Sunday, December 8, 2013


by Gary Houser

Grassroots Must Insist IPCC Include Massive Permafrost Carbon

"Across two decades and thousands of pages of reports, the world's most authoritative voice on climate science has consistently understated the rate and intensity of climate change and the danger those impacts represent, say a growing number of studies .......   The speed and ferocity of climate change are outpacing IPCC projections on many fronts, including CO2 emissions, temperature rise, continental ice-sheet melt, Arctic sea ice decline, and sea level rise. 
The IPCC’s overly conservative reading of the science ..... means governments and the public could be blindsided by the rapid onset of the flooding, extreme storms, drought, and other impacts associated with catastrophic global warming."
—  Scientific American, "Climate Science Predictions Prove Too Conservative", Dec.6, 2012    [1]
The primary scientific report used by governments of the world to guide their policies on climate has failed to convey the full danger being created by release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By focusing on human-generated carbon, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has ignored an even more threatening process now being triggered by those emissions. Rapid warming in the Arctic - where temperatures are rising twice as fast as the global rate - is thawing an incomprehensibly vast stockpile of nature's own carbon which has been trapped in ice for millenia. This threat is described in a new mini-documentary (entitled "Last Hours"  [2] )the importance of which has been highlighted by leaders on the climate issue such as Al Gore.   [3]  

The scale of this threat is mind-boggling. There is over three times more heating power stored in this "permafrost" than that which has been caused by human greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of the industrial age - and this refers only to that located on land (as opposed to the coastal seabeds). [4]  This stockpile includes super greenhouse gas methane, acknowledged even by the IPCC itself to be a stunning 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a warming agent over 20 years (with climate-carbon feedbacks). [5]   
Despite a formal appeal by scientists specializing in permafrost study that IPCC issue a special assessment drawing attention to this tremendous danger  [6], the recently released report neglected to do so. The French news agency Agence France-Presse reported that due to bureaucratic delays and a log-jam in the processing of cutting edge data, 
"the cut-off date meant the authors were unable to evaluate recent, but very worrying, studies that say methane trapped in ice-bound coasts in northeast Siberia is being released as seas warm, thus putting the greenhouse effect into higher gear."   [7]

This massive failure by IPCC means that governments world-wide have not been given adequate warning about how preciously little time may be left to prevent the crossing of a tipping point leading to unstoppable global catastrophe. By not addressing the unique consequences brought on by accelerated Arctic warming, the IPCC is in fact skewing the picture that needs to be presented.
"Arctic and alpine air temperatures are expected to increase at roughly twice the global rate .... A global temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius means a 6 degrees Celsius increase in the Arctic, resulting in an irreversible loss of anywhere between 30 to 85 percent of near-surface permafrost."   [8]
Even worse, more cutting edge science (also not included in the IPCC report) reveals additional unsettling developments. Exposure to sunlight appears to speed up the rate of permafrost thaw: "...sunlight increases bacterial conversion of exposed soil carbon into carbon dioxide gas by at least 40 percent compared to carbon that remains in the dark." [9]   This thaw on land is being matched in the shallow coastal seabeds. Natalia Shakhova - who has helped lead numerous fact-finding missions along the coast of Siberia - reports that releases there are "now on par with the methane being released from the arctic tundra."  [10]  She also warns that these releases can be larger and more abrupt than those resulting from decomposition on land.

As previously frozen methane vents to the atmosphere, the warming it causes can thaw and release even more. This "feedback" is capable of escalating into a "runaway" chain reaction that humanity would be helpless to stop. This is the same methane that some scientists point to as a major factor in the most sweeping mass extinctions in earth's history - the PETM and the end-Permian, the latter of which decimated  90 percent of all life forms.   Whether this association can be absolutely proven or not (the scientific basis for its connection to the Permian is explored in the BBC documentary "The Day Earth Nearly Died"  [11] )no one can credibly deny the immense power of this greenhouse gas. 

By omitting this crucial information, policymakers are being dangerously lulled into believing there is more time to act - and less urgency - than what is in fact the case. At precisely the moment when the world needs the most unambiguous and emphatic warning from the scientific community - a moment which may not afford humanity any second chance to recover and correct course - it is nowhere to be found.  

