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Posts Tagged Climate science

NZ emissions target announced: unambitious, ineffective and morally repugnant Gareth Renowden Jul 07

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ASTargets.jpgClimate change minister Tim Groser today released New Zealand’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (pdf) to emissions reductions after 2020 — a 30% decrease on gross emissions in 2005, equivalent to an 11% reduction on 1990 levels. Groser’s press release described this as a “more ambitious climate change target” and “a significant increase on our current target of five per cent below 1990 emission levels by 2020.” This can only be true for definitions of “ambitious” and “significant” that include doing sweet Fanny Adams. The minister is spinning like a top.

Groser was given free reign to continue his dissembling by Radio New Zealand’s political editor Brent Edwards on Checkpoint this evening. Just before the end of the segment, Groser waxes lyrical about the costs of action — “$1,270 a year” — and then makes this amazing counterfactual statement (roughly transcribed):

The burden of advice from our officials and the independent think tanks that have done the modelling is that this is all cost and it has to be born by someone.

Some facts for the minister: the modelling released by his officials as part of the consultation process, the results of which have been so comprehensively ignored, did not consider the costs of inaction, did not model the co-benefits of action or of innovation, and modelled costs were compared to an unrealistic baseline of no government action to reduce emissions at all.

In other words, the minister was being grossly misleading in what he said. If he does not know that’s what his department’s economic modelling said, then he is failing in his ministerial responsibilities on this most serious of issues and should be held to account. If he does know that’s what the modelling said, but was prepared to misrepresent it to RNZ’s political editor and the wider National Radio audience, then he is guilty of telling a deliberate falsehood, and should resign. Either way, Groser was being glib, arrogant and ignorant — an unedifying sight in a senior minister.

There is no sign in the target announcement made today, or in any part of this government’s climate policy that they understand the true seriousness of the issue that confronts NZ and the planet as a whole. They appear to have no appreciation of the strategic and management blunders they are making, all in the name of keeping semi-mythical costs down. The new target, described by Professor Ralph Sims as “low ambition”, doesn’t even set NZ on course for the government’s own 50% reduction by 2050 commitment, let alone address the need for a more credible 100% reduction by that date.

The legacy that Groser and the Key government will leave to the future will not be a new flag, it will be a New Zealand crippled by their smug, arrogant and morally repugnant climate inaction.

See also:

MfE page on new target.

Summary of submissions made to the consultation process.

NZ Herald: Climate change pledge “highly conditional”

Green Party: Govt’s emissions reduction target 100% pure spin

Labour: Government has no credible climate change plan

Science Media Centre: expert reaction

For more reaction, see Scoop.co.nz

NZ’s Paris emissions commitments should be 40% by 2030 and 100% (or more) by 2050 Gareth Renowden Jun 08

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Submissions for the New Zealand government’s half-hearted consultation on post-2020 emissions targets closed last Wednesday. I managed to sneak my contribution in just before the 5pm deadline. It remains to be seen whether it will be read. I heartily recommend reading the Royal Society’s submission – a very clear statement of the issues and NZ’s responsibilities. The Generation Zero submission is also well worth a look (pdf here). Morte than 4,600 people used G0’s automated submission tool, which should ensure that the MfE is well aware that this is an issue people take seriously. In the meantime, here’s what I had to say…

Context

New Zealand’s Climate Change Target: Our contribution to the new international climate change agreement, the discussion document produced by the Ministry for the Environment to accompany the consultation process, is in my view misleading and misguided. It presents a distorted and unhelpful view of the dimensions of the challenge NZ faces. In order to arrive at a pragmatic understanding of how NZ’s domestic policy settings on greenhouse gas emissions should be adjusted to best align with a solution to this huge global problem, it’s necessary to consider the scientific and geopolitical context. NZ’s policy solutions should flow from, and work with, our best understanding of the science that underpins the need for action to cut emissions and to stabilise and reduce atmospheric CO2 loading. NZ also needs to consider the direct climate and strategic risks it faces as a result of inevitable climate change and design policy that limits those risks and increases resilience to them.

Science

Evidence from studies of past climate conditions suggests that the last time atmospheric CO2 stood at 400 ppm — 3 million years ago, during the Pliocene — global sea levels were around 20 metres higher than today, and global average temperature was 2-3ºC above pre-industrial (the global average temperature of 200 years ago). As atmospheric CO2 continues to climb above 400 ppm, the only practical question is how long it will take the ice sheets of Greenland and the Antarctic to melt. It may take hundreds to thousands of years to see the full extent of the sea level rise implicit in current CO2 levels, but it’s worth noting that for every 1 ppm we add above 400 ppm, we add to the warming and the final amount of sea level rise. We have already committed future generations to a world with radically different shorelines. We are already heading for substantial warming and increasing damages from climate change.

 

Emissions policies are usually expressed as percentage reductions in emissions compared to an historical or projected baseline. This presents emissions cuts as a flow problem. If we can turn the tap down a bit, we can address the problem. But atmospheric carbon — as the paleoclimate data shows — is not a flow problem, it’s a stock problem. Every tonne of carbon we add to the atmosphere makes two things worse: long term warming and the sea level rise that results from it, and ocean acidification.

The best evidence available to us from modelling studies suggests that it is possible for the world to limit warming over the next century to between 1.5ºC (the target endorsed by 100+ of the nations of the world) and 2ºC (the target endorsed by the rest of the world – including NZ), but that the reductions in emissions from current levels will have to be steep and start now. The carbon budget left — the amount we can burn and still hit those targets is not big, and the world is getting through it at great speed.

