Table of Contents
- 1. The Whiteboard
- 2. Some background
- 3. Why can’t we agree on it?
- 4. Solutions
- 5. Checks and balances
- 6. Food
- 7. New Zealand’s relatively important part in the problem.
- 8. Acting on climate change
1 The Whiteboard
There are many great books that lay out the details on climate change. Prof James Renwick of Victoria University is a leading climate scientist and senior IPCC author. In this 2017 interview we asked him about the alarming details laid out by leading writers like Naomi Klein, Elizabeth Kolbert and David Wallace Wells.
His conclusion: they were pretty much right.
1.1 Human Caused…
Prof Katherine Hayhoe is both an important climate scientist and a trusted science communicator. Think of her as Siouxsie Wiles, but Canadian, and for climate change. Her youtube channel ‘Global Weirding’ answers the most common questions. Here she is on the human causes.
1.2 Mass Extinction…
Eizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer prize winning book ‘The Sixth Extinction’ was the first to warn many people about mass extinction. Currently extinctions are occuring at hundreds, possibly thousands of times the normal background rate. Huge extinction events have occured only 5 times before in the Earth’s history. This one; the sixth, is being caused by humans.
1.3 Climate Lag…
Also known as inertia in climate systems, this describes the continuation of temperature rise, long after emissions have stopped. In other words, even if we fix everything perfectly, things continue to worsen before they stabilise. So we need to act early.
/After CO2 emissions are reduced and atmospheric concentrations stabilize, surface air temperature continues to rise slowly for a century or more. /
1.4 Ocean Acidification…
The sea absorbs more than 90% of the extra heat created by carbon emissions. It’s been estimated as equivalent to the hiroshima bomb, released 5 times every second. the oceans also wind up absorbing most of the extra carbon. This changes the chemical balance. The ocean is not only warmer, it is more acidic. evolution can’t adapt to rapid change like this.
1.5 Climate Tipping Point…
Climate tipping points are feedback loops in the Earth’s climate system. Rising temperatures create effects that lead to further temperature rise.
Earth’s climate and ecological systems are in a complex, interconnected balance: change one thing and the system goes out of balance, meaning other things must change until the system regains balance.
An easily understood climate tipping point is the melting Arctic permafrost. Global average temperature rise (above pre-industrial temperature) is currently slightly more than 1°C, however the Earth’s poles are warming much more quickly. Frozen Arctic ground is now thawing and releasing stored methane. Methane is a potent climate heating gas and therefore creates further warming causing more permafrost melt, releasing even more methane until the system regains balance.
Another very significant tipping point is thawing Arctic sea ice. When the sea surface is frozen it reflects sunlight and heat back into space. As the temperature warms, vast quantities of heat are used to thaw the sea ice while it remains at 0°C. However, once the sea ice has fully melted, heat is no longer absorbed by thawing and also heat is no longer reflected back into space. Once ice-free, the dark ocean now warms rapidly as it absorbs heat from sunlight.
The accelerated warming of an ice-free Arctic ocean will then also accelerate the heating of Arctic climate, and hence accelerate the thaw of land ice (such as the Greenland ice cap).
Much of the carbon we use is hard to release; coal, oil, and tar sands are hard to move and only enter the atmosphere when we extract and burn them.
But there is a huge amount of carbon that only stays were it is while the climate is stable. The climate is now heating and unstable, and carbon (such as carbon in gases that have been trapped beneath the ice for thousands of years) is being released.
Scientists know of 15 climate tipping points (there are potentially more tipping points not yet known). 9 of these 15 known climate tipping points are already being triggered.
Once they begin, these changes are impossible to stop. They ramp up the crisis, no matter what we do,
‘Collapse of civilisation is the most likely outcome’: top climate scientists
There is concern that these changes happen on such a large scale that they start a domino effect, one tipping point triggers the next creating a cascade of tipping points.
Cascading may happen to both climate and ecological tipping points, damaging other living systems in ripples that are predicted to harm food sources and habitats across the globe:
- Acidification reduces the ability of sea life to form shells (exoskeleton) including plankton: this reduction at the bottom of the food chain can wipe out sea life of all kinds.
