Introduction: Paul Krugman, having visited China, concludes that “China cannot continue producing greenhouse emissions at an escalating rate because the planet can’t handle the strain.” OK, but China goes on, and so does the USA. The USA gets 71% of its electricity from fossil fuels. China, with supposedly one new coal plant a week, now emits more CO2 than the USA. What to do?

The Chinese argue meekly that they are producing for us, and, even more silly, points out that in the past, the Western countries did not limit their usage of dirty fossil fuels, so why should they now? (This is not a correct argument: pollution killed up to thousands of people in London in the early fifties. So strong anti pollution measures were taken, including an enormous improvement in efficiency.)

Well, one has to realize we are facing the greatest extinction and cataclysm ever. And it could happen suddenly, thanks to thousands of billions of tons of buried methane. Then the earth would switch to its hot mode, with only the polar regions inhabitable. War for survival would erupt all around. Most of the seven billion humans would die. Drastic, counter intuitive methods have to be used swiftly to mitigate this. Bellicose pressure, first in economics, should not be eschewed, right away.
Enough fossil fuels have been piled up in the last 400 million years to guarantee that, if we burn them all, the biosphere will cook, simmer and boil. If we leave the energy markets to themselves, this outcome is certain. It does not matter what the advanced countries do by themselves, as long as they restrict themselves to the market, because, if they become saintly and do not burn carbon anymore, the price of carbon fuels will collapse, making them all the more irresistible to the rest of the world’s markets. Thus there is no free market solution. It is not a free market problem, it is a survival problem.

Survival, in case you missed out on the last few hundreds millions years of evolution, is the best reason there ever was for war. 

The Principle of Precaution requires to consider the very worst case possible, stop, and think carefully about whether it could happen. In the case of climate, the worst case is a runaway eruption of frozen hydrates of methane. And it could happen. There are enormous quantities of frozen methane, of the order of all other fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas), it seems. (Just oceanic frozen methane is of the order of all known oil reserves; the methane hydrates in the permafrost not included, but there are a lot of these too.)

If the temperature rises, a bit more, it will become higher than any in the last three million years, plenty of time for more methane hydrates to have accumulated (from piled up organic sediments, say from rivers). The methane could, and will, bubble out catastrophically. Its greenhouse power over ten years is well above twenty times that of CO2. So if the eruption starts full on, the worldwide atmospheric temperatures would jump by at least ten times what they have risen so far. (We basically went up three quarters of one degree Celsius in one century, thus I am talking about perhaps seven degrees in a decade or two; it would be a heat cataclysm).

This has happened before, at least once in the last 50 million years: a brutal and enormous rise in global temperatures. Such swift brutality was long totally mysterious, until the gigantic deposits of frozen methane were discovered, all over the planet. These deposits are nasty, they can erupt, causing gigantic tsunamis (the last ones known in Europe were the 30 meters high Storegga tsunamis that occurred around 7,000 years ago, from warming post glaciation). There is audio, visual and seismological evidence that methane beds have been active in the last two summers off Siberia, releasing methane, with sound, bubbles and fury, an obvious forerunner of absolute disaster.

Most of the methane is up north, so the disaster may get in full swing one of these summers. It will be impossible to stop. It may happen this summer, or 50 years from now. On our present course, it will happen, that is the crucial point. And very soon.

On the positive side, the heat catastrophe would make the financial crisis look like absolutely nothing whatsoever. On the negative side, billions of human beings will die, and they will not do so without putting up a fight.

Even if methane does not erupt, other NON linear thresholds are coming closer everyday. (Non linear means here that the effect augments its own cause, a so called positive feedback loop)

For example, if temperatures rise significantly forests and oceans will become huge carbon sources, instead of huge carbon sinks (as they are presently). Here, too the process has started, it’s not just bad taste science fiction. The Antarctic ocean has turned into a CO2 emitter already (because it’s shaken too much by high winds and storms, like any carbonated beverage!) An enormous rise in sea level could be around the corner, if the ice shelves disintegrate. The new dark waters of the poles absorb sunlight snow previously sent back to space.

