Sign On or Turn Off?

In the 1980s, New Zealand made its presence felt on the world stage with its aggressive stance on being nuclear free. That stance defined a generation and laid the groundwork for our country’s major selling point: 100% pure. Now 20 years on there is a new threat to our reputation and once again we need to stand up and define this generation by recognising the threat to humanity that human-induced climate change has created and commit to preventing an ecological tragedy from happening.

It would be hard to have missed the emotionally charged Greenpeace advertising blasting through our TV sets every night for the past few months featuring Rhys Darby, Lucy Lawless, Keshia Castle-Huges, Robyn Malcolm, Cliff Curtis, Stephan Tindell, and many other local celebrities telling us to Sign On for a 40% reduction target by 2020. But what is this reduction target and how do we know it is not just clever “green-wash”?

In December, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to form an agreement that will replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The goal of the Kyoto protocol was to achieve “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Unfortunately to date this has failed because despite 183 states signing onto the treaty the world leader in pollution the United States has refused to ratify the protocol. If any real prevention of climate change is going to happen it is a basic necessity that the United States plays its part.

During the past twelve years of inaction it has become clear that stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations is no longer enough to prevent a worldwide catastrophe. For industrialised first-world nations, a major reduction in emissions is needed and this is the basis for any agreement. In the past, New Zealand has been a leader in “green issues” and even the Government’s chief science advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman has noted in his briefing to the Prime Minister on Climate Change that “New Zealand is a small emitter by world standards – only emitting some 0.2% of global greenhouse gases. Anything we do as a nation will in itself have little impact on the climate – our impact will be symbolic, moral and political.”

However, the reality for the whole world is this is more than just politics. This is why Greenpeace is pushing so hard for an aggressive 40% target for NZ. We must all play our part. There is no sitting on the fence washing our hands and claiming this is not our problem. Climate change is already happening and having a major impact on the world. In the same report Gluckman continues to note that:

“There is a general agreement that the world is experiencing an overall warming trend. The warming trend over the past 50 years is nearly twice as great as that over the previous 100 years. These escalating temperature changes have been reflected in a number of environmental and biological changes. These include rises in globally averaged sea level, shrinking of summer Arctic sea-ice extent, losses from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, retreat of mountain glaciers, poleward and upward shifts in the range of some plant and animal species, and earlier timing for some species of spring events such as leaf-unfolding, bird migration and egg-laying. That this is happening is not contentious.”

So, the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister is stating that climate change is happening and it is no longer contentious, then what is contentious and why can we not commit to a 40% target? The answer is simple: politics. Politicians are often said to have 90 day vision. Whatever the story of the hour is will be what they focus on. 2020 is an eternity away in the land of politics so in the grand scheme of things little time or thought is spent on these major issues. However as Gluckman continues to note: “The impact of climate change is largely in the future, but to ameliorate it will require action in the present. Furthermore, because climate change requires global action, countries have difficulties suppressing national interest for united global interest and there is a large amount of positioning between nations.”

This past winter has been one of the coldest in many years. June was the coldest month in 40 years of records. But despite this the weather patterns have produced some of the lightest ever snow falls and we have subsequently seen a very early start to spring with August being the warmest August ever on record. Climate change is not all about warming. It is about extremes as the entire world adapts to a new weather environment and that is a scary reality. The earth is a finely balanced machine, the only planet in the entire universe that we know of that can support life, yet we are self mutilating it to the point where it needs intensive care to recover.

There is a way forward and hopefully out of this mess. But it requires action now. Greenpeace has suggested the following set of sensible and practical solutions.

* Make sure global emissions peak in 2015 and decrease as rapidly as possible towards zero after that
* Developed countries must make cuts of 40 per cent on their 1990 emissions by 2020
* Developing countries must slow the growth of emissions by 15-30 per cent by 2020, with support from developed nations
* Protect tropical forests with a special funding mechanism – forests for climate
* Replace dirty fossil fuel energy with renewable energy and energy efficiency

Step by step we can get out of this mess. But it requires urgent action now. If we don’t the consequences for the world could be far beyond the plot of any Hollywood disaster movie. In the past, a similar debate occurred about AIDS, where a minority of scientists maintained for a long time that the disease was not caused by a virus. This view was clearly wrong in the eyes of most scientists, but nevertheless some scientists took different views until the science became irrefutable. The political consequences of this denial had tragic results in some African countries.

It is important and beneficial for New Zealand to be seen again as a responsible global citizen and do our bit for achieving the most positive outcome at Copenhagen. I urge you to join the Greenpeace Sign-On campaign at www.signon.org.nz. It could be the simplest and best piece of political activism you ever do in your lifetime.

For further information on the realities of climate change in New Zealand visit:

http://www.pmcsa.org.nz/climate_change

http://www.niwa.co.nz/our-science/climate/information-and-resources/clivar/pastclimate