- Coral bleaching (already happening in Australia) is killing off breeding grounds and food sources for animals across the oceans
- Dry forests burn uncontrollably, releasing vast amounts of carbon that may not be recovered.
1.7 Abrupt and irreversible…
The consequence of a cascading of climate tipping points is abrupt and irreversible climate change, which is a catastrophic outcome.
It’s not just climate change. Our destructive use of the Earth’s resources are pushing us beyond nine separate limits of our life support system. We have already exceeded four of them.
We used to think of our world as inexhaustible. Clearly, that was never the case. The earth is more like a spaceship: one that we must treat with care if we expect it to support us.
2 Some background
2.1 The Carbon Cycle
Mr L Prosser was, as they say, only human. In other words he was a carbon-based life form descended from an ape.
– Douglas Adams
Carbon is the sixth element in the table of 118 known elements. It’s known as a reactive nonmetal and is the basis of most living things. Carbon is easy to get hold of: plants literally take it from the air in the form of the compound CO2; two oxygen atoms bound to one carbon atom. They keep the carbon and release the oxygen. When people describe the Amazon Rainforest as the Lungs of the world, this is the process they are talking about.
When a tree grows we instinctively imagine the solid material it creates coming from the ground. In fact, most of the carbon that makes up the cells of wood and leaf were gathered from the air.
Of course humans, along with most land animals, require oxygen to live, and while inhaled oxygen is delivered to the blood, some carbon, in the form of CO2 is released back to the atmosphere.
One interesting fact about the carbon cycle is that it has remained stable for very long time: as carbon is taken from the air, more goes back to replace it and overall the amount in the air stayed about the same: around 280 ppm (parts per million).
2.2 Atmospheric Carbon
The amount of carbon in the air has changed in the longer term. Whenever it has, the temperature on the planet has changed along with it. Once, the planet Earth was just a rock in space, with no discernable life or atmosphere. When we look at other planets in our own solar system we can see planets at different stages of these changes.
At one time, more than 350 million years ago, the Earth had a very high concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. Even though the sun was cooler back then, the average temperature was around 20C, a full 6C hotter than now.
During this time trees grew very quickly, since there was an abundance of carbon and energy for them to use. Each tree would take some carbon from the air, just as they do now, but back then something quite different happened when they died.
This was called the Carboniferous Era. During this time fallen and decaying plant matter stayed on the ground, meaning as trees died and were replaced by new plants, the amount of carbon in the air decreased. Over millions of years the dead plants and animals formed layers beneath the ground. This is how fossil fuels (peat, coal, methane gas and oil) where created.
Near the end of the Carboniferous Era, a new micro-organism evolved: the Lignite Modifiying Enzyme (LME). The LME could break down the tough celluose walls of plants, literally eating the dead trees. Soon, the LME showed up in fungi, termites and others creatures that could eat the dead matter. This brought the Carboniferous Era to a close: from here, when a tree fell in the forest, most of it’s carbon would go back into the air.
2.3 The changing climate
Creatures like the LME create feedback mechanisms: processes that self-regulate. The more such mechanisms exits, the more predicatable and stable life became over time. Across millions of years, the sun became hotter, the CO2 levels settled to around 240 ppm, and the world gradually became more and more stable.
Some things can’t be balanced this way. The axis of the earth changes over long periods of time, following a pattern known as the Milankovitch Cycle. Ice Ages are generally attributed to Milankovitch Cycles. Large, ancient forms of life, such as the Great Barrier Reef survived the more recent Ice Ages. Humans were alive during the more recent ice ages, in Asia, Europe, parts of North America and Australia.
The last 11,000 years or so is known as the Holocene period. It has been so stable that humans have been able to expland across the planet, developing agriculture, writing and cities.
2.4 Global Warming
The classic Greek tale of Pandora’s Box is a good description of the problem. In it the king of the gods, Zeus, wanted to punish people because the trickster Prometheus stole fire from him. He presented them with the first woman, Pandora. Pandora had a box that she was forbidden from opening: the gods told her it contained special gifts, and while everyone knew to be wary of gifts from the gods it was a matter of time before curiousity overtook her and the box was open. Immediately, sickness, death and all the evils of the world were released and there was no way to put them back.
