The authors of New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) Climate Action Council biased implementation of the law to vilify methane and nitrous oxides because they have the potential to warm the atmosphere more than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. This post explains why that rationale is incorrect and makes the CLCPA fundamentally flawed.
I have written extensively on implementation of the CLCPA because I believe the solutions proposed will adversely affect reliability and affordability, will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change, and cannot measurably affect global warming when implemented. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Last year I published an article, Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act Methane Obsession that described how the irrational New York obsession against natural gas has resulted in a requirement in the CLCPA to develop an emissions inventory using a 20-year time horizon because methane has a greater potential to increase global warming. As a result of this requirement and another mandate to include upstream emissions too, the baseline 1990 greenhouse gas emissions inventory nearly doubled. I pointed out in that article that as a result of this approach, the implementation will have to focus on immediately reducing natural gas use despite its many advantages and crucial support to energy supplies.
My previous article noted that the methane obsession in the CLCPA law and its implementation strongly relies on the research of Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University. According to the Cornell Chronicle Howarth played a “key role” in drafting the law and now as a member of the Climate Action Council will “identify and make recommendations on regulatory measures and other state actions that will ensure the attainment of the statewide greenhouse gas emissions limits”. Howarth is the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell and his biography notes “My training was in oceanography, and much of my research still focuses on coastal marine ecosystems”. Cornell Alumnus David Atkinson provided funds to establish and make permanent Cornell’s Center for Sustainability because he “realized that climate change is probably the biggest issue facing humanity”. A recent paper of Howarth’s on methane emissions inventories was funded by the Park Foundation that has a long history of anti-natural gas fracking activism. I make these points because it is clear that his funding sources support certain outcomes so supporting research is at the very least encouraged. Moreover, nothing in his background suggests expertise in atmospheric radiation related to a thorough understanding of nuances associated with global warming theory. If a dentist receiving money from the tobacco industry were to publish research that said smoking has health benefits, then his motives would be questioned and his claims scrutinized in great detail. Despite an analogous background and other research contradicting his analyses Howarth’s research is unquestioned in the implementation process.
As mentioned previously, one of the mandates specified in the CLCPA is that the global warming potential (GWP) had to be calculated over a 20-year time horizon. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change describing time horizons and the GWP notes:
“The GWP has become the default metric for transferring emissions of different gases to a common scale; often called ‘CO2 equivalent emissions’ (e.g., Shine, 2009). It has usually been integrated over 20, 100 or 500 years consistent with Houghton et al. (1990). Note, however that Houghton et al. presented these time horizons as ‘candidates for discussion [that] should not be considered as having any special significance’. The GWP for a time horizon of 100 years was later adopted as a metric to implement the multi-gas approach embedded in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and made operational in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The choice of time horizon has a strong effect on the GWP values — and thus also on the calculated contributions of CO2 equivalent emissions by component, sector or nation. There is no scientific argument for selecting 100 years compared with other choices (Fuglestvedt et al., 2003; Shine, 2009). The choice of time horizon is a value judgement because it depends on the relative weight assigned to effects at different times.”
Reference: Myhre, G., D. Shindell, F.-M. Bréon, W. Collins, J. Fuglestvedt, J. Huang, D. Koch, J.-F. Lamarque, D. Lee, B. Mendoza, T. Nakajima, A. Robock, G. Stephens, T. Takemura and H. Zhang, 2013: Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
Howarth and others argued that it was necessary for the CLCPA to use 20-year global warming potential (GWP) values because methane is estimated to be 28 to 36 greater than carbon dioxide for a 100-year time horizon but 84-87 GWP over a 20-year period. Because of these high potentials they assumed that meant that the effect of methane on expected warming would be significant.
Earth’s Thermal Radiation
I was prompted to write this post because of Andy May’s excellent summarization of Wijngaarden and Happer’s important paper “Dependence of Earth’s Thermal Radiation on Five Most Abundant Greenhouse Gases”. In my previous post on New York’s methane obsession, I noted that a report entitled “Methane and Climate” by the same two authors had concluded that “Proposals to place harsh restrictions on methane emissions because of warming fears are not justified by facts.” However, Andy May’s analysis describes the greenhouse effect and the potential impact of methane so well that it also needs to be considered in the context of the CLCPA. The greenhouse effect is the basic rationale for the alleged existential threat of climate change because additional anthropogenic greenhouse gases, in the absence of any other processes, must warm the atmosphere. Although this is a non-controversial scientific fact, the reality is that there are so many processes, conditions, caveats, and unknowns that it is impossible to precisely estimate how much warming can be expected with added greenhouse gas emissions. May explains the basics and some of the complexities in his recent article and references his previous article on the greenhouse effect for even more discussion of the fundamental effect.
