The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it

By Jonathan Franzen

September 8, 2019

Illustration by Leonardo Santamaria

“There is infinite hope,” Kafka tells us, “only not for us.” This is a fittingly mystical epigram from a writer whose characters strive for ostensibly reachable goals and, tragically or amusingly, never manage to get any closer to them. But it seems to me, in our rapidly darkening world, that the converse of Kafka’s quip is equally true: There is no hope, except for us.

I’m talking, of course, about climate change. The struggle to rein in global carbon emissions and keep the planet from melting down has the feel of Kafka’s fiction. The goal has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we’ve made essentially no progress toward reaching it. Today, the scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.

If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.

Even at this late date, expressions of unrealistic hope continue to abound. Hardly a day seems to pass without my reading that it’s time to “roll up our sleeves” and “save the planet”; that the problem of climate change can be “solved” if we summon the collective will. Although this message was probably still true in 1988, when the science became fully clear, we’ve emitted as much atmospheric carbon in the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of industrialization. The facts have changed, but somehow the message stays the same.

Psychologically, this denial makes sense. Despite the outrageous fact that I’ll soon be dead forever, I live in the present, not the future. Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death) and the reassuring evidence of my senses (breakfast!), my mind prefers to focus on the latter. The planet, too, is still marvelously intact, still basically normal—seasons changing, another election year coming, new comedies on Netflix—and its impending collapse is even harder to wrap my mind around than death. Other kinds of apocalypse, whether religious or thermonuclear or asteroidal, at least have the binary neatness of dying: one moment the world is there, the next moment it’s gone forever. Climate apocalypse, by contrast, is messy. It will take the form of increasingly severe crises compounding chaotically until civilization begins to fray. Things will get very bad, but maybe not too soon, and maybe not for everyone. Maybe not for me.

Some of the denial, however, is more willful. The evil of the Republican Party’s position on climate science is well known, but denial is entrenched in progressive politics, too, or at least in its rhetoric. The Green New Deal, the blueprint for some of the most substantial proposals put forth on the issue, is still framed as our last chance to avert catastrophe and save the planet, by way of gargantuan renewable-energy projects. Many of the groups that support those proposals deploy the language of “stopping” climate change, or imply that there’s still time to prevent it. Unlike the political right, the left prides itself on listening to climate scientists, who do indeed allow that catastrophe is theoretically avertable. But not everyone seems to be listening carefully. The stress falls on the word theoretically.

Our atmosphere and oceans can absorb only so much heat before climate change, intensified by various feedback loops, spins completely out of control. The consensus among scientists and policy-makers is that we’ll pass this point of no return if the global mean temperature rises by more than two degrees Celsius (maybe a little more, but also maybe a little less). The I.P.C.C.—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—tells us that, to limit the rise to less than two degrees, we not only need to reverse the trend of the past three decades. We need to approach zero net emissions, globally, in the next three decades.

This is, to say the least, a tall order. It also assumes that you trust the I.P.C.C.’s calculations. New research, described last month in Scientific American, demonstrates that climate scientists, far from exaggerating the threat of climate change, have underestimated its pace and severity. To project the rise in the global mean temperature, scientists rely on complicated atmospheric modelling. They take a host of variables and run them through supercomputers to generate, say, ten thousand different simulations for the coming century, in order to make a “best” prediction of the rise in temperature. When a scientist predicts a rise of two degrees Celsius, she’s merely naming a number about which she’s very confident: the rise will be at least two degrees. The rise might, in fact, be far higher.

As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future scenarios through my brain, apply the constraints of human psychology and political reality, take note of the relentless rise in global energy consumption (thus far, the carbon savings provided by renewable energy have been more than offset by consumer demand), and count the scenarios in which collective action averts catastrophe. The scenarios, which I draw from the prescriptions of policy-makers and activists, share certain necessary conditions.

The first condition is that every one of the world’s major polluting countries institute draconian conservation measures, shut down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool its economy. According to a recent paper in Nature, the carbon emissions from existing global infrastructure, if operated through its normal lifetime, will exceed our entire emissions “allowance”—the further gigatons of carbon that can be released without crossing the threshold of catastrophe. (This estimate does not include the thousands of new energy and transportation projects already planned or under construction.) To stay within that allowance, a top-down intervention needs to happen not only in every country but throughout every country. Making New York City a green utopia will not avail if Texans keep pumping oil and driving pickup trucks.

What is climate change? A really simple guide

Media captionOur Planet Matters: Climate change explained

Scientists say global warming could have a catastrophic effect on the planet.

Human activities have increased carbon-dioxide emissions, driving up temperatures. Extreme weather and melting polar ice are among the possible effects.

What is climate change?

The Earth’s average temperature is about 15C but has been much higher and lower in the past.

There are natural fluctuations in the climate but scientists say temperatures are now rising faster than at many other times.

World is getting warmer

This is linked to the greenhouse effect, which describes how the Earth’s atmosphere traps some of the Sun’s energy.

Solar energy radiating back to space from the Earth’s surface is absorbed by greenhouse gases and re-emitted in all directions.

This heats both the lower atmosphere and the surface of the planet. Without this effect, the Earth would be about 30C colder and hostile to life.

Greenhouse effect

Scientists believe we are adding to the natural greenhouse effect, with gases released from industry and agriculture trapping more energy and increasing the temperature.

This is known as climate change or global warming.

What are greenhouse gases?

The greenhouse gas with the greatest impact on warming is water vapour. But it remains in the atmosphere for only a few days.

Carbon dioxide (CO2), however, persists for much longer. It would take hundreds of years for a return to pre-industrial levels and only so much can be soaked up by natural reservoirs such as the oceans.

Most man-made emissions of CO2 come from burning fossil fuels. When carbon-absorbing forests are cut down and left to rot, or burned, that stored carbon is released, contributing to global warming.

Since the industrial revolution began in about 1750, CO2 levels have risen more than 30%. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years.

Other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are also released through human activities but they are less abundant than carbon dioxide.

What is the evidence for warming?

The world is about one degree Celsius warmer than before widespread industrialisation, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says.

The 20 warmest years on record all occurred in the past 22 years, with 2015-18 making up the top four.

Across the globe, the average sea level increased by 3.6mm per year between 2005 and 2015.

Most of this change was because water increases in volume as it heats up.

Sea level rise infographic

However, melting ice is now thought to be the main reason for rising sea levels. Most glaciers in temperate regions of the world are retreating.

And satellite records show a dramatic decline in Arctic sea-ice since 1979. The Greenland Ice Sheet has experienced record melting in recent years.

Satellite data also shows the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing mass. A recent study indicated East Antarctica may also have started to lose mass.

The effects of a changing climate can also be seen in vegetation and land animals. These include earlier flowering and fruiting times for plants and changes in the territories of animals.

How much will temperatures rise in future?

The change in the global surface temperature between 1850 and the end of the 21st Century is likely to exceed 1.5C, most simulations suggest.

The WMO says that if the current warming trend continues, temperatures could rise 3-5C by the end of this century.