Fossil fuels are a store of the sun’s energy across hundreds of millions of years and once released that energy has built civilisation as we know it. Every time a plane takes off, or a city fills with traffic we release the carbon that was captured across larger spans of time than we can comprehend.
This makes a fundamental change to the planet’s balance: every day it will store a little more of the sun’s energy than the day before. Every day, that energy changes some of the most ancient forms of balance: coral reefs half a million years old bleach and die, landscapes that were frozen solid for thousands of years melt, changing the albedo effect: the reflectionof the suns energy back into space. Ancient deposits of carbon in the form of methane gas (CH4) are released to the atmosphere.
And we do it quickly. Half of all of the of the CO2 release by people occurred since 1990. The Holocene period has now ended and we have moved into the Anthropocene: a geologic period caused specifically by humans.
3 Why can’t we agree on it?
The largest oil companies were the first to know about the real affects of their product. They had long been a major employer of earth science graduates and had access to terrific quantities of data. Their decision, early in the crisis, to obscure and confuse the facts is documented in the book Merchants of Doubt.
The oil industry, like the tobacco industry before it, had learned that one didn’t need to completely overthrow the facts of climate change to prevent them from changing things: they just needed to undermine them. By doing enough to cast a little doubt, the general public would lose interest and nothing would happen.
The movie Hot Air shows how this played out across decades in New Zealand politics.
Predatory Delay is the term describing the actions taken by those who profit from delaying action on this crisis. In Aotearoa, social anthropologist Dr Terrence Loomis has become an expert on this phenomenon: his books Petroleum Development and Environmental Conflict in Aotearoa New Zealand and The predatory delay diaries show how the industries work to undermine the places we live.
3.1 Eunice Foote
The heating effect of atmospheric carbon was noticed first by scientist Eunice Foote in 1856. She performed the same experiment shown in classrooms today to demonstrate global warming: take two jars, put thermometers in each, then include some atmospheric carbon. Eunice Foote chose carbonic acid, but a combination of vinegar and baking soda can also emit enough CO2 to measure a difference.
3.2 Oil Companies
The principle of global warming was commonly understood in the 1950s and 60s when oil companies where beginning to expand. They performed tests to estimate the amount of warming that might be caused by their products. For some time the major companies formed a coalition to study it, but eventually they elected to hide the issue, beginning a campaign of misinformation and delay that reflected the strategies used before them by tobacco companies as they realised the dangers of smoking.
This practice continues to this day, and the tactic is generally know as predatory delay. Since there is no way for them to deny the truth about athropogenic climate change (the amount to which humans cause the climate to change) they come up with tactics to misinform the public, offering them technologies they claim will fix the problem but which don’t work. The cigarette industry performed the same trick with cigarette filters: for some time people believed that filtered cigarettes were safe to consume.
3.3 Fart Tax
In 2017 a National MP, Shane Ardern, drove a tractor up the steps of parliament to protest a tax that was introduced to study mitigation techniques for agriculteral emissions. This was always seen as vital in New Zealand, now around half of our nation’s emissions are from agriculture. With him was previous Prime Minister Bill English, who also drove the tractor, and MP Dr Lockwood Smith. Dr Smith had a phd in animal science and was a household name due to his role as the quizmaster in televised quiz shows, W3 and It’s Academic.
Dr Smith brought some cows to parliament that day. The tractor, Mrytle, became a talisman representing the parties dismissal of climate science and was used again in the 2016 election, appearing in Jacinda Ardern’s home town of Morrinsville.
It is hard to imagine more trusted figures for the farming community, and the MPs never recanted their positions.
3.4 Soon and Baliunas: the first seeds of doubt
In 2003 a badly written scientific paper became part of a controversy that cast serious doubt on the climate change issue in the U.S. It effectively delayed action for many more years, by making people assume that the scientific position was unclear.
Auckland University professor Chris de Freitas was at the heart of this controversy. He had reviewed the paper in a journal that published it, and he went on to take a skeptical position for the rest of his life. When reviewed by others, the work was found to be flawed in so many ways that the publisher eventually admitted that it was proof of nothing. By then, of course, the damage was done.
