Hansen “climate change a moral issue”

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.”

9 Comments Posted

  1. Come to think of it, the country with the most amazing landscapes on this planet of ours should be leading (and take pride in it) the anti-CO2 emission movement. Unfortunately, I’m sure it takes more than a few green countries to shift the balance under the 350CO2 margin, but we’ve got to start somewhere, right ?

  2. I’ve finally figured out what is wrong with all the current ETS and carbon tax schemes, and that is they they apply the cost to the wrong place, the carbon cost (however collected) is just added as a cost to the final good or service.

    My suggestion is that carbon cost becomes the direct responsibility of the business owner(s), so for sole traders and partnerships its on the personal tax bill of the individuals concerned, and for shareholder owned companies (small or large) the carbon cost is the responsibility of the shareholders.

    Why is this better than the current scheme? Because the costs accrue to the shareholders, who are investors in the business, and thus they will factor in carbon costs into their investment decision making.

    Visualize a company that has high carbon costs through carbon use, and pays a very low (or no) dividend. Rather than an equity investment that makes money, this is an equity investment that looses the shareholder money. So the shareholders will pressure the company directly at board level to make the losses go away. Or the investors will get out and the company will cease to be.

    Or imagine where a new company has a lower carbon way of doing the same thing as another company; their carbon costs to shareholders will be lower than the incumbent. So either the shareholders get a better return, or the new company can undercut the incumbent whilst maintaining shareholder value, or a mix. Either way, the incumbent comes under pressure for poor dividend performance.

    For the first time, this allows carbon pricing to actually influence the amount of carbon emitted, which no previous scheme does; the existing schemes just put up costs to the final consumer of the good or service and make not a jot of difference to carbon emissions.

    Green Party – please adopt 🙂

  3. I didn’t see the program but the comment “We will deal with the carbon emissions if New Zealanders want us to” sounds far too true I’m afraid. Thats why none of the parties pays enough attention to it. Don was, unfortunately, being too honest there.

  4. Hansen’s message is extremely focused and clear: keep the coal in the ground and reduce oil use to that needed while we shift to non fossil fuels. If this is done, we save the climate. If it’s not done, we trash the climate and probably our species, no matter what else we decide to do. For NZ, this translates mainly to no lignite mining, no deep sea drilling, greatly reducing our dependency on imported oil and planting lots of trees.

  5. will any of this convince you animal-eating/wearing/mega-polluting greens to break yr addictions…?



  6. I heard today it took four lecture halls to hold the crowd that came to hear Hansen speak in Wellington. I’ve never seen such a turnout for a public talk. It’s not that he’s a great speaker, because he isn’t and knows it, though he speaks with a very engaging sincerity, referring often to his grandchildren whose future wellbeing is the reason he’s begun to engage more regularly with the public. I think people come to his talks because they know it is a rare opportunity to hear what is as close as one can get to the truth about our changing climate based on what the very latest science is telling us. I just hope enough hear and understand this message to make a difference – for the young people and those yet to come, as Hansen said many times.

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