Climate of complacency: NZ Herald lazy and irresponsible

By Gareth Renowden 14/01/2013

Saturday’s New Zealand Herald carried an astonishing editorial on climate change — remarkable enough to prompt me to tweet that it was “crass, complacent and so very wrong“, despite it being ostensibly in support of action on climate change. The piece begins by riffing on the wildfires in Australia, before observing:

With Australia having its two hottest days on record this week, and New Zealand enjoying a hot summer, it feels like climate change has arrived. But most scientists are wary about attributing any particular weather to global warming. To cite this summer as evidence would enable sceptics to recall last January’s washout.

“Most scientists” are being anything but wary about discussing the link between the Aussie heatwave and climate change. Australia’s Climate Commission released a special report on the heatwave at the end of last week. Here are the first three “key points” from the report:

  • The length, extent and severity of the current Australian heatwave is unprecedented in the measurement record.
  • Although Australia has always had heatwaves, hot days and bushfires, climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and longer heatwaves and more extreme hot days, as well as exacerbating bushfire conditions.
  • Climate change has contributed to making the current extreme heat conditions and bushfires worse.

Straightforward enough, you might think. Climate change is making the heat and fires worse. But if the Herald editorial writer might be forgiven for missing a major report from the Australian body tasked with informing that nation about the realities of climate change, he or she cannot be forgiven for the astonishing complacency evident in the next few paragraphs.

In a review of climate study this week, we reported that New Zealand might fare quite well under the predicted 4C increase in average global temperatures. Here the expected rise is 3C.

That “review” doesn’t appear to be available online, but it appears on the basis of those numbers to have been a reasonable, if somewhat gloomy appraisal of where we might be heading. But then…

Victoria University’s Dr Jim Renwick, a lead author of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel’s next report, said the North Island’s climate would be closer to Queensland’s and the South Island would have the North Island’s conditions. It does not sound so bad.

Not so bad? Only if you ignore what a three degree temperature rise would mean for the ecosystems in which we live. Human systems might be able to cope reasonably well — if at considerable expense — but the New Zealand environment would be transformed beyond all recognition. And while NZ might fare better than much of the planet, the reality of four degrees warming elsewhere would be nightmarish. Australia’s heatwaves are already being pushed into record territory by a mere 0.9 degrees of warming. How much worse would they be in four degree world?

Without these important caveats, that paragraph amounts to ridiculous complacency.

The editorial then moves on smoothly to introduce geoengineering as a possible solution.

The next IPCC report will examine engineering responses to climate change, such as extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sending sun-reflecting particles into the stratosphere.

It is something to ponder as we bask in another hot, sunny weekend.

Apparently, the newspaper wants us to ignore the bad stuff, look only the bright side, and believe that we can fix the problem by applying technologies yet to be invented. No need to sweat the hard stuff. No apparent necessity to reduce emissions. Let’s all lie on the beach and ponder that wonderful world.

The editorial closes with one sentiment I can wholeheartedly endorse :

If this is a symptom of global warming we are all in it together.

No need for the if: we are undoubtedly all in “it” together, but if we are to have any hope of reaching the sunlit uplands of a world where climate change has been restricted to manageable proportions, we will need to take the problem seriously, and work hard to achieve a solution. Sadly there’s no sign of that wisdom to be found in this lazy, risible and irresponsible Herald editorial.

[Update 15/1: The Herald article including NZ climate projections can be seen here.]