Seascape With Methane Plumes

In the wake of last week’s post, I’d meant to plunge straight into the next part of this sequence of posts and talk about the unraveling of American politics. Still, it’s worth remembering that the twilight of America’s global empire is merely an incident in the greater trajectory of the end of the industrial age, and part of that greater trajectory may just have come into sight over the last week.

Some background might be in order. For several years now, it has been possible for ships to sail from the northern Atlantic to the northern Pacific via the Arctic Ocean in late summer and early autumn. In the great days of European maritime exploration, any number of expeditions wrecked themselves in Arctic ice in futile attempts to find the fabled Northwest Passage; now, for the first time in recorded history, it’s a routine trip for a freighter, and as often as not the route is blue water all the way without an ice floe in sight. (Somehow global warming denialists never get around to talking about this.) Last autumn, though, crew members aboard several ships reported seeing, for the first time, patches of sea that appeared to be bubbling, and initial tests indicated that the bubbles were methane.  This was a source of some concern, since methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, there’s a great deal of it trapped in formerly frozen sediments in the Arctic, and the risk of massive methane releases from the polar regions has played a substantial role in the last decade or so of discussions of the risks of global warming.

Word of the bubbling ocean up north got briefly into the media, and provoked a fascinating response. The New York Times, for example, published a story that mentioned the reports,and then insisted in strident terms that reputable scientists had proven that the methane plumes were perfectly normal, part of the Arctic Ocean’s slow response to the warming that followed the end of the last ice age. This same “nothing to see here, move along” attitude duly appeared elsewhere in the  media. What makes this fascinating is that the New York Times, not that many years earlier, carried bucketloads of stories about the threat of climate change, including stories that warned about the risk that the thawing out of the Arctic might release plumes of methane into the atmosphere.

Weirdly, this same reversal seems to have guided the response – or more precisely the nonresponse – of the climate change activist community to these same reports.  It might seem reasonable to expect that global warming activists would have leapt on these initial reports as ammunition for their cause; when initial estimates suggested that global warming would melt the glaciers of the Himalayas and deprive India of much of its water supply, certainly, a great deal was made of those claims. Still, that’s not what happened. Instead, a great many people who a few years ago were busily talking about the terrible risk of methane releases from the Arctic suddenly found something else to discuss once those methane releases stopped being a purely theoretical possibility.

Fast forward to this spring. After yet another unseasonably warm Arctic winter, Russian scientists are busy studying the methane releases reported last fall, and initial reports – well, let’s understate things considerably and call them “rather troubling.” Areas of open water up to a kilometer across are fizzing with methane, a condition that one experienced Arctic researcher, Dr. Igor Semiletov, described as completely unprecedented. Another team of researchers, flying a plane with methane sensors over the disintegrating ice cap, has tracked plumes of methane rising into the atmosphere wherever the ice is broken. The amounts detected, they comment, are significant enough to affect global climate.

Is this unsettling news being splashed around by the same mainstream media that, only a few years ago, were somberly warning about the risks of global climate change, and trumpeted from the rooftops by climate change activists as proof that their warnings were justified? Not that I’ve heard. In fact, according to recent media reports, James Lovelock – creator of the Gaia hypothesis and author of books painting worst-case global warming scenarios in spectacularly lurid terms – has just announced that, well, actually, he overstated things dramatically, so did other climate activists such as Al Gore, and global warming actually won’t be as bad as all that.

In order to make sense of this curious reversal, it’s going to be necessary to take a hard look at some of the less creditable dimensions of the climate change movement. I should say first that as far as I can tell, the great majority of ordinary people who got involved in the climate change movement were guided by the most sincere and sensible motives. Dumping billions of tons of fossil carbon into the atmosphere was a dumb idea all along; pretending that all that carbon could be dumped there without disrupting the subtle and complex balance of the world’s climate was even dumber; and the response to those paired stupidities included a great deal that was praiseworthy.

Equally, as far as I can tell, the great majority of scientists whose efforts have helped to prove the reality of anthropogenic climate change have produced honest and competent research, and even the minority that hasn’t met this standard rarely managed to rise, or rather sink, to the levels of cherrypicking, obfuscation, and outright fiction routinely found in climate change denialist literature. That being said, there’s more going on in the world of climate change activism than the honest concern of citizens and the honest labor of researchers, and it’s past time to examine the reasons why the climate change movement got so large and accomplished so little. In the process, we’ll be touching on issues that bear directly on the broader theme I’ve been developing in the last few months, because the rise and fall of climate change activism over the last decade or so has an uncomfortably great deal to do with the mechanisms of empire and the balance of power in a strained and fraying global political system.

Until the end of the 1990s, climate change was simply one more captive issue in the internal politics of industrial nations. The political role of captive issues, and the captive constituencies that correspond to them, is too rarely discussed these days. In the United States, for example, environmental protection is one of the captive issues of the Democratic Party; that party mouths slogans about the environment, and even though those slogans are rarely if ever followed up by concrete policies, environmentalists are expected to vote Democratic, since the Republicans are supposed to be so much worse, and willingly play the part of bogeyman.  The Republican party, in turn, works the same good cop-bad cop routine on its own captive constituencies, such as gun owners and Christian fundamentalists, and count on the Democrats to act out the bogeyman’s role in turn. It’s an ingenious system for neutralizing potential protest, and it plays a major role in maintaining business as usual in the world’s democratic societies.

