A few days have passed since Lisa Owen’s interview with Antarctic scientists Chuck Kennicutt of the US and Gary Wilson of New Zealand on TV3’s The Nation but I hope it’s still worth drawing attention to. Programmes like The Nation tend to focus on immediate political excitements. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to see an interviewer who was reasonably well informed of the issues surrounding the effect of global warming on the Antarctic and who allowed the two scientists space to explain the far-reaching planetary consequences of Antarctic melting.
I won’t traverse the content of the interview here. It was familiar enough material to anyone who follows the science. The scientists were restrained and objective, almost to a fault. But their observations were stark enough. Gary Wilson observed that looking back in geological time we know that the last time carbon dioxide levels were at 400 parts per million the end solution of a prolonged period in that state was that the West Antarctic ice sheet retreated.
Beyond expressing pleasure at the quality of the interview and the fact that it was undertaken my main purpose in this post is to draw attention to the contribution of one of the panellists who subsequently discussed the interview (3 minutes in).
The panel discussion itself was worthy of the interview. Rob Fenwick underlined the crucial importance of what happens in the Antarctic, but it was the contribution of Jonathan Milne, deputy editor of the Herald on Sunday, which I want to dwell on. He said he thought his fellow panellists were underestimating the level of ignorance out there in the wider public. “I’m including myself in this. I really don’t think we know the importance and significance of Antarctica. I don’t think we know what’s happening with climate change.”
He went on to say that he thought we’re driven by our views on politics rather than the science in reaching our views on climate change. He instanced ACT members. “They’re not listening to the science. They’re listening to the politics.” His conclusion: “I think scientists have an enormous battle on their hands.”
I agree. I do not think there is widespread understanding of the science. There can’t be, for if there were we would be demanding action from our politicians, not taking our cue from them. Ever since I began to understand the magnitude of the effect our burning of fossil fuels is having and will continue to have on Earth’s climate it has seemed to me obvious that the general populace has not been given the opportunity to understand the message from the science. I’m not a scientist and I had to chase down books and publications which explained the issue. I was retired and had the time to do so as well as a lifelong habit of reading. Most people are not in this position. They depend on the news media, which by and large, at least in this country, have not so far been up to the task.
I hope Jonathan Milne goes back to his desk determined to help remedy the neglect. It’s not difficult, as The Nation’s segment illustrated. All it needs is a readiness to allow climate scientists to communicate the import of their work and a weighing of the importance of the issue which means that it is regularly and prominently in the forefront of the news.
The combination of a recently acquired desktop video magnifier and a kindle has for the time being restored some ease to my reading. Hence this review. I was drawn by the title The Moral Challenge of Dangerous Climate Change: Values, Poverty and Policy, since I can’t see the resistance to energy reform mounted by powerful fossil fuel interests being overcome without some kind of moral determination by a significant portion of the population. I was also attracted by the fact that the author, Darrel Moellendorf is a political and moral philosopher and I was curious to read a philosophical perspective on the climate change issue.
Although the book is intended to be accessible to readers who are not versed in the discipline of philosophy it is no light read. The discussions of the various policy issues it addresses are exhaustive and rigorous. There are no ringing calls, just appeals to humane rationality. But the conclusions are no less compelling for that.
Moellendorf is heavily focused on the poverty in which a large proportion of the human race currently lives: “It should be scandalous that nearly half the world’s population lives in desperate poverty, especially while many lavish in such plenty.” He declares the problem of global poverty to be central to climate change policy. The two issues cannot be separated. In this respect he parallels Nicholas Stern who in his book The Global Deal similarly coupled combating climate change with poverty reduction as the two greatest challenges of the century and claimed that we shall succeed or fail on them together – to tackle only one is to undermine the other.
In Moellendorf’s view it is vital that climate change policy should not put restrictions on poverty-eradicating human development. He introduces what he calls the anti-poverty principle as a standard against which the actions proposed to address climate change should be measured. It’s no surprise then that the primary responsibility for action rests with the highly developed rich countries, as recognised by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. On those countries rests the responsibility of sharply curtailing greenhouse gas emissions, not through a steep reduction in economic activity but through the promotion of a technological revolution in energy. Subsidising the growth of renewable energy in the least-developed economies may well be part of this responsibility.
Moellendorf frequently refers to the UNFCC as an important source of norms and principles in determining climate change action and defends several of those principles in the course of his book. The convention provides compass and continuity in international negotiations.