Thermodynamics in general and atmospheric thermodynamics have always given me a headache and I agree with May’s argument that no one really understands all the component complexities of it. Fortunately, Wijngaarden and Happer (W&H) have evaluated the likely influence of greenhouse gases (CO2, H2O, CH4, N2O, and O3. using the HITRAN line-by-line molecular transmission and absorption database maintained at Harvard University to give us a better understanding of the atmospheric processes and effects of these gases. May writes:
HITRAN stands for high-resolution transmission molecular absorption. The database compiles spectroscopic parameters that computer programmers can use to model the transmission and emission of light in the atmosphere. W&H use the database to model a hypothetical mid-latitude temperature and GHG atmospheric profile to derive a representative climate sensitivity to doubling the gases.
In layman’s terms this analysis considers the distribution and characteristics of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to determine how much the climate could warm due to this process in isolation.
Verbatim Andy May Summary and Conclusions (the following section is directly quoted)
“In summary, W&H have provided us with a detailed and accurate emissions model that shows only modest warming (2.2 to 2.3°C), inclusive of likely water vapor feedback, but not counting the feedback due to cloudiness changes. Both the magnitude and sign of net cloud feedback to surface warming are unknown. Lindzen has shown it is likely negative (cooling) in the tropics, but outside the tropics no one knows.”
“The water vapor feedback to surface warming is also very unclear, Ferenc Miskolczi (2014) has written:”
‘As long as the Earth has unlimited water supply (in the oceans) with its three phases permanently present in the atmosphere and two phases on the ground surface, the stability of the planetary climate will be controlled by the equations [see paper, page 19]. These two equations, together with the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, will regulate the transfer of the latent heat through the boundary layer in such a way that the net amount maintains the planetary radiative balance.’
“Miskolczi, and others have found that total water vapor in the atmosphere has gone down in the past 70 years, although this is questioned. The work by W&M on radiation emissions suggests that future warming due to GHGs will be modest. Speculation about the warming feedback due to clouds and changes in total water vapor is just that, speculation.”
“The results of the study are summarized in Table 2.”
“Table 2 shows that the main GHGs are CO2, H2O and O3, doubling the methane or N2O concentration changes the outgoing forcing by less than one percent. Due to the properties of water vapor, its atmospheric concentration is very unlikely to double, but if it did, it would only increase the forcing by eight percent at 11 km. Doubling CO2 only increases the forcing by four percent at 11 km.”
“The combined current 11 km and 86 km forcing values in the table are not the sum of the individual values due to overlap. It is very clear from this table that all GHGs are saturated and adding to the current concentrations will make very little difference. Doubling CO2 will cause the stratosphere to cool about 10°C, but the changes in surface temperatures from this model are all less than 2.3°C, as shown in Table 1. This is much less than the preferred IPCC AR6 value of 3°C (IPCC, 2021, pp. TS-57). Considering that the current net effect of clouds is cooling and it seems likely that total water vapor in the atmosphere is decreasing or staying flat, these results suggest we have little to worry about regarding increasing GHGs.”
One of the bigger problems implementing the CLCPA is developing strategies to reduce methane (CH4 and nitrous oxide (N2O) especially because of the unprecedented focus on those pollutants. While there aren’t as many sources of either one or as much emitted by either one relative to CO2, the capability to control them is difficult. So difficult that the apparent strategy is to ban their use. With respect to methane that means eventually banning the use of natural gas for home heating, cooking and hot water despite its inherent advantages. Similarly, the largest source of nitrous oxides emissions is from nitrogen fertilizer so reducing those emissions has unintended consequences.
The reason that methane and nitrous oxides are included in the CLCPA and used to justify changing the emissions calculation methodology to emphasize their importance is that the global warming potential for both pollutants are much higher than the warming potential of carbon dioxide. If it can warm more then it most be more important according to this rationale. The CLCPA emissions inventory is calculated differently than just about every other jurisdiction for this reason.
The Wijngaarden and Happer paper destroys this rationale. Ultimately the CLCPA rationale is to mitigate global warming by reducing the emissions that have the potential to enhance the greenhouse effect itself. Two characteristics of greenhouse gases determine the effect: the global warming potential and the concentration of the gases in the atmosphere. Because the atmospheric concentrations of methane and nitrous oxides are so small doubling concentrations change the “outgoing forcing by less than one percent”. In other words, doubling emissions or cutting emissions in half of methane and nitrous oxides will have no measurable effect on global warming itself.
The Climate Action Council claims to “follow the science” but it is evident that the CLCPA science actually selectively follows the narrative supporting the agenda to electrify everything using unreliable and expensive renewable energy. No where is this more evident in the use of the 20-year global warming potential emissions inventory that makes natural gas untenable. If the state actually implements these restrictions, then people will freeze to death in the dark either slowly because they cannot afford the energy costs or quickly when there is an ice storm that knocks out power for days. All because of flawed CLCPA reasoning best shown by the following analogy. Methane is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide so it is necessary to frame the emissions inventory to address methane uses the same reasoning as a claim that because an ant can lift 86 times its own weight it is more powerful than a man who cannot lift as high a percentage of its weight.