After the year 2000, though, global climate change got coopted on a grander scale, as the rise of a handful of nonwestern nations to great power status put growing pressure on the United States and its allies. China is the most widely recognized of these, but India and Brazil are also emerging powers; meanwhile Russia, which was briefly subjected to an Anglo-American wealth pump after the collapse of Communism and nearly got bled dry, managed to extract itself in the late 1990s and has been clawing its way back to great power status since then.  Faced with these rising or resurgent powers – the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations, as they were called – the United States and its inner circle of allies have tried a number of gambits to keep them in their former places.

Historically speaking, war is the usual method for settling such issues, but that isn’t a useful option this time around.  Even if nuclear weapons weren’t an issue, and of course they are, I suspect too many people in the Pentagon still remember what happened the last time the US military went head to head with the People’s Liberation Army. (Readers who have no idea what I’m talking about will want to read up on the Korean War.) That left trade policy as the next logical line of defense, and so the late 1990s saw a series of attempts by the US and its allies to use global free trade treaties to put the rest of the world at a permanent economic disadvantage. That effort ran into solid resistance at the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial talks in Seattle, and collapsed completely four years later.

Those of my readers who remember how the WTO talks at Cancun in 2003 crashed and burned may have experienced deja vu when the climate talks at Copenhagen in 2009 did exactly the same thing. The resemblance is not accidental. In the years leading up to the Copenhagen climate talks, the US and its allies argued that it was necessary to replace the Kyoto protocols of 1997 – which mostly restricted carbon emissions from the industrial nations – with a new set that would apply to industrializing countries as well. This was fair enough in the abstract, but the devil was in the details: in this case, the quotas that would place China, India, and other industrializing nations at a permanent disadvantage, and grandfather in the much higher per capita carbon emissions of the United States, Europe and Japan.

Environmental rhetoric has been used for such purposes often enough in the past. One of my college ecology textbooks, copyright 1981, mentions ruefully that attempts to pressure Third World nations into enacting strict environmental protections had come to be recognized by those nations as simply one more round of attempts to keep them in a state of permanent economic dependence. While there was more going on than this – the environmental movement in general, like the climate change activist movement in particular, has always included a large number of idealists with the purest of motives – it’s a safe bet that the Third World nations were broadly correct in their assessment, as none of the industrial nations that exerted the pressure ever proposed, let’s say, to forbid their own nationals from exporting environmentally destructive products to the Third World.

The stakes at Copenhagen, in other words, were rather different from those discussed in the media, and the outcome could have been predicted from the debacle six years earlier at Cancun. When it became clear to the major players that the United States and its allies were not going to get what they wanted, the entire process fell apart, leaving China to seize the initiative and offer a face-saving compromise that committed neither bloc to any limits that matter.  Afterwards, since climate change had failed to keep the BRIC nations at bay, the US dropped the issue like a hot rock; the financial hangover of the housing bubble made climate change lose its appeal to the Democratic Party; and activists suddenly discovered that what they thought was a rising groundswell of support was simply the result of being temporarily funded and used for somebody else’s political advantage.

Claims that large-scale methane releases from the warming Arctic would send the planet’s climate spinning out of control played a significant role in both the domestic and the international rhetoric of climate change during the time the movement was coopted, and got dropped along with the movement once it was no longer useful. The same claims, though, also played a broader role in mobilizing citizen activism and scientific concern, and the reasons why nobody outside the corridors of power is talking about the methane plumes deserves some attention as well.

What’s at work here is the basic structure of contemporary activism itself.  Pick nearly any issue that inspires activism nowadays, and you’ll find that it fits into a strict and stereotyped narrative. It centers on something bad that’s going to get much worse if nothing is done, and the “much worse” generally ends up described in ever more luridly apocalyptic terms as the movement proceeds.  Victory for the movement, in turn, is defined for all practical purposes as preventing the worst case scenarios the movement itself offers up; high-level abstractions such as “peace” and “justice” get a lot of play, but it’s very rare for there to be any kind of meaningful vision of a goal to be sought, much less a pragmatic plan for getting there.  Opposing the bad, for all practical purposes, replaces seeking the good.

Those of my readers who followed the discussion of the tactics of magic in last autumn’s Archdruid Report will doubtless be able to think of several good reasons why this approach is problematic, but there’s another dimension to the problem.  In contemporary activism, the worst case scenarios that play so large a part in the rhetoric are there to pressure people into supporting the movement. In climate change activism, certainly, that was the case. 

Read James Lovelock’s more recent and strident books, or any of the good-sized bookshelf of parallel literature, and you’ll find the claim that failing to support the climate change movement amounts to dooming the planet to a hothouse future in which, by 2100, the sole surviving human beings are a few “breeding pairs” – that’s Lovelock’s phrase – huddled around the tropical shores of the Arctic Ocean, with catastrophic methane releases from the Arctic regions among the driving forces behind that lurid scenario. It’s a compelling image, but once methane plumes actually start boiling up through the waters of the Arctic Ocean, you’ve just lost your rationale for further activism – or, really, for anything else short of jumping off the nearest bridge.