Temperature rises of 2C had long been regarded as the gateway to dangerous warming. More recently, scientists and policymakers have argued that limiting temperature rises to 1.5C is safer.

Media captionClimate change: How 1.5C could change the world

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2018 suggested that keeping to the 1.5C target would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

The UN is leading a political effort to stabilise greenhouse-gas emissions. China emits more CO2 than any other country. It is followed by the US and the European Union member states, although emissions per person are much greater there.

But even if we now cut greenhouse-gas emissions dramatically, scientists say the effects will continue. Large bodies of water and ice can take hundreds of years to respond to changes in temperature. And it takes CO2 decades to be removed from the atmosphere.

Top emitters chart

How will climate change affect us?

There is uncertainty about how great the impact of a changing climate will be.

It could cause freshwater shortages, dramatically alter our ability to produce food, and increase the number of deaths from floods, storms and heatwaves. This is because climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather events – though linking any single event to global warming is complicated.

Media captionMatt McGrath explains why we should care about climate change

As the world warms, more water evaporates, leading to more moisture in the air. This means many areas will experience more intense rainfall – and in some places snowfall. But the risk of drought in inland areas during hot summers will increase. More flooding is expected from storms and rising sea levels. But there are likely to be very strong regional variations in these patterns.

Poorer countries, which are least equipped to deal with rapid change, could suffer the most.

Plant and animal extinctions are predicted as habitats change faster than species can adapt. And the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the health of millions could be threatened by increases in malaria, water-borne disease and malnutrition.

Media captionHow temperatures have risen since 1884

As more CO2 is released into the atmosphere, uptake of the gas by the oceans increases, causing the water to become more acidic. This could pose major problems for coral reefs.

Global warming will cause further changes that are likely to create further heating. This includes the release of large quantities of methane as permafrost – frozen soil found mainly at high latitudes – melts.

Responding to climate change will be one of the biggest challenges we face this century.

Our Planet Matters header


by: Murat Suner

We are experiencing long shifts of climatic conditions that are characterised by a change in temperature, rainfall, winds, and other indicators.

Currently, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is much higher than in the past years, and its ability to trap heat is changing.

Burning fossil fuels and deforestation are the primary causes of climate change. It presents a substantial threat to humans and animals now and in the future. The following are some of the biggest human causes of climate change:


These gases accumulate in the atmosphere, blocking heat from escaping, and they don’t respond to the temperature changes (the greenhouse effect). When they remain for an extended period in the atmosphere, they are likely to cause climate change.

Greenhouse gas emission is a major human causes of climate change, and their sources include transportation, electricity production, burning fossil fuel in industries, commercial and residential application, agriculture, and land use. These gases include;


Carbon dioxide (CO2, or Carbon IV Oxide) is the main greenhouse gas produced through human activities that leads to adverse climate changes. It is a result of burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. Fossil fuel generates electricity worldwide, leading to high emissions of CO2. Locomotion is the second-largest source of carbon emission; humans contribute daily to CO2 emissions by use of transport vehicles either for leisure or business purposes.

Carbon stored in the form of fossil fuels is more stable, and when heated, they release the stored carbon in the form of CO2. If humans couldn’t burn these fuels for energy, the carbon is unlikely to reach the atmosphere.

We use fossil fuel to power cars, machines, and generate electricity, and as the human population increases, more fuel is used, leading to higher CO2 emissions.


Methane accounts for about 16 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. The petroleum industry and agriculture emit methane, especially from the digestive systems of grazing animals, manure management, and rice cultivation.

It also accumulates through waste decomposition in landfills. It is a far more active greenhouse gas than CO2.


Cultivation practices like the use of organic and commercial fertilisers lead to the emission of nitrous oxide. It also accumulates in the atmosphere through fossil fuel combustion, nitric acid production, and biomass burning.


Chlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons are used in home appliances like the refrigerator and industrial applications. They are associated with severe atmosphere impacts like ozone layer depletion and heat-trapping.


They are primarily used in dielectric materials like the dielectric liquids and for special medical procedures. Also, they act as insulators in high voltage applications like the transformers and grid switching gear.


Deforestation is one of the major human causes of climate change; trees capture greenhouse gases such as CO2, preventing them from accumulating on the atmosphere, which could result in warming our planet. Most forests are getting cleared to create space for agriculture, buildings, and other human activities.

Trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen to the atmosphere during photosynthesis; hence, surplus carbon iv oxide is stored in the plants to help in growth and development. When we cut trees, their stored CO2 gets emitted to the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.

Trees also help in regulating regional rainfall which prevents floods and drought in the area, cutting down trees influences the rainfall patterns globally. Deforestation also leads to changes in the landscape and the earth’s surface’s reflectivity, which leads to increased absorption of energy from the sun that results in global warming leading to changes in climate patterns.


Food is a basic human need, but before you get it on your table, it goes through production, storage, processing, packaging, transportation, and preparation. Every stage of food production releases substantial amounts of greenhouse gases. Agriculture is one of the most common human causes of climate change through emissions of gases and the conversion of forests to agricultural land.

The modern agriculture practices and food production method using synthetic fertilisers are great contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, and climate change. The introduction of large scale farming has led to deforestation and machine intensive farming, which contributes to carbon emissions.

In livestock farming, ruminant animals digest their food through enteric fermentation that results in methane production; there are also substantial methane emissions from irrigated rice fields. Generally, agriculture contributes to climate change through deforestation, biodiversity loss, acidification of the oceans through agricultural chemical wastes, and accelerated soil erosion.


Although the industrial revolution, and industrialisation, has led to improved living conditions in various aspects, it is associated with adverse environmental effects that cause climatic changes. With recent innovations, human labour has been replaced with machinery that uses new sources of energy in the industries.

Manufacturing involves the use of large amounts of power and the alteration of natural systems; it is directly responsible for domestic emissions and indirect emissions through electricity and fuel use. The manufacturing operations are linked to direct greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, in the production of chemicals, iron, or steel, which are highly energy-intensive.

People are moving to urban areas in search of employment; urbanisation is another great contributor to climate change. It results in overcrowding, pollution, and poor sanitation; massive urbanisation can also lead to deforestation, emission of more greenhouse gases.

Increased commercialisation and industrialisation increase the use of fossil fuels leading to global warming and climate change.


Human emissions and activities have caused the highest percentage of global warming, which has resulted in climate change, in recent years. The global warming indicators are clear from increased temperature, humidity changes, sea level rising, showing that the land is warming up very fast due to fossil emissions, and thus changing the climate.

Any farmer can tell that the weather patterns have been altered, which is likely to affect food security worldwide. The fingerprints that humans have left on the environment through industrial activities and civilisation can be seen in the oceans, atmosphere, and the earth’s surface.

murat sw portrait
Murat Suner
Co-founder, Editorial Board Member, Author





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The Amazon has reached a “tipping point” where the rainforest has begun to self-destruct—and a “major reforestation project” is required to save it, according to the editors of a leading scientific journal.

In an editorial, Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre wrote that deforestation and fires are increasingly threatening the functioning of the rainforest, hampering its ability to act as a crucial carbon sink, a stronghold of biodiversity and critical link in the global water cycle.

