Political courage not political suicide

by | 10 Aug 2010 | Climate strategy | 0 comments

Cancun Beach erosion

Contrast to Copenhagen: The beach-side city of Cancún provides a markedly different setting for a markedly different conference. Cancún also comes complete with a constant reminder of the reality of sea level rise. image The Independent UK

It was widely hyped as last chance for planet Earth. Then universally condemned as an abject failure.

But the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen a year ago was neither of those things. And what it did produce, thanks to Barrack Obama, was the Copenhagen Accord, which has since been signed by countries responsible for more than 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is a colossal advance on the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States refused to sign.

Copenhagen also produced the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, largely thanks to Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, chief science advisor to Aotearoa’s prime minister. The main agricultural greenhouse gas is methane, which is 23 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Methane is set to receive much of the focus of this year’s United Nations climate conference, in Cancún, but it is not agricultural methane that is creating the sense of crisis. Instead, it is methane from a source not even included in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the methane seeping from the thawing Siberian tundra. Formidably knowledgeable oceanographer and engineer and Arctic Climate Impact Assessment chairman, Dr Robert W Corell says:

In my view, methane is a serious sleeper out there that can pull us over the hump.

Dr Corell and his colleagues are pushing satellites to be deployed to gather more information on methane leaks. Methane from melting permafrost and substrates is potentially the fiercest global warming feedback loop. Dr Katey Walter‍ ‍Anthony suggests:

More than 50‍ ‍billion tons could be unleashed from Siberian lakes alone, more than 10 times the amount now in the atmosphere.

Dr Walter‍ ‍Anthony and her project team are evaluating the potential for capturing natural gas from seeps for the heating and power the Alaskan village of Atqasuk. Clearly burning methane destined for the atmosphere is preferable burning diesel, in such locations. Increasingly, the methane from coalmines is being seen as a resource and harvested—heartbreakingly, not at Pike River. Last month Mexico City hosted a ‘methane to markets’ ministerial—the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Coalbed Methane Outreach Program primarily responsible for the conference. The China Unconventional Gas Congress 2011 will showcase progress that country is making.

Sergey Zimov

Flaming Ice: Dr Sergey Zimov, prime proponent the 160-kilometre2 ‘Pleistocene Park’ scientific reserve in northeast Siberia, at a site of methane discharge. photographer Arthur Max

Mindful of the caning Copenhagen received for failing to deliver binding agreements, participants at Cancún are desperately down-playing expectations. Certainly there is none of the hysterical ‘last chance’ rhetoric that characterised Copenhagen. That is not to say the need to act is not extreme, but that it has been extreme for decades. It is the cumulative carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is forcing warming, rather than what is emitted in any particular year. Even if anthropogenic greenhouse gases ceased to be produced tomorrow, as desperately desirable as that would be, the climate will continue to warm and put paid to the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, but over a somewhat longer period than under the business as usual scenario.

It is hard to picture a more precarious city than Cancún, in respect to vulnerability to global warming. Not only is perched on the end of a peninsula jutting into the increasingly hurricane hit Gulf of Mexico, its draw card beach accommodation is barely above sea level. That the city has just spent $71‍ ‍million on beach replenishment will only serve to underline to conference delegates what is at stake from accelerating and unrelenting sea level rise. For humanity, in large part, life has literally been a beach. Stable coastlines and rich river deltas have nurtured civilisations. Once inundated, beaches will be a rarity and will take an eternity to be recreated, provided sea level stabilises sufficiently—possibly at an elevation 80‍ ‍metres above the present.

Last chance rhetoric is understandable, given the almost unimaginable suffering that will ensue as billions are forced to relocate by a combination of sea level rise and desertification. Frighteningly, one of those deserts may be the Amazon, currently caught in its second 1-in-100-year drought in five years.

So it is entirely understandable that most environmentalists, a good few scientists, and the rare economist preach the message: Repent, there is just enough time! If the message was, ‘we have left this way too late and now the need to act is extreme, but life will never be the same again’ they worry that the public will despair and take a fatalistic ‘nothing I can do’s going to make a blind bit of difference’ stance. But given how little the feedback mechanisms, much less the interplay of those mechanisms, are understood, targets of 350‍ ‍parts‍ ‍per‍ ‍million of carbon dioxide are almost certainly hopelessly ineffectual. Even returning to pre-industrial era levels of 280‍ ‍parts‍ ‍per‍ ‍million, an impossibility without large-scale reforestation and a total cessation of emmissions, will not eliminate warming that is in the pipeline, in the oceans in particular.

If the limits to growth that were so obvious in the early 1970s had been heeded then, cumulative carbon dioxide would still have seen inexorable sea level rise. But while it might be too late to save today’s beaches, by continuing to throw fossil fuel on the global warming fire, mankind has hastened the speed of warming, of sea level rise, desertification, deluge and extinctions. Consequently, the human and financial cost of adaptation and relocation will hit harder and sooner.