3.5 Lord Monckton
For a time, this man was treated as an authority on the subject of climate change. He toured New Zealand speaking to packed houses, claiming that climate change was a hoax. His promoters managed to hide the rest of his ridiculous claims. Among other things, he said that he had created a cure for Graves disease and AIDs, and that homosexuals had an average of 500 to 1000 partners.
3.6 Papers disputing climate change
Some skeptics have claimed that there are hundreds of peer reviewed papers that dispute the agreed-upon findings about climate change. It turns out that they haven’t read them: NoTricksZone, an often referenced site claiming to list them, simply depends on the fact that most people just read the headlines: this article looks at the top ten papers in the list: not only do they all confirm the consenus on climate change, the papers’ authors are horrified to learn their work was in the list at all.
3.7 What do cows have to do with it?
Cows are ruminants: grass eating mammals with complex digestive systems capable of breaking down grasses for food. The stomaches perform enteric fermentation, a process that breaks carbon down without the presence of oxygen. The carbon released is CH4 (methane) instead of the usual CO2 we release when breathing.
Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide. When first released it can be hundreds of times more effective than CO2, but this effect reduces over time as the CH4 reverts to CO2 in the air.
People are often confused about the cow’s role in global warming, since there is not fossil fuel involved when they eat grass and belch methane. Instead of adding to the overall supply of atmospheric carbon they amplify the carbon that is already there. And they do this for a limited period of time. If the number of cows in the world were to decrease, the warming effect would reduce accordingly, over time. While the number of cows remains the same or increases, the warming does not come down.
This explains why there are many arguments about emissions from cows, and why they are not fully included in the ETS.
There are other factors involved with cows, however. The processes for creating milk products in New Zealand do use large quantities of fossil fuels. Gas is used to create fertilizers, while gas and coal are used to dry milk into powder for the Chinese market.
In addition, dairy farming has other environmental impacts: excessive nitrate loading in soils destroys waterways, cadmium loading from imported phosphate renders agricultural land unfit for use in growing food crops for people, and the expansion of land use for farming reduces biodiversity; in particular insect populations has begun to crash, threatening plant life of all kinds in the future.
While industry claims that milk and beef products are essential for people, some of the most densly populated parts of the world are lactose intolerant or culturally prevented from consuming beef. In reality, most meat and dairy is fed to a small percentage of the world, and the rest get by on a diet that is far higher in plants.
4.1 Air Travel
Airlines are faced with severe problems as governments look to tax the price of carbon emissions. Flying releases huge volumes of carbon and there are currently no viable alternatives to power the planes. Electric planes have a very short range, and there are no immediate prospects for improving that. Crop based fuels can provide the energy density required to operate a plane, but the volume of crops required is far greater than the available agricultural land. Compressed Hydrogen has a suitable energy denisty, but carrying it as a fuel inside an aircraft presents serious problems.
Many people serious about reducing their emissions simply stop flying. The #NoFly movement works to find and use alternatives to flight for long journies.
Many climate activists are also strong advocates for large reductions in the number of cars. This is because it prevents us from needing more roads, which exacerbate the crisis; it also makes it easier to switch large numbers of people to sustainable transport.
Every day, around 75,000 trips are made into the city of Wellington. If you imagine them all arriving on a single commuter train, that train would extend from Wellington station to Petone. If they arrrived in a single row of buses, that row would extend to SilverStream. If they all arrived in a single row of cars, that row would extend to Rotorua. The buses and trains would require no parking in the city, while the cars would occupy acres of the CBD.
Electric cars can provide excellent value for money (typically the fuel cost is reduced by 90%). The carbon released in the manufacture of cars, along with the mining burden caused by batteries, means cars are very wasteful compared to recent advances in transport technology. This includes GPS based car sharing (e.g. Mevo), micromobility (electric and manual scooters and bikes) as well as the traditional buses and trains.
By providing ways for people to access a variety of transport options, the quality of life in cities can improve markedly, while commuters can get the permanent relief from congestion that they provide.