“Although 2019 was not the worst year for fire or deforestation in the Amazon, it was the year when the extent of fires and deforestation in the region garnered full global attention,” the authors wrote in the Science Advances editorial. “The precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we.”

In many parts of the Amazon, deforestation—which now affects around 17 percent of the basin—is helping to convert the landscape in many areas into tropical savannah, hindering the forest’s ability to sustain itself by producing its own rainfall.

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“Researchers predict that deforestation will lead to developing savannahs mainly in the eastern and southern Amazon, perhaps extending into central and southwestern areas, because these zones are naturally close to the minimum amount of rainfall required for the rain forest to thrive,” the authors wrote.

This process is being exacerbated by human-driven global warming which is leading to reduced rainfall and increased temperatures in the region.

The authors say there are already signs the tipping point is “at hand”: for example, a lengthening and hotter dry season, periodic historically unprecedented droughts and the shifting composition of tree species towards those which favor drier climates.

Studies are showing that the role of the Amazon as a carbon sink is declining over time as deforestation spreads—a process that will have significant implications for global warming.

“The atmospheric carbon dioxide removal rate has declined over percent in comparison to the 1990s,” Nobre—a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences from the University of Sao Paulo—told Newsweek. “The occurrence of a sequence of very severe droughts in 2006, 2010 and 2015-16 also increased tree mortality and emission rates. Considering removals and emissions—including deforestation and fires—the Amazon has moved from being a relevant sink to being a source of about 400 million tons of carbon dioxide in the last decade.”

Furthermore, the destruction of the Amazon would also harm its role as a provider of freshwater for every country in South America—except for Chile, which is blocked by the Andes mountains.

“Bluntly put, the Amazon not only cannot withstand further deforestation but also now requires rebuilding as the underpinning base of the hydrological cycle if the Amazon is to continue to serve as a flywheel of continental climate for the planet and an essential part of the global carbon cycle as it has for millennia,” the authors wrote.

Amazon rainforest deforestation
View of a burnt area near Moraes Almeida—a town along a section of the trans-Amazonian highway—in Itaituba, Para state, Brazil, on September 14, 2019. The BR230 and BR163 are major transport routes in Brazil that have played a key role in the development and destruction of the world’s largest rainforest.NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In order to “build back a margin of safety,” Lovejoy and Nobre recommend a “major reforestation project,” particularly in the southern and eastern Amazon.

“Any additional increment of deforestation should be matched by three times as much reforestation, with details tailored at national levels,” they said. “Citizens and leaders across South America and around the world must create and promote a new vision of the Amazon, one that recognizes that the natural and economic assets of the region must be managed to maintain its essential role for South America and in sustaining the health of the planet.”

“This new vision will need to respect and protect its natural infrastructure and include a thoughtful review of all related commercial activities.”

This new vision would require putting a stop to “illogical and short-sighted” agricultural practices such as monocultures of cattle, soybeans and sugarcane. Instead, the authors advocate sensible use of intact forests, the harnessing of power from its massive flowing rivers, or the sustainable harvesting of biological assets.

But how successful could such measures be when it comes to stopping or reversing the destruction being wrought in the Amazon, especially given the apparent lack of concern of the Brazilian government—whose territory hosts the majority of the forest.

“If the matter is taken with the seriousness it deserves—and it is recognized the Amazon must be managed as a system—then it should be possible,” Lovejoy—a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University—told Newsweek. “We don’t believe the current [Brazilian] government is interested in going down in history as the administration which tipped the system into dieback/savannahization.”

Nobre added: “All the Amazonian countries have forest restoration in their commitments towards reaching the Paris agreement targets. For instance, Brazil intends to restore 12 million hectares of forest by 2030. The big open question is still the financing of such activities and progress was not achieved at the 25th U.N. Climate Change Conference on how to fund such urgent mitigation actions.”

The authors conclude the article by arguing that we currently stand in a “moment of destiny.”

“The tipping point is here, it is now,” they wrote. “The peoples and leaders of the Amazon countries together have the power, the science, and the tools to avoid a continental-scale, indeed, a global environmental disaster. Together, we need the will and imagination to tip the direction of change in favor of a sustainable Amazon.”

We May Have Gravely Underestimated The Threat of ‘Dead Zones’ in The World’s Oceans

Scientists call them ‘dead zones‘: vast expanses of ocean water that contain little or no oxygen, making it almost impossible for many marine life-forms to survive within them.

The conventional view on dead zones (aka oxygen minimum zones [OMZs] and sometimes also called ‘shadow zones‘) is that their hypoxic conditions are produced when excess nutrient pollution from human activities flows into coastal waters, encouraging the growth of algae blooms, which in turn decompose into organic material that sinks to the seafloor.

As that organic material slowly plummets into the abyss, it attracts and consumes oxygen in a process that deprives marine life of the same vital resource.

This overall process is viewed as the primary cause of dead zones, but there could be another important factor behind the problem that we’ve overlooked until now, according to an international team of researchers led by biogeochemist Sabine Lengger from the University of Plymouth, UK.

“Our study shows that organic matter that sinks to the seafloor is not just coming from the sea surface, but includes a major contribution from bacteria that live in the dark ocean and can fix carbon as well,” Lengger says.

According to the researchers, who analysed sediment cores extracted from the floor of the Arabian Sea – the site of what is thought to be the largest dead zone in the world – anaerobic bacteria that dwell in deep waters could be responsible for producing almost one-fifth of the organic matter that exists on the seabed.

The implications, the team says, is that current models don’t take this factor, called ‘dark carbon fixation’, into account when they attempt to simulate and predict how dead zones may evolve in the future – meaning we’ve been missing a pretty big piece of the dead zone puzzle.

“Biogeochemical models that operate on the assumption that all sinking organic matter is photosynthetically derived, without new addition of carbon, could significantly underestimate the extent of remineralisation,” the authors write in their paper.

“Oxygen demand in oxygen minimum zones could thus be higher than projections suggest, leading to a more intense expansion of OMZs than expected.”

The findings come only days after the release of a stark scientific report published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which concluded dead zones are spreading like an oceanic plague, numbering around 700 today, whereas less than 50 had been identified in the 1960s.

Hopefully these new findings give us a better way of identifying the true extent of this troubling phenomenon, so that we can do something about it before it’s too late.

The findings are reported in Global Biogeochemical Cycles.

Trump Takes Steps to Implement Withdrawal From Paris Climate Accord

The Trump administration notified the United Nations Monday that it would withdraw the U.S. from the historic Paris climate agreement, starting a year-long process to leave the international pact to fight the climate crisis. The United States — the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas emitter — will become the only country outside the accord. Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal came on the first day possible under the agreement’s rules. From Middlebury, Vermont, we speak with Bill McKibben, co-founder of “The decision of the United States to be the only country on Earth … unwilling to take part in a global attempt at a solution to the greatest crisis we’ve ever faced — there’s a lot to be ashamed of in the Trump years and a lot of terrible things that have happened — it’s pretty hard to top that,” says McKibben.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Trump administration has formally notified the United Nations that it will withdraw the U.S. from the historic Paris climate agreement, starting a year-long process to leave the international pact to fight the climate crisis. The U.S., the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas emitter, will become the only country outside of the agreement. The 2015 agreement aims to limit global temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, a target that would prevent the worst effects of catastrophic climate change. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the news Monday, tweeting, quote, “Today we begin the formal process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The U.S. is proud of our record as a world leader in reducing all emissions, fostering resilience, growing our economy, and ensuring energy for our citizens. Ours is a realistic and pragmatic model.”

