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Leave fossil fuels undisturbed. Bryan Walker Aug 09

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A recent Forest and Bird Newsletter contrasted the anticipated loss of 100 jobs in the Department of Conservation with the announced doubling of the number of people employed in the Ministry of Economic Development’s unit aimed at expanding the oil and minerals industries. The newsletter comments that some of those who will lose their jobs with DOC are expected to be people with strong scientific and technical experience who know what would be lost if mining or other destructive developments were to take place on conservation land.

Forest and Bird are right to be suspicious. The Minister for Economic Development has given ample evidence that in the thinking of the government the economic gain to be had from fossil fuel exploitation balances any environmental damage it causes. They have had to backtrack from the initial plan to open up some of the most highly protected conservation land for mining, but there’s every indication that they will continue to hover and find other opportunities to prize open land that ought to be left undisturbed, in order to extract fossil fuel from it. The same Forest and Bird newsletter set out the organisation’s hope to save the Denniston Plateau from a proposed new opencast coal mine which would destroy 200 hectares and increase New Zealand’s coal exports by up to 63% per year. And that would only be the beginning. The Australian company holds mining permits across the Plateau, which would generate an estimated 50 million tonnes of coal.

The undervaluing of biodiverse ecosystems is bad enough, but the bland assumption that we can carry on with fossil fuel extraction as if it had no impact on climate change is wilful obstinacy of dangerous proportions. I’d been looking at a proposed paper by James Hansen and a stable of co-authors when the Forest and Bird newsletter arrived. I’ll take the opportunity to draw attention to it here. Hansen gave the Prime Minister the opportunity to read it when he wrote to him during his visit to New Zealand in May of this year, but I haven’t heard any indication that John Key did so. If he did he wasn’t impressed, as his lignite comments in June attest.

The paper is titled The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future. It has not yet been published but has been circulated in draft form for the past three months. It was written as the science basis to suits being filed in various states and countries and follows two recent scientific papers from Hansen  Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change and Earth’s Energy Imbalance and Implications  both of which, from different perspectives, point to serious impacts ahead, particularly from ice sheet disintegration and consequent sea level rise.

The Case for Young People and Nature has an impressive list of 14 co-authors, some from Columbia University Earth Institute, but others from a wide range of universities and research institutes. They include Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Stefan Rahmstorf and Jeffrey Sachs among others. The emphasis on young people in the title is clarified early in the paper:

’The climate system has great inertia because it contains a 4-kilometer deep ocean and 2-kilometer thick ice sheets. As a result, global climate responds only slowly, at least initially, to natural and human-made forcings of the system. Consequently, today’s changes of atmospheric composition will be felt most by today’s young people and the unborn, in other words, by people who have no possibility of protecting their own rights and their future well-being, and who currently depend on others who make decisions today that have consequences over future decades and centuries.’

Governments have recognized the need to stabilize atmospheric composition at a level that avoids dangerous anthropogenic climate change, as formalized in the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, but their actions belie their assurances.

 ’The reality is that most governments, strongly influenced by the fossil fuel industry, continue to allow and even subsidize development of fossil fuel deposits. This situation was aptly described in a special energy supplement in the New York Times entitled ‘There Will Be Fuel’ (Krauss, 2010), which described massive efforts to expand fossil fuel extraction. These efforts include expansion of oil drilling to increasing depths of the global ocean, into the Arctic, and onto environmentally fragile public lands; squeezing of oil from tar sands; hydro-fracking to expand extraction of natural gas; and increased mining of coal via mechanized longwall mining and mountain-top removal.’

The New Zealand government fits perfectly into this characterisation.  I imagine that’s one of the reasons they feel so confident about continuing to expand the extraction of fossil fuel. They’re only doing what lots of others are doing. They have long indicated their desire to stay with the pack. But here’s the price, as the Hansen paper sees it:

’Burning all fossil fuels would have a climate impact that literally produces a different planet than the one on which civilization developed. The consequences for young people, future generations, and other species would continue to mount over years and centuries. Ice sheet disintegration would cause continual shoreline adjustments with massive civil engineering cost implications as well as widespread heritage loss in the nearly uncountable number of coastal cities. Shifting of climatic zones and repeated climate disruptions would have enormous economic and social costs, especially in the developing world.’

I often wonder what goes on in the minds of politicians who on the one hand say they accept the need to avoid dangerous climate change yet at the same time vigorously pursue the mining of the fossil fuels which we now know are causing the danger. If pressed I expect ours will say, ’We’ll stop when the others stop’.  The logic of that is that no one in a position to mine stops until the resource is exhausted. And since it will be exhausted they’re interested along the way in seeing that alternatives are developed. The draft New Zealand Energy Strategy certainly envisages something like that, treating both fossil fuels and renewable energy as equal contributors to the growth of the New Zealand economy.

’New Zealand has an abundance of diverse energy resources. The Government aims to harness their potential to deliver a transformation of the economy.’

And first on the list of these diverse sources:

’Our geological history has provided us with rich mineral and petroleum resources, only a small proportion of which have been tapped to date.’

After that come hydro, geo-thermal, wind, solar, biomass. Even efficiency gets a look in. But there is no suggestion that the one topping the list will be dislodged any time soon.

