What about the “moral hazard” of removing methane from the atmosphere? Wouldn’t it let polluters off the hook?

No.  In fact, it’s critical that methane removal be coupled with strong requirements to cut methane pollution and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  To make the methane math work and avoid methane-induced warming, we need both aggressive emissions mitigation and active removal measures.  They are linked, and mutually reinforcing.  Some argue that behaviorally, “moral hazard” does exist, which is why it’s important to insist on regulations requiring strong emissions mitigation.  Others believe that the concept of moral hazard is misapplied to greenhouse gas removal (GGR), because science is telling us we need greenhouse gas removal to avoid catastrophic warming, so there is no real choice in the matter.  Fundamentally, at this point in the climate crisis, coupling emissions mitigation with active removal isn’t a moral hazard; it’s a moral imperative. We no longer have the luxury of choosing between mitigation and removal.  In order to bring atmospheric methane concentrations down to safe levels, we should do both, at speed and at scale.

The concept of “moral hazard” originated in the insurance sector to describe how people choose to behave more riskily when the insurer bears the cost if things go badly.  The term was later extended to describe almost any situation where people can foist negative consequences of their risky or bad behavior onto others. 

Some climate advocates view removal of greenhouse gases as a “moral hazard” that could encourage big polluters to keep profiting by emitting their pollution, poisoning frontline communities, and letting others be concerned with removing atmospheric GHGs later.   But the moral hazard argument only applies where people have a choice about how to behave.  For almost a decade, scientists have argued that the removal of greenhouses gases is no longer a choice, but a necessity. 

The dangerous consequences of human interference in the climate system are already apparent around the world and will only continue to worsen unless and until atmospheric concentrations of GHGs are drastically reduced.  Nearly all climate scientists now agree that if we rely solely on cutting emissions, atmospheric GHGs won’t fall fast enough to avoid catastrophic warming.  That means greenhouse gas removal (GGR) is now essential, and outweighs any concerns about moral hazard as it relates to greenhouse gases.

This is particularly true in the case of methane.  A large portion of methane emissions are natural emissions that can’t be mitigated. Methane is such a powerful climate forcer, and will add so much warming to the climate system unless atmospheric concentrations are rapidly reduced, that the moral imperative is especially clear:  strong measures to reduce methane emissions wherever possible must be coupled with strong measures to remove methane from the atmosphere.

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