There has been a news report from climate scientists working in the Arctic right now, about their observation of the release of methane gas from frozen deposits on the sea floor. That is a process which, if confirmed as true, is likely to continue and worsen, and lead to rapid heating of the atmosphere at rates not seen since pre-historic mass extinction events. Which, if confirmed as true, means the collapse of societies will occur sooner and harsher than I, and many others, have anticipated. It would also mean we might be struggling to survive as a species in the decades ahead.
Truly, this is a harrowing situation and piece of news. If true, it means we could reconsider everything in our lives, like some people do when they receive a terminal diagnosis. If not necessarily true, or not necessarily as bad as some scientists conclude, it nevertheless means we can consider what if it is true, a bit like when people are awaiting results from a scan or biopsy.
However, some climate scientists say that we should not concern ourselves with that. They contest the significance of the new measurements and they question the credibility of the scientists involved. Their views then are echoed by science communicators, and non-climatology scholars, who have chosen to criticise any view or person they deem to be alarmist or doomist.
Given the potential implications of the news on methane emissions, a dismissive reaction leaves a lot to be desired. Instead, we urgently need to have scientists up in the Arctic crosschecking the measurements. The current unprecedented lack of refreeze of the Arctic ice is another reason for emergency attention to this matter. There should be an international emergency summit to consider a range of responses in addition to bold cuts and drawdown of CO2. Discussion of possible responses might include the safest forms of localised geo-engineering and preparations for coping better with major disruptions with water and food supplies, sea levels, forest fires and so forth. Some of those possible responses would be risky or even counterproductive, but that is not a reason for not starting the discussion.
Naturally, many of us turn to climatologists for confirmation on what is happening. Often, we hear from them via journalists who reach out to the climatologists who have been most vocal, as a result of having top jobs and mainstream books. In other words: establishment voices. This can be a problem due to the proven ‘scientific reticence’ that exists in the mainstream of climatology, which is particularly the case from those who take on a role of speaking publicly on behalf of that mainstream (as I described in the original Deep Adaptation paper).
For instance, this is the response from one top establishment scientist to the new report on the methane release:
To support policy makers and the general public to be better informed, I hope that journalists will include the voices of the many climatologists like Timothy Lenton, Will Steffen and Wolfgang Knorr, who are prepared to consider that humanity is about to face terrible disruption. Otherwise, the establishment-aligned climatologists will continue to have too much influence on our awareness and conversations, especially when amplified by those who seek to be promoters of climate knowledge.
I should note here that nothing really important has been debunked about the dangers of seafloor methane. Instead, as I explained in the Deep Adaptation paper, the science on this matter is inconclusive (see below), and therefore real time observations of the Arctic sea is essential, as well as discussions and initiatives on the worst possible situations.
I understand the reticence, partly because I have come to better understand my own. Like others, I used to assume that my way to express love for others would be by measuring stuff more and then reassuring everyone that things are still OK, or can be made OK, if we are smarter and work harder. Growing up and gaining status in a culture with an ideology that I summarise as ‘e-s-c-a-p-e’, makes it difficult to realise that pattern. It is an ideology arising from mental habits of escaping a sense of impermanence and insecurity due to an assumption of one’s separateness from the rest of life.
In seeing the methane debate in climate science, I remember the amateur astronomer John in the film Melancholia, played by Kiefer Sutherland. As a new planet threatens to collide with Earth, he responds by attempting to measure the new planet’s movement. He takes one measurement at one moment as proof of their safety, to reassure his sister and himself. In that way, he avoids openly considering the mortality of himself and those he loves. He then demands his sister and sister-in-law be happy because he has spent so much money on a party. That nicely captures a fragile patriarchal view that people should be happy if someone has worked hard to have the financial position to do things for others that they choose (and to the extent that they choose). He then expresses his love for them through yet more measurements to seek to give more reassurances. That is a defensive approach to love and connection. When he can’t reassure them anymore, he doesn’t sit with them vulnerably to explore ways of lessening the emotional pain of the moment, perhaps by expressing love and celebrating their lives. Instead, he disappears and takes his own life.