In order to have the best chance of hitting those temperature targets, we will have to go beyond cutting emissions to creating a global economy which is below net-zero emissions (this is explicit in the most aggressive IPCC emissions scenarios). This means that to limit near term warming, in the second half of this century we will have to start reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. Every tonne of CO2 we emit today will eventually have to be removed from the atmosphere. If we want to prevent the full extent of the sea level rise suggested by the historical data we will have to return atmospheric carbon loading to near pre-industrial levels — a huge task for us to bequeath to our children.

Equity

The available carbon budget has to be allocated equitably between nations. NZ, as a rich developed country with high per capita emissions will be expected to shoulder a greater burden than rapidly developing and underdeveloped countries. This is both a moral and an ethical issue, as well as a matter of realpolitik in relations with China, India, the US and Europe.

Risk

There are two sorts of climate risk that face New Zealand. The first is of direct and indirect climate change impacts. Climate change is already being felt all round the world in increasingly damaging extreme weather events, and this will only get worse as warming continues. NZ may (or may not) escape the worst of those direct impacts, but our trading partners almost certainly won’t. We are at least as vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on our key export markets as we are to — say — an outbreak of foot and mouth disease damaging our beef and dairy exports.

Some of these direct impact risks are unavoidable. Due to the huge heat capacity of the global oceans, initial “fast” warming lags behind CO2 levels by up to 30 years. If we could somehow freeze atmospheric CO2 at 400 ppm, the planet would continue to warm for another three decades. Every year we delay cutting emissions adds a year to the end of the process — when the damages being experienced both here and overseas will be much greater than today.

The only way to deal with the unavoidable warming is to increase national resilience to the direct impacts of extreme weather, sea level rise and climate warming, and to create an economy that is less vulnerable to climate shocks in export markets.

There is also risk associated with the accuracy of our projections of future change. Paleoclimate tells us where we’re heading, but modelling gives us our best guess of how fast we’ll get there. Essentially, this risk can be characterised as three options:

  • Climate change turns out be slower and less damaging than currently projected
  • Climate change turns out as we currently project (IPCC AR5)
  • Climate change happens faster and is more damaging than expected

The preponderance of scientific and expert evidence is handily summarised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its regular reports. The most recent, published last year, makes for grim reading, but also makes it clear that it is possible for the world to limit the worst impacts of climate change, and do so at affordable cost.

To assume that the IPCC is wrong, or “alarmist” as some would like to suggest, and that future climate change will be less damaging than currently projected, is to fly in the face of the evidence. From a risk analysis perspective, basing climate policies (global or national) on a gamble that the experts are wrong could have terrible consequences in both the near and long term.

However, it should be pointed out that the IPCC is itself regarded by many in the climate science community as a conservative presentation of the evidence. Since the publication of the Fifth Report, for instance, it has become clear that large parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may already have passed the point of no return and could be committed to large scale melt over the next century. In other words, it might be wise to assume that we should be planning to avoid the worst case. It is often suggested that we should prepare to cope with 4ºC of warming, but mitigate (by aggressively cutting emissions) to give us the best chance of staying under 2ºC.

The second dimension of climate risk facing NZ is the geopolitical risk – the consequences that our climate policy actions have in terms of our international relationships. The present government has defined itself as a “fast follower” — not seeking to lead on actions to reduce emissions, but prepared to follow overseas efforts as they ratchet up. The recent agreement between the US and China on emissions demonstrates that the overall level of global climate ambition has increased. Any target that NZ sets has to be seen to be both ambitious in that context, and should represent a significant increase on the targets currently tabled.

In the wider context, if international action to cut emissions is going to accept the reality that the global economy will have to go beyond net-zero emissions in the second half of this century, then NZ should be positioning itself to reach net zero emissions by 2050 — preferably earlier — and perhaps aim to be a global centre of excellence for carbon sequestration.

From a strategic perspective, the government needs to realise that climate policy is not an optional extra. The climate problem is not going to go away, and while it may be possible to delay implementing effective policy for a few more years, the longer it is left the more expensive introducing those policies will be because faster and steeper cuts will be required. It will be much more economically efficient to make sure that a wide range of policy tools are put in place and their impacts ramped up over time, than to try to slam on the brakes in a few years time when international action — perhaps as a result of damaging climate impacts — really ramps up.

Costs versus opportunities

The discussion document issued by the MfE makes considerable play of the costs to NZ taxpayers of actions to reduce emissions, though as I and others have pointed out, the assumptions underlying the economic modelling are flawed and unhelpful when considering any sensible cost benefit analysis of emissions policy settings.

In one respect – and one respect only – the economic modelling commissioned to examine the costs of various emissions targets is very useful. If we take the emissions targets currently adopted by the government as the baseline (rather than the ridiculous base case of no action to cut emissions by anyone, anywhere), then we can see that the costs of increasing the ambition of targets is actually rather small.

If the necessity for emissions reductions were to be spread across the whole economy — rather than excluding half of national emissions by assuming that the rest of the economy is prepared to subsidise agricultural emissions, then the costs would likely drop further.

There are also considerable benefits to be obtained by moving towards a low emissions economy. There will be economic benefits from technology development, innovation and transitioning to clean fuels, as well as encouraging agriculture to diversify out of high emissions farming systems and into high value, low emissions crops with greater resilience to the impacts of warming.

Carbon sclerosis

The Ministry’s discussion document makes little or no mention of the costs of inaction, despite the fact that Treasury has calculated that they could be as large as $52 billion by 2030. With current emissions policy settings — a weak ETS that effectively subsidises big emitters and deliberately excludes emissions from agriculture — there is a danger that the economy will become locked in to a higher emissions profile than necessary. If the likely future cost of carbon is not factored into current infrastructure and capital investment decisions, then NZ risks creating an economy riddled with carbon sclerosis — a disease that will be ever more expensive to cure as global action to emissions tightens.

