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…
Posts Tagged adaptation
When people just arriving in Warsaw over the last few days ask me how long I’ve been here, my general response has been “all my life.” That’s what it feels like. You’d think I’d be used to this, it being my 11th COP. But there’s nothing like that special feeling of tiredness having been in a hideous, air-conditioned stadium for 15 hours a day. And I’m not even a negotiator.
We had a discussion today about whether a warm weather COP is better for achieving progress on the climate than a cold one, and it seemed this was so. Bali, Cancun and Durban did make better progress, on the whole, than Poznan, Copenhagen, and now Warsaw.
Today was the day that a bunch of civil society walked out of the Polish National Stadium. WWF, Greenpeace, Action Aid, 350 and Oxfam, along with unions and youth left the meeting, noisily, in big numbers and with the slogan “polluters talk, we walk,” in protest at the way the fossil fuel industry appears to be running progress, or lack thereof.
I understand where they’re coming from. Separate Oil and State and you’d get a lot further than where we are right now. Some NGO’s are staying inside to help steer the process through to the bitter end, which also seems understandable.
So where are we? It looks like, with the policies in place so far, we’re heading to 3.7degC, which is half a degree of warming above where we’d be if governments actually did what they pledged in Copenhagen to do. They’re not even on track to meet those crappy targets.
All this meeting was supposed to do was to set up a decent timetable so that governments can complete the brave march to Paris, December 2015 where they will agree a major new climate treaty that will keep global warming below 2degC. Oh, and increase emissions cuts before 2020 because if we wait until then to do only what everyone agreed in Copenhagen we’ll be going to hell in a very warm handbasket.
But even that seems like too difficult a task. There’s been a concerted effort by what’s known as the “Umbrella Group” (Australia, NZ, the US, Canada, Japan… you know, those really good and progressive governments) to stall as much as possible.
The Australians have really been the bad guys here, getting a number of fossil of the day awards, and making even NZ look like the nice people (well, sort of). It’s not that we’re good, it’s just that Tony Abbott’s new Government is so much worse than anyone could ever have imagined. I’ve never heard the word “belligerent” so often used to describe the attitude of one country’s behaviour in these talks (well, maybe the Saudi’s…)
On Finance, today the French pledged $5 million to the Adaptation Fund, set up to receive money from CER’s (units generated from Clean Development Mechanism projects) and to help the smallest, most vulnerable countries adapt to the (now inevitable) impacts of climate change. Woot! This now means that the Adaptation Fund has reached the threshold of the $100 million it needed just to keep going.
A UNEP report earlier in the week showed that the African Continent, four degrees of warming would require up to $350 bn a year by 2070 to pay for adaptation. So that $100m isn’t going to go very far.
In the rest of the Finance discussion it’s all too bogged down in nasty fighting right now to say what will happen, but the major problem appears to be with those who want to talk about rules for the Green Climate Fund for the rest of their lives. The GCF will, maybe one day, be the place that produces funding for the small island states and other desperately poor countries in coping with climate change.
But so long as you don’t agree on the rules of how the fund will work, then nobody has to start stumping up the $100bn a year by 2020 that the developed world promised in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, money continues to pour into the coffers of the fossil fuel industry in subsidies.
On the vexed issue of Loss and Damage, in Doha they agreed to keep talking. Here, boiling it down very simply, it’s a question of whether a separate institution be set up to deal with it. Developed countries like the US argue no way. But when it comes to climate change there are a whole set of issues that are above and beyond simply adapting to. Things like permanent loss of land. Of culture (eg small islands disappearing). That’s all bogged down too.
And tonight the Indian Government, who fought tooth and nail in Durban for the principles of equity to be central to any future agreement, got a Fossil of the Day for insisting that strong wording on equity proposed by South Africa be dropped.
It’s going to be a long 48 hours ahead.
