A major new climate report released last week finds that no part of the planet is immune to the increasing extreme weather events — fires, flooding, devastating heat waves. The report details not only that these events are getting worse, but also that we know why.
The report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does not mince words: The evidence is “unequivocal” that these unprecedented extreme weather disasters are tied to carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and other human activities. This means that yes, dangerous climate change has arrived and at this point it’s simply a matter of how bad we’re willing to let it get.
But you don’t need to give yourself a guilt trip about it. Save that for the fossil fuel executives.
They’re the ones who should really be sweating this report. An “unequivocal” report leaves them with nothing to hide behind: Human-caused climate change is real, it’s bad, and it’s substantially their fault. As the report describes, thanks to decades of inaction bought in large part by a massive fossil fuel-industry funded disinformation campaign, people all over the planet are now struggling to contend with unprecedented wildfires and hurricanes, conditions see-sawing in some regions dramatically between droughts and floods as once-reliable weather patterns grow increasingly erratic.
The report is about the science of what is causing climate change and how bad it might get, but not the impacts or the solutions — those reports come out later. But it still points a big, blinking red arrow toward what humanity must do to protect ourselves and the rest of life on Earth. In two words: Stop polluting.
Carbon dioxide pollution from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) is the source of most of the warming in our atmosphere, and, unfortunately, it lasts for centuries once it’s there. Every ton of carbon we emit leads directly to more warming. But carbon dioxide — CO2 — isn’t the only greenhouse gas. Methane — CH4 — is a potent greenhouse gas too.
Methane doesn’t last nearly as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide does, but while it’s there, it causes about 80 times the warming. That’s a problem because emissions have surged recently. Increases in methane are responsible for as much as 25 percent of the surface warming in recent decades. That means, on the other hand, that acting to reduce methane emissions can slow down the near-term warming and help keep us from crossing dangerous climate thresholds such as 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2 degrees Celsius planetary warming from which the worst impacts are likely to emerge.
As frightening as this all is for those concerned about the climate crisis, it should be way more terrifying for the fossil fuel industry. Why? Because, as with the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, most of the methane too appears to be coming from them. The latest IPCC report (the UN released its first in 1990) concludes that natural emissions of methane from warming permafrost could become significant if we allow the planet to warm up several more degrees, but at present (and for scenarios that involve substantial efforts to reduce carbon emissions) the dominant source remains us — primarily the extraction of fossil fuels, though agriculture and livestock also contribute to human methane emissions.
Methane gas — the primary component of so-called natural gas, though there is nothing natural about the deliberate extraction of fossil fuels that have remained beneath Earth’s surface for millions of years — is released into the atmosphere in the process of oil and gas drilling, where it is often vented into the atmosphere or flared because it’s easier than capturing and selling it. Methane also leaks out of the production and distribution system all the way from the drilling site to the pipes that deliver gas to homes and businesses.
So the supposedly “clean” fuel that Big Oil has touted in massive ad campaigns is actually a key driver of climate change, in large part because the industry can’t be bothered to plug all the leaks in its drilling and shipping process.
Fortunately, regulation — real regulation that prevents leaks in the first place and punishes those who illegally do it anyway — is an effective way to force the fossil fuel industry to clean up its methane pollution. We’re not allowed to litter, why are they?
The industry should also pick up the mess it has left after more than a century of drilling, abandoning as many as 3 million orphaned wells to spew noxious gases — including methane — into the air, soil, and water. Where I live in Pennsylvania, we citizens could be on the hook for a $6 billion cleanup of these abandoned wells. It’s time to stop letting these companies shirk even the most basic of responsibilities.
Cleaning up leaky gas infrastructure is actually the easy part. The Biden administration will likely attempt to do just that later this year. But as this IPCC report makes clear, in unequivocal language, if humanity is to stave off catastrophic impacts, we absolutely have to stop burning all fossil fuels.
Which should be a comfort to you, and a nightmare for them.
Michael E. Mann is a professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He is author most recently of “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.”