The announcement comes as the effects of the climate crisis are already being felt around the world, from the wildfires raging in California to extreme drought in parts of Central America to a worsening monsoon season in South Asia. Last week, a new study published in Nature Communications warned that 300 million people are at risk of being displaced due to rising sea levels by 2050. According to the report, global sea levels are expected to rise between two to seven feet, and possibly more, wiping some coastal cities off the map.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. withdrawal from the climate accord was declared on the first day possible under the accord’s rules and will take a year to take effect, meaning the process will conclude the day after the 2020 presidential election.

Well, for more, we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Bill McKibben, co-founder of His latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? He’s joining us from Middlebury, Vermont, where he lives.

Bill, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of the formal pulling out of the U.S. climate agreement, Pompeo and Trump announcing?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, look, this has been coming for a year since Trump announced his initial decision. In some sense, it’s no surprise. Mike Pompeo is the congressman who took more money from the Koch brothers than any other member of Congress, which is not an easy sweepstakes to win. I mean, this is, in one sense, what was expected. In another sense, it’s deeply historic. When people look back, if they’re able to, and write the story of this time, the decision of the United States to be the only country on Earth — let’s be clear, the only country on Earth — unwilling to take part in a global attempt at a solution to the greatest crisis we’ve ever faced — there’s a lot to be ashamed of in the Trump years and a lot of terrible things that have happened — it’s pretty hard to top that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill, you’ve said that the decision to withdraw is the greatest success of the, quote, “denial machine” that the fossil fuel industry launched 30 years ago. Could you elaborate on that?

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure, sure. We now know, from great investigative reporting, that the fossil fuel industry knew everything there was to know about climate change in the 1980s. Exxon was the biggest company on Earth. They had great scientists. Their product was carbon. Of course they were going to study it. And their scientists told them, with uncanny accuracy, what the temperature and the CO2 concentration would be in 2019. Understanding that this was a threat to the world, but also a threat to their business, they took the second more seriously than the first and began this decade-long process of climate — decades-long of climate denial and delay and obfuscation, setting in motion all these kind of fake think tanks and so on and so forth.

That’s what came to a head with this withdrawal from Paris. It was the ultimate conclusion of all that work at disinformation. From one point of view, it was extremely successful: The fossil fuel industry had its most profitable years in the last three decades. On the other hand, we’re now missing half the sea ice in the summer Arctic. The Great Barrier Reef is half-dead. You know, the oceans are 30% more acidic. California is on fire more weeks than not. We’re in deep, deep trouble. And the idea that we’re just going to put our hands over our eyes, over our ears or over our mouth at this point is about as depressing as it’s possible to get.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the direct effects that people are feeling here of climate refugees, about — I wanted to ask you about the situation in Central America. The immigration battle has not paid much — few few people have paid attention to the ongoing crisis in Central America, the drought that has now been really affecting that region since about 2014, and it’s continued to get worse, to the point that the World Food — the U.N.’s World Food Program recently said that levels of food insecurity that have not been previously seen in the region exist there. You could argue that many of the people coming from Honduras, from Guatemala and from El Salvador, where the dry corridor of that region is, are, in effect, the first real climate refugees that we’re seeing coming into the United States.

BILL McKIBBEN: Juan, I’m so glad you brought that up. I mean, I got arrested at an immigration protest in August, just because I wanted to draw attention precisely to the link that you’re describing. If you go look at a map, Central America is one of the few places on the planet where there are big oceans on both sides of a narrow strip of land. The oceans are warming much faster than the land surface. That’s where most of the heat is going. And that means that those who are close bordered to them, especially on both sides, are dealing with some very powerful and freakish effects. The droughts are extraordinarily deep in the highlands of Honduras, Guatemala, and that’s one of the things that’s driving people north to the border, just as the huge drought in Syria a decade ago helped set the stage for the trauma, turmoil and refugees we’ve seen there.

Here’s how to put this in perspective. The U.N. estimates that we could see a billion climate refugees in the course of this century. And that’s a number that may have gone up in the last week or so. This very scary new study on sea level rise is one that everyone should be paying attention to. It’s not about, in this case, an increase in the rate at which the sea level is rising. It’s about a recalibration of how high most of the world’s coastal cities are. It turns out that the radar was — satellite data was misleading people, and many of these cities and regions are much lower to the ocean than people had thought. And when you look at the maps of where we’re going to be by 2050, they show things like almost all of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam underwater. That’s one of the most important rice-growing regions on the planet, if not the most — well, one of them, anyway. This is truly terrifying to look at those pictures and to realize just how fast this is coming now.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have, with the mass protests against inequality in Chile, the Chilean president announcing he’s canceling COP, and Madrid now taking up the responsibility of the December U.N. climate summit. The significance of this, Bill McKibben?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, you know, it was probably inevitable that Chile was going to cancel this, because, at some level, dealing with climate change is about dealing with justice and equity, and those may have been concepts that the Chilean government were not too eager to have people focusing on too much right now.

The U.N. process is going to limp forward, but, you know, it does it without the active participation of the U.S. — in fact, with the U.S. really trying to sabotage the process. We’re the world’s biggest economy. It’s pretty hard to ask China and India to take up the slack here to provide the leadership the U.S. should be providing. But, essentially, that’s what people are doing. To some degree, they’re living up to it. The Chinese are installing renewable energy at a breakneck pace. But we need — I mean, look, as you know, it’s not like the Paris climate accord was an amazing document. At best, it offered us the possibility of keeping enough momentum going to maybe begin to catch up to physics at some point. That momentum has been broken now by the Trump administration and by its handlers in the fossil fuel industry.

So now we’re in — you know, we’re in a place where we’re relying on civil society, on mass movements, to do what they can to reset the zeitgeist and to do it quickly. Thank heaven for the young people who have come forward in the last year. Thank heaven for everybody rallying behind them. We’re going to need a lot more of that in the year to come.

AMY GOODMAN: And we will be broadcasting, of course, from the U.N. climate summit in Madrid, as we do every year. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, Bill, I wanted to ask you about the response of corporate America, specifically the automobile makers, General Motors, Toyota and Fiat Chrysler. They’ve sided now with President Trump in his continuing battle with California over auto emission standards. Your take on that?

BILL McKIBBEN: It is shortsighted in the extreme. They’re playing the same game as everybody else, trying to get another year or two out of their business model, which at the moment is selling people ever bigger SUVs, and so they’ve been willing to side with the Trump administration to try and make sure we don’t really do anything about fuel economy. It’s obviously shortsighted. It’s obvious that they’re opening up the door even wider for the Europeans, for Tesla Motors, for all the people who are actually working on the next generation of mobility, not to mention the people who are working on bike paths and bus lanes.

