A Little Learning on Methane and Climate Change
Before leaving for a week of virtue-signaling at the COP27 climate conference with other world elites, President Joe Biden would have done well to reread Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
“In the great city where he [the Emperor] lived, life was always gay,” Anderson wrote. “Every day many strangers came to town, and among them one day came two swindlers. They let it be known they were weavers, and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.”
In Biden’s case, the new clothes are the nonsense that there is a climate emergency. But who would want to be considered “unfit for his office” or “unusually stupid” by questioning whether there really is an emergency? So, resplendent in his new regalia, President Biden has proposed regulations on methane emissions by the U.S. oil and gas industry, at a direct cost of more than $1 billion annually, to deal with a nonexistent problem.
In fact, there is no climate emergency and there will not be one, with or without new regulations on methane emissions. Methane, the molecule CH4, is the main constituent of natural gas. Animals like cattle and sheep belch methane as they chew their cud. They are able to get more energy from forage by digesting some of the cellulose with the aid of methane-generating microorganisms in their stomachs. Termites use the same trick to digest wood. Microorganisms in soils, notably rice paddies, also emit large amounts of methane.
To understand why methane regulation will be irrelevant to climate, it is necessary to discuss a few numbers. This is not customary in climate discussions, which are usually more based in emotion than in fact.
Like water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrous oxide (N2O), methane is a naturally occurring greenhouse gas. Together with clouds, greenhouse gases control how heat added to the Earth by sunlight is returned as thermal infrared radiation to space. Greenhouse gases impede the flow of heat from Earth’s surface to space.
The details of how this happens are considerably more complicated than described by the adjective “heat-trapping.” Much of the heat transfer near the surface is due to convection of moist air and has little to do with greenhouse gases. And how the temperature varies with altitude at various locations on Earth’s surface is as important as the concentration of greenhouse gases.
Few realize that large increases in the concentrations of greenhouse gases cause very small changes in the heat balance of the atmosphere. Doubling the concentration of methane – a 100% increase, which would take about 200 years at the current growth rates – would reduce the heat flow to space by only 0.3%, leading to an average global temperature change of only 0.2 °C. This is less than one-quarter of the change in temperature observed over the past 150 years.
Most of the predicted catastrophic warming from greenhouse gas emissions is due to positive feedbacks that are highly speculative, at best. In accordance with Le Chatelier’s principle, most feedbacks of natural systems are negative, not positive.
So, even if regulations on U.S. methane emissions could completely stop the increase of atmospheric methane (they can’t), they would likely only lower the average global temperature in the year 2222 by about 0.2 °C, a completely trivial amount given that humans have adapted to a much larger change over the past century while reducing climate deaths by over 98%. And U.S. regulations will have little influence on global emissions, where producers are unlikely to be as easily cowed.
Given that consumption of fossil fuels is likely to increase over the next few decades as developing countries pull themselves out of poverty, restrictions on U.S. oil and gas production will simply shift production to autocratic nations such as Russia, which have much higher methane-emissions rates than U.S. producers do.
Also, you can bet that if the Biden administration is successful in promulgating regulations on oil and gas producers, it will expand these efforts into ranching and agriculture, which emit about the same amount of methane as energy production. No sector of the economy will remain untouched by the EPA’s long arm of climate regulations.
Biden and his advisors should reassess his new clothes and remember the wise word of the poet Alexander Pope:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.
There shallow draughts intoxicate brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
A little learning really is a dangerous thing. Learn a few more scientific facts and sober up, President Biden!
William Happer is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Physics at Princeton University and is Chairman of the Board of the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit organization established in 2015.