Kicking off the afternoon sessions on the first day of this year’s NZ CCC conference, Professor Barry Smit of the University of Guelph in Canada launched his keynote — titled From theory to practice, from impacts to adaptation (abstract) — with a rousing climate version of Let It Be. I caught up with him during the evening reception, but didn’t ask him to sing…
It’s been a long day in Palmerston North at the NZ Climate Change Conference for 2013. There’ll be nothing particularly cogent in this post, but I have recorded interviews with two of the VUW 3 — Jim Renwick tells me about the southern annular mode,the ozone hole and sea ice, and Dave Frame gives me his take on TCS, ECS and Oxford — plus Professor Barry Smit from the University of Guelph in Canada talks about Inuit, wine and uncertainty. I’ll be posting those interviews later this week, along with some more I hope to grab tomorrow, and I’m lining up some guest posts for the future. All fascinating stuff — and I have to say it’s a great relief to find a bunch of really smart people who are focussed on the nuts and bolts of the issue, not the sceptic sideshow.
This is the five minute condensed version of the talk I gave in Gore at the Coal Action Network Aotearoa Summerfest (a somewhat optimistic title, given the chilly and wet weather last weekend).
It’s too late to avoid damaging climate change, because it’s already happening. Weather extremes — floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, and storms — are on the increase, dramatic melting of Arctic sea ice is affecting northern hemisphere weather patterns, and accelerating ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica points towards a rapid increase in sea level. And the climate commitment, the 30 years it will take the planet to get back into energy balance once atmospheric CO2 is stabilised, guarantees that we will see much worse long before we see any benefit from action we take today.
Everything we do now to cut emissions will help us to avoid the very worst impacts — the almost unimaginable stuff that will be happening by the middle of this century — so it’s really worth doing.
To avoid future damage being catastrophic, we need emissions cuts to be made as if this were wartime. The global economy has to be switched from fossil fuel burning to clean energy as fast as possible — as if our very civilisation depended on it, because it does. Every year of delay now is a year more in the 2040s and 2050s of the very worst the climate system will throw at us. Every year of delay will make the job harder.
We need to go beyond stabilising atmospheric CO2 levels, and remove much of carbon emitted since the industrial revolution if we are to avoid losing much of the low lying land to long term sea level rise.
We need to be working now to futureproof New Zealand (and everywhere else) as much as possible. We must not lock our economies into high emissions pathways by investing in fossil fuel extraction or emissions-intensive agriculture. We must put in place policies to deal with sea level rise as it happens, but they will have to focus on managed retreat — at least until atmospheric CO2 is on a downwards trend. We need to focus on developing economic and social resilience, to enable us to recover from the inevitable shocks caused by rapid climate change.
This has to be the reality that our governments confront. Getting them to face up to the full seriousness of climate change is not going to be easy, but it’s going to have to be done.
I often find that preparing a talk crystallises my thinking around an issue, and that was certainly the case here. Reviewing the climate events of the last year, looking forward to the near future, and considering our options as climate change begins to really bite left me feeling rather gloomy — but the energy and enthusiasm of the CANA crowd, committed to preventing lignite mining in Southland and to phasing out coal mining throughout New Zealand, did a lot to put a smile back on my face.
Below the fold is an expanded version of the notes I prepared for my talk, with links to supporting material (as I promised to the audiences in Gore)…
Where we are now
Every year since 1976 has been above 20th century average [NOAA National Climate Data Centre]
2012 9th/10th warmest year (see link above)
- Warmest La Niña year
- 9 out 10 warmest years this century
- UKMO forecast new record in 2013 [Hot Topic]
Arctic sea ice rapid decline continues — new record minimum [National Snow and Ice Data Centre]
Greenland ice sheet record melt [Arctic Report Card]
NH weird weather linked to Arctic ice decline: In this section I described how the summer sea ice decline leads to a warm Arctic ocean in autumn and early winter, and the effect this has on jetstream behaviour (with much waving of arms). [Good overview at Climate Central]
Extreme weather is where climate bites
- Aussie heatwave + fires
- US warmest ever year
- US drought
- Floods & intense rainfall: – Pakistan, Nigeria, England’s wettest year
- The new normal
CO2 = 394 ppm – emissions still growing 2.5ppm per year [CO2Now]
Weak emissions policies: In this section, I described how the persistent framing of environmental protection as having to be balanced against economic activity, coupled with industry lobbying to reduce environmental protections and limit the costs of action to reduce emissions combine to create a lack of political will to address climate change. As a result national and international policies have been weakened or left becalmed.