Rio Negro, boy with paddle

Brown the New Black: Amazon tributory Rio Negro is at its lowest level for more than a century. photograph Euzivaldo Queiroz

Ross Gelbspan blames the media, and he is entitled, after a 31-year career as a reporter and editor at the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Washington Post, the Village Voice and the Boston Globe. Whereas chief executive officers of oil and coal corporations, he maintains are:

…simply doing what they’re paid to do: Bring us cheap and abundant energy—and defend their industries against the imperatives of the science and the onslaught of environmentalists.

Not only is the commencement of the Cancún conference not front-page news in the New Zealand Herald, the spruced up online version has hidden Environment under National and other main menu items such as Entertainment, Life and Style and Travel. Gelbspan, reviewing legendary Joseph J Romm’s latest book, Straight Up, agrees with the physicist’s ‘chilling conclusion’ that

It appears to me that today’s media simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction.

The average politician is hamstrung on global warming because a staggeringly high percentage of voters choose to ignore the science. Many blame the traditional reticence of scientists for a failure to popularise their work. But that is unfair; the media needs to deploy more science writers in order to deliver on the solemn duty of the fourth estate. Instead it is collectively failing humanity and what’s left of the natural world.

Gelbspan’s singular criticism of Straight Up is that while it lavishly covers transition from fossil fuels—Joseph Romm was acting assistant to the United States Energy Secretary in the 1990s—it fails to address adaptation and relocation:

Schwarzenegger at Harper Lake

Walking the Talk: Unlike the plethora of politicians content with green platitudes, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger presided over a dramatic drop in carbon dioxide emissions per person in California. photographer Tami A Heilemann

Unfortunately, we have already passed a point of no return in terms of staving off massive disruptions. It is time to begin talking about how to preserve a coherent human community without a retreat into mass survivalism. It is time to start planning how we can endure in a world that will be far less stable and far more threatening than the one we grew up in.
Which is why Professor Richard Bedford, director of population studies at Waikato University should also be front-page news, for his perspective on how Aotearoa can gently tweak its policies to allow the humane transition of people from irreversibly unviable Pacific atolls—a trickle being preferable to a flood, for all concerned.

What Copenhagen highlighted is the inherent inequity of the one nation one vote basis of the United Nations. Global warming is by definition a global problem. No individual nation should be at liberty to befoul the global commons. In a re-invented world body, a trail-blazing democratic state such as California with its progressive, non-partisan energy policies should have at least as much clout as the petro dictatorship of Saudi Arabia, with 10‍ ‍million fewer people.

California provides a blueprint for what developed countries can do to prohibit the worst excesses of fossil fuel consumption, regulate the rest, and save the consumer money. Indiscriminate taxes such as Aotearoa’s 15% on goods and services should be swiftly replaced by a regime that is intelligent and targeted.

A crucial impediment to convincing voters to back decisive action to reduce emmissions is the lack of firm forecasts as to how quickly, and by how much, sea levels will rise. Or how quickly, and to what extent, desertification will extend.

Many argue that this lack of detail is immaterial, as there is no question that emissions must be rapidly reduced. The problem, however, is that humans are reckless when it comes to discounting risk: If there is a chance it won’t happen anytime soon, or that a future risk may not materialise, there is a strong instinct to be ‘conservative’ and put available resources to more tangible goals.

But there is an additional reason that the gaps in the science, such as quantifying the rate of increase, and extent of, methane seeps, must urgently be plugged. The logistics of the retreat from even a metre rise in sea level are daunting. Infrastructure is being built within this zone in ignorance of the current 33-millimetre-per-decade rise, or on the assumption that sea level rise will be linear, whereas the rate in the last decade has doubled.

The Fifth Assessment Report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is not due to be published until 2014. But it is likely to be as compromised as the fourth by the unwieldy process whereby individual countries can effectively censor the scientists who have the unenviable chore of writing it. Local governments ever since have been blithely quoting from incomplete work, such as that which led to publishing scenarios showing sea level rise ranges to a maximum of a mere 0.59‍ ‍metres, by the end of the century. Little wonder a less-than-savvy former Rodney District Council spent $2‍ ‍million or more tarting up its sea-level boulevard.

An authoritative, internationally supported ‘scenario one’ report spelling out the probable warming impacts in four-year intervals—the length of the election cycle of the world’s largest dysfunctional democracy—would provide politicians something to nail their colours to, whether red, blue or green.

Aside from that den of disinformation the dysfunctional Act party, Aotearoa is extremely fortunate in having a non-partisan approach to global warming, a quality it shares with California. It needs its media to find the courage (and hire the expertise) to make Climate a main menu item, to pillory the disingenuous, and so support the government in regulating fossil fuel as effectively as California has done.

Now would be a great time for John Key to invite Arnold Schwarzenegger on a ‘state’ visit, fresh from helping defeat fossil‍ ‍fuel ‍–‍sponsored Proposition 23 and his duty as governor done, a month from now. One of them maintains:

Political courage is not political suicide.

 

Abrupt climate change Anthropogenic global warming is the first-ever global geo-engineering experiment, thus it remains to be seen whether the warming unleashed will equal or surpass more dramatic rates seen in the paleoclimate record, such as the ending of the Younger Dryas when Greenland warmed some 10° in several decades or less.

 

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