4.3 Public Transport
One of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions is to transport large numbers of people using electrical systems that don’t require battery storage. Rail, light rail and trolley buses are excellent in this regard: not only do they reduce noise and improve air quality, they also allow for the continuous movement of large numbers through relatively small spaces, reducing congestion. They also free up parking: when not in use buses typically wind up in suburban terminuses.
In 2016 Wellington removed it’s 68 year old trolley bus system, claiming maintainability issues made it too hard to keep. Meanwhile, in Valparaiso, Chile, another Trolley bus system created at the same time, is not only still in service but it uses the original buses. Reports from senior engineers of Wellington’s old system revealed that it was run into the ground on purpose, and that their removal had nothing to do with saving money or reducing emissions.
Around that time the bus system was re-worked and became far worse: people who had always used them were suddenly forced into other forms of transport and Uber experienced a massive increase in business almost overnight.
Thankfully, due to the efforts of advocates and researchers, some improvements are finally being seen, but we are still seeing an overall increase in road usage that stands directly in the way of reducing emissions.
Around 85 percent of New Zealand’s electricity is produced in ways that emit very small amounts of carbon. Most of this is hydrothermal and geothermal. The remainder is produced using coal and gas at plants like Huntly. In the years that we’ve known about the urgent need to increase renewable forms of electricity (such as wind or solar power) we have instead created more and more gas plants. These move everything in the wrong direction. The oil industry has promoted gas as a ‘transition’ fuel, saying that it creates lower emissions than coal. It turns out that this is not true much of the time: while gas emits less when it is burned, the process to extract it causes higher emissions, meaning the true emissions are about the same.
While solar and wind energy are not on-demand forms of energy; when the sun doesn’t shine on the wind doesn’t blow they produce no power, they are fine to use as part of a system that can is balanced by forms that can be stopped and started at will, such as hydro, and geothermal. Of course the sun and wind can be relied upon to produce plenty of energy consistently over time, and modern electrical grids can be balanced using a variety of other tools that make up for the variability in supply. This has been proven in South Australia where, after much criticism, it turned out that solar power combined with battery storage was a massive improvement to the previous systems.
Since the 1990s, people have been planning for a future based on hydrogen transport. Compressed hydrogen is a useful energy store because it is energy dense, which means you can obtain a lot of energy for a relatively small volume of stored, compressed Hydrogen. This will likely find a home in forms of transport that need to cover long distances without refuelling (such as shipping) but is unlikely to find any use in places where electricity is also available: green hydrogen is manufactured using electricity and a lot of energy is lost in the process.
Our government has proposed burning gas, and even coal, to create compressed hydrogen. This has great optics, since you might allow the public to imagine that the energy is carbon neutral, but of course it is not. Large investments in Hyddrogen have alreay begun in Taranaki, since that province has access to large quantities of gas.
This is typical of the disingenous predatory delay scams operated by the oil industry here and around the world.
5 Checks and balances
All systems of government have a stack of legal and policy frameworks designed to prevent damage by bad actors. In New Zealand we have a Conservation Department to protect large areas of public land and wildlife, along with legal frameworks like the Resource Management Act, the Crown Minerals Act and now the newly formed Zero Carbon Act.
With the rest of the world (except the U.S. under a Trump presidency), the Paris Accord has been created to combine the work of nations into a unified response to the crisis.
5.1 Environmental Protection Agency
The EPA promotes itself as New Zealand’s environmental regulator, a controlling body designed to prevent damage to our environment by bad actors. Yet for years it as signed off on mining projects, with no regard to the emissions they cause. This is by design: environmentalists have attended their hearings for years, only to be told that their claims will be ignored, since they limit their regulation to weirdly specific minutae around mining operations, acting as if climate change didn’t exist. This is simply a Kafkaesque sham, yet the casual observer might assume they are actually doing their jobs.
5.2 Zero Carbon Act
The Zero Carbon Act was a ground breaking piece of legislation, formed and implemented by youth led activist group Generation Zero. After a long process it eventually made it’s way into Parliament with support from both sides of the house. Lisa MacLaren, one of the founders of the ZCA, said that there is still much to do before the act can provide long term certainty and political stability.