Where we are heading
Sea level likely to rise 24 metres if atmospheric COs stabilises at 400 – 450 ppm [Science Daily]: the only question is how long it will take.
- News gets worse, not better
- Arctic seabed methane
- West Antarctica melt: rapid SLR a possibility [See last part of this Richard Alley lecture]
- Climate “flips”: Younger Dryas
Damaging climate change is unavoidable: climate commitment – 30 years warming in the pipeline
We have to cut net emissions to zero, then we have to take carbon out of the atmosphere
- 350.org (but 300 would be better)
- Oceans will work against us
- Technology not ready (yet)
Need “wartime” emissions cuts
- The longer you leave it, the harder it gets to cut
- The longer you leave it, the worse the unavoidable damage
- Geoengineering seems almost inevitable
- Coastal retreat – Christchurch!
- Do not lock economy into high emissions
- Coal, lignite
- Emissions intensive agriculture (dairy)
Coal deposits are not assets, they’re liabilities!
This article by David Schlosberg, professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney was first published earlier today at The Conversation. It’s an excellent and forthright overview of the challenges we will face in coming to terms with the reality of climate change.
When thinking of the challenges we face in responding to climate change, it is time to admit that our political focus has been fairly narrow: limiting emissions and moving beyond carbon-based energy systems. For 30 years, prevention has been the stated goal of most political efforts, from UNFCCC negotiations to the recent carbon tax.
For anyone paying attention, it is clear that such efforts have not been enough. And now we have entered a new era in the human relationship with climate change, with a variety of broad and different challenges.
The first of our current challenges is to admit that we will not stop climate change. Prevention is no longer an option. The natural systems that regulate climate on the planet are already changing, and ecosystems that support us are shifting under our feet.
We will be a climate-challenged society for the foreseeable future, immersed in a long age of adaptation. What we might have to adapt to, what an adapted society might look like, and how we design a strategy to get there are all open questions.
One of the hopeful signs is that, even if many national governments are not preventing climate change, there is a growing concern for adaptation at the local level.
Climate change challenges the whole enlightenment project — the dream that reason leads us to uncover truths, and those truths lead to human progress and improvement.
We imagine we live in a rational, enlightened society. In such a place, experts would identify issues to be addressed, and goals to be reached, in response to our creation of climate change. Scientific knowledge would be respected and accepted (after peer review, of course), and policy would be fashioned in response.
The reality is that we frequently have direct intervention explicitly designed to break the link between knowledge and policy; we have seen just how easy it is for power to trump and corrupt knowledge, on a global scale. In fact, organised climate change denialists, and the political figures that support them, have done more to damage the ideals of the enlightenment than any so-called postmodern theorist.
The key adaptive challenge is to rebuild a constructive relationship between scientific expertise, the public, and policy development. It may be that the necessary engagement of scientific expertise with local knowledges and interests will help rebuild some hope of human progress.
How do we play fair?
Climate change will undermine many of the ecological foundations of our ability to provide for basic needs.
Clearly, one of the key challenges is going to be how the burden is distributed, and how we respond to the vulnerability of people to climatic shifts and adjustments — from drought and floods, to health issues ranging from disease to heatstroke, to food security, to environmental migrations.
Even more challenging, however, is the reality that our emissions undermine the environments of vulnerable people elsewhere: Bangladesh, the horn of Africa, small island states, New Orleans.
And, of course, our actions now — given the delay between emissions and impact — will harm people in the future. So our responsibilities of justice now extend over vast stretches of geography and time.
That’s a lot of ethical challenges to face up to — or not. So how might we begin to address the challenges of climate justice?