But the problem is not that we won’t get there eventually, Juan. The problem is that this is a time test. Look, the scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a year ago, in their last report, pretty much gave us a deadline. They said that if we hadn’t made fundamental transformations in our energy economy by 2030, then our chances of meeting even the modest targets we set at Paris were essentially nil. That means we don’t have four-year presidential terms to waste. It means we don’t have five-year product development cycles to waste. It means everybody has to be going as hard as they can right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, corporate America is divided, Bill, and if you can talk about this? On the one hand, you have General Motors, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler siding with the Trump administration against California. But then you have this slew of other automakers, including Ford, Honda and Volkswagen, which have sided with California’s right to set pollution limits. Why this division?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, it pretty much reflects who’s most scared of Trump and who’s furthest along in coming up with cars that can meet emission requirements. Look, all the automakers know better. They were all embarked on a course of lower emissions since the Obama administration. General Motors, Toyota, those people are just trying to suck up some more gravy for a few more years. And it’s a disgrace. But the same disgrace is happening in the utility industry. It’s happening in agribusiness. It’s happening everywhere where everyone is trying to maintain their business model just a little while longer. That just a little while longer are the years that will break the climate system of the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s stick with California for a minute. On Sunday, Trump threatened to pull federal funding for the wildfires raging across California. In a Twitter exchange with Governor Newsom, Trump tweeted, “Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing-and then he comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more. Get your act together Governor. You don’t see close to the level of burn in other states…” Governor Newsom responded, “You don’t believe in climate change. You are excused from this conversation,” Newsom said. Last year Trump suggested California’s forest floors should be cleaned, claiming Finland prevents fires by raking forest areas. So, your recent piece in The Guardian, Bill, is headlined “Has the climate crisis made California too dangerous to live in?” Your response to what’s happening? And what exactly do you mean?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, first of all, don’t blame writers for headlines. The piece didn’t say that people needed to leave California. What it did was quote a remarkable story in the San Francisco Chronicle in the day that the fires were raging at their worst in Sonoma. And the piece in the Chronicle was just a straight-ahead news story, said that, you know, experts were now beginning to worry that areas of California had become too dangerous to inhabit. We’ve had one wildfire after another now, year after year after year, and they’ve gotten bigger and more dangerous. And the reason is pretty clear. It’s gotten so hot and so dry in California that it just turns to tinder. California has always had wildfire, but not like this. And there’s a study coming out today indicating that just the dryness alone is making these kinds of big combustible wildfires four or five times more likely around the world. One’s heart goes out so much to people who, year after year, have to live through this kind of fear, anxiety and tension, in a place where, you know, a generation ago, we still thought of California as the kind of ideal of ease and relaxation and chill. It’s not that anymore, at least not in the months every year when people are smelling the smoke in the air.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bill McKibben, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Bill is co-founder of, his latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, speaking to us from his home in Middlebury, Vermont.

And by the way, on Friday night, I will be one of the moderators of the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, also Tom Steyer and other candidates will be taking part in the forum at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. Democracy Now! will be live-streaming and broadcasting the presidential town hall starting at 6 p.m. Eastern. Tune into

When we come back, an undocumented mother from Honduras who’s recovering from stage IV oral cancer is fighting imminent deportation in Georgia. She’s been locked up in an immigration jail since being arrested for a minor traffic violation in August. We’ll speak to the person at the forefront of her fight, of the fight for her to be released. It’s her son, Yale Ph.D. student, DACA recipient. Stay with us.

Study casts doubt on carbon capture

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

One proposed method for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere—and reducing the risk of climate change—is to capture carbon from the air or prevent it from getting there in the first place. However, research from Mark Z. Jacobson at Stanford University, published in Energy and Environmental Science, suggests that carbon capture technologies can cause more harm than good.

Jacobson, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, examined public data from a coal with carbon capture  and a plant that removes carbon from the air directly. In both cases, electricity to run the carbon capture came from natural gas. He calculated the net CO2 reduction and total cost of the carbon capture process in each case, accounting for the electricity needed to run the carbon capture equipment, the combustion and upstream emissions resulting from that electricity, and, in the case of the coal plant, its upstream emissions. (Upstream emissions are emissions, including from leaks and combustion, from mining and transporting a fuel such as coal or natural gas.)

Common estimates of carbon capture technologies—which only look at the carbon captured from energy production at a fossil fuel plant itself and not upstream emissions—say carbon capture can remediate 85-90 percent of carbon emissions. Once Jacobson calculated all the emissions associated with these  that could contribute to global warming, he converted them to the equivalent amount of  in order to compare his data with the standard estimate. He found that in both cases the equipment captured the equivalent of only 10-11 percent of the emissions they produced, averaged over 20 years.

This research also looked at the social cost of carbon capture—including air pollution, potential health problems, economic costs and overall contributions to climate change—and concluded that those are always similar to or higher than operating a fossil fuel plant without carbon capture and higher than not capturing carbon from the air at all. Even when the capture equipment is powered by renewable electricity, Jacobson concluded that it is always better to use the renewable electricity instead to replace coal or natural gas electricity or to do nothing, from a social cost perspective.

Given this analysis, Jacobson argued that the best solution is to instead focus on renewable options, such as wind or solar, replacing fossil fuels.

Efficiency and upstream emissions

This research is based on data from two real carbon capture plants, which both run on natural gas. The first is a coal plant with carbon capture equipment. The second plant is not attached to any energy-producing counterpart. Instead, it pulls existing carbon dioxide from the air using a chemical process.

Jacobson examined several scenarios to determine the actual and possible efficiencies of these two kinds of plants, including what would happen if the carbon capture technologies were run with renewable electricity rather than natural gas, and if the same amount of  required to run the equipment were instead used to replace coal plant electricity.

While the standard estimate for the efficiency of carbon capture technologies is 85-90 percent, neither of these plants met that expectation. Even without accounting for upstream emissions, the equipment associated with the coal plant was only 55.4 percent efficient over 6 months, on average. With the upstream emissions included, Jacobson found that, on average over 20 years, the equipment captured only 10-11 percent of the total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions that it and the coal plant contributed. The air capture plant was also only 10-11 percent efficient, on average over 20 years, once Jacobson took into consideration its upstream emissions and the uncaptured and upstream emissions that came from operating the plant on natural gas.

Due to the high energy needs of carbon capture equipment, Jacobson concluded that the social cost of coal with carbon capture powered by natural gas was about 24 percent higher, over 20 years, than the coal without carbon capture. If the  at that same plant were replaced with wind power, the social cost would still exceed that of doing nothing. Only when wind replaced coal itself did social costs decrease.

For both types of plants this suggests that, even if carbon capture equipment is able to capture 100 percent of the carbon it is designed to offset, the cost of manufacturing and running the equipment plus the cost of the air pollution it continues to allow or increases makes it less efficient than using those same resources to create renewable energy plants replacing coal or gas directly.