From my last couple of years talking with psychologists about eco-distress I think that if any climate scientists commit suicide in the coming months and years, that tragedy won’t be because they misread the data and thought our situation is worse than it is. It might be because of factors in their lives unrelated to the state of the world. It might also be because they were psychologically invested in a story of self and world that meant they couldn’t live with the pain of the loss of identity, and so weren’t able to let themselves be vulnerable and grieve with their loved ones or the rest of us. If anyone you know feels suicidal from their eco-distress, after expressing your solidarity with their pain and encouraging them to seek immediate psychological support, you could suggest they talk with others who share a painful outlook on the future. One option is via the Deep Adaptation Forum. I also recommend my writings on barriers to dialogue, typical responses to anticipating collapse, hope and vision after anticipating collapse, and the love in Deep Adaptation.
One key issue is the matter of hope, and how we might stay engaged in compassionate courageous action when losing our old stories of hope. In the original Deep Adaptation, paper I suggested that we consider finding new and more radical hope. A radical hope is both a wish, sense of possibility, and an effort towards a goal, without an expectation of success. It is a hope which is found after old hopes lose their credibility, or are found to be counter-productive. In the case of the climate crisis, that is the dying hope that experts and leaders will sort out the climate crisis in time. In my keynote talk at a psychotherapy conference, I ended with my suggestion of a radical hope:
“Our hope in a time of climate chaos is promoting other ways of responding than fear or anger. Our hope in a time of climate chaos is that experiencing the fragility and impermanence of life can lead more of us to greater gratitude for the present and less involvement in the judgements and tactics of our minds. We can be freer to love and forgive each other and ourselves, and so do what we can to help, whatever may come.”
Because any ‘radical hope’ comes after both acceptance of a difficult reality and realisation that old hopes have proven to be unhelpful, it involves a recognition that hope is a story, and can come from emotional pain-aversion rather than full presence to what is occurring. As such, a radical hope is not held onto tightly and therefore acting wisely and creatively in a ‘hopefree’ rather than hopeful manner is also welcomed. Recognising the power of living ‘hopefree’ as a way of living in full presence to what is happening in our lives is a mainstream idea in Buddhism.
That is easier said than done. Especially when we hear the latest bit of terrifying news. We can become distracted by the stink between different people on social media. We can be tempted to take sides and release our stressful energy with some anger at whomever we have decided is an opponent. Some people will even write articles, papers and books to channel that anger towards their preferred opponents. I need to be careful about that myself! I have come to realise, therefore, that faced with horrifying information, first, I need to breathe. Deeply and slowly. Then to put on some music and move my body. To breath more and shake out the emotions as they are held in my body. Then talk to someone about feelings: actually talking, not through tapping out some opinion on Facebook or Twitter (or a blog… oops). And I mean feelings, rather than our fallible opinions about the merits of one study, one theory, one expert. Only after doing that work on self-regulation, can I become more radically present to our predicament. I write about my own experience with that so that you can consider it for yourself.
In the remainder of this blog I include the section of the Deep Adaptation paper which discusses the issue of methane on the sea floor. I also include the discussion of on-land methane release, as it can be forgotten when people discuss the seafloor methane issue. To access the references that I include in the following text, download the Deep Adaptation paper.
Methane “is a gas that enables far more trapping of heat from the sun’s rays than CO2 but was significantly underestimated in most of the climate models since 2005, and ignored before then. Recent research is finding and predicting far higher levels of methane (Farquharson, et al, 2019; Lamarche-Gagnon, et al, 2019 and Nisbet, et al. 2019). The authors of the 2016 Global Methane Budget report found that in the early years of this century, concentrations of methane rose by only about 0.5ppb each year, compared with 10ppb in 2014 and 2015. Various sources were identified, from fossil fuels – to agriculture to melting permafrost (Saunois et al, 2016).