5.3 Crown Minerals Act
The Crown Minerals Act is the legislation that changed since the Labour led government announced a ban on new offshore exploration permits. While this was an encouraging start to getting away from oil and gas, the reality is that mining and exploration were allowed to continue in Aotearoa for many more years. The oil industry inserted many pro-mining talking points into the conversation at the time, many of which are addressed here: The oil and gas episode.
CMA specialist, Barrister James Willis, pointed out at the time that the act literally obliges the government to promote petroleum products. This is in direct conflict with Labour’s plans to decarbonise, yet the law stands.
About the arguments for oil and gas exploration.
The more plants you eat, the less carbon you emit. The correlation is so powerful that reducing your intake of dairy and meat could be one of the most effective changes you could make. While work is happening to reduce the emissions from livestock, it will have to compete in time with the rising market of plant based milk and meat substitutes.
These products are constantly improving and taking more of the market. Companies like Perfect Day ferment a milk substitute using enzymes from real milk. The result creates an ice-cream that passes blind taste tests. Milks made from oats, rice and soy already fill entire ailses in our supermarkets.
The top 10 fast food outlets in the U.S. have plant based burgers on their menus. Companies like Beyond and Impossible produce burger patties that also pass for meat to many consumers.
It’s likely that small shifts in price (for instance, the result of a modest carbon price) would be enough to shift massive numbers of consumers to low carbon eating.
For those wanting the taste of a real steak, the propect of commercial lab grown meat is looking closer than ever.
While it’s likely food-from-livestock will always be with us, the need to reduce emissions combined with the economic and physical realities of the food process may mean that it will become less common, much like transport-from-livestock did 100 years ago in the last century.
These are massive changes, and given the limitations that climate change will place on us, they seem almost inevitable. Planning a just transition to this world needs to start with better conversations around the future of food.
However this future pans out, it is clear that more careful stewardship of water and soil will be needed. Imported phosphates are currently loaded agricultural soils with heavy metals (cadmium) so quickly that soon large quantities of arable land will be unfit to grow plants that people can eat. Across the farming sector, work to move to safer, regenerative techniques are a positive step.
7 New Zealand’s relatively important part in the problem.
With a population of 5 million people, New Zealand’s impact in this problem is relatively low. This does nothing to diminish our responsibilty however: in fact most countries have small populations, while a tiny number have very high populations.
Taken together, the countries with populations the size of NZ or less would be in the top five of the highest emitters.
When you count emissions per person, it reveals that New Zealand is among the highest emitters in the world.
8 Acting on climate change
8.1 Why act at all?
You happen to live in what may be the most pivotal point in human history. There is still a little time, and some options left with which changes might occur. These changes could affect the course of human history. The scale of this situation is huge: in fact, books have been written on how these problems of scale affect our ability to act.
At some point, later in your life, you will look back and wonder what you did with this moment in time. No matter the outcome, won’t it be better to know you acted?
8.2 What could I do personally?
If you have investments or savings, make sure they are not being used to fund fossil fuels. This may be the post powerful thing you can do and it is simple. 350 Aotearoa have a guide on banks that make better investments for the planet. If everyone were to make this simple change, the industry would take a massive hit.
Use a carbon calculator to see how you emit carbon. Its likely that air travel is the biggest culprit for you. Try making changes that bring the numbers down.
In real terms, these actions alone achieve something very small; but those small changes can be part of something bigger. People around you may choose to make similar changes as they watch you, you will start to imagine yourself living in a future where everyone is chipping in, and it can help you to be mindful of the world’s current state.
8.3 What could I do with others?
The problems are overwhelming and people frequently struggle with feelings of panic and depression when they consider them. It feels much better when you share this load with others: not only are you suddenly not alone, you are actually acting on the problem in a constructive way. You don’t have to be an activist, though you are certainly invited to give it a try. There are hundreds of ways to work on this problem, and there will be plenty that allow you to work the way you choose. Visit a ‘hub’ group like TUI Climate Community. They can talk about the groups with you and put you in touch with people that could use your help.
Created: 2020-07-24 Fri 08:35