Policy tools

The government appears to be planning to meet NZ’s current commitments by purchasing emissions reductions on the global market, and seems to expect that this will be the most cost-effective way of meeting future emissions targets. This increases the future economic risk to the country by effectively encouraging the domestic economy to take a high emissions pathway. NZ will therefore be vulnerable to any steep rises in the cost of emissions trading units. Since a tightening of future international emissions policies is practically certain if worst-case climate impacts are to be avoided, this amounts to a strategic blunder of considerable proportions.

To reduce that risk exposure, the government should as a matter of urgency put policies in place to ensure that the domestic economy is set on a low-carbon pathway as soon as possible. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Tighten up ETS settings to reduce grandfathering of emissions for big emitters and increase the carbon price signal to all emitters currently covered by the scheme.
  • Bring agriculture into the ETS as soon as possible, in order to allow farmers and foresters to make sensible investment decisions.
  • Require that a minimum proportion of NZ emissions units are used to settle ETS positions.
  • Encourage afforestation and native bush regeneration to enlarge NZ’s standing carbon stock.
  • Expand the permanent forest sink initiative and encourage co-cropping in permanent forests (fungi, plants, biofuels). Put in place rules that allow selective timber harvest that doesn’t reduce standing carbon stock.
  • Phase out all fossil fuel electricity generation as soon as possible.
  • Phase out all non-essential road building and divert funds to rail and coastal shipping and public transport networks to encourage a shift of freight from road to rail and sea, and greater use of public transport systems in urban areas.
  • Phase out all support for coal production and oil exploration.
  • Step up research into biofuels and incentivise the roll-out of practical systems to reduce liquid fossil fuel use.
  • Introduce minimum fuel efficiency standards for all imported vehicles.
  • Expand support for electric vehicle use.
  • Continue and expand energy efficiency initiatives for all buildings, domestic and commercial, and encourage insulation of existing housing stock.
  • Incentivise renewable energy installations at all scales, and fund the development and installation of smart grid technologies that allow domestic and small-scale renewable generation projects to integrate with the national grid.

These policies will require a whole of government approach to emissions management and reduction. Implementing them will need a mixture of market mechanisms (via the ETS or carbon taxes) and carefully designed regulation.

Certainty

It is important for all New Zealanders that government delivers a consistent set of policies that are designed to allow NZ to reach net zero emissions over the next 35 years. To this end, I strongly believe that climate policy should not be a political football, liable to constant change after every election. The government should work to build a cross-party consensus on emissions policy tools and settings, a “climate accord” that allows NZ to implement meaningful emissions reductions over the long term and to build social and economic resilience to the climate changes that are now inevitable.

Targets

Given the above, I believe that New Zealand should gazette a “net zero” by 2050 target, and consider all intermediate targets as waypoints on the route to that goal. As a gesture of our renewed commitment to action (and in recognition that the major international emitters are now committed to serious cuts), the current 5% reduction on 1990 emissions by 2020 target should be immediately increased to 15%, a 2030 goal be set at 40% below 1990 and a 2040 goal be set at 70%.

These targets are credible and achievable, but will require the current government to do more than pay lip service to climate policy. It remains to be seen whether that is a credible and achievable goal.

Federated Farmers: sticking their heads in the soil? cindy May 12

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Dryland farmingFederated Farmers says farmers don’t need to worry about the causes of climate change, they only need to cope with the impacts. Feds President William Rolleston says they have “no position” on whether mankind is influencing global warming, and say that looking at the causes is not that helpful. No position?

“We [farmers] need to basically adjust to the realities that are being dealt to us, and why it may or may not be happening isn’t really as important, as actually being prepared for what we actually do get dealt,” their “climate change spokesman” Anders Crofoot told Radio New Zealand today.

You can’t have “no position” on the climate science — it’s like telling your bank manager you have “no position” on your finances, despite the numbers being there for all to see. I’m calling it climate denial. I’ll come back to that later, but let’s look at WHY they’re saying that.  If you were to take a position, that is, agree that climate change is real and caused by humans, you’d have to act. You’d think.

 

So I guess it’s blindingly obvious why Federated Farmers want to avoid talking about the causes of climate change, because farming, at 48 percent, is the largest contributor to our burgeoning greenhouse gas emissions, and the present government has exempted them from the emissions trading scheme, the one they’re consulting on at the moment.

But let’s look at impact of climate change on farmers — what they might be “dealt” as a result of the climate change they’re contributing to but not willing to do anything about, and what they have to look forward to.

One climate impact we can look forward to in New Zealand is increased drought. We’re starting to experience droughts here already, like never before. One obvious problem with increased drought is lack of water. And the expansion of industrial dairy farming — often chopping down forests that used to act as carbon sinks — is driving a massive investment into irrigation and increased water use.

In February this year, during the worst drought experienced by the South Island farming community, maybe ever, Fed Farmers’ Environment and Water spokesman Ian Mackenzie was on the radio slamming the Government’s Crown Irrigation Fund for providing loans for famers, rather than actual investment for irrigation schemes.  The pressure is going on, with both Federated Farmers and Irrigation NZ both pushing hard for Government — and therefore the taxpayer — to front the costs.

What is climate change costing us?

This year’s drought has shaved 0.5% off GDP growth, according to ANZ. Farmers freaked out in February as the unprecedented Canterbury drought forced the shutting of the Opuha Dam for irrigation.  

