Living in a warmer world

By Gareth Renowden 03/03/2014

This year really has started with a bang. An unusual concatenation of weather extremes — Britain’s stormy and wet winter – the wettest since records began, 250 years ago – the warm winter in Russia and Alaska, drought in California and Australian heatwaves — has caused many people to consider the role that climate change might have played in driving those weather events. For once, public debate has moved away from the tired old is it/isn’t it happening frame and into concern about what living in a warming world might actually mean for us all. This makes Jim Salinger’s latest book, Living In A Warmer World – How a changing climate will affect our lives (Bateman NZ, 2013) especially welcome.

Salinger has drawn on all the relationships he has built up over a 40 year career as a climate scientist, including a spell as president of the WMO Commission for Agricultural Meteorology, to bring together some of the world’s leading experts on climate impacts. Each is given a chapter to look at what might be coming down the road, and it makes for essential, if sobering reading.

Chapters cover the signals from the biosphere, the likely impacts on water resources, the implications for food supplies and human health, and an especially interesting section on the decisions we need to make now. It’s far too diverse a selection of material to look at in great detail, but it will come as no surprise to Hot Topic regulars to know that I found Salinger’s own chapter, written with NZ ice maven Trevor Chinn, covering the loss of glacial ice in NZ and around the world to be one of the most fascinating. The section on the wine industry’s future in a warming world by Greg Jones is also well worth the price of admission, and makes me glad that in my small vineyard I have planted warm-climate syrah alongside cool-climate pinot noir.

But it is in the final section that some of the more immediately challenging material appears. VUW’s Jonathon Boston looks in detail at the moral and ethical challenges implicit in approaching and dealing with climate change, and a posthumous chapter on risk and uncertainty by Stephen Schneider, compiled from two articles he wrote in 2010, usefully articulates the frustration felt by those who knew we were facing a real and potentially devastating problem a long time ago.

Beyond a few degrees Celsius of warming — at least an even bet if we remain anywhere near our current course — it is likely that many ‘dangerous’ thresholds will be exceeded. Strong action is long overdue, even if there is a small chance that by luck climate sensitivity will be at the lower end of the uncertainty range and, at the same time, some fortunate, soon to be discovered low-cost, low carbon-emitting energy systems will materialise. For me, that is a high stakes gamble not remotely worth taking with our planetary life-support system. Despite the large uncertainties in many parts of the climate science and policy assessments to date, uncertainty is no longer a responsible justification for delay.

We are now deep into our high stakes gamble with our planet. We are certain to experience much more warming. We need more books like Salinger’s to begin to sketch out the roadmap that will allow us to cope with the changes that are now inevitable, and to make the changes that will limit future damage so that all humanity can thrive.