“Not only does carbon capture hardly work at existing plants, but there’s no way it can actually improve to be better than replacing coal or gas with wind or solar directly,” said Jacobson. “The latter will always be better, no matter what, in terms of the social cost. You can’t just ignore health costs or climate costs.”

This study did not consider what happens to carbon dioxide after it is captured but Jacobson suggests that most applications today, which are for industrial use, result in additional leakage of carbon dioxide back into the air.

Focusing on renewables

People propose that carbon capture could be useful in the future, even after we have stopped burning , to lower atmospheric carbon levels. Even assuming these technologies run on renewables, Jacobson maintains that the smarter investment is in options that are currently disconnected from the fossil fuel industry, such as reforestation—a natural version of air capture—and other forms of climate change solutions focused on eliminating other sources of emissions and pollution. These include reducing biomass burning, and reducing halogen, nitrous oxide and methane emissions.

“There is a lot of reliance on carbon capture in theoretical modeling, and by focusing on that as even a possibility, that diverts resources away from real solutions,” said Jacobson. “It gives people hope that you can keep fossil fuel power plants alive. It delays action. In fact,  and direct air capture are always opportunity .”

Explore further

Renewables are a better investment than carbon capture for tackling climate change

pledge 2019 Environment ‘It’s a crisis, not a change’: the six Guardian language changes on climate matters

A short glossary of the changes we’ve made to the Guardian’s style guide, for use by our journalists and editors when writing about the environment

November, 2018: a helicopter passes by the sun as it makes a water drop in the Feather River Canyon, east of Paradise, California.
 November, 2018: a helicopter passes by the sun as it makes a water drop in the Feather River Canyon, east of Paradise, California. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

In addition to providing updated guidelines on which images our editors should use to illustrate the climate emergency, we have updated our style guide to introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world. Our editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, said: “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue”. These are the guidelines provided to our journalists and editors to be used in the production of all environment coverage across the Guardian’s website and paper:

1.) “climate emergency” or “climate crisis” to be used instead of “climate change”

Climate change is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the overall situation; use climate emergency or climate crisis instead to describe the broader impact of climate change. However, use climate breakdown or climate change or global heating when describing it specifically in a scientific or geophysical sense eg “Scientists say climate breakdown has led to an increase in the intensity of hurricanes”.

2.) “climate science denier” or “climate denier” to be used instead of “climate sceptic”

The OED defines a sceptic as “a seeker of the truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite conclusions”. Most “climate sceptics”, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, deny climate change is happening, or is caused by human activity, so ‘denier’ is more accurate.ot “global warming”
‘Global heating’ is more scientifically accurate. Greenhouse gases form an atmospheric blanket that stops the sun’s heat escaping back to space.

4.) “greenhouse gas emissions” is preferred to “carbon emissions” or “carbon dioxide emissions”. Although carbon emissions is not inaccurate, if we’re talking about all gases that warm the atmosphere, this term recognises all of the climate-damaging gases, including methane, nitrogen oxides, CFCs etc.

5.) Use “wildlife”, not “biodiversity”
We felt that ‘wildlife’ is a much more accessible word and is fair to use in many stories, and is a bit less clinical when talking about all the creatures with whom we share the planet.

6.) Use “fish populations” instead of “fish stocks”

This change emphasises that fish do not exist solely to be harvested by humans – they play a vital role in the natural health of the oceans.

Since we announced these changes, they have been reported widelyshared across social media channels, and even prompted some other media outlets to reconsider the terms they use in their own coverage.

The update to the Guardian’s style guide, originally announced earlier this year, followed the addition of the global carbon dioxide level to the Guardian’s daily weather pages – the simplest measure of how the mass burning of fossil fuels is disrupting the stable climate. To put it simply, while weather changes daily, climate changes over years and decades. So alongside the daily carbon count, we publish the level in previous years for comparison, as well as the pre-industrial-era baseline of 280ppm, and the level seen as manageable in the long term of 350ppm.

In order to keep below 1.5C of warming, the aspiration of the world’s nations, we need to halve emissions by 2030 and reach zero by mid century. It is also likely we will need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, perhaps by the large-scale restoration of nature. It is a huge task, but we hope that tracking the daily rise of CO2 will help to maintain focus on it.

Viner said: “People need reminding that the climate crisis is no longer a future problem – we need to tackle it now, and every day matters.”

Chemical maker DSM sees strong demand for methane-reducing cow feed additive

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Dutch specialty chemicals company DSM is expecting strong demand for its feed additive which limits the amount of methane burped into the air by cows, its contribution to the global fight against climate change.

Methane has a much larger effect on global warming than carbon dioxide (CO2) and reducing methane emissions could buy time to confront the much bigger challenge of cutting the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

“We see a lot of demand already, from food producers and farmers”, DSM’s Clean Cow program director Mark van Nieuwland told Reuters in an interview, even though the launch of the additive, Bovaer, is still more than a year away.

“Large (food) companies have clear climate targets, and they need farms to change to meet those. Also consumers are increasing pressure on farmers and many farmers themselves want to limit emissions.”

Swiss KitKat and Nescafe maker Nestle this month said it wanted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, while French dairy maker Danone has said it wants to halve its CO2 emissions by 2030.

Cows constantly burp up the powerful greenhouse gas methane but DSM says including Bovaer in a cow’s diet could cut these emissions by at least 30%.

“Giving this to only three cows will have the same effect as taking one car off the road”, Van Nieuwland said.

DSM expects to launch Bovaer in Europe either late next year or in early 2021. It is currently waiting for authorization from the European Union to label it as an environmentally beneficial product.


The company estimates that Bovaer has a potential global market value of 1 to 2 billion euros and aims to expand into other markets soon after the European launch.

DSM has made a profitable switch from bulk chemicals to sustainable food ingredients and materials, growing sales of animal feed products to around 30% of its 9 billion euros ($9.8 billion) in total sales last year.

“We have to deal with methane in the next 5 to 10 years if we want to limit the rise in temperatures to 1.5 degrees”, Van Nieuwland said.

Bovaer cuts methane emissions when mixed into a cow’s feed by inhibiting an enzyme in the digestion process which normally causes the release of the gas.

After ten years of research the Dutch company says it has dozens of global peer reviewed studies backing its claims and showing no effect on the health of cows or the milk they deliver.

The trial will run from November until February 2020, and the results are expected to be applicable throughout Europe, DSM said.

“This can have a real impact and we want to make it as big as possible”, Van Nieuwland said. “The faster we move, the better.”

Special Report: The three young women racing to defuse a climate-change bomb

OVER THE NORWEGIAN SEA, Norway(Reuters) – Banking hard over the whitecaps off the west coast of Norway, the jetliner flying Dominika Pasternak and her fellow scientists descends so sharply that it seems for a moment as if the crew is about to ditch them all in the drink.

But the pilot, an unflappable veteran of Britain’s Royal Air Force, conveys a done-this-a-thousand-times confidence as the aircraft levels off at a nerve-shredding 50 feet above the Norwegian Sea.

“Three, two, one,” he advises over the intercom. “Now!”

And so begins the work of this giant airborne laboratory – a four-engine, 112-seat passenger plane stripped out and refitted with sensors that suck in air samples for analysis in real time.

