Sunday morning Antarctica, and the future of transport

By Bryan Walker 28/08/2013

Chris Laidlaw interviewed the new Director of the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Jane Francis, in his Sunday Morning programme on National Radio in the weekend. I thought the discussion worth drawing attention to as an exemplar of the kind of thoughtful interviewing climate science deserves but only occasionally receives. The listening public also deserves such interviews from the media if it is to understand the weight of the scientific consensus on climate change. Respect is due to Laidlaw’s understanding of the basic thrust of climate change and its implications, making him well equipped to elicit from Professor Francis a very clear account of her work on Antarctic forest fossils and more generally on the threatened sea level rise from melting in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Francis has a fascinating story to tell of her work on fossil plants in the Antarctic and the evidence from the fossils that the continent some 100 million years ago was forested in a period when the globe was in a warm period sufficient to melt polar ice. She discussed with Laidlaw the ways in which trees probably coped with the months of cold but not freezing darkness each year by moving into a kind of dormancy.

Melted polar ice meant much higher sea level and Laidlaw was obviously keen to include some discussion of the current prospect for ice melt in the region. Francis spoke of the huge amount of effort by many nations currently being put into trying to understand what’s happening to the big ice sheets in Antarctica, the changes that are going on, the reasons for them and what’s likely to happen in the future.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, she explained, is only pinned in three rocky places and is otherwise floating on the water where it is vulnerable to melting by the warming oceans: 


… climate modellers have been modelling the West Antarctic ice sheet, there’s lots of glaciologists studying the West Antarctic ice sheet, and they really do think that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which holds about six or seven metres of sea level rise across the world, is beginning to melt – and climate models do show that there can be a pivotal threshold point where the West Antarctic Ice Sheet might melt very fast.  So I think that’s something that really deserves a lot more research

At this point Laidlaw commented in terms with which I am entirely in sympathy:

The implications of that are sort of Armageddon, aren’t they?

Francis preferred something a little more prosaic:

Well the main implication is that sea level will rise by several metres around the world. I mean it’s equivalent to the Greenland Ice Sheet. The Greenland Ice Sheet is also melting but mainly from the top. But, you know, that few metres of sea level rise would affect a huge huge number, a huge population in low-lying areas around the world. So it really has a global effect          

We should hear or read many interviews of this kind in the media. They ought to feature regularly if the general population is to be properly informed of the range of science which supports an issue which should be a dominating feature of public life, not sidelined as it currently is. Perhaps the forthcoming IPCC report will usher in a new and abiding level of media engagement with the science. One hopes that there is a body of journalists sufficiently informed to take on the task.

Listen to the full Jane Francis interview

Talking of the IPCC, in the same programme Laidlaw also capably interviewed Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Perth and a lead author for transport on the IPCC. Newman is well aware of the climate change challenge in the transport area, but he also lays weight on the synergy provided by cultural shifts and the dawning realisation that successful cities centre on public transport, not automobile dependence. He says the cultural revolution of younger people getting out of cars is well under way and speaks of the demise of automobile dependence.  It will be no surprise to hear that New Zealand is one of the last places in the world to be continuing the tradition of car dependence, which is out of date.

“The days of building motorways in cities are over. Increasingly money is going into public transport.”

I won’t go further into the substance of the discussion here. It’s full of interesting detail and repays twenty minutes of listening, though I’m not sure that Steven Joyce or Gerry Brownlee would think so. Particularly cheering is the optimistic tone in which Newman speaks of the developments he sees as under way. While I was listening to him I recalled similar claims about declining car use by younger people in a piece by Lester Brown which I reviewed over three years ago. I checked back and realised how closely his conclusions mirrored what Newman has to say. For example, Brown wrote:

In contrast, many of today’s young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars. They socialise on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars.

I wondered in conclusion to my review whether Brown, ever the optimist, had been too quick to discern a trend. In Newman’s view he was evidently spot on.

Listen to the full Peter Newman interview

Listening to people like Newman one is reminded that much may be going on under the radar in fighting climate change, and that we are not entirely in the hands of lumbering politicians who can’t or won’t see any way forward from fossil fuel dependence. If the need to reduce emissions is undergirded by clearly sensible economics there’s nothing to prevent the transition to clean energy other than the rearguard action of vested interests.