The Case for Young People and Nature is packed with supporting scientific information which there’s no space here to outline. But let one paragraph serve to indicate the seriousness of the future it sees, challenging even the too-easily accepted rise of two degrees in average global temperature as somehow safe:

’The suggestion that 2°C global warming may be a ‘safe’ target is extremely unwise based on critical evidence accumulated over the past three decades. Global warming of this amount would be putting Earth on a path toward Pliocene-like conditions, i.e., a very different world marked by massive and continual disruptions to both society and ecosystems. It would be a world in which the world’s species and ecosystems will have had no recent evolutionary experience, surely with consequences and disruptions to the ecosystem services that maintain human communities today. There are no credible arguments that such rapid change would not have catastrophic circumstances for human well-being.’

Good on Forest and Bird for sounding the alarm. And good on the recent hui in Auckland which declared its determination ’to stop the destructive expansion of fossil fuel extraction in the lands and waters of Aotearoa New Zealand.’ Though I admit to a certain sense of disconnection in writing this on a day when the front page news item in our leading national newspaper is the pricing of All Black jerseys.

Gambling with nature’s tolerance Gareth Renowden Oct 11

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Al Morrison, the director general of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation — the government body that manages about one-third of the country’s land area, from World Heritage temperate rainforest in the south to kauri forests in the north (not to mention running world-class efforts to conserve endangered native species such as the kakapo and tuatara) — gave a remarkable speech to Lincoln University last week. It was brave, far-sighted and touched so many right notes that it brought a bright little melody to my weekend reading.

Morrison was giving the university’s 12th annual State of the Nation’s Environment Address, and took the opportunity to discuss the pursuit of economic growth above all else in a country where conservation is a major contributor to that economy. Here are some of the highlights, but the whole thing is well worth a read:

Morrison considers the message from the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment:

We are degrading ecosystems and destroying species to a point where the services that nature provides, that we rely on for our sustenance, and that determine our prosperity, are being run down and out.

If we are to save ourselves from ourselves, then appealing to the intrinsic value of nature is not enough. It is not a matter of giving up that sense of awesome wonder, but rather adding to that, an argument designed to compel the uncommitted.

He explores the case for business to play a role in conservation in its widest sense.

It may seem crass to say that climate change and it’s big cousin, biodiversity loss, create a potential competitive advantage for New Zealand. But connecting the ethics and the self-interest; intrinsic value and economic benefits, helps us better understand that sustainable management of natural resources is not just about nice things to do when time and discretionary resources are available.

It is a necessary investment in the natural capital that sits at the base of our economy. Water, soil, air, nutrient cycles, climate regulation, pollination…these and other services are the natural capital we need to survive and prosper. That reality turns on its head the received wisdom that only rich counties can afford clean environments.

The way we measure economic progress is broken:

When the current recession revealed a collapsing financial system, some 12 trillion dollars was found in quick time across the globe to prop it up. But when nations met at Copenhagen to try and restore a collapsing environmental system, the cupboard was apparently all but bare.

Therein lies the nub of the problem.

The way we conventionally describe and measure economic progress is an incentive to ignore the impacts of unsustainable natural resource use and management, and capture the benefits and subsidies from that with a clear conscience.

We need to move beyond GDP as the measure of the real economy, and beyond growth as the only goal:

If GDP is failing as a measure of environmental sustainability then surely that is a powerful incentive to find a new construct that measures true progress.

It is no easy task to build one. First base is to balance economic, social and environmental considerations and reach a pragmatic compromise. But that’s far from a home run. Living in harmony with nature’s systems; living sustainably, is not apart from the economy, it is a key component of it. Nature’s systems lie at the base of any economy. If they are not functioning efficiently, then the economy cannot function efficiently. If we destroy them, we destroy the economy.

So like or not, our future is inextricably linked to how we tread on our land and oceans, and manage the natural resources that are the key to our surviving and thriving.

And finally:

But there is a lot of work to do to make this a prosperous path for New Zealand. It will require radical change in public policy and management, economic thinking, and business practice. I see enough activity to make me optimistic, but no real sense of urgency. We are still gambling with nature’s tolerance.

It was a brave speech by a senior civil servant who reports to a government committed to growing New Zealand’s by all means possible — including more exploration for oil and mineral resources in the conservation estate. It shows an awareness of the real issues that confront New Zealand and the world, something that seems to be all too uncommon in government anywhere. If you read nothing else today, read Morrison’s speech.

Morrison quoted poet Brian Turner at the beginning of his address, but the Otago poet’s words also make a fitting conclusion.

Under Mt St Bathans

There is majesty in the mass

Light moves, tints the snow;

The wind shakes the sparse grasses;

Water runs, stones rattle unexpectedly

And the land speaks;

None of us are greatly different,

We’re ordinary more than extraordinary

Most of the time. And if there’s one word

For what the sun highlights on the hills,

One word that we should apprehend

And make our own, it is

Decency: and, what’s ever implacable,

And what stone has irreducibly,

Dignity

From: Into The Wider World by Brian Turner

For some reactions to Morrison’s speech, see this piece by David Williams in The Press.