An Inconvenient Inevitability

The Paris Climate Change Conference has drawn to a close and it seems that everyone has been talking about climate change. There was the news that carbon dioxide emissions fell during a period of economic growth for the first time. There were marches across the world in the lead up to the conference calling on world leaders to actually do something this time. Even our leaders themselves seemed to be joining in this global call to action.

Our very own Prime Minister John Key announced a $20 million contribution to the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases. He even said “countries subsidised fossil fuels to the tune of US$500 billion in 2014. Removing these subsidies frees up money, which would be better spent on low-carbon energy, health or education” which is incredible! This is excellent news if meaningful action results. But given that it’s less than a week after he signed the Paris agreement and his government has already granted nine new permits for oil and gas exploration, you will forgive me for doubting his commitment to these words. Not to mention his government has already marked out 20 times the amount of money for fossil fuel promotion over renewable energy promotion this year.  Oh, and the Tangaroa, a NIWA deep water research vessel was given $24 million from our government to upgrade it for oil and gas exploration in our waters. But enough about that, while Key may only be just catching up with the idea that something has to be done about climate change, others are pushing governments to commit to more ambitious goals in the face of the huge challenges climate change is already presenting to us. The talk is very much focused on “stopping climate change”, but the reality is that we are past that point. Climate change is inevitable.

We need to start planning for a future of more frequent weather extremes, rising seas, spreading diseases, increased food insecurity, and many other consequences we are already observing. Melting land ice and warming oceans (causing expansion) have led to a 200mm rise in sea levels from 1870-2000. NASA satellites have shown a rise of 66.91mm since 1997. Some atoll nations are already under threat from rising seas, and already there are people seeking asylum as climate refugees.

Globally we are seeing hot regions experience more frequent and lengthy heat waves, forest fires, and droughts, while cooler regions are experiencing more frequent flooding. While there was much celebration at the agreed upon 2°C limit this week, it is by no means a safe limit, and under current plans is unachievable. This 2°C rise above pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide threatens Arctic permafrost, which would release up to three times the amount of carbon currently in our atmosphere. It threatens the Greenland ice sheet which, if melted, would raise sea levels by approximately seven metres. The West Antarctic ice sheet is the most vulnerable and would add approximately 5 metres. According to Obama’s own science advisor, John Holdren, we are already passing the point, if not already past it, where the loss of these ice sheets is inevitable. Yet the target agreed upon in Paris allows for a further doubling of average temperature rise.

Many prominent climate scientists agree that the 2°C limit is certainly not a safe level. James Hansen wrote a paper ten years ago stating this and as recently as a few weeks ago reasserted that contention. Kevin Anderson has said that the 2°C limit represents a threshold not between “acceptable” and “dangerous”, but “dangerous” and “highly dangerous”. Under the current pledges, we would still increase global average temperatures by up to 2.7°C. We are already 0.9°C above pre-industrial levels and even if we were to stop releasing greenhouse gases today, the global temperature would continue to rise towards 1.5°C before stopping, according to a paper published in Nature in May. Most scientists agree that to keep the increase below 1.5°C (which itself is not a safe level) we need to not only sharply curb greenhouse gas emissions, but we need to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

This is our future. I hate to be pessimistic, but there is nothing to signify that we will stop climate change from occurring. The language of the Paris agreement is devoid of any actionable commitments, the current plans, while aiming for a 2°C limit, currently project a rise closer to 3°C, and there were last minute changes of the wording of the agreement to softer language (changing “shall” to “should” for example). These facts do not inspire confidence in even the most optimistic observers.

We are already feeling the consequences of a changing climate. There are more floods, droughts, forest fires, heat waves, and the seas are rising. All of this leads to decreased food security, increases in invasive species, the spread of disease vectors, loss of entire nations, climate refugees, and many more effects. Developing nations are particularly vulnerable, and developed nations are largely responsible for climate change, so there is an inherent injustice to all of this.

We must continue to try to reduce carbon emissions, but also must begin to plan on mitigating the effects of climate change. This means we must consider other technological alternatives for our energy consumption, including nuclear energy, and we must begin to plan for an insecure future which means considering GM crops, lab grown meat (or maybe even vegan diets), high rise complexes dedicated to food production, and many more technologies. I will consider all of these technologies in my 2016 articles.

There is much to be pessimistic about, but we must continue to fight anyway. In the face of apathetic leaders, powerful corporations, and a populace with other priorities (such as feeding their families), it seems like an impossible fight. But we have all the capabilities necessary for a fossil fuel free future. We have all the capabilities for a food secure future. We have all the capabilities for a stable and safe future. We just have to keep fighting for them.


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