Scientific research shows that the need for resolute action to curb global warming from fossil fuel burning is become increasingly urgent. Yet policymakers in Japan and many other countries find it more difficult to take the necessary measures because they are costly and unpopular with many voters.

The climate change crisis is colliding with the economic crisis. Growth is slowing, particularly in Europe and the United States, while unemployment remains stubbornly high and government debt reaches unsustainable levels.

The new age of austerity demands that politicians cut costs. So they opt to continue using coal, oil and natural gas because it is cheaper and more reliable than most forms of low or zero-carbon energy.

To give voters hope of a better tomorrow, political leaders focus on reviving economic growth based on the cheapest possible energy and increased consumption of goods and services. This has worked since the coal-based industrial revolution began in Britain in the 1750s, but where will it lead in a climate-constrained world?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) gave part of the answer last week when it released its annual report on the outlook for energy use. The IEA warned that expansion of electricity generation, industry and urban centers based on fossil-fuel burning is happening so quickly that we may not be able to limit global temperature rise to safe levels unless a binding international climate control deal is in place by 2017.

Negotiators are scheduled to meet under United Nations auspices in Durban, South Africa, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 9. But nearly two decades of U.N. climate change talks have failed to yield a mandatory approach to controlling greenhouse gases and expectations for Durban are low.

Temperature records indicate that the average global temperature has risen nearly 1 degree Celsius since industrialization started. If global warming is to be limited to no more than 2 C, considered the minimum safety level before serious climate change disruption sets in, emission volumes must not have more than 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas released by burning fossil fuels.

With emissions of carbon dioxide (CO₂) already at 390 ppm and rising steadily, time is running out for action. As growth recovered after the global financial crisis of 2008, CO₂ emissions in 2010 rose 5.3 percent from 2009 to reach over 30 billion metric tons.

The IEA forecast that if new climate policies are implemented in piecemeal fashion, the amount of CO₂ released into the atmosphere annually will rise by 20 percent to more than 36 billion tons in 2035. It said that failure to implement needed controls would lead to a long-term temperature rise of between 3.5 and 6 C.

What would happen then to life on Earth? An event about 56 million years ago provides a pointer. Fossil records and other research show that Earth’s ecosystem changed radically and many species became extinct when the temperature rose by as much 6 C.

The trigger for this runaway warming has long been a puzzle. There were no humans then. Our primate ancestors only evolved after this event. There is also no evidence of worldwide burning of peat (an early-stage form of coal) in wildfires, volcanic activity or a massive asteroid strike as the trigger for the carbon buildup.

Research published earlier this month by scientists at Rice University in the U.S. suggests that the most likely cause of the huge carbon surge into the atmosphere was the release of natural gas hydrates as the oceans and atmosphere warmed. Hydrates contain methane trapped by freezing temperatures and high pressure in sea-floor sediment. Massive amounts of CO₂ were released. This affected the planet for up to 150,000 years, until excess carbon, a basic building block of life, was reabsorbed into the land and seabed sediment.

The Rice research conclusion is alarming. Atmospheric methane warms the Earth over 20 times more per molecule than CO₂. Then after a decade or two, it oxidizes to CO₂ and keeps on warming for a long time.

Worldwide, methane from hydrates is estimated to total as much as 20 trillion tons, more energy than in the remaining coal, oil and conventional gas reserves combined. Methane is the main component of natural gas. The amount of methane contained in Earth’s permafrost and seabed hydrate reserves could be as much as 56 million years ago, according to the Rice researchers.

Three years ago, Russian scientists warned after studying the world’s largest continental sea shelf off the coast of Siberia in the Arctic that there was evidence that seabed methane release from warming hydrates had started.

Last February, the National Snow and Ice Data Center in the U.S. warned that on present trends between one-third and two-thirds of Earth’s permanently frozen land, or permafrost, would disappear by the end of the century, spewing into the atmosphere the equivalent of about one-fifth of the total amount of carbon currently there today.

A methane climate bomb is evidently ticking on land and the sea floor. Defusing it amid global economic stress will be a major challenge.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.