Clutching at straws

By Bryan Walker 16/11/2010

I’d like to return briefly to the fate of Kiribati as sea levels rise, following up my recent post on the conference of the Climate Vulnerable Forum held there last week.  The post made its way through Sciblogs to the  NZ Herald website where a number of people offered comments. The vigour of denial is as evident as always. The sea isn’t rising, or if it is it’s rising slowly enough for coral islands to adjust. The islanders aren’t looking after their environment — they’re blasting their coral reefs and leaving themselves open to the ravages of the sea. They should use their tourist income to do some reclamation to make up for erosion. Salt contamination is due to over-extraction of fresh water by a rising population. The islanders are playing this up in order to get money.

At greater length than the comments in the Herald, Richard Treadgold and Ian Wishart have devoted uncomplimentary posts about the article on their respective websites. Treadgold is fully satisfied that the sea level rise is very moderate, within the range that a coral island can be expected to cope with. He chides me for not being guided by the data he has found, and concludes that if there are problems on Kiribati they are not caused by sea level rise. He’s happy to lend them a hand if they need it, but not because of emotional blackmail or out of a guilty conscience.

Wishart is brutal. He quotes from a Kiribati foreign investment brochure which includes some environmentally foolish suggestions, and concludes:

’Stupid idiots are now seeing ocean rollers eroding their beaches, and trying to milk the climate change lark for all its worth to pay for their utter buffoonery.’

Climate change effects are always intertwined with other aspects of a society’s life. No doubt there are improvements that could be made to Kiribati’s handling of its environment, just as there are in New Zealand. But the attempt to explain away the impacts of climate change by pointing to such defects is clutching at straws. Sea level rise is an overwhelming and unavoidable consequence of global warming.  The science is not difficult to comprehend. Thermal expansion of the existing ocean must follow warmer temperatures. And when land-based ice melts or disintegrates it must end up in the ocean. There’s nothing uncertain about that. It is already under way. The only uncertainty is how much ice will be so transferred and how quickly.

Some commenters refer to the Webb and Kench study which, using historical aerial photos and high-resolution satellite images, reported most of 27 low-lying islands studied in the Pacific are holding their own and even growing.  Coral debris washed ashore is the reason. However Paul Kench points out that this doesn’t mean that they will necessarily continue able to provide human habitation. Nor is it apparent what the more rapidly rising future sea levels expected by many scientists might mean.

The people of Kiribati and other islands consider that they are already seeing the early effects and know it can only get worse. They live there. They experience what is happening on the ground. They are apprehensive. To throw piddling accusations at them or suggest that they have no reason for concern is heartless. Even worse is to claim that they are dishonestly inflating their concern in the hope of getting money from us. It’s true they will need assistance, but it’s in order to help them make what adaptation is possible to the encroaching threats. As Cancun draws nearer the goal set at Copenhagen to provide $100 billion annually from 2020 to assist poorer developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change is coming under the spotlight. ’Challenging but feasible’ was the conclusion of the recently finalised Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing which will be presented at Cancun. The executive summary on pages 5-8 indicates the wide variety of sources from which the money will need to come.

Heaven knows whether it will eventuate. But what is at stake is more than just the money. The big question is whether we can tackle the threats of climate change as a global community, recognising the obligation of the better off to help those who might otherwise be overwhelmed by its impacts. If we fail to do that for the kinds of reasons offered by some of the commenters I’ve referred to we may well be hastening the day in which we will all be overwhelmed.