Meat prices dropped as farmers, unable to feed their animals, had to cull them.

Even Bathurst Resources, which, in the face of plummeting coal prices, is having to rely on supplying coal domestically, reported a drop in income in the first quarter of this year because its main customer, Fonterra, had less milk to dry and therefore used less coal.

The 2013 drought in the North Island was the “worst in history” according to scientists and cost the country around $1.3 billion.  This drought has now been confirmed by scientists to have been made worse by climate change.

The 2007-08 drought had a $2.8 billion economic impact, in on-farm and off-farm costs.

And that’s just the droughts

Let’s turn now to the damages from floods and storms — the type of extreme weather events that are expected to come from climate change. By September 2014, weather-related Insurance had cost $135.4 million. The Insurance Council of NZ predicts that this type of event will cost, on average, $1.6 billion a year, as climate impacts kick in.

Of course not all of this cost will be laid only at a farmer’s door, but if you look at the Insurance Council’s list of big disasters the insurance industry has had to pay out for in recent years, it’s clear that farmers have certainly suffered their fair share of impacts.

Back to the science

Given that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening, and that we’re causing it,  and we’ve now had no less than five IPCC reports, the question has to be asked: where has Federated Farmers been?

Its leader-with-no-position, William Rolleston, is supposedly a smart man. According to this profile, “his appetite for all things science is fuelled by reading on the origins and workings of the universe, biology and natural history.” He sits on the Ministry of Science, Business and Innovation’s Science Board.

So you’d think he’d maybe have read the IPCC summaries, or consulted some of his colleagues on that board about the science of climate change, its causes and its projected impacts, and realised that you can’t have “no position” on climate science. If you are a scientist, you don’t get to pick and choose which bits of evidence you believe in. You live with the facts.

For a group that purports to be acting on behalf of farmers, one would think that in 2015 Federated Farmers would be taking this issue, and its causes, extremely seriously.

The droughts that farmers are feeling today, at 0.8ºC of warming, are already having a serious economic effect on their industry and, given that current projections are that we’re heading to 4ºC of warming, you’d think they’d be going all out to do what they can to stop it. But denying its very existence? Seriously?

I just hope that the rest of the country’s farmers, ie the 85 percent who are not represented by Federated Farmers, aren’t quite that stupid.

But if Federated Farmers refuse to take any responsibility for — or do anything about the causes of climate change — and instead continue upping production without paying any attention to emissions, the question has to be asked: why should the taxpayer, and the Government, continue to give them handouts for drought relief or storm relief, or give them a free ride on the costs of their emissions to the rest of the economy? Why should we stump up for massive irrigation schemes to pay for even more irrigation so they can ramp up production further?

Milk cow blues: dirty dairy costs NZ dear, but methane cuts might work Gareth Renowden Apr 30

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There’s good news and bad news for New Zealand’s dairy industry this week. On the one hand, research has found a number of compounds that can cut methane emissions from ruminants (cows and sheep) by up to 90% by reducing populations of the bacteria that produce the gas. On the other hand, research into the external costs of dairying — the costs not currently born by dairy companies — suggest that dairying’s value to the NZ economy may amount to a “zero sum” game. At the very least the national income generated by dairy sales is significantly offset by the costs of remediating the environmental impacts caused by that farming — costs that are born by the general tax payer, not agribusiness — according to a team from Massey University.

The good news on methane was announced this week at the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Conference 2015. Agresearch Principal Scientist Dr Peter Janssen told Radio NZ:

It’s a very exciting result but there’s still a lot of checking to be done before you actually get something that a farmer can use safely.

Interviewed by the NZ Herald, Dr Rick Pridmore, chairman of the NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, was upbeat:

The results are significant for two reasons. First, because they work on livestock consuming a grass-based diet and, second because the short-term trials showed such dramatic results,” he said.

However, it might take up to 5 years for these treatments to reach farmers, as the compounds are tested for the possibility of residues in meat and milk.

Cutting methane emissions might reduce diary farmers’ liability under an emissions trading scheme that included agriculture — they are at present excluded — but would have no impact on the other external costs calculated in a new paper, New Zealand Dairy Farming: Milking Our Environment for All Its Worth, which suggests that the costs of repairing the environmental damage done by intensive dairying approaches the value generated by the activity.

One of the authors, Dr Mike Joy told Stuff:

A strong message from the study is that avoiding pollution is far cheaper for everyone than trying to clean it up afterwards and there is now ample evidence that farmers can make more profit and pollute less when not myopically chasing increased production.

Unsurprisingly, the costs calculated in the paper are vigorously contested by farming organisations and some academics, but will chime with New Zealanders concerned that the rapid expansion of industrial dairying is significantly degrading important rural environments and chipping away at what’s left of NZ’s so-called clean green image.

[The Kinks]

Climate battle at NBR: Rodney’s rubbish versus Wiggs wisdom Gareth Renowden Apr 26

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New Zealand’s leading business media outfit — the National Business Review — has long dallied with climate denial, providing a platform for former ACT party leader Rodney Hide (amongst others) to push climate tosh. Last week Rodney used his regular opinion column to attack the government’s emissions policies (behind paywall) — fair enough, given that they are rubbish — but his rationale was that it was a waste of time because climate change wasn’t happening:

So what about the temperature record? Where is this being reported? Where is the headline? It’s the easiest question to ask, the best news to report and the only salient fact in an ocean of green wash and government propaganda.

And what’s that news? No global warming for nearly 20 years.