Although they squint through the cabin windows as the plane makes its pass, Pasternak, 23, and her colleagues are chasing a quarry they will never actually see: methane, an invisible gas that poses a growing risk to the Earth’s climate.

When the United Nations hosts a summit in New York on Monday to try to shore up the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb global warming, calls to cut emissions will focus on a more familiar greenhouse gas – the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.

But methane, another carbon-based compound, is emerging as a wild card in the climate-change equation. If CO2 has a warming effect akin to wrapping the planet in a sheet, the less-understood methane is more like a wool blanket.

Emitted from sources such as thawing permafrost, tropical wetlands, livestock, landfills and the spidery exoskeleton of oil and gas infrastructure girdling the planet, methane has been responsible for about a quarter of manmade global warming thus far, some models calculate.

For more than a decade, scientists have been documenting a mysterious rise in levels of methane in the atmosphere. And it’s getting worse: Earlier this year, data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that the rate of the increase surged by 50% in the 2013-2018 period compared with the preceding five years.

But the very urgency of the methane threat is also, paradoxically, what gives some scientists hope. Because methane is acting like a foot on the accelerator for climate change, then rapidly reducing the amount leaking from oil and gas facilities could, at least in theory, ease the pressure on the environment. That could buy time to confront the much bigger challenge of cutting emissions of CO2.

In the United States, environmental groups have sought to bring methane emissions down by pushing the growing fracking industry to take more stringent measures against leaks of the gas. But last month, the Trump administration proposed rolling back Obama-era regulations to curb methane emissions, saying the move would save companies money and remove red tape.

As the clock ticks, a network of researchers the world over is racing to find out why global methane levels are increasing so fast – and what can be done to stem the flow.

Here in the Arctic Circle, which is warming three times faster than the global average, Reuters accompanied three women in their 20s as they hunted for clues. Working separately but with the same goal, these researchers have staked their claim on a place where some of the most dramatic climate changes are starkly visible, and the biggest dangers may await.


In their painstaking, sometimes solitary work, the young scientists wrestle with the intellectual challenges posed by the methane riddle. But for all three women, their work in the Arctic connects them to something deeper than science: a return to childhood joys of the natural world, and a powerful sense of purpose.

Pasternak, wearing a white T-shirt bearing the words “Climate: The Fight of Our Lives” and a stylized image of the Earth engulfed in flames, is clear-eyed about the stakes.

“I think it’s terrifying how much we are changing our planet, and how little is really done to counteract it,” she says. “We are guessing, but the more measurements we actually have, the better we can understand what’s going on.”


As the jet races over the waves, Pasternak’s gaze flickers between the cabin window and her laptop, which displays a rolling graph of data recorded by the plane’s instruments.

The clipped voice of the pilot, laconic as ever, crackles over her headset, “I can see rigs on the left.”

Pasternak, a Polish PhD student in atmospheric chemistry at Britain’s University of York, focuses on the target: a cluster of oil rigs rising from the sea like fortresses, their squat legs supporting imposing superstructures of derricks, helipads and cranes.

Operated by the Natural Environment Research Council, a British government science funding agency, the flight is one of a series of sorties that Pasternak and colleagues from several universities conducted in late July and early August from Kiruna, an iron mining town in the Lapland region of northern Sweden.

The plane moves in a deliberate path, passing back and forth at different altitudes to build up a profile of the atmosphere downwind of the rigs below. Securely strapped in against the G-force at low altitudes, Pasternak and the other researchers confer over headsets and monitor the readings scrolling across their screens for any sign of a spike in methane levels. Their concentration is palpable, chatter kept to a minimum in the rigours of low-level flight.

But after hours of methodically surveying the rigs, there is no sign of the kind of methane cloud they detected billowing from another platform the day before.

Frustratingly for Pasternak, the aircraft also narrowly missed a giant supertanker, its bright red hull bulging with domes used to store liquefied natural gas.

“They unfortunately got out of our range now, which is a shame,” says Pasternak, who had hoped to take a methane reading near the vessel. “They are hard to catch because they are very specialized ships.”

For Pasternak, the flight is more than a research trip: It’s the realization of a childhood dream. Growing up on a hillside outside the city of Krakow, she would awake to see a layer of pollution settled over the city like a shroud, then brave the smog to go to school in the valley below. Escaping to the pristine Bieszczady Mountains for horse-riding summer camps or to the old-growth Białowieża Forest, Pasternak promised herself she would find a way to protect the environment by pursuing a career in science.

FILE PHOTO: Methane bubbles are seen in an area of marshland at a research post at Stordalen Mire near Abisko, Sweden, August 1, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

As the plane makes its way back to its temporary base in a hangar in Kiruna, she is sober about the uncertainties.

“Not many people paid attention to methane until quite recently,” she says. “We don’t know enough about it to be able to tell how dangerous it is, but we suspect it’s very dangerous.”


Although the Italian inventor Alessandro Volta is better known for designing an electric battery, he is also credited as the first scientist to identify methane, or CH4. Collecting gas seeping from the marshes on Lake Maggiore in 1776, he later showed the gas could be ignited with a spark.

More recently, scientists have quantified methane’s potency as a greenhouse gas. Although it is much less prevalent in the atmosphere than CO2, the scientists found, it can generate more than 80 times more warming – molecule for molecule – than CO2 in the 20 years it takes to dissipate.

Today, there is broad agreement on the trend showing a surge in methane levels, but there is far less consensus on why it’s happening. Although oil and gas facilities are the leading industrial source of methane, scientists believe that growing amounts of the gas seeping from tropical wetlands in Africa and South America could be the biggest single driver of the current methane surge.

As the burning of fossil fuels pushes global temperatures higher, methane-spewing microbes in fast-warming soils near the equator are going into overdrive, causing the wetlands to emit more of the gas. These emissions in turn feed more warming, in a vicious circle. Climate scientists call such loops “positive feedbacks” – although their effects are anything but.

In the long term, the Arctic could be just as dangerous. As the permafrost thaws, dormant microbes find themselves immersed in the perfect warm, wet conditions to begin producing methane in climate-altering quantities, just like their tropical cousins.

“The methane is then going to mix around the world multiple times,” says Ruth Varner, director of the Earth Systems Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, who runs a long-term methane study. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”


In winter darkness, meters of snow cover Stordalen Mire, a spongy patch of Swedish peatland about an hour’s drive from Kiruna Airport. The ice on a nearby lake is so thick you can confidently scoot across it on a snowmobile.

But in summer, the snowpack recedes to slithers on distant peaks, wispy heads of cottongrass peek through the soil, and the sun rarely sets. On such a day, Kathryn Bennett, 22, can be found pulling the oars of a rowboat.

On the shore, bogs lie in wait for anyone who strays too casually from a precarious series of walkways made from planks.

“I have fallen in clear to the waist,” says Bennett, a postgraduate student in earth sciences from Medway, Massachusetts, and a member of the methane research program at the University of New Hampshire. Although she laughs, her expression suggests the dunking was amusing only in retrospect.