Given the contentiousness of this topic in the scientific community, it may even be contentious for me to say that there is no scientific consensus on the sources of current methane emissions or the potential risk and timing of significant methane releases from either surface and subsea permafrost. A recent attempt at consensus on methane risk from melting surface permafrost concluded methane release would happen over centuries or millennia, not this decade (Schuur et al. 2015). Yet within three years that consensus was broken by one of the most detailed experiments which found that if the melting permafrost remains waterlogged, which is likely, then it produces significant amounts of methane within just a few years (Knoblauch et al, 2018). The debate is now likely to be about whether other microorganisms might thrive in that environment to eat up the methane – and whether or not in time to reduce the climate impact.
The debate about methane release from clathrate forms, or frozen methane hydrates, on the Arctic sea floor is even more contentious. In 2010 a group of scientists published a study that warned how the warming of the Arctic could lead to a speed and scale of methane release that would be catastrophic to life on earth through atmospheric heating of over 5 degrees within just a few years of such a release (Shakhova et al, 2010). The study triggered a fierce debate, much of which was ill considered, perhaps understandable given the shocking implications of this information (Ahmed, 2013). Since then, key questions at the heart of this scientific debate (about what would amount to the probable extinction of the human race) include the amount of time it will take for ocean warming to destabilise hydrates on the sea floor, and how much methane will be consumed by aerobic and anaerobic microbes before it reaches the surface and escapes to the atmosphere. In a global review of this contentious topic, scientists concluded that there is not the evidence to predict a sudden release of catastrophic levels of methane in the near-term (Ruppel and Kessler, 2017). However, a key reason for their conclusion was the lack of data showing actual increases in atmospheric methane at the surface of the Arctic, which is partly the result of a lack of sensors collecting such information. Most ground-level methane measuring systems are on land. Could that be why the unusual increases in atmospheric methane concentrations cannot be fully explained by existing data sets from around the world (Saunois et al, 2016)? The lack of easy-to-access and reputable analysis of the potential implications of real time atmospheric measurements, is bewildering for me. However, there has been “very strong” growth in methane concentrations between 2014 and 2017 (Nisbet, et al, 2019). A study in 2020 of methane release at the other pole, on the insufficient filtering effects of microbes, adds to concern that methane might be released in dangerous amounts from the seabed (Thurber, et al 2020).
These recent studies suggest that the recent attempt at a consensus that it is highly unlikely we will see near-term massive release of methane from the Arctic Ocean is sadly inconclusive. In 2017 scientists working on the Eastern Siberian sea shelf, reported that the permafrost layer has thinned enough to risk destabilising hydrates (The Arctic, 2017). That report of subsea permafrost destabilisation in the East Siberian Arctic sea shelf, the latest unprecedented temperatures in the Arctic, and the recent data on non-linear rises in high-atmosphere methane levels, combine to make it feel like we might be about to play Russian Roulette with the entire human race, with already two bullets loaded. Nothing is certain. But it is sobering that humanity has arrived at a situation of our own making where we now debate the strength of analyses of our near-term extinction.”
If you want to take action, after the breathing, moving and talking, then I recommend political action. Get in touch with your political representative at national and local levels and say that you want a real emergency agenda not just the use of the word emergency to pretend that things will be done. Then use any organisation you are involved in to advance action on adaptation. That might be your church, or local community group, or an environmental campaign organisation, or anti-poverty charity or political party. Start with where you are at, with the people who know who you are. It’s about them too. For some further thoughts on climate activism see here.
If you are experiencing emotional distress at this time, with dancing and deep slow breathing not helping, then I recommend some of the resources I link to here. After that, it’s also useful to become active in social change. In particular, to remember how millions of people are suffering not only from an anticipation of future calamity but a lived experience, today, of suffering due to climate chaos. For instance, the Red Cross report two million more people a week need humanitarian aid due to problems made worse by climate change. Even just a donation is a helpful start. Then more involvement in change can be wonderfully restorative and build emotional resilience. I have been fascinated by the creativity and agency shown by people who anticipate social collapse as a direct or indirect result of climate disruption, and I recommend you learn about that and engage here.
OK, blah blah over… now back to some deep breathing and movement…