The melting Arctic could release vast reserves of methane into the atmosphere, ultimately costing the world’s economy $60 trillion, according to a new study. Released last week in the journal Nature, the study’s authors paint a grim portrait of a world in which melting Arctic ice leads to permafrost thawing in Russia, exposing mass quantities of the extremely potent greenhouse gas methane to the atmospheric mix.The scientists behind the paper weren’t satisfied with just predicting the amount of methane that could be released; they modeled the methane’s potential financial impact. The FT reports:
[T]he group felt it was important to assess the possible economic impact of such changes, said Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at Cambridge who believes the Arctic sea ice could completely vanish in summers as early as 2015. […]The researchers assessed the impact of higher methane emissions with a newer version of the economic model used in the UK government’s 2006 Stern Review on the economics of climate change, which concluded the benefits of curbing global warming early far outweigh the potential costs of not acting.Depending on how much methane was emitted, they calculated its potential cost was likely to be $60tn, with 80 per cent of the damage occurring in developing countries least able to curb the impact of more floods, droughts and storms.
We’ve written about the melting of the Arctic before, pointing out that the warmer northern ocean would provide new access to vast stores of oil and gas, and offer up new, more direct international shipping lanes. But this new paper suggests that the financial costs are likely to “outstrip any benefits by three or more orders of magnitude.”That’s a bold claim, especially considering recent failures of climate models in predicting surface temperatures. These failures point to the enormous difficulty of understanding our climate and how sensitive it is to greenhouse gases. The authors of this new paper appear unfazed by these modeling shortfalls and are confidently predicting catastrophe.There are a lot of variables at play here: the relationship between warmer Arctic waters and permafrost, the rate of permafrost thawing, the amount of methane trapped underneath, and methane’s effect on climate. The $60 trillion figure is a worst case number apparently calculated to inflame the usual panics. What we really need is more research and less sensationalizing.(Incidentally, when burned, methane produces less greenhouse gas than both oil and coal, not to mention energy. Japan is already working on tapping in to this resource. Perhaps new techniques could be applied to northern Russia as well—though we would be surprised if this were a solution to the basic problem the Arctic methane study points to.)It’s important for greens to remember that the more important the issue, the more necessary it is to approach it with a cool head. Running with scary headline numbers and working up a quick mass panic that then fizzles into apathy and demobilization once the full truth comes out is how global greens have handled things up to this point. That’s not a good plan if you want to get anything done.This is potentially an important story, but we would encourage our readers to be skeptical about definitive predictions. Greens are very good at making dire predictions that don’t come true — otherwise we’d all be starving and shivering in the dark in a world of peak oil and population bombs. But the impact of human activity on world systems large and small is a real concern; we’ll be keeping an eye on this issue as it unfolds.[Image of iceberg off the coast of Greenland courtesy of Wikimedia]