Methane plumes rising from the seafloor
Over the years, the IPCC has been wrong numerous times in its projections. According to Scientific American:
"In the 2007 report, the IPCC concluded the Arctic would not lose its summer ice before 2070 at the earliest. But the ice pack has shrunk far faster than any scenario scientists felt policymakers should consider; now researchers say the region could see ice-free summers within 20 years."  [12]  
As the opening quote states, this pattern has persisted regarding several aspects of the issue. Given this history, it is not surprising the current IPCC report is again "behind the times" on the very day it is published.  In the short time following its release, a large number of experts on sea level rise are already saying that the IPCC projections are too cautious and conservative.  [13] 

Originally created with a mission to provide government bodies with un-biased scientific facts on climate disruption in order to inform the process of policymaking, the IPCC process has become seriously impaired by a combination of internal problems and outside pressure. The result has been the production of reports that not only fail to keep up with the cutting edge of the science itself but are also tainted by a bias toward overly conservative assessments. 

The same key article in Scientific American describes the internal logjam: 
"Such assessments typically take five to seven years to complete in a slow, bureaucratic process: ......... a summary for policymakers, condensing the science even further, is written and subjected to a painstaking, line-by-line revision by representatives from more than 100 world governments – all of whom must approve the final summary document."   [14]  
Materials from scientists are only accepted for consideration after they have been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal. This process in itself can take up to three years. Then another requirement is that such materials cannot be submitted beyond an early cut-off date. The goal of instituting an orderly process is laudable, but the severe problem is that the pace of climate disruption is most assuredly accelerating. If vital information at the cutting edge of these frightening changes cannot make it through these hurdles in time, there is a huge gap of five or six years before it can be integrated into the next report.  

 A key example would be the definitive paper documenting the land-based permafrost feedbacks which asks IPCC to issue a special assessment. Not only was this request ignored, but this documentation was not even considered as it was published after the cut-off date. 

The current IPCC report is quite intimidating at over 2000 pages long. A solution to both problems of timeliness and excessive length is to make the IPCC process more nimble by tackling the various key components of climate disruption individually rather than combining them all into one ponderous document. An example would be a report strictly limited to Arctic issues. As the most rapidly warming region on earth - with profound impact on the global climate - it is entirely deserving of special attention.

The second major problem is that when the IPCC was first set up, a provision was inserted which provides government entities the so-called "right" to review and approve the official Summary for Policymakers - the most important section. As the incredibly wealthy fossil fuel lobby holds great power over many governments, this provision provides an opening to pressure those governments into weakening the language.  As such power was actively used to weaken segments of the last Summary in 2007, [15]  it cannot be ruled out that such was used again. Scientific research should not be censored by political entities, a point made eloquently by British expert on feedback dynamics David Wasdell:
"What comes out is that which is 'acceptable' ...... from science that is about six years out of date, and that becomes the basis for negotiation and decision-making. It is grossly inappropriate....... There are many pressures ..... not least the enormous profits that continue to be made from fossil fuels." [16]  
This provision should be put up for debate and stricken.    

fish skeleton on parched soil, credit: Will Sherman
There is a corrective action which can be taken. Precedent already exists for the IPCC issuing a "Special Report" on aspects of the issue it considers worthy of special attention. A recent example is one on the increasing frequency of extreme weather events. There is a powerful case behind the need to release a Special Report on the threat from permafrost thaw in the Arctic. But an institution this size does not move unless there is a strong and coordinated campaign aimed at raising the issue and applying some "push". All the grassroots environmental groups that have led the climate movement are now called to recognize the dire need to integrate this frightening issue into the framework of all thinking and strategizing. If this is not done, and governments around the world continue to ignore it, there is a high likelihood that all other climate campaigns will fail. 

Keystone XL Pipeline protest - photo taken Feb 13, 2013 - from: 
The valiant effort to oppose the tar sands pipeline must be continued. But this movement must recognize that the climate threats are not presenting themselves in single file - one at a time. Several dangers are simultaneously bearing down on humanity. The laws of physics driving these threats will not pause for political stagnation. If the governments of the world fail to see the sleeping giant awakening in the Arctic and adjust their collective sense of urgency accordingly, then it appears our fate is sealed. The laws of physics will run their course. We owe it to those generations that would inherit a devastated planet to do better than that.      