Moellendorf fully understands the scientific consensus about the warming world and the risks it poses for humanity. He sets the risks out in some detail, acknowledging the uncertainties but seeing them as all the more reason to be concerned. He writes of the possibility of cascading uncertainties if various positive feedbacks are triggered by the warming. Climate change, he concludes, poses risks of catastrophic changes to human communities and ecosystems. The risks are particularly dangerous to people made vulnerable by the coincidence of poverty and geography, whether in the great river deltas of North Africa and East Asia, the glacier-fed rivers in Asia and South America or the arid regions of central and southern Africa.
All of this points to a precautionary approach in attempting to mitigate climate change. It would be dangerous to gamble on a lower climate sensitivity than predicted by the science. The cost of mitigation, estimated at 2 percent of GDP, is low when set against the threat of a 3 degree rise in global temperature.
Moellendorf is not impressed by economists who attempt to discount the need for present action based on the supposition that future populations will be better off than we are and therefore better placed to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The likely severity of climate change casts doubt on the assumption that economic growth will continue at its current levels. Moellendorf’s clear appreciation of what the science portends contrasts with the bland assumption that economic growth will ensure later generations will be up to the task of late mitigation.
An interesting chapter on the value of biodiversity explores not merely its economic importance but also the value of the “delight, wonder and awe at nature” which matter to human life. Moellendorf quotes a memorable statement of biologist E.O. Wilson with approval, and I can’t forbear to repeat it here: “This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve. It has eaten the storms – folded them into its genes – and created the world that created us. It holds us steady.”
What results from Moellendorf’s painstaking discussions is entirely consonant with what many who are alarmed by the human impacts of climate change have felt for a number of years. Put through close philosophic scrutiny the concerns emerge as rational and humane responses to a grave threat to the human future.
But rationality and humanity have a rough time in the political world where negotiations towards a global solution (the only sort there is for our common atmosphere) are supposedly proceeding. One has only to think of the ranting of many Republican congress members in the US or, closer to home, of our own government’s policies mired in contradiction yet energetically defended by ministers. Moellendorf is not blind to this reality and faces it squarely in his final chapter on urgency – “the fierce urgency of now” as one of his headings describes it. Against the fossil fuel industry and its political allies he looks to civil society movements and political organisations to use their organising skills to mobilise support for climate change mitigation in states currently lacking mitigation ambition. It’s a big ask, but we might remember that the moral challenge has informed powerful movements of ordinary citizens in the past which have overcome entrenched interests. The abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves come to mind for me.
Moellendorf is ever mindful that climate change affects the lives and well-being of billions of people both now and in the future. Morality is to do with what we owe other people. The energy revolution we require to constrain climate change may be technological, but the motivation to demand it is profoundly moral. His patient exposition of this imperative is most welcome.
This is the trailer for Years Of Living Dangerously, a nine part documentary about the impacts of climate change by James Cameron and a bunch of Hollywood filmmakers, working with some of the USA’s top TV journalists and a team of top climate scientists. There are some big names involved: Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Jessica Alba, and Arnold Schwarzenegger investigate various aspects of how climate impacts are already being felt. It’s being shown on Showtime (cable TV) in the US, and I imagine it will eventually turn up elsewhere around the world. For the time being you can watch the first episode in its entirety here:
For background info on how the Years Of Living Dangerously project was put together and financed, I recommend this excellent (long) article by Michael Peltz at Institutional Investor, Climate change and the years of investing dangerously, which looks at the work of Jeremy Grantham and others to persuade big business to take climate risks seriously.
Kathryn Ryan’s interview earlier this week with Michael Eckhart, Managing Director and Global Head of Environmental Finance and Sustainability at the giant investment bank Citigroup was arresting. He was in New Zealand as a keynote speaker at the Wind Energy Conference and Ryan asked him about a recent report from Citi, Energy Darwinism: The Evolution of the Energy Industry, which claimed the world is entering the age of renewable energy and explored the consequences for generators, utilities, consumers and fossil fuel exporters. There’s a good exposition of the report on this blog post.
Eckhart explained the three big costs in producing electricity – the fuel, paying off the loan for the plant, and operational maintenance. In the case of coal and natural gas generation all three costs are involved and there’s no way of knowing what the cost of the fuel will be in the future. With wind and other renewables “there is no fuel cost at all: none”. Once the loan for the plant is paid off there are no further costs other than operational.
Ryan asked why investment in renewables is dropping as the costs are coming down. Eckhart in reply spoke of an anomaly:
“We had a very successful industry emerging coming out of the United States, Europe … manufacturing these solar cells, these solar panels, and along came China, and China just produces things at a lower cost and China made a priority – this became a priority industry under the government of China … and they came out with panels costing half as much.”
