplay or even under-estimate the probabilities their work describes – a phenomenon for which there is already some evidence.

It’s as if the original Whitman paper triggered a defence mechanism: “Don’t say anything so bloody dramatic, else the deniers will eat us for breakfast”. Too many people were dismissive far to quickly for their rebuttals to be considered, let alone properly sceptical.

So where the hell are we? First of all, it is clear the science is not settled, so Colose and others should stop being quite so certain when the evidence supports neither assertion conclusively. My reading of the various arguments suggests that the scenario described by Whitman is not beyond the realms of possibility. It may also be the case that it won’t happen, or that the release of methane will be persistent and chronic, not sudden. It is, in every respect, an argument parallel to climate sensitivity, something we’re going to know for sure only in retrospect.

What I wrote about in my first post on this subject was my belief that the thing most likely to undo us all is the unexpected consequence. In this case, the consequence seems unexpected by that audience you might think would be most receptive to it – climate scientists. Instead, it seems that on this issue, they might be as closed-minded and lacking in genuine scepticism as everyone else.

I think the naysayers should be more circumspect, for their arguments appear tainted with confirmation bias. All predictions of future impacts based on climate science are about probabilities. Nothing I’ve read reduces the probability that methane could contribute to global warming. Nothing I’ve read conclusively demonstrates how this will occur. Everything I’ve read suggests a lack of solid science, too little evidence to support so many apparently firm conclusions.

The same rules that apply to denial apply to climate science. The only way to prove or disprove Whitman’s claims (and others) is through better science. Being dismissive and self-righteous isn’t science, and too much of the commentary on this issue smacks of exactly the same opinionated certainties that infect denialist arguments. Nobody knows anything for certain about Arctic methane, and anyone basing their certainty on what little we know is standing on thin ice.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2013 9:47 am

    “The only way to prove or disprove Whitman’s claims (and others) is through better science.”

    Or, unhelpfully, proof by demonstration from the earth system.

  2. johnrussell40 permalink
    August 5, 2013 9:51 am

    I agree about the tone of Chris Colose’s SkS article. It came across as having an agenda — the underlying characteristic of contrarian blogs. Nobody really knows how severe the methane problem could be and the uncertainty demands caution and the open-mindedness that should be the hallmark of climate science. It strikes me that anyone who adopts a more rigid position is unwisely backing themselves into a corner. By all means disagree, but leave the door open to be convinced by evidence and others’ scientifically-literate arguments.

    This is an article that struck a chord with me: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/08/04/global-warming-the-folly-of-certainty/

  3. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 5, 2013 10:33 am

    ccgwebmaster: yet why do I get the feeling the ‘unhelpful’ version is the only proof we’re going to accept? JR’s link in the next comment puts the case succinctly – it should be about probabilities and prudence – the precautionary principle. (Thanks JR – good article).

  4. markhb permalink
    August 5, 2013 11:41 am

    Hi Graham, its wonderful to see all this activity on your blog. My thought, for what its worth, is that Chris Close’s article does tend to belittle that which is too “alarming” in order to to avoid “scaring any horses”. In a similar vein climate deniers tend to like to paint any alarming predictions as “alarmist” and thereby marginalise them, regardless of their scientific merit. This plays on peoples’ innate conservatism. Its naturally hard to accept as truth anything which is so far outside one’s own experiences. The projected cost of $60 trillion is also hard to comprehend. Of course if a sudden vast release of sub sea bed methane was to occur, then the consequences are so hard to think rationally about, that a dismissive tone is clearly the easier path. We simply dont have the resources to deal with such an event.

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 5, 2013 2:44 pm

    mark – you’re very kind, and it’s appreciated. And I agree – between what appears to be the hyperbolic nature of the threat, and our seeming inability to address it (or even address the CO2 issue), basically it seems commentators of all stripes are just throwing up their hands in horror, abandoning rationality because the sheer scale of the problem suggests there is no rational solution.

  6. August 6, 2013 5:50 am

    Hi all,

    Thanks for the commentary.

    I appreciate that people have different perspectives on the appropriate tone that should be given to an article dealing in part with uncertainties.

    I still do not think the Wadhams-Shakhova etc. scenario is plausible- perhaps not in the strictest sense of being incompatible with physics- but I think the current state of science is sufficient to rule out such a catastrophic methane perturbation with high confidence.

    I stand by the arguments in the SkS piece, and I really think that people who accept the reality and dangers of AGW (everyone here) need to be stronger when it comes to claims on the opposite side of the spectrum. This is all perhaps a bit unusual in the online climate debates, where all parties involve recognize the reality of the science. It’s been far more interesting than dealing with typical Heartland/WUWT pseudo-science. But those dismissive of the methane bomb mechanism have not asked for anything extraordinary in the context of a scientific debate. We’re not asking for a perfect model. Rather, is there evidence for significantly elevated methane fluxes, for example relative to mid-century, that has a detectable signature in atmospheric methane concentrations? Is there a way to get surface warming down to relevant hydrate depths? Do shallow hydrates even exist on the Siberian shelves? Is the mechanism exhibited paleoclimatically? Is there any reason to believe it?