To prevent the methane catastrophe, the only solution is to bring the CO2 creation to zero, ASAP. How to do this? Somewhat delusional minds have proposed geoengineering, such as voluntarily polluting the atmosphere so much that light will not go through (high altitude sulfates, mimicking volcanoes). Another lunacy would be to put sun shades in space for the planet. Such solutions may work in the following centuries for Venus, once we have mastered great energy sources such as thermonuclear fusion or Quantum vacuum energy. But this is now, and this is Earth, not a place for a science experiment.

As it is, we are destroying the planet’s natural sun shades, the polar ice caps. Antarctica seems to be doing fine, so far, because the wetter and warmer clime down there accumulates more snow; but this is a dangerous illusion: in truth we have passed the threshold of Antarctica’s ice instability: there is too much CO2 EQUIVALENT gases up to allow for glaciation of the polar continent, so its ice cap is now unstable. Learn it here first. The threshold is at 425 ppm, we are above this (the CO2 itself is lower, of course, at 385 ppm, creeping up ever faster).

So what are we left with? According to the Obama administration, wind power and broadband. The problem with wind power is that it helps, but does not replace. Solar, of course has to be pushed, but it is still to expensive in photovoltaic form (in pure thermal, the problem is to transport electricity economically out of deserts).

So we are left with conservation and advanced civil nuclear power. To get conservation, one has to tweak the free market by making energy expensive. Since energy, at this point, means burning carbon (with the exception of nuclearized France), energy tax means carbon tax. That will make the renewable energy market much more profitable, so hasten its deployment.

For drastic, massive energy production, which is needed all around the world, we are left with nuclear energy. There 400 nuclear reactors, mostly obsolete, used around the world. Just as obsolete ecologists object meekly that we do not know what to do with the waste, and they forget to mention the millions of tons of extremely toxic waste that extremely deadly coal energy releases in the atmosphere and the oceans, from mercury to radiation.

There is a need for 8,000 nuclear reactors (no they would not been built with a positive void coefficient like Chernobyl, a type of reactor that can, and did, turn into a nuclear bomb, because of conceptual risks deliberately taken, and should be unlawful to build.)

True, there is radioactive waste, but mostly because wasteful methods were used 60 years ago, when a primitive form of nuclear energy was rushed during a nuclear arm race. The more active the waste, the more usable it potentially is. Radioactive waste is a terrible waste to waste.

And it’s concentrated, it does not permeate the entire biosphere as waste from coal does. It is actually easy to corral, since it’s made of heavy metals. True, unsupervised, unused nuclear waste could last a long time, infinitely longer than it will take for coal to kill us.

Advanced nuclear reactors can be made to be extremely efficient, extremely safe, with little waste, and can be made to burn preexisting nuclear waste (as it the USA has 60,000 tons of highly radioactive waste that we better find a way to reuse again someday). But, whereas the Obama administration spends billions to put broadband Internet in rural areas, the research on advanced nuclear reactors is minuscule. (The details about making technology work durably and economically at very high temperatures have to be ironed out; efficiency augments with the temperature. Some types of advanced nuclear reactors would be naturally cooled by cracking water, and producing hydrogen; as it is there is no ecologically clean way of producing hydrogen economically. So nuclear could go hand in hand with hydrogen.)

Paradoxically, advanced civil nuclear power would be a factor of peace. Indeed, it would give a pretext to inspect, and check, that military nuclear power is not being developed. (Nuclear weapons should be totally unlawful, because of their instantaneous holocaust, and first strike capability; a world civil nuclear inspection regime looking in every nook and cranny is the only way to insure this.)

We face the greatest crisis of the biosphere since the extinction of the dinosaurs. As drastic as this. Some will say that I exaggerate. I wish. Therefore it goes without saying that it is the ultimate casus belli. If countries to not limit their CO2 emissions, they will face war. Total war, destruction of their fossil burning plants. This could be reality within twenty years. Economic pressure should be viewed as a better alternative to start with, a mitigating factor to be implemented immediately.