Investors in Western companies consequently took a hit and investors in the new Chinese companies did very well “and it’s all a big mix now”. The surviving Western companies are still there and very successful though many companies have closed. The industry has a new profile. Japan and the Middle East are also now part of the picture. The industry is evolving all the time.
Ryan then mentioned the difficulties wind energy is facing in the US with the emergence of cheap shale gas and the withdrawal of subsidies leading to a real hit to investment.
In response, Eckhart spoke in general terms of the world being 40 years into a 100-year transition to clean energy. Renewable energy is on a large scale around the world. “It’s a 250 billion dollar per year industry – that’s how much capital’s being invested in it”. It’s a big industry competing with conventional power “better and better all the time”. In the US right now low-cost natural gas is gaining some share against renewables, but that’s not going to be a long-term trend. He spoke of the big forcing functions like climate change, environmental protection, human safety and stabilisation of energy costs. He stressed that stabilisation is one aspect of renewable energy that is often overlooked. Once a wind or solar project is built and financed the cost of its electricity is fixed for the life of the plant. Stabilisation of energy costs is important for countries.
When Ryan pressed the question of subsidies for wind and the pressure they are coming under in some countries Eckhart replied that subsidies are better seen as incentives, or compensation for public benefit. Non-pollution from renewables is a public benefit. But there’s nothing in the market to pay for that.
Solar presently counts for a quarter of a percent of the US electricity supply. How, asked Ryan, do you get a big transition moving from that small base?
Eckhart instanced Bill Gates making a fortune from the point when PCs were at only two percent of the computing power in the world. It’s the future that matters. He distinguished the three layers of the industry. First, the technology and manufacturing companies who produce the equipment to harvest the natural energy. Second, the developers, owners and operators of the renewable power plants. Third the utilities that buy that electricity to sell it to us. The profitability of the manufacturing layer might for the present be bad because of the Chinese dominance of the space. However the drop in prices has benefited the developers who are buying the panels and putting them to service. That’s where the fortunes are currently being made. The utilities have been taken somewhat by surprise and are still figuring out how this impacts their business.
Market adjustment is called for. Those who adjust fastest are going to benefit. Those who stand still might be impacted negatively. The world is changing. We are in a century of massive technology innovation and adoption.
I appreciated Eckhart’s forthrightness, all the more because of the investment banking environment from which it comes. But the question the interview left me pondering was whether the forcing function of climate change that Eckhart refers to will be felt strongly enough to speed up the process that he sees as inexorably under way. Forty years into a hundred-year transition doesn’t sound far enough from a climate change perspective. Our own government is happy enough to look forward to fully renewable energy in the long run, but only after as much profit as possible is taken from fossil fuels. The remaining sixty years of Eckhart’s hundred need to be condensed to thirty before we can safely take heart from the kind of analysis he makes.
As expected, the New Zealand government’s response to the IPCC’s Working Group 3 report on mitigating climate change pays lip service to the science, while maintaining that NZ is doing all that can be expected. Climate change minister Tim Groser’s press release said that the IPCC report’s call for intentional cooperation meant that NZ is “on the right track in pressing for a binding international agreement on emissions beyond 2020″ but failed to note the urgency explicit in the report.
Groser also repeated the government’s standard response when challenged on government inaction on climate policy:
“New Zealand is doing its fair share on climate change, taking into account our unique national circumstances, both to restrict our own emissions and support the global efforts needed to make the cuts that will limit warming.”
Groser’s response to the WG2 and WG3 reports so angered Pure Advantage founder Phillip Mills that he announced he would make a $125,000 donation to the Labour and Green parties. Mills, who has been working behind the scenes for the last five years, lobbying cabinet ministers and National MPs to build a business case for climate action and clean, green business growth, told the NZ Herald:
I’ve been trying impartially to deal with National. I’ve met with John Key around this a number of times … and really I held the hope that I and groups that I’ve been involved with would be able to get National to see sense.
NZ scientists who contributed to the IPCC reports were also critical of NZ’s perceived inaction. The Science Media Centre collated some of their responses.
Prof Ralph Sims, Sustainable Energy, School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, Massey University, WG3 lead author:
…each New Zealander is responsible for emitting around eight tonnes of carbon dioxide a year … we are now the fourth highest emitters per person in the world, behind Australia, the United States, and Canada. New Zealand has set a modest target to reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions by five per cent below the 1990 gross emission level in just six years time, yet no one knows how we will achieve this…
Bob Lloyd, Associate Professor and Director of Energy Studies, Physics Department, University of Otago:
in international climate change negotiations NZ is regarded as a particularly ‘tough’ negotiator. By ‘tough’ read ‘selfish’. … To get global buy-in NZ must act as a global leader in emissions reductions not a selfish backwater.
