As the seemingly benign temperatures at the start of summer begin to highlight the true costs of climate change, Pat Baskett draws on the wisdom of early climate seers like the late Jeanette Fitzsimons to ask where we’re going wrong 

This summer the morning and evening skies have been mesmerisingly beautiful with not a cloud in sight. Every day has