Importantly, local communities can be thoroughly involved in both mapping their own vulnerabilities and designing adaptation policies. Perceptions of vulnerability will differ across stakeholder groups — indigenous peoples, farmers, and tourism managers might have a different sense of what is made vulnerable through climate change.
Local participation and deliberation — basic rights themselves — can help us to understand and determine the distinct and local environmental needs of various communities, and so plan for adaptation.
Such adaptation strategies can help to address climate justice.
For all of those conspiracy theorists who think climate change is a leftist conspiratorial plot to develop a UN-based world government — you have got to be kidding. The UNFCCC represents a failure of global governance on a scale we’ve never seen before.
We may be dealing with an issue with a level of complexity that human beings are simply not capable of addressing. Climate change will certainly challenge our adaptive abilities more than anything else the species has faced.
The issue represents a different kind of problem for governments. It will demand multi-scale, widely-distributed, networked, flexible, anticipatory, and adaptive responses on the part of governments from the global down to the local. Climate change will require a radical re-thinking of the very nature of governance, and the adoption of new forms.
We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves (and nature)
But the major challenge of climate change, of course, is whether or not we are capable of changing our currently destructive relationship with the rest of nature. Key here is the reality that, in bringing climate change upon ourselves, we have demonstrated that the very construction of how we immerse ourselves in the natural world, and how we provide for our basic needs, is simply not working.
In fact, our relationship with nature is undermining the lives we’ve constructed. We imagine ourselves removed from the systems and relationships that support us, and so cause these massive disruptions in the life processes around us.
Our continued refusal to recognise ourselves as animals embedded in ecosystems has resulted in the undermining of those systems that sustain us. That’s our key problem, our central challenge.
Thankfully, there are growing examples of alternatives, and of models for adapting to a climate-challenged society. Many groups and movements are rethinking and restructuring the ways we interact with the natural world as we provide for our basic needs — around sustainable energy, local food security, and even crafting and making.
These new materialist movements offer alternative ways of relating to the nonhuman systems that sustain us, and illustrate the possibility of redesigning and restructuring our everyday lives based in our immersion in natural systems. After 30 years of failing in our response to climate change, we may yet demonstrate that human beings still have the capacity to adapt.
Vidal’s voyage to Durban Nov 28Join the conversation at Hot Topic
How better to journey to the climate conference at Durban than through the African countries along the way which are already grappling with climate change? That’s the route John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, has been following over the past ten days and reporting on in a series of articles.
He started in Egypt. The impacts of climate change are difficult to disentangle from natural coastal processes and the effects of human activities on the flow of the Nile, but an inexorably rising sea level and the increasing intensity of storms threaten increased salination of groundwater and soil as well as inundation. Extreme heat will also take its toll on city life.
Sudan was next. A Sudanese researcher reports drought and extreme flooding becoming more frequent, temperatures rising in winter, extreme — good and bad — years now more common and rainfall patterns changing. If temperatures continue to rise, as is predicted over the next 50 years, Sudan can expect more desertification, and more tension between traditionally hostile groups. The country is not well placed to adapt to changes in climate, stressed as it is by endemic poverty, ecosystem degradation, complex conflicts and limited access to markets, infrastructure and technology. In South Sudan changes in rainfall patterns threaten crops and livestock.
In Uganda Vidal visited a coffee-growing village.
One by one, the farmers, who mostly cultivate two acres of land each, tell us what they have observed in their lifetimes. “The springs are drying up”; “we find we can only plant crops twice’; “the coffee has started behaving differently; it flowers even as it fruits”; “we have more diseases”; “we have lost 20% of our income”; “there is less water from the mountain”.
The villagers say they have no scientific understanding of why it is hotter and there is less rain, but they instinctively believe it’s because there are fewer trees, and argue that they should plant more. And they had something to say to the negotiators at Durban:
“We must start with mitigation. Our message to the world leaders and the countries meeting in South Africa is to talk less and act more”, says Januario Kamalha, a villager.