    As for the claim of too much certainty, it was the Whiteman article in Nature that gave the impression that a very minority perspective is somehow an accepted business-as-usual expectation. It’s Peter Wadhams and Nafeez who have given the impression that the relevant Arctic specialists are somehow in agreement on this and everyone else like David Archer is out of touch with reality, ignoring all evidence to the contrary (hint: we’ve read their papers). This is the same “false balance” issue we deal with in climate denial. I don’t think my article contributed to that problem.

    In any case, I think that one of Gavin Schmidt’s recent comments at RealClimate is an eloquent reflection of my view on this:

    [Response: It’s worth addressing one of your points more directly than perhaps I have to date. There are indeed many unknowns going forward and we should certainly be alert for ‘surprises’ or anomalies in the observations that can point us in the right directions. The example of the Antarctic polar ozone hole is a classic example. However, there is a huge difference between maintaining vigilance and declaring an imminent and ongoing ’emergency’ – as is being done by a few people associated with the ‘methane’ issue. It is the difference between installing smoke detectors and yelling ‘Fire!’. Sometimes, as with the overall climate trajectory we are on, we can marshall a lot of theoretical knowledge, successful predictions, and ongoing observations to make a robust case for what to expect. Other times, there is no theoretical basis (merely extreme extrapolations), no successful track record, and no supporting observations (imaginary shallow hydrates for instance). These two cases are not equivalent, and when people expect us to give the two projections equal consideration, they are just going to be frustrated. Scientifically, it does not matter what is being predicted, but rather how it is being predicted. Astrologers who predict that you will meet a tall dark handsome stranger today may occasionally be correct – but the method by which they come to their predictions is demonstrably worthless, and so an occasionally correct guess does not count for much. Method matters. – gavin]

  7. August 6, 2013 6:29 am

    I don’t think it’s necessary to comprehend the cost at $60 trillion, you may as well just assume it will cost modern civilisation itself. Do we really think the resources and capability would exist to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure, replace the irreplaceable lost natural capital (eg farmland), etc? To do so as fast as climate change is tearing them down and ramping up drivers of human conflict year by year? In a world with population and consumption jammed in the red line with resource availability diminishing?

    When one looks into the not comfortably distant future, it seems increasingly probable that for practical purposes the cost is “everything” – and putting numbers to it is just a way of keeping score, nothing more.

    I believe there are rational solutions – but they are not solutions that will sit nicely with most people. They’re the sort of solutions that consider the long term future of humanity, because the present and near future are already lost – corpses waiting to hit the floor. The sort of solutions that can offer nothing to most of the existing population. But – do we not owe it to the people of the future to consider them, if all else is lost?

    Surely it isn’t too late to consider those who must – through no choice of their own – bear the costs of all this when we are long gone?

  8. August 6, 2013 6:42 am

    @Chris Colose – I would be curious how the science can categorically rule out such a methane peturbation? Isn’t there a strong suggestion of methane clathrates playing a role in the end Permian extinction? Are the arguments about lack of paleoclimatic precedent in more recent paleoclimate valid when we are subjecting the earth system to rates of change far beyond those examples? While I accept nobody can say a catastrophic release of methane is a definite event, or even ascribe a probability to it – I don’t understand on what basis it can be ruled out? (I hope not on the same basis that estimates of near future sea ice loss during the Arctic summer are/were ruled out!)

    I didn’t think that the presence of shallow methane clathrates on the Arctic shelves was even a question (depending how deep you mean by shallow, perhaps?) – given the observed releases by Shakhova/Semiletov, and documentation in their papers (and those of other scientists).

    The rest – well – we’re still waiting on more information to be released from them. Certainly, there is no evidence for a major increase in methane from this source currently – and at most perhaps a small increase, but there are other possible causes of the recent increase in atmospheric methane concentration. If something dramatic starts to happen, monitoring stations and satellites should pick it up fairly smartly.

  9. webe permalink
    October 12, 2013 1:43 am

    I think the “conservatives” are afraid in the same way as deniers: they are afraid of dire scenario’s which cannot be dealt with. Many climate scientists place great emphasis on the notion that it is not too late to act, and that corrective action lies within the realm of possibilities. They are afraid of encouraging despair and paralysis. And those are absolutely realistic concerns.
    On the other hand, even though we should do everything possible to avert doom, we cannot be confident that this is indeed possible. And that applies especially if possible positive feed-back loops, even if not probable, were to kick in after all.

  10. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 12, 2013 6:46 am

    Webe: thanks for the comment. I have a similar, if slightly different view – that the political class simply don’t know what on Earth to do about climate change. If they regard it, as I do, as an inevitable function of consumerism and economic growth (that is only possible through the use of cheap fossil fuels) then the options become ‘revolutionary’ in implication.

    I believe that great change is soon upon us, and not just in terms of the climate.

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