That’s the dilemma in which the news from the Arctic has landed climate activists. Having by and large bought into the idea that once the methane starts rising, it’s all over, they have very few options left. It’s a self-created dilemma, though, because methane releases aren’t a new thing in the planet’s history. If it’s true that, as George Santayana said, those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it, it’s equally true that those who forget their paleoecology are condemned not to notice that they’re repeating it – and in this case, as in many others, a good basic knowledge of what happened the last time large scale methane releases coincided with a period of planetary warming.

That wasn’t that long ago, as it happened. The end of the last ice age saw sharp increases in methane concentrations in the atmosphere, the rapid melting of continental glaciers, and a steep rise in global temperature that peaked around 6,000 years ago at levels considerably higher than they are today. A controversial theory, the “clathrate gun” hypothesis, argues that the warming was triggered by massive methane releases from the oceans.  Whether or not that was the major factor, ice cores from Greenland document rising levels of methane in the air around the same time as the stunningly sudden global warming – an increase of more than 15°F in global average temperatures in less than a decade – that triggered the final collapse of the great ice sheets.

The first point to grasp from this is that methane releases aren’t the end of the world. Our ancestors got through the last rounds of it without any sign of massive dieoff, and it’s been argued that the nearly worldwide legends of a great flood may embody a dim folk memory of the vast postglacial floods that took place as the ice melted and the seas rose. For that matter, during most of Earth’s history, the planet has been much hotter than it is now; only a few tens of millions of years ago – yes, that’s practically an eyeblink in deep time – crocodiles sunned themselves on the subtropical shores of Canada’s north coast, at a time when Canada was nearly as close to the North Pole as it is today.  Thus Lovelock’s extreme scenario deserves the label of “alarmist” that he himself put on it in the interview cited above.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that a methane spike in the Arctic can simply be ignored. Since the dim folk memories that might be embodied in flood legends are the only records we’ve got for the human experience of abrupt global warming, we simply don’t know how fast the temperature shift might affect, for example, the already unstable Greenland ice sheet, which contains enough water to raise sea level worldwide by around 30 feet.  Some theoretical models argue that Greenland’s ice will melt slowly, while others argue that water pooling beneath the ice could cause huge sections of it to slide off into the sea in short order, filling the North Atlantic first with icebergs, then with meltwater. Which model is correct?  Only Gaia knows, and she ain’t telling.

Equally, we don’t know whether the melting of the Greenland ice sheet will make nearby continental shelves unstable, as it did the last time around, and reproduce the same set of conditions that caused gargantuan tsunamis at the end of the last ice age. There’s abundant evidence for these; one of them, according to recent research, flooded the North Sea and carved the English Channel in a single day around 8000 years ago; we don’t know how soon those might become a factor around the Atlantic basin, or even if they will. It’s unsettling to realize that we may have no way of finding out until the first one hits.

All that’s certain at this point is that something potentially very troubling is happening in Arctic waters,  and the possibility that it might have destructive consequences on a local, regional, or continental scale can’t be ruled out. Panic is the least useful response I can think of, so I’ll say this very quietly: if the news from Arctic waters in the months and years to come suggests that things are moving in the wrong direction, and those of my readers who live close to the shores of the northern Atlantic basin happen to have the opportunity to move inland or to higher ground, it might not be unreasonable to do so.

On a different topic, the folks at Scarlet Imprint tell me that they’ve still got a few remaining unsold copies of the handbound deluxe "Black Gold" edition of my book The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil. I know it’s a chunk of money, but there’s something to be said for a book crafted to standards high enough that it’ll still be readable long after industrial civilization has faded into memory. If that interests you, might be worth considering.

End of the World of the Week #19

Nostradamus, who’s featured in the last two weekly Ends of the World here, has also had a remarkable track record for inspiring false prophecies in others – and I’m not just thinking of the cheap  tabloids that trot out newly manufactured prophecies with his name on them every few months. Many Nostradamus researchers have embarrassed themselves once they moved from trying to force-fit quatrains onto the past, and attempted to use the French prophet’s writings to anticipate the future.

One example is Henry C. Roberts, whose The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus saw print in 1994. After careful study of the quatrains, Roberts came to believe that Nostradamus had infallibly predicted a dramatic event in the near future: the election of Edward Kennedy as president of the United States. (You’ll find this prediction on pages 210 and 218 of Roberts’ book.)  Any chance Roberts might have had at a reputation for infallibility went away when Kennedy died in 2009, having never gotten closer to the White House than a failed 1980 run for the Democratic nomination.

Oddly enough, a failed Nostradamus prophecy concerning Edward Kennedy also featured in pop musician Al Stewart’s 1973 piece Nostradamus:

In the new lands of America three brothers now shall come to power
Two alone are born to rule but all must die before their hour

It’s not hard to figure out who’s being discussed, but Edward Kennedy died at the age of 77.

—story from Apocalypse Not