So far, so predictable… and so wrong. Here’s the latest news:

GISStemp20153

The last 12 months have been the hottest in the long term record. So was the year ending in February. With an El Niño event brewing in the Pacific, 2015 is on course to set a new record for hottest calendar year. 14 of the 15 hottest years have occurred this century. And that’s just if we look at surface temperatures. If we look where most of the heat is going — into the oceans — there’s no sign of any pause at all.

Rodney’s column attracted a comment from another NBR columnist, Lance Wiggs, a man with some real business chops and a respect for scientific evidence. That in turn sparked a battle of the columnists in this week’s NBR: Rodney’s rubbish, versus Wiggs’ wisdom.

 

A comparison is instructive. Rodney doubles down on his denial, blustering away for all he is worth: taking umbrage at being called a denier, dissing the models, moaning that costly action now will impoverish future generations. Wiggs prefers a more measured tone, provides plentiful references, and on the cost issue makes this telling observation:

Rodney Hide does not want to spend money, but it’s pretty easy to see that if we don’t invest now in combating and mitigating change, then we will be passing an ever-increasing burden on to the future. We advise people to start saving early for retirement because of the compounding effect of interest, and it’s the same with action on climate change – as CO2 emissions increase the job we all have to combat the crises gets harder and harder.

To rub salt into the wound, Wiggs advocates a carbon tax as the best policy to price emissions — exactly the policy Hide advocated in parliament before his Damascene conversion to climate denial.

Wiggs also notes that “the climate damage is already done”, and that we will have to live with the consequences by investing in resilience to climate change as well as cutting emissions. His final paragraph is something I am happy to endorse in full:

So what’s the worst that could happen if we work together to reduce carbon emissions? More business efficiency, lower emissions of the other nasty pollutants and power generation that is driven by free resources. That’s a future I’d like to live in.

Amen to that. In the meantime, would it be too much to ask NBR’s editor at large Nevil Gibson — himself something of a climate contrarian, to judge by the coverage he gives the subject — to ask Rodney to stick to writing about things he understands. Whatever they might be. Ballroom dancing, perhaps.

The encroaching sea: new NZ sea level rise maps Gareth Renowden Apr 13

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This guest post is by Jonathan Musther, who has just published an amazing series of highly detailed maps projecting future sea level rise scenarios onto the New Zealand coastline. If you live within cooee of the sea, you need to explore his maps. Below he explains why he embarked on the project.

10mSLR-Christchurch480

The effect of 10m sea level rise on Christchurch: say goodbye to St Albans, prepare to paddle in the CBD. Full map here.

For humans, sea-level rise will almost certainly be the most directly observable effect of climate change, and specifically of global warming. As the climate changes, many of the effects will be subtle, or if not subtle, they will at least be very complex. Summers may be warmer, or cooler; we may experience more rain at some times of year, and less at others; tropical storms may increase and they may be sustained further from the equator, but all of these changes are complex, and not necessarily obvious against the background complexity of any climate system. In contrast, there is something obvious and unstoppable about sea-level rise, there is no question that it will send anyone in its path running for the hills.

For some time I have been involved in searching for land appropriate for specific uses such as arable farming, water catchment, and off-grid living. When searching for land in this way, there are many, many criteria to consider, and of course one of these is potential future sea-level. Using GIS (Geographical Information System) software, and elevation models of the New Zealand landscape, it is possible to visualise sea-level rise, and select sites accordingly. Naturally, the next question is what sea-level rise to consider. It is possible to place an upper-limit on sea-level rise – after all, there’s only a finite amount of ice that could melt – but beyond that, we’re limited to informed guesswork.

25mSLR-Christchurch480

25m sea level rise: a sunken city and Banks Island. Full map here.

What is the maximum possible sea-level rise? It depends who you ask. Many sources place the maximum potential sea-level rise at around 60-64 metres, but these figures are rarely referenced, and don’t concur with the latest research. Other sources place the figure at around 80-81.5 metres, and while this appears to be well referenced and researched, it is based on work that is somewhat out of date. The best estimates I’ve been able to locate, based on recent measurements (and lots of them) are around 70 metres, but quite what the margin of error is remains uncertain. Of course, when considering future sea-level, we must remember that here in the South Pacific, we will likely experience increased numbers of more powerful tropical storms, with associated storm surges.

80mSLR-Christchurch480

At 80m, West Melton is a seaside township. Full map here.

The maps I created showing sea-level rise for the whole of New Zealand depict rises of 10, 25 and 80 metres. I have certainly received criticism for not focussing on more modest sea-level rises (e.g. 1 or 2 metres), but there are some good reasons for this: firstly, the resolution of the elevation models of New Zealand do not allow accurate predictions of such small rises. Secondly, larger sea-level rises pose a huge threat, and are therefore worth considering. I made a point of avoiding time frame predictions when producing the sea-level rise maps, partly because the time frame is largely irrelevant (if 80% of our homes are flooded, it’s bad news, no matter when) and partly because the range of expert estimates is huge. Study after study shows that we have underestimated ice-sheet instability, and it is almost universally accepted that large sea-level rise will be a consequence. Unfortunately, most studies place this sea-level rise at some unspecified time in the future – when, we’re not sure, but it’s far enough away that we needn’t worry…

So is a 10 or 25 metre sea-level rise likely? Unfortunately, the broad answer is yes. The Greenland, West and East Antarctic ice sheets are showing growing instability, and many researchers agree that they may have past a ‘point of no return’. Remember, the Greenland ice sheet alone, if completely melted, would lead to approximately a 7 m rise in global sea-level. Of course, we return to the issue of when this is likely to happen, and on that, the jury is out.

