Global warming is, in the end, not about the noisy political battles here on the planet’s surface. It actually happens in constant, silent interactions in the atmosphere, where the molecular structure of certain gases traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. If you get the chemistry wrong, it doesn’t matter how many landmark climate agreements you sign or how many speeches you give. And it appears the United States may have gotten the chemistry wrong. Really wrong.
There’s one greenhouse gas everyone knows about: carbon dioxide, which is what you get when you burn fossil fuels. We talk about a “price on carbon” or argue about a carbon tax; our leaders boast about modest “carbon reductions.” But in the last few weeks, CO2’s nasty little brother has gotten some serious press. Meet methane, otherwise known as CH4.
In February, Harvard researchers published an explosive paper in Geophysical Research Letters. Using satellite data and ground observations, they concluded that the nation as a whole is leaking methane in massive quantities. Between 2002 and 2014, the data showed that US methane emissions increased by more than 30 percent, accounting for 30 to 60 percent of an enormous spike in methane in the entire planet’s atmosphere.
To the extent our leaders have cared about climate change, they’ve fixed on CO2. Partly as a result, coal-fired power plants have begun to close across the country. They’ve been replaced mostly with ones that burn natural gas, which is primarily composed of methane. Because burning natural gas releases significantly less carbon dioxide than burning coal, CO2 emissions have begun to trend slowly downward, allowing politicians to take a bow. But this new Harvard data, which comes on the heels of other aerial surveys showing big methane leakage, suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities. And molecule for molecule, this unburned methane is much, much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
The EPA insisted this wasn’t happening, that methane was on the decline just like CO2. But it turns out, as some scientists have been insisting for years, the EPA was wrong. Really wrong. This error is the rough equivalent of the New York Stock Exchange announcing tomorrow that the Dow Jones isn’t really at 17,000: Its computer program has been making a mistake, and your index fund actually stands at 11,000.
These leaks are big enough to wipe out a large share of the gains from the Obama administration’s work on climate change—all those closed coal mines and fuel-efficient cars. In fact, it’s even possible that America’s contribution to global warming increased during the Obama years. The methane story is utterly at odds with what we’ve been telling ourselves, not to mention what we’ve been telling the rest of the planet. It undercuts the promises we made at the climate talks in Paris. It’s a disaster—and one that seems set to spread.