by Gareth Hughes
Last night, along with several hundred other concerned Wellingtonians, I attended Dr. James Hansen’s lecture on climate change. James Hansen is an esteemed atmospheric physicist, and has been called the ‘grandfather of climate change’. Evidently his reputation preceded him as the crowd packed out two lecture theatres at Victoria University’s Law School.
One of the biggest problems Dr. Hansen has seen so far is the gap between the scientific understanding and public knowledge on the issue of climate change. The challenge for Hansen has been in teaching himself to communicate the urgency of the situation, instead of remaining solely a scientist. Thank goodness he made the switch though. His content was terrifying, in that we have so little time left in which to avoid further irreparable damage to the climate, yet ended on a note of hope, in that there are solutions, we just need the political will to enact them.
Over the past 10,000 years Earth’s climate has remained remarkable constant, fluctuating by less than 1 degree Celsius. This has enabled us, civilisation, to develop in a safe, constant environment, which led to the society we see today. Pretty cool, right? During this time, volcanoes naturally emitted CO2, so it’s not entirely incorrect to say that there’s a natural element to climate change. This natural emission rate is approximately 0.0001 ppm/a (parts per million, per year). Thanks to this stability, and our discovery of fossil fuels, the society we’ve developed now emits at 2ppm/a. Preservation of life on this planet requires us to stabilise CO2e at or below 350ppm. We are currently at 391ppm. Even if we phase out all coal use by 2030, and do not depend significantly on other fossil fuels, we can still expect CO2e to peak somewhere between 400-425ppm. Numbers aside, we’re well outside the safe zone, and climbing.
The reason climate change is so hard to stop is due to the inertia of the climate. It’s estimated that at least as much warming as has already occurred due to humanity so far is still ‘in the pipeline’. This is especially worrying, when we consider climatic tipping points, which are essentially points of no return, generating warming feedback loops. For example: as the permafrost in the arctic tundra melts, pockets of trapped methane (a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2) are released. This compounds the original warming, and pushes us further and faster down the past of climate change.
So what does this all mean for New Zealand? We’re clean and green; we’ve got a lot of renewable energy, right? I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Hansen about this, and his response was interesting. He said that in his travels around the world presenting his lecture, he had been looking for a country whose leaders were willing to stand up and tell the truth about climate change. New Zealand’s image gave him hope, but when he arrived he was taken aback: “It’s a beautiful country, it looks very green, but your emissions have increased by 20% since 1990, you’re not meeting your target!” His stance on lignite was firmer. We cannot afford, says Dr. Hansen, to prospect for further oil and gas, or exploit tarsands. We cannot afford to dig and burn lignite. “[You’re] not looking at your responsibilities to young people, to other species on the planet, or to future generations”.
The solution, according to Dr. Hansen, is fairly simple: fee and dividend. Furthermore, his message was one of urgency. While international cooperation and consensus is, of course, needed to tackle climate change, we also need a country brave enough to take the lead on this. Who better than New Zealand? What better way to repair the recent damage to our clean green brand, arguably one of our most valuable assets, what better way to demonstrate to the rest of the world that we are proud, principled, determined leaders? We led on universal suffrage, we led on our anti-nuclear stance, we need to lead on climate change. I’m left with one final Hansen quote in my mind: “The present situation is analogous to that faced by Lincoln with slavery and Churchill with Nazism—”the time for compromises and appeasement is over.”