I firmly believe that to be good scientists, we must investigate the possibility of large sea-level rise, and its consequences. The time frame is unclear, the absolute rise is also unclear, but there really is something unstoppable about rising oceans. We are now well outside the sphere of collective human experience and expertise, and we should be very careful to prepare, as best we can, for a range of scenarios.

The Age of Sustainable Development Bryan Walker Apr 01

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It is profoundly depressing to hear pundits and politicians talking about the prospects for economic growth with no reference to either equity or environmental constraints. In the case of New Zealand a “rock star” economy can apparently develop accompanied by dismaying levels of child poverty, excited expectations of new oil and gas discoveries which spell disaster for the climate, and a burgeoning dairy industry paying scant attention to the environmental consequences of its rapid growth.

Fortunately there are more discerning economists on the world stage for whom economic growth is only welcome when it means an end to poverty and when it fully respects strict environmental limits. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute  at Columbia University, is an outstanding example. His latest book The Age of Sustainable Development is heavily focused on the ending of poverty in parts of the world where it remains endemic and is relentless in its recognition of the severe environmental strains that economic development and soaring population growth are placing on the earth systems on which human life depends.

The book was developed as part of a global open online course of the same name offered by the Earth Institute and already taken, Sachs reports, by tens of thousands of students around the world.

 

The book presents a picture of rapid economic growth and population explosion since the industrial revolution got under way in Britain and spread into Europe and America. But it’s an uneven growth and many countries have barely experienced it, not least, Sachs suggests, because of western colonialism which was more interested in the exploitation of the colonies than in their participation in economic development.

Addressing this lag in development and the extreme poverty which often attends it is a primary task for development practitioners. Sachs dismisses sweeping simplistic diagnoses (corruption) or prescriptions (cut government spending) or referrals (to the IMF) and instead urges diagnoses that are accurate and effective for the conditions, history, geography, culture, and economic structure of the countries in question. Many countries are caught in poverty traps through no fault of their own and the aim is to assist them out of that and on to the first rungs of the development ladder.

Sachs is also alert to the relative poverty within developed countries, including the indigenous societies and other ethnic minority groups neglected in the economic development of the societies in which they are placed. Social justice is integral to the concept of development in his book.

Turning to the question of environmental boundaries Sachs asks whether a world that is prosperous and socially inclusive can also be environmentally sustainable. He argues that with careful and science-based attention to growing environmental threats we can harmonise growth and sustainability. That’s not the “balance” that our own government so glibly claims to be achieving between growth and environmental protection. Sachs aims at a full recognition of environmental boundaries.

His treatment of climate change is a prime example of the seriousness with which he takes the environmental challenges to development. In a packed chapter he offers a lucid explanation of the basic science and the consequences of the human-induced changes to the climate. In this he provides yet another example of the fact that there is no excuse for scientific ignorance among educated people in this issue of such moment for human life. One does not need to be a scientist to understand the basic thrust of climate science.  His conclusion is entirely appropriate:

 “The fact is that we should be truly scared, and not just scared, but scared into action—both to mitigate climate change by reducing GHG emissions and to adapt to climate change by raising the preparedness and resilience of our economies and societies.”

Not that it’s an easy task. Sachs describes it as an economic problem beyond comparison with any other, for several reasons the toughest policy problem humanity has ever faced. Climate change is a global crisis, meaning the whole world must be mobilised. It is also an inter-generational crisis and humanity is not good at confronting longer-term challenges. It means forsaking the fossil fuels on which the success of modern economic growth has depended. The crisis is slow-moving, making it difficult to sense urgency. The solutions are operationally complex, covering a wide range of changes. Finally, the energy sector is home to the world’s most powerful companies whose lobbying clout is not directed towards climate solutions.

Against this list one wonders that Sachs finds any confidence, but he works his way through the technologies which exist to enable the transition away from fossil fuels, and concludes that the world has climate solutions but that what it lacks is the time for further delay.

Climate change is only one of the environmental issues he confronts. He is equally rigorous on species extinction and the loss of biodiversity, on the capacity to grow food for a still rapidly expanding population, on ocean acidification and a range of other threats.

It’s a daunting picture. Sachs writes strikingly of the difficulties in addressing it:

“…it is very hard in our noisy, disparate, divided, crowded, congested, distracted, and often overwhelmed world to mobilize any consistency of effort to achieve any of our common purposes.”

In this context he advances the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to be put for adoption to the UN General Assembly this year to cover the period up to 2030, taking the place of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) adopted in 2000. The MDG were mainly focused on poor countries, but the SDG will have universal application, and Sachs sees them as offering a sense of common direction to individuals, organisations, and governments all over the world.

Ideas count. Sachs sees that as his most important message. If it seems a frail defence against the inequality and environmental heedlessness which characterises much of our activity it is nevertheless one he stoutly defends. Ideas can have an effect on public policy far beyond anything that can be imagined by the hard-bitten cynics, he claims. Look at the powerful and embedded economic institution of slavery eventually overcome by the ideas and morality of the anti-slavery campaigners. Consider Ghandi’s lead in helping to end colonialism. Think of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of Martin Luther King, of women’s rights.

So there’s something of the moral idealist underneath all the marshalling of economic facts and figures and the unflinching analysis of environmental threats which Sachs’ book contains. A stance I find much preferable to the complacent acceptance of the existing order which is still all too manifest in government and business and which bodes nothing short of disaster before the century is out.