If Pasternak is serving in the air wing of the methane army, then Bennett is one of the grunts – picking her way across the bogland day after day and kneeling at the water’s muddy edge, where tiny bubbles of methane burp periodically from a surface with a texture like used coffee grounds. Syringe in hand, she extracts samples of gas accumulating in floating, foam-reinforced funnels, which she will later test to determine how much methane they contain.

A few locals pass by in the distance picking cloudberries, and a dragonfly zips in jagged loops over the brackish water. Bennett keeps half an eye out for antlers, having been startled and delighted to see a couple of moose cooling off in the marsh two days before.

“It’s so wild out here, you never know what you’re going to run into,” says Bennett, who traces her love for the outdoors to a childhood growing up camping and catching frogs.

Even to a first-time visitor, something about the landscape at Stordalen doesn’t look right. The walkways have subsided in places as the ground has given way, meaning Bennett’s footfalls sometimes splash in the stagnant water – which she says has crept a little higher than during her fieldwork the previous summer.

The slumping is a sign that the underlying layer of permafrost that once kept the ground rock solid has started to thaw. On drier patches of ground, long, narrow cracks have appeared. In the marshland, new ponds have formed.

Researchers in other parts of the Arctic are witnessing similar changes. A team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks reported earlier this year how amazed they had been to find millennia-old permafrost in Canada thawing 70 years earlier than models had predicted, leaving depressions resembling those at Stordalen.

“If this continues to happen, we can’t turn it off,” Bennett says, her concern suddenly audible in her voice as she pauses by one of the bogs. “You can’t just flip a switch and switch to an electric car or solar panels. You can’t just stop the permafrost from thawing, because it’s already begun, which we see very clearly in places like this.

“Then it becomes: ‘Well, what can we do?’ As scientists, what we can do is just try and understand this system and make better predictions about how it’s going to change in the future.”

Although she draws some comfort from the contribution she’s making to understanding methane’s role in climate change, she’s also keenly aware that even by flying to Sweden from the United States, she’s adding to the emissions that cause it.

“Seeing really dramatic changes like this makes me think a lot harder about the individual choices that I make and think about how can we get other people to care,” she says, nearing the end of a nine-week stint in Lapland. “It hurts me to think that I fly all the way over here to study this, but then it’s so important to tell people this story, to understand, and tell people about what’s happening here.”


Climate scientists say the world must rapidly wean itself off its dependence on fossil fuels to stand a chance of averting the worst effects of rising temperatures. In the United States, oil companies argue that they can support a wider transition to renewable energy by providing natural gas from the fracking industry as a “bridging” fuel. Gas has already displaced much of the country’s coal-fired power generation, which produced more CO2.

But studies suggest that about 2-3% of natural gas escapes as methane during production, storage and transport – exerting significant short-term warming.

Alex Turner studies methane as a postdoctoral fellow in atmospheric chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Because methane is such a fast-acting, relatively short-lived warming agent, cutting leaks of the gas would have a quick impact on the climate system, Turner argues. That might help prevent runaway climate change from kicking in before the world has managed to control CO2 emissions – by far the biggest driver of long-term global warming.

Slideshow (24 Images)

“Of the greenhouse gases, methane is a really big lever on near-term climate change,” Turner says. “Large fractions of emissions tend to come from a small number of sources, and if you can find those sources that emit a lot of methane, you might be able to make a huge dent in the total emissions.”

In 2012, a network of governments, scientific institutes, businesses and civil society groups founded the Climate & Clean Air Coalition to curb emissions of powerful, short-lived pollutants such as methane. Since then, the U.N.-backed network has funded research around the world, including Pasternak’s flight this summer.

Some big oil companies say they’re taking the problem seriously. Under pressure from activists and investors to show it is doing more to tackle emissions, British oil major BP Plc just announced plans to use cameras, drones and robots to try to detect and prevent methane leaks at facilities around the world, for example.

“We are wanting to do continuous measurements and monitoring in all our future big projects,” says Gordon Birrell, a chief operating officer at BP.

But some smaller drilling companies say they lack the resources that the majors can bring to bear on the methane problem.

“There are certainly countries and firms that are very resistant, but the issue has started to gain real momentum, almost from a standing start just a few years ago,” says David McCabe, a senior scientist at the Clean Air Task Force, a U.S. advocacy group. “It’s a case of trying to speed that up.”


Clad in a khaki shirt and shorts like an old-school explorer, Nina Lindstrom Friggens sets off through the dwarf willow shrubs clinging to a lakeside near the northern Swedish village of Abisko. Her mission: to understand how the hidden lives of trees will influence the future of the climate.

Kneeling at the base of a mountain birch, a stunted tree adapted to survive the Arctic’s incessant cold and wind, she flicks open a saw-toothed pocketknife and begins to dig.

Delicately, she lifts a lattice of roots between forefinger and thumb and uses the knife tip to point out minute white sheaths that have formed over the finest filaments: fungi that live symbiotically with trees under the soil.

The 26-year-old Danish-British ecologist has always been fascinated by Arctic landscapes, in part thanks to her childhood love of Philip Pullman novels set in frozen Norse fantasy worlds. Unlike Pasternak and Bennett, who are methane hunters to the core, Lindstrom Friggens works on a broader carbon canvas, working to piece together the interplay between soil, ice and vegetation that will determine how quickly greenhouse gases seep from these northern lands.

The fungi she studies form a biological version of the internet – what scientists have nicknamed a “wood-wide-web” – that allows trees to swap chemical signals and nutrients. As the Arctic has warmed, it has also increasingly turned from white to green, as saplings gain a foothold in the depressions left as the permafrost thaws.

That’s good news in terms of methane, because tree-covered land is likely to emit less of the gas, says Lindstrom Friggens, a PhD student in plant-soil ecology at Scotland’s University of Stirling. But there’s a big catch: The expanding root networks help to rapidly decompose ancient subsoil stores of carbon into vast quantities of CO2, setting new feedback loops in train.

How quickly thawing permafrost could push the Arctic’s production of methane into overdrive is still a subject of speculation. But the impact of warming on the region was made vividly clear earlier this month, when scientists jolted Swedes by announcing that the south peak of Kebnekaise, the large mountain not far from where Lindstrom Friggens was conducting her research, had been dethroned as the country’s highest peak.


The glacier on the summit, which generations of Swedish schoolchildren have considered a permanent, majestic fixture of Scandinavia’s natural heritage, melted so much that it is now lower than the mountain’s ice-free northern peak.

Reflecting on the prospect of far greater climate impacts, Lindstrom Friggens finds solace in nature’s ability to endure.

“I quite like that it’s bleak and it’s rough; there’s a beauty in that somewhere – that struggle to survive in an environment which is throwing everything at you all the time,” she says.

A seagull glides low over the lake, and the immense landscape of water, sky and rock feels almost unfathomably old. A raw life force seems to hum inaudibly in the Arctic silence as Lindstrom Friggens reaches a path leading back to the research station that is her temporary home, where she will watch the endless summer days start to shorten.

“There’s so much life, yet it’s so harsh to survive here,” she says. “But it perseveres.”