Prof Susan Krumdieck, Dept of Mechanical Engineering, University of Canterbury:
There aren’t any responsible leaders, competent engineers, or sensible people who would suggest we should exceed safety limits. Who in the world would say that as a matter of convenience, we should push essential systems to collapse? There is also no way to mitigate the impacts of a catastrophic failure.
The only option now is for all responsible, competent and sensible people to demand action from engineers, planners and business leaders to change every system that produces and uses climate affecting materials so dramatically reduce the production and use of fossil fuels and reduce the emissions of other greenhouse gasses.
Tasked with these comments by Green climate spokesman Kennedy Graham, Groser’s response was the scientists should “stick to their knitting” and leave the decision-making to him. Such obvious contempt for expertise seems to be a hallmark of Groser and his colleagues: when the message is inconvenient, how much easier to belittle the messenger than to address the issue.
That’s the real problem: the heart of the National government, from John Key repeating Groser’s mantra at Question Time, to Steven Joyce’s blind spot on green business initiatives, simply cannot pay anything other than lip service to the evidence in the IPCC reports, because if they did they would be forced to recognise that they have their policy settings all wrong.
For Tim Groser, climate change is an international relations problem, to be solved by tough negotiation where New Zealand’s interests — as defined by Key & Co — are paramount. For John Key, climate change is a political problem. If the other side thinks it’s important, then by definition his party has to say it’s less important. Such is the nature of parliamentary party politics, as played by shallow people who don’t understand the breadth of the problem they are supposed to confront.
Of course, the climate problem is an international relations issue, and a domestic political issue, but those are just component parts of a far bigger and much more serious problem. The IPCC reports make it clear that we are already changing the climate, and that we’re currently on course for 3 to 4ºC of warming this century — well beyond any safe limit. Action to reduce emissions now will limit future damage, and be surprisingly affordable, but the window to act is closing fast.
What Key & Co do not appear to understand are the dire consequences of inaction. Nor do they appreciate what risk management means when you don’t know how bad things are really going to get. It might be expedient to punt the problem to future parliaments, while trying to save face in the here and now, but inaction is actively increasing the risk of future damage, and the costs of adapting to it. As Susan Krumdieck points out, “there is [...] no way to mitigate the impacts of a catastrophic failure”.
So how do we persuade the present government to take its responsibilities seriously? One obvious route is via the ballot box, by making climate action a central issue in September’s general election and voting for parties with a commitment to urgent action. But there is another way, and one for which there may be some signs of a groundswell developing — and which will be the only route open if the National Party leads the next government.
The Wise Response group has delivered its petition to parliament, calling on the government to take climate action and green growth seriously. The Royal Society of NZ has also called for a change in direction towards a low emissions, green economy. With influential groups consistently knocking on the door, and with climate impacts in the news and increasingly undeniable, is it too much to hope that Key & Co might accept the need for urgent action and set NZ back on the right road?
[Update 17/4: Peter Griffin at Sciblogs fact checks Groser's comments about Ralph Sims, and finds that the Minister was 100% wrong to suggest that Sims was "palpably wrong on multiple levels".]
[Elvis. The other one.]
The IPCC has just released the summary for policymakers of the Working Group 3 report on mitigating climate change. It makes clear that the world has to act quickly to restrict carbon emissions to have a reasonable chance of restricting warming to 2ºC by the end of the century, but establishes that the costs of action are affordable.
A few key points:
- Annual greenhouse gas emissions have risen 10 GtCO2eq between 2000 and 2010, and half of all emissions since 1750 have occurred in the last 40 years
- If no further actions are taken to reduce emissions global mean surface temperature in 2100 will increase by 3.7 to 4.8°C compared to pre‐industrial levels
- To have a reasonable chance of staying under 2ºC of warming in 2100 means restricting greenhouse gases to 450 ppm CO2eq
- Hitting 450 ppm CO2eq will mean “substantial cuts in anthropogenic GHG emissions by mid‐century through large‐scale changes in energy systems and potentially land use”
- Typical 450 ppm CO2eq scenarios include overshooting the target and then removal of CO2 by bionenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), though “carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies and methods are uncertain and CDR technologies and methods are, to varying degrees, associated with challenges and risks”
- The Cancun pledges are not consistent with cost-effective efforts to hit 2ºC, and are more likely to commit the world to 3ºC of warming
- The sooner we act, the cheaper overall mitigation will be – as little as 0.06% of annual GDP growth to hit 450 ppm CO2eq
Commenting on the report for the Science Media Centre, VUW climate scientist Jim Renwick said:
The WGIII report charts many possible futures where we cap the warming at 2 degrees. Action, such as moving to 100% renewable electricity generation, needs to start immediately. New Zealand is as well-placed as any nation to lead the world on this, provided we have the political will. That appears to be lacking right now – there’s plenty of talk about emissions reductions targets, while at the same time we’re opening the country up to more oil drilling and coal mining. The latest MfE report shows New Zealand’s emissions have gone up 25% since 1990, and they are on track to keep rising.