Totten hots up, ice shelves melting: it’s grim down south Gareth Renowden Mar 30

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AntarcticaCryosat2Much news in recent weeks from Antarctica, and none of it good. An Argentinian base on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula recently reported a new high temperature record for the continent — 17.5ºC. A team of scientists has discovered that East Antarctica’s Totten Glacier — which drains a catchment that contains enough ice to raise sea levels by 3.5 metres — is vulnerable to melting caused by warm ocean water lapping underneath the ice and reaching inland1. Another group has stitched together satellite data on ice shelf thickness gathered from 1994 to 2012 and found that the ice shelves — mostly stable at the beginning of the period, are now losing mass fast2. From the abstract:

Overall, average ice-shelf volume change accelerated from negligible loss at 25 ± 64 km3 per year for 1994-2003 to rapid loss of 310 ± 74 km3 per year for 2003-2012. West Antarctic losses increased by 70% in the last decade, and earlier volume gain by East Antarctic ice shelves ceased. In the Amundsen and Bellingshausen regions, some ice shelves have lost up to 18% of their thickness in less than two decades.

The Amundsen region is home to the Pine Island Glacier, notorious for its current rapid loss of mass, and probably already past the point of no return for long term total melt. The map below shows the big picture: large red dots are ice shelves losing mass. Blue dots are shelves gaining mass.

Antarcticiceshelves

Ice shelves are important features of the Antarctic cryosphere. They buttress the ice piled up on the land, slowing down the flow of ice into the ocean. As the shelves lose mass, the flow of ice from the centre of the continent can speed up, adding to sea level rise. There’s a very good overview of the process — and the findings of the Paulo et al paper — in this excellent Carbon Brief analysis.

The study of the Totten Glacier — one of the fastest thinning glaciers in East Antarctica — is the first to look at the detail of the sea floor and ice thickness in the area. The study finds that there are “tunnels” under the ice leading into a deep trough inland that cold convey warm water inland — the same process that has destabilised the Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica. As the authors suggest, rather drily, “coastal processes in this area could have global consequences”.

These signs of rapid changes around the coasts of Antarctica, together with hints that large parts of the huge East Antarctic ice sheet are at risk of following West Antarctica into the sea, suggest that even if sea levels only rise by a metre by the end of this century as the IPCC projected last year, the longer term picture will be a great deal wetter than that. After all, there is the equivalent of 60 metres of sea level rise locked up in East Antarctica.

For a very good overview of the state of our understanding of what’s going on in Antarctica, I recommend a listen to VUW’s Professor Tim Naish being interviewed by Radio New Zealand National’s Kim Hill last Saturday. Naish even covers what’s happening to the sea ice down there, but a longer term study of the sea ice is getting under way, led by another VUW prof — Jim Renwick.

  1. Greenbaum JS et al, (2015), Ocean access to a cavity beneath Totten Glacier in East Antarctica, Nature Geoscience, doi:10.1038/ngeo2388
  2. Paolo, F.S. et al, (2015), Volume loss from Antarctic ice shelves is accelerating, Science, doi/10.1126/science.aaa0940

Leyland and Carter: the rebuttal that isn’t and the hypocrisy that is Gareth Renowden Mar 25

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CarterFlatEarth.jpgSciblogs editor Peter Griffin recently gave climate denial activists Bryan Leyland and Bob Carter a “right of reply” to my post pointing out the errors and inconsistencies in a Dominion Post op-ed penned by the pair. Griffin took this action because of vociferous complaints from Leyland, who took offence at my discussion of his expertise (non-existent) and history of campaigning against action on climate. The result is billed as a “rebuttal”, but it isn’t, as I shall demonstrate.

The Sciblogs “rebuttal” is a mishmash of a so-called “fully referenced” version (pdf) of the op-ed that Leyland says was supplied to the Dominion Post, but he and Carter also prepared a very long-winded “response” (pdf) to the debunking of their piece by David Wratt, Andy Reisinger and Jim Renwick in the DP. The latter is a real eye-opener…

Life is too short to do another point-by-point demolition1, so I’ll select a few key issues that demonstrate that although they claim to be discussing science in a scientific manner, what they are actually doing is having the equivalent of an argument in a pub — prepared to say anything if they think it will help them “win”.

 

It’s instructive to look at the references Leyland and Carter supplied to support their original op-ed, and use in their Sciblogs article. They include a blog post by Roy Spencer and others at µWatts and The Hockey Schtick, graphs that either don’t prove what they claim, or are scaled to make it difficult to see what’s happening, reports at right-wing web sites (Breitbart, International Business Times), and Congressional evidence given by climate denial activists. Precious little real science on display, in other words.

Worse, where they do cite real science they get the reference wrong. To support their claim that climate models have failed to project the slowdown in surface temperature trends, their Sciblogs piece cites “IPCC AR5 Chapter 9, Box 9.3.2″ supporting this sentence:

The IPCC’s 5AR states that 111 out of 114 their climate model runs failed to reproduce the actual temperature record.

No mention of which Working Group report they’re citing, but the phrase “111 out of 114″ appears in Chapter 9 (pdf) of WG1. Unfortunately, it is not in Box 9.3.2 in Chapter 9. There is no Box 9.3.2. There is a Box 9.2, and it does contain a sentence they paraphrase incorrectly:

However, an analysis of the full suite of CMIP5 historical simulations (augmented for the period 2006–2012 by RCP4.5 simulations, Section 9.3.2) reveals that 111 out of 114 realizations show a GMST trend over 1998–2012 that is higher than the entire HadCRUT4 trend ensemble (Box 9.2 Figure 1a; CMIP5 ensemble mean trend is 0.21oC per decade).