Vidal moved on to Kenya where he reports the ambitious plans to continue the legacy of Wangari Maathai in massive tree-planting projects and to build one of Africa’s biggest wind farms near Lake Turkana. He includes an extract from the environment department’s official assessment of what has happened in the past 20-30 years:
“Rainfalls have become irregular and unpredictable, when it rains [the] downpour is more intense, extreme and harsh weather is now the norm. Since the 1960s both minimum (night time) and maximum (daytime) temperatures have been warming. Rainfall has increased variability year to year, there is a general decline in the main rainfall season and drought in the long rains season is more frequent and prolonged. On the other hand, there are more rains during September to February. This suggests that the short rains are expanding into what is normally the hot and dry period of January and February.”
An official in the environment department sums it up:
’We are vastly affected by climate change. The trends are now extreme. We are seeing adverse effects everywhere. When no crops grow, we have to seek aid. Our economy is greatly affected, so adaptation is our priority.’
In South Africa Vidal visited Ocean View near Capetown, where 75 fisherwomen each own a small 5 metre-long boat and go one mile out in the giant Atlantic swells two or three times a week to catch rock lobsters. They know that fish stocks are affected adversely by a variety of factors, including poaching and over-fishing, but they are convinced that climate change now plays a part.
“We the fisher people know what we see, and we can see changes. The lobsters are hibernating for longer, and their shells are softer and more fragile than they were. Their breeding cycles are being disrupted. The sea temperature is definitely warmer than it used to be. The seas are much rougher these days and people are scared to go out. The wind comes up bigger than before. The weather patterns seem to have changed too.”
Vidal sums his journey up in a final article.
From north to south the broad observations are remarkably similar. More floods, droughts, storms and changing seasons are being experienced: the heatwaves are getting longer and more frequent; the storms more intense; the nighttime temperatures higher; the farmers see new diseases and pests; and the growing seasons appear disrupted. On top of that, the marginal areas are turning to desert and cities are becoming unbearably hot. The peer-reviewed science is still sketchy, but it’s the best there is in a continent starved of research funds and it is consistent with the latest models done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But as the evidence continues to mount and the pain begins to be experienced in some of the poorer parts of the world there is little sign that the rich countries are preparing to tackle the issue seriously at Durban or anywhere else:
… some leaders of the rich and big-emitting countries have lost interest and political momentum and want to consign the talks, like those on world trade, to a never-ending, never-achieving, low-grade, low-profile discussion to take place in backrooms without anyone listening or caring much. They may profess concern, but there is little evidence they want to act.
The 175 or more developing countries are not taking this submissively.
[They are] talking more as one, and the great illusion trick of the rich world is wearing thin. What has changed, they ask? The science of climate change is firmer than it ever was. A 2C-4C temperature rise still means that Africa fries and the polar bears die out, that Bangladesh and Egypt drown, the droughts in Latin America and Ethiopia continue to worsen, and the poorest communities and small-island states, who have the least resources to adapt, will be hurt the hardest.
Vidal is hardly optimistic. He ends with the comment that convincing the US to stop playing with the lives of the poorest or China to brake their economic rise may be too much to expect. Nevertheless he’s right to put his journalism at the service of those who are already discovering in their vulnerable lives what climate change means. Maybe the rich world will prove impervious to moral appeal. But the advocacy must continue and be reiterated again and again so that at least we cannot claim ignorance of the human effects of ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions. I often think how repetitive I feel my own writing about climate change has become as the years go by and little appears to change, at least at the political level. But there’s no escape from that repetition. The twin themes of the reality of the science and the injurious human impacts of climate change must go on being sounded until the world wakes up to what we are doing to ourselves.
A crisp and crunchy show this week, as Gareth and Glenn interview Dr James Renwick about the IPCC’s cautious new report on extreme weather and the riskier future we all face. With added ruminations on the potential slowdown in international action at the Durban conference, record greenhouse gas levels reached in 2010, the prospect of “hyper warming” and the release of some lightly warmed over stolen emails. No debunking a la Cook this week, but he’ll be back soon, and we have news of the world’s first hybrid jet aircraft.
