12/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Methane Bomb is Ticking: Here's an Energy Plan to Defuse It

Writing for the Yale School of Forestry website a few weeks ago, award winning journalist Susan Stranahan interviewed a Norwegian scientist, who noted that methane is beginning to seep up from the melting submarine permafrost of the shallow Arctic continental shelf. What little data exists - methane levels hundreds of times greater than normal occurring over this continental sea shelf seen over the past five years - is attracting the attention of climate scientists. Although methane doesn't persist in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, while it is there it is far more potent in fueling global warming. Geochemical evidence indicates that sudden massive atmospheric releases of methane on this planet in the past have wrought abrupt and massive climate changes. Scientists previously had predicted that the melting of the Arctic tundra would release enough methane to add a punch to global warming. Until now, however, they hadn't been expecting this second punch from beneath the sea, where massive amounts of methane are stored in or beneath the frozen permafrost. What many are wondering is, could this accelerate to a massive release of methane?

Why is a sudden increase in atmospheric methane particularly frightening? The standard assumption until now has been: stop adding man-made greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and their levels will fall, eventually dissipating the global warming effect. We could control global warming by turning off the human spigot that emits greenhouse gases. Heat the planet up fast enough, however, and you could accelerate enough ecological positive feedbacks that not only accelerate global warming but drive it. That is, we would no longer be in control - nature would. The conceivable scenario would be that a massive release of methane would heat up the planet suddenly, further melting the permafrost, causing yet a further and more massive release of methane, which... well, you get the idea.

The message is: we can't let it get that far. This is why a detailed energy plan needs to be formulated to stop greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. Barack Obama has called for an 80% decrease of these emissions from current levels by the year 2050. Environment America (EA) has just released a report, Renewing America: a Blueprint for Economic Recovery, which outlines some ways of reducing emissions; so does our book, "Cool the Earth, Save the Economy" (free downloads available at www.CoolTheEarth.US ). Our goal is a more ambitious one than Obama's: reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2030. We think it can be done without ethanol, nuclear power expansion, carbon sequestration, a carbon tax, and a cap and trade policy of enforcing a limit on emissions and trading in carbon credits.

How? Basically, concentrate on energy efficiency, produce carbon-free electricity from solar and wind power mostly, and power our transportation with carbon-free electricity. In more detail, such a plan would entail the following:

1. Enact a massive energy efficiency incentive program for all businesses and homes that includes energy audits, installing needed weatherization and insulation, and improvement in energy usage through behavioral changes and efficient appliances. Reward demonstrated decreases in energy use with tax cuts.

2. Install photovoltaic panels along with waste heat venting systems on top of all usable roofs (about 70% of all roofs) in the US. EA estimates the photovoltaic panels alone could take care of 70% of our energy needs. Adding systems that redirect the unused roof heat into the house for space, water and other heating uses would decrease energy demands much further at little extra cost. Because the electric energy would be generated where it is used, it would not require an instant upgrade of the national grid, and storage systems via batteries, plug-in cars, or an underground flywheel in each backyard could store energy for night time use. All consumers would have the up-front installation costs paid by the government, which would get reimbursed back monthly via estimated energy savings for every household or business. Redirect some of the monies previously used to finance oil wars for initially financing this project, which we estimate would have a total cost of roughly $1.6 trillion.

3. Redirect fossil fuel subsidies and incentives into a continuous federal subsidies and incentives program for developing energy efficient processes and renewable energy sources: wind turbine installations, solar thermal plants, and geothermal plants. Implement all sorts of policy tools to do the same thing at all levels of government. Reward the market winners in energy efficiency and renewable energy by withholding taxes on profits.

4. Invest in changing the current aging national energy grid into an expanded, updated and "smart" grid that receives energy from diverse sources, and sends as well as receives information from consumers. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that it will take roughly an extra $8.5 billion yearly over the next 20 years to achieve this.

5. Enlist the manpower to achieve the previous four steps through governmental and private organizations:
• Create an Energy Independence Corp that will enlist volunteers to become energy auditors, and weatherization and photovoltaic panel installers in exchange for job experience, low interest loans, and monetary grants towards college.
• Enlist and help nonprofit organizations such as the Apollo Alliance and Habitat for Humanity to train and implement energy efficiency measures and renewable energy installations.
• Devote the National Guard and Armed Forces, when not needed for military and emergency purposes, towards helping install renewable energy structures, upgrade the grid, and improve the energy efficiency of buildings.
• Create an Energy Efficiency Badge for boy and girl scouts.
• Train Peace Corps members to spread this technology internationally.

6. Conserve at home and abroad ecosystems that store vast amounts of carbon far more cost effectively and safely than any carbon sequestration effort will: forests, grasslands and peatlands.

7. Invest in education: 1) Develop curricula that inform students about how humanity depends on ecosystems for necessary services and resources, and how renewable energy systems work; 2) Teach all citizens through schools and marketing about living sustainably through recycling resources, reducing waste, and reuse.

In our book we show that the money we save by avoiding climatic catastrophes and wasteful energy use will more than cover the investment costs outlined above. As with any plan, there are challenges to overcome. But can we do it? Oh yes, we can.

Want more details? Download our book and start reading: www.CoolTheEarth.US