Indeed, the European Union has decided to take separate action in order to achieve reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions (of the order of 20% very soon). This separate action, the so-called “go-it-alone” scenario, consists of, inter alia, the imposition of “border adjustment measures” such as a “Carbon Import Tax” on products imported into Europe. The idea, pushed hard by France, instigator of the project, is to evaluate the carbon burned to make a product, and tax accordingly. Products made from Chinese electricity, mostly from coal burning would be taxed proportionally, and the carbon burned in transportation would be added to the tax bill.

It would be excellent if the USA joined the EU. Better late than never. We may still avoid, or mitigate, a cataclysm. We do not want to surrender to the devil, before we have to.


Patrice Ayme



Technical Addenda: 1) The warming potential of methane is 21 greater than that of CO2 over 100 years, which is already bad, but it is up to 62 over twenty years, which is really terrible. The half time of methane in the atmosphere is only 12 years.

2) One liter of methane clathrate, heated up, releases 168 liters of methane. Thus one liter of heated clathrate would warm up the planet over a decade more than 12,000 liters of CO2.

3) Studies of isotopic ratios have come out in recent years, and some apparently showed that OCEANIC clathrates did not contribute to preceding warming episodes during the last 50,000 years. Perhaps. But temperatures and the presence of CO2 in the atmosphere have been bounded, in the last three million years, below a ceiling we are breaching now. Thus it is to be feared that three million years of accumulated oceanic methane could be suddenly released (and it can be as the Storegga eruption showed).

4) According to the IPCC, methane has augmented 2.5 times since 1750, and now contributes about 20% to heating through radiative forcing.

5) Great is the power of methane. Some scientists have suggested that methane allowed to avoid re-glaciation in the last few millennia. Before herding, the world was crawling with many species of ferocious predators. North America, for example had three super cats (the smallest of which was the saber toothed Smilodon, a beast who would have made any jaguar or grizzly run for dear life) plus one super giant hunting bear, the short face bear, Arctodus Primus, 11 feet tall, and built for taking down bison at full speed. Plus dire wolves and American cheetahs

Thus the number of herbivores was kept in check, in harmonious balance with the environment. Technologically advanced man was not amused. He contrived to destroy the carnivores, and make the planet a garden. Meanwhile, on the island of Flores, Sapiens destroyed the last non sapiens species of hominids.

In any case, the numbers of herbivores climbed. That was all right with man: Homo is first of all a savannah dweller, the more big herbivores, the less forest, the harder for those deadly leopards.

And so did the methane. A lit bit more could have been what it took (we will now if this is the truth, or not, because climate models and computers are getting ever better). 

6) The enormous extinction at the end of the Permian (most species went extinct, including all the land megafauna) apparently saw an increase of temperature of 6 degrees Celsius (something we seem hell bent to achieve ASAP).

7) Shakhova et al. (2008) estimate that not less than 1,400 Gigatons (Gigaton = Gt = one thousand million tons), that is so one thousand four hundred billion tons of Carbon is presently locked up as methane clathrates under the Arctic submarine permafrost, where they are held by low temperatures rather than by high pressures (in contrast with other oceanic clathrates). warm up the ocean, then: BOOM!

Apparently 5-10% of that Arctic area is subject to puncturing by open internal thawed layers inside the permafrost. Shakhova et al. conclude that “release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage [is] highly possible for abrupt release at any time”. That would increase the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere by a factor of twelve, equivalent in greenhouse effect to a doubling in the current level of CO2.
[N. Shakhova, I. Semiletov, A. Salyuk, D. Kosmach, and N. Bel’cheva (2007 & 2008), Methane release on the Arctic East Siberian shelf…Anomalies of methane in the atmosphere over the East Siberian shelf: Is there any sign of methane leakage from shallow shelf hydrates?, Geophysical Research Abstracts]





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