04/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Methane: The New Climate Change Indicator

The failure to get enforceable commitments at December's Copenhagen climate talks has pushed back international action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the important indicator for decision makers is likely not the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. It's methane. And it's on the rise.

Why does methane matter? Methane is an indicator that our climate future is slipping out of our control. Copenhagen focused on reducing CO2 emissions to mitigate or lessen climate change, which is important, but so far we have not been very successful. Global CO2 emissions have grown every year since the first climate treaty was signed at the 1992 Earth Summit. In fact, emissions are rapidly rising at about 2 parts per million a year, correlating with rising temperatures. And interestingly, rising temperatures -- not human emissions -- are spurring methane's rise.

Most anthropogenic (i.e. human-made) methane comes from flatulent livestock and belching frat boys. But recent field research has measured a spike in the amount of methane being released from non-human sources. The source appears to be arctic permafrost. Why? Arctic temperatures have increased by nearly a third in the last 5 years. As temps rise, the permafrost melts and releases the methane that has been locked away in frozen boggy soils for eons. A new study shows an approximately 30 percent increase in methane leaking from the Arctic.

So what, you ask? Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and its independent rise could swamp the impact of any hypothetical CO2 emissions reduction that comes out of the Copenhagen process. Yet, more disconcerting is the fact that rising methane increases warming. Increased warming means increased permafrost melting and more methane. A self-sustaining positive feedback could take hold and start runaway climate change.

The bottom line for decision makers is this: climate change will proceed whether or not global diplomats make a real climate deal in Mexico this November. Leaders in business, government and civil society need to take this fact seriously and start developing contingency plans to adapt to a changing climate. Mitigation efforts shouldn't stop, but we all must get ready to live in a climate different from the one we grew up in.