The prospect of humanity being blindsided by a tremendous - and perhaps even fatal - blow is unthinkable. There is no "Planet B" to turn to if the conditions necessary to support life on our present planet are wiped out. Our society places great trust in the scientific community. Faced by any threat of this magnitude, our assumption is that our scientists will fulfill their moral obligation, act on the precautionary principle, and give us ample warning. In this case, that trust is being violated. It is therefore up to concerned citizens everywhere to speak out, hold them accountable,  and insist that governments receive the warning that is needed. This dangerous and potentially suicidal omission must not be allowed to stand.  

Who stands up for the children? - screenshot from children against climate change protest video
"The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come."  — Terry Tempest Williams [17]

Gary Houser is a public interest writer and documentary producer focusing on climate issues and the "sleeping giant" of Arctic methane in particular, and based in Ohio in the U.S.  He is seeking to network with others with similar concerns re: permafrost thaw who work in the U.S. context. Current projects are:  persuading major enviro / climate groups to integrate Arctic permafrost thaw as a high priority issue into their campaigns, a specific grassroots campaign to pressure IPCC toward a Special Report, public hearing on Arctic issues in the U.S. Senate, production and broadcast of Arctic permafrost thaw documentary on one of the national TV networks in the U.S.   He can be contacted at:   


  3. Press release: Last Hours Film Raises Issue Of Global-Warming-Induced Extinction ...
  4. Is Arctic Permafrost the "Sleeping Giant" of Climate Change? - NASA ...
  5. New IPCC report released in 2013, at IPCC AR5 WGI Table 8.7
  6. Press Release - National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSDIC)
  7. Compiling latest climate report took 3 years; critics say that's too long ...
  8. NSIDC Press Room: Press Release: UNEP report urges ...
  9. Thawing Permafrost May Be 'Huge Factor' in Global Warming ...
  10. Arctic seafloor methane releases double previous estimates
  11. "The Day Earth Nearly Died" (BBC documentary) :
  13. Experts say the IPCC underestimated future sea level rise ...
  15. Washington Post: U.S., China Got Climate Warnings Toned Down
  16. Video: Envisionation Interview: David Wasdell On the IPCC & Scientific ...
  17. Quote by Terry Tempest Williams: The eyes of the ... - Goodreads


    1. Lag time of heat getting at Clathrate stability zone and expressing in clouds of gas rising in Arctic sky means it is all over but the singing-
      However it is possible to still create monetary framework that should have been done before.
      Basically, if money is linked in value to EARTH
      then Thermodynamic Law of Entropy Rise is thrown into realm of Open System dynamics..

      1. The fate of Earth depends on getting focus of world attention on the crisis at hand and usefully translating that into all manner of activities unified in direction of making a stand to save Earth..
        I've suggested root core change to monetary value with sudden effect world-over to actuate this. But basic change to things like religious thinking and governance along with ideas of freedom and sovereignty of nations needs to also happen.
        It should be noted that fun and unlimited prosperity would be side effects of such a venture Large..
        Present psychopathic leadership needs Act of God adjustment of first order to initiate this because it wasn't an accident banking cartel was set up around time of First World War..
        Religion plays a part in obstacle large in our face along with Total Information Awareness.
        These things are closed system also and more than capable of keeping failure now going.
        That's the reason no stone should remain unturned if full and opposite force is to happen...
        The holders of the reigns of world balance sheet of debt based monetary have spies -NSA/ when really we need NASA and all manner of science and technology to go to save Earth.

    2. It seems that its too late for humans even in the deepest bunker but we may be able to slow it down enough to prevent a runaway Venus syndrome condemning all life as we know it on earth. A truly altruistic endeavor.

    3. Amazing post about climate change. I am very interested in this topic and I always research to find some good information. We must stop this! I also highly recommend Facebookis News Network website and many other which provide latest news about this headline.