Per head of population, we are some of the biggest emitters on the planet. Clean and green? 100% pure? Right now – I don’t think so.
Summary for policymakers (pdf)
Full report (available from April 15th)
With global atmospheric carbon dioxide bumping along just under 400ppm, and sure to break through to higher levels in the near future, it’s worth taking a long hard look at what the climate system was like the last time CO2 was at these levels — the Pliocene period 3-5 million years ago. Professor Maureen Raymo of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is a paleoclimate expert, and in this new video by Peter Sinclair for the Yale Climate Forum she explains how we can find out what might be in store when the planet finally catches up with its atmosphere. Not good news, especially if you consider that we’re certain to blow well past 400 ppm in coming decades, unless dramatic action is taken to reduce carbon emissions.
This week’s Daily Blog post takes a further look at NZ political responses to the release of the of the second part of the IPCC’s Fifth Report, and ponders how everyone who has gleefully claimed that adaptation is all we need to do will react when the third report — on mitigating carbon emissions — is released next week. Good risk management would mean planning to adapt to four degrees of warming, while aiming at emissions reductions that would restrict warming to two degrees…
Why would the New Zealand Herald choose to reprint a review of a book steeped in climate denial, under the headline The game is up for climate change believers in the week between two major climate reports from the IPCC? The review, by Charles Moore, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, an up-market British newspaper noted chiefly for its unwavering support of the right wing of the Conservative Party, appeared on the Telegraph’s web site over the weekend — over a year since the book was first published. Someone at the Herald clearly thought that Moore’s views on The Age of Global Warming by former banker and right wing think tank denizen Rupert Darwell, would add something to the paper’s coverage of climate matters. If they did, one wonders whether they bothered to read it first, because Moore’s review is little more than extended paean of praise to Darwall’s conspiratorial thinking — global green conspiracy, capture of science by politics — all the tropes that traipse through the “works” of Delingpole, Wishart and Lawson. Worse than that: it makes factual errors that anyone paying the slightest attention to the content of the Herald — which you might expect its own staff to do — should have been able to pick up. Even worse: the Herald failed to notice that the Telegraph‘s own Tom Chivers noted that Moore was talking nonsense:
…whatever the merits of the book, Charles has made a howling, awful error in his very first paragraph, quoted above. Let’s look at it again:
The theory of global warming is a gigantic weather forecast for a century or more.
No, it isn’t.
It simply isn’t. Whatever your thoughts on anthropogenic climate change, and whatever your thoughts on hockey sticks and the IPCC and “watermelons” and Climategate and urban heat islands and all these vexèd things, there is simply no sense in which “the theory of global warming is a gigantic weather forecast for a century or more”.
Chivers proceeds to demolish Moore’s review, and finishes his piece with this damning comment:
Charles has utterly misunderstood the issue, and told an entire scientific discipline that he knows best, and it’s important that someone points out that he’s got it wrong.
There’s more — much more — that Moore gets wrong. Here’s a sentence from his penultimate paragraph:
Last week, the latest IPCC report made the usual warnings about climate change, but behind its rhetoric was a huge concession. The answer to the problems of climate change lay in adaptation, not in mitigation, it admitted. So the game is up.
Utter tosh. Next week sees the release of the third part of the IPCC’s fifth report, devoted in its entirety to mitigation. It will undoubtedly point to the need to urgently reduce emissions. The Herald news pages will, I’m sure, go to some lengths to ensure that they provide good coverage of this important news.
But no notion of “balance”, or of reflecting a range of opinion can excuse printing factually incorrect propaganda from overseas. The Herald‘s foolish editorial team (or an ideologue hiding therein) made the paper look stupid today. It would be funny, if it weren’t so seriously wrongheaded — and dangerous for sensible public discourse on this crucial issue.
[Update 9/4/14, 8:45am: In the last hour the Herald has published Tom Chivers' response to Moore's review, but there is no link from Moore's review to the riposte, or any other acknowledgement that it is clearly factually incorrect. At least it proves someone at the Herald is awake and following Twitter...]