News & commentary: [0:04:30]
Rich nations ‘give up’ on new climate treaty until 2020 — Ahead of critical talks and despite pledge for new treaty by 2012, biggest economies privately admit likelihood of long delay: Fiona Harvey in the Guardian
But Chris Huhne disagrees.
Which might mean we’re on the way to ’hyperwarming’.
Fresh round of hacked climate science emails leaked online: A file containing 5,000 emails has been made available in an apparent attempt to repeat the impact of 2009′s similar release.
Dr James Renwick, principal scientist, climate, at NIWA talks to us about the IPCC’s latest report – the SREX, or Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation.
See also: http://www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz/2011/11/21/nz-faces-moral-obligations-as-climate-changes-hit-scientist/, and all links to report here: Stormy weather: we’re making it worse, and there’s more on the way.
Google drops some projects… A “Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal” initiative launched to drive down the cost of generating solar power was listed among the Google undertakings being nixed. “At this point, other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level,” he added.
Hotspots hit poor hardest Jun 04Join the conversation at Hot Topic
Another report this week drives home the message that the world’s poorer people are going to suffer the early and potentially devastating effects of climate change. The report is the work of the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) programme associated with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a group of food research organisations.
The report, Mapping Hotspots of Climate Change and Food Insecurity in the Global Tropics, was produced by a team of scientists responding to what CCAFS describes as an urgent need to focus climate change adaptation efforts on people and places where the potential for harsher growing conditions poses the gravest threat to food production and food security.
The researchers identified places around the world where the arrival of stressful growing conditions could be especially disastrous. They are areas highly exposed to climate shifts, where survival is strongly linked to the fate of regional crop and livestock yields, and where chronic food problems indicate that farmers are already struggling and they lack the capacity to adapt to new weather patterns.
For example, the report points to large parts of South Asia, including almost all of India, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa — chiefly West Africa — where there are 369 million food-insecure people living in agriculture intensive areas that are highly exposed to a potential five percent decrease in the length of the growing period. That’s a big enough change to significantly affect food yields and food access for people — many of them farmers themselves — already living on the edge.
Higher temperatures are also likely to exact a toll, the report indicates. Today, there are 56 million food-insecure and crop-dependent people in parts of West Africa, India and China who live in areas where, by the mid-2050s, maximum daily temperatures during the growing season could exceed 30 degrees. This is close to the maximum temperature that beans can tolerate, while maize and rice yields may suffer when temperatures exceed this level. For example, a study last year in Nature found that even with optimal amounts of rain, African maize yields could decline by one percent for each day spent above 30 degrees. This map shows where the threatened areas are:
The intention of the report is to identify regions where adaptation measures are likely to be most urgently required. Crop production and livestock capacity are likely to be severely affected. One of the researchers commented on the need to move quickly on innovative solutions to meet the challenges if future serious food security and livelihood problems are to be avoided.
Time journalist Bryan Walsh’s blog remarks that the report is a reminder of one of the inescapable facts of global warming politics: those who are least responsible for the problem, those who are already living close to the edge, are those who will almost certainly suffer the most. The implication he draws is surely correct:
’That leaves much of the responsibility in the hands of the developed nations, whose wealth will shield them from the worst impacts of climate change – provided they plan well. Reducing emissions is a must, to blunt the worst effects of warming. But adaptation will be just as important – if not more so… In short, we’ll need to help with the hard work of international development – which in a hotter world, is all but synonymous with climate adaptation.’
In obvious exasperation with lack of progress on mitigation he pushes the cause of adaptation:
’As diplomats gather for yet another round of climate negotiations – this time in Bonn – I’d rather see governments make concrete pledges on adaptation, foreign aid and technological development, instead of another empty promise about preventing temperature rise or keeping the atmosphere’s carbon concentrations at a ‘safe’ level. Action now is worth a lot more than promise tomorrow.’
