Chris Mooney: The Truth About the World’s Greenhouse Gases

Sarah Carter ’24

News Editor

On Tuesday, Feb. 1, College of the Holy Cross students congregated in the Rehm Library to listen to a talk from Chris Mooney, a well-awarded contributor for the “Washington Post” and climate change research aficionado. Mooney began his discussion by citing some of his credentials and past work. For the past seven years, he has been employed with the “Washington Post” where he primarily writes in data journalism as part of the climate reporting team. Mooney elucidated data journalism as the process of using real data to tell a story, a mechanism for informed storytelling that the “Washington Post” is looking to exploit incrementally throughout its office.

Mooney’s goal-seeking climate change ventures first began with a project titled “Two Degrees Celsius,” which he worked on at the “Washington Post.” As a participant in this endeavor, Mooney sought to discern and disseminate stories about the fastest-warming places across the globe. His work, which comprised on-site activities in the Arctic, where observable climate change is taking place, galvanized within him a passion for climate change resolution that would span the next seven years of his career. From this point on, he began doing large sums of research on his own, decrying a number of studies saying that various greenhouse gases are underreported across the globe. Sulfur hexafluoride (a man-made greenhouse gas that we derive from certain components of electric transmission systems), for example, exists in the atmosphere at much higher levels than what we know on-record. Furthermore, methane emissions from livestock are frequently underestimated, according to a number of comprehensive studies Mooney references. What accounts for these fallacies in gaseous emissions data is the use of an antiquated emission factor to compute the approximate amount of methane released into the atmosphere yearly. Using the factor, we can perform a simple two-variable multiplication function to “determine” the estimated emission level per year (we take the number of cows, for example, and multiply by the amount of methane each cow excretes via burping in a year). There are several possible avenues for error with regard to this approach, including, but not limited to, misreporting the number of cows/livestock, failing to make a veracious and complete report of agricultural activities, and wrongly assessing the rate of methane release. 

To reconcile these proposed issues, Mooney began working on a second project shortly thereafter, titled, “The Invisible Series.” Under this project, Mooney and his colleague researched thoroughly into the emission levels reported in every country acrsoss the world. This proved to be an onerous task from the very outset of the project as, of the approximately 183 countries surveyed in the study, only 43 record their carbon emissions every year (these are so-called Annex 1 countries), while the other 140 countries do not (these are referred to as non-Annex countries). Moreover, Mooney and his team soon apprehended that different countries have different metrics for ranking the potency of greenhouse gases. For example, some countries say methane is more potent than nitrous oxid, while others maintain that the reverse is true.

During the data collection, Mooney and his team received the following information: the reported greenhouse gas (carbon) emissions for all countries surveyed was 4.2 billion tons versus reported totals for the FAO, GCP (Global Carbon Project), and Minx Inc. at 52.7, 53.5, and 57.4 billion tons released annually.

Mooney considers a host of possibilities that may explicate why the documented emission levels are so overwhelmingly low relative to their measured atmospheric levels. Among these reasons, he cites managed land as paramount. This concept explains an attempt by a number of industrialized countries (including the United States) to curb the reported carbon emissions by including in our procedure a subtraction step in which we take away any carbon the earth takes in via developing plant life. Mooney noted that the United States has claimed almost all of its unused land as “managed land” and is culpable for subtracting over 800 million tons of carbon from the total emissions report each year.

On this same topic, Mooney divulged that emission-tracking problems are replete in even the most underdeveloped countries, where carbon emissions are relatively low. In Malaysia, for example, carbon-dense forests (known under the term ‘peat swamp forests’) are being cleared of trees and drained of water in order to make room for palm oil plantations. While Malaysia reported its carbon emissions at 81 million tons (circa 2016), the FAO ranks them at 422 million tons – a grossly significant difference in data. Mooney also attributes the observed erroneous data on carbon emissions to the lack of methane emissions reporting, particularly as it pertains to emissions in Russia.

To curtail these ongoing reporting issues, Mooney intends to advocate for the addition of his work to the Paris Climate Agreement (an international treaty to limit carbon emissions) and/or implement a new regime for reporting data across all data journalism platforms. While Mooney is hopeful that successfully completing both processes will assuage some of the more imminent climate change threats that we face, he worries that the problems associated with gentrification and land clearance will only continue to augment issues surrounding misreported, faulty data on climate change in the future. 

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