A carefully nuanced statement in a long discussion of what the IPCC refers to as “the hiatus” — and certainly not a statement about “failing to reproduce the temperature record”. Worse, if you bother to read the whole thing, you find that Leyland and Carter have been cherry-picking stuff that suits their argument, while ignoring the points that don’t. Also from Box 9.2:

There is hence very high confidence that the CMIP5 models show long-term GMST trends consistent with observations, despite the disagreement over the most recent 15-year period.

Enough of that. Time to dig a little deeper. Leyland and Carter’s “Discussion of remarks made by Wratt, Reisinger & Renwick (WRR) in the Dominion-Post on global warming” (pdf) is worth perusing, because it is a perfect illustration of their approach to the evidence. Recall for a moment that a central claim of their DP op-ed was that “the world has not experienced any significant warming over the last 18 years”. Now read this paragraph from their “discussion”:

Though the statement [that the earth is warmer than 100 years ago] is true, 100 years is too short a period of time to assess true climatic change, consisting as it does of just three climate data points.

Leyland and Carter insist that 18 years is enough to know that warming has stopped, but 100 years isn’t long enough to prove there has been real warming. The sheer intellectual hypocrisy evident here is breathtaking — and very revealing.

This isn’t a scientific debate. This isn’t how people with real expertise in climate science approach the subject. This is posturing trying to pose as academic debate. Serious scientists wouldn’t touch that style of argument with a barge pole.

Leyland and Carter are acting like defence lawyers desperate to convince a jury that their client — man-made emissions of carbon dioxide — is not guilty. They want to create an illusion of doubt to delay action, and their audience is not the climate scientists of the world, it’s the readers of the Dominion Post. Doubt is Leyland and Carter’s product, a technique honed and refined by tobacco defenders decades ago.

One final point. In my original post, I pointed out that Leyland & Carter’s stated confidence that “man-made carbon dioxide does not cause dangerous global warming and that the predictions of computer models of the climate are worthless” was not supported by 97% of climate scientists — the people with real expertise in the field.

Their response both misquotes me and attempts to hide the pea under the thimble:

“In contradiction, Mr. Renowden asserts that “the vast majority – 97% or thereabouts…would beg to differ with our statement”. This is irrelevant. Science is not concerned with consensus. It is about evidence and hypothesis testing.

What that 97% represents is the balance of evidence. The overwhelming majority of people working in the field, however you choose to measure it, think we have a big problem with atmospheric carbon. Those that don’t are a tiny minority — a crank fringe supported by fossil fuel interests — making their arguments in opinion columns instead of the peer-reviewed literature. The rest of us live in the real world. We’ll ignore their attempts to blow smoke in the face of public opinion, and get on with trying to find a solution.

  1. Leyland & Carter may be retired, with nothing better to do than promote their viewpoints, but I have grapes and truffles to nurture through to harvest, and a book to write

[This post was edited 12.31pm on 27/03/15 - Ed]

DomPost denier debacle: science has the last word Gareth Renowden Mar 10

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The Dominion Post, which blotted its editorial copybook last week by publishing a factually incorrect and highly misleading opinion piece by climate denialists, has today published a heavyweight reply by three of NZ’s top climate scientists — David Wratt, Andy Reisinger and Jim Renwick1. Headed “Human role in climate change is clear”, the article is clear about climate reality:

Human influence on the climate system is clear and growing, and impacts are evident on all continents. If left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.

We do have options to reduce risks by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to some climate change, but time is running short if we want to limit changes to manageable levels. Ignoring or misconstruing the overwhelming evidence is not a responsible risk management strategy.

It’s not clear whether the DomPost plans any further response to the rubbish they printed from Bryan Leyland and Bob Carter, but the editorial team at the newspaper would do well to reflect on the approach to the subject adopted by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, introducing an important new series of features in that paper:

For the purposes of our coming coverage, we will assume that the scientific consensus about man-made climate change and its likely effects is overwhelming. We will leave the skeptics and deniers to waste their time challenging the science. The mainstream argument has moved on to the politics and economics.

Precisely. Rusbridger — who is retiring after 20 years as editor — wants his newspaper to do justice…

…to this huge, overshadowing, overwhelming issue of how climate change will probably, within the lifetime of our children, cause untold havoc and stress to our species.
So, in the time left to me as editor, I thought I would try to harness the Guardian’s best resources to describe what is happening and what — if we do nothing — is almost certain to occur, a future that one distinguished scientist has termed as “incompatible with any reasonable characterisation of an organised, equitable and civilised global community”.

That’s what a real newspaper does: takes on the big issues. If the Dominion Post wants to be more than a Noddy book newspaper publishing rubbish from the intellectual heirs to Big Ears, it’s high time it took a sensible approach to the climate debate, and followed Rusbridger’s lead.

Meanwhile, Bryan Leyland has posted what his web site describes as a “referenced version” of the text of the article that appeared last week. It’s available here (pdf), and is chiefly remarkable for the quality of what passes as references in crank circles. There are links to blog posts at µWatts and other climate crank sites, conspiracy-riddled pieces from extreme-right “news” services, and barely legible graphs. Where he does link to real science (on sea level rise), the underlying data doesn’t support the contentions in the article. Par for the climate crank Carterist “science” course, in other words.

  1. David Wratt is an Emeritus Climate Scientist at NIWA, an Adjunct Professor in the NZ Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University, and a Vice Chair of Working Group 1 of the IPCC. Andy Reisinger is Deputy Director (International) of the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre and served as coordinating lead author in the most recent IPCC report. James Renwick is a Professor of Physical Geography at Victoria University of Wellington and served as a Lead Author on the last two IPCC Reports.

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