It’s certainly a cause worth pleading, although not one that is likely to have much traction if New Zealand’s recent budget is any indication. For yet another year the small proportion of our gross national income devoted to aid has suffered a cut. Caritas politely says how regrettable this is. I think I’d have chosen a stronger adjective.
No matter how impervious politicians appear to the hardships global warming is beginning to impose on the poor and will impose on generations to come it’s important to keep hammering the message, if only to bear witness, as Stephen Gardiner’s recently reviewed book, A Perfect Moral Storm, puts it. There may be some ethical embers lying dormant which might yet be fanned into a blaze. Here’s a short video from CGIAR which brings viewers face to face with those who already grapple with climate change.
There are a couple more of the videos, on Ghana and Kenya, which can be accessed here.
As I walked past the magazine stand at the supermarket this week my eye was caught by the front cover of the this week’s Listener (on sale last week). ’Rising sea levels & extreme weather — why NZ needs to get serious,’ it said. A cautious peek inside suggested Ruth Laugeson’s article might deserve a comment on Hot Topic so I parted with four dollars and brought it home to look more closely. It does indeed deserve mention here if only because it’s the sort of straightforward treatment of climate change that we should be able to expect of serious journalism. Laugeson has been reading Mark Hertsgaard’s book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, which I reviewed a few weeks back on Hot Topic. Hertsgaard argues that we must plan adaptation to the now unavoidable changes at the same time as working to avoid much worse and likely unmanageable change.
Laugeson has enquired about how local government is faring in New Zealand with its adaptation planning, discussing the question with Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule. His overall feeling is that there’s something of a vacuum nationally. Some councils are working hard, but progress is patchy. There are vocal mayors who say that climate change is a lot of rubbish and local bodies shouldn’t be drawn into it. Work that is being done by some councils includes mapping coastal hazard zones likely to be at risk from inundation and storm surges over the next 50 to 100 years, and Laugeson provides interesting examples of outcomes such as restriction of new developments or requirements for new housing to be relocatable. Difficult times lie ahead over decisions as to when to defend the coastline and when to let the sea come in. Developers use the Environment Court to fight councils who put obstacles in the way of development in vulnerable areas.
What support is central government giving the local councils? Not a lot, by the sound of it. The Ministry for the Environment has given a baseline guidance of 0.5m sea level rise by 2100, with the advice to consider higher rises. (Reported here two years ago on Hot Topic.) But Yule thinks central government should make a ruling on what level councils should plan for, revising it as necessary as new scientific data becomes available. The environment minister Nick Smith appeared to agree in 2009 that a National Environmental Standard on sea-level rise should be prepared, which would give legislative backing to councils when defending their policies in the Environment Court. But work has stopped on that, and Smith claims that the current guidance does not need revision — it is ’fair, balanced advice relative to the uncertainties and long time horizon.’
Laugeson’s narrative is much fuller than this brief outline. She also includes some sidebars. One looks at the question of how high the sea will go; it identifies the difficulty of estimating how the ice caps are going to behave in response to the global warming and provides a list of recent scientific predictions, all of them higher than that of the 2007 IPCC report on which the Ministry for the Environment bases its guidance. Another sidebar takes a quick look at what we’re doing to cut emissions, noting that today’s forestry credits are tomorrow’s forestry debits when the trees are cut down, and concluding that it needs optimism to think that we will meet our 2020 emissions reduction target. A third lengthy box covers the thinking of James Hansen and gives information about his NZ tour.
There was a time when journalists writing articles on themes such as this would have felt obliged to ring up someone from the denialist Climate Science Coalition and duly report that some scientists consider that predictions of sea level rise are greatly exaggerated. (The habit dies hard: I notice the Herald report on James Hansen’s arrival gratuitously introduced the observation ’While he has been criticised as an alarmist…’) It’s good therefore to see a lengthy and well-written article in a major magazine simply accepting the mainstream science and focusing on the adequacy of the political response to it. More such reporting would surely see more of the public understanding that human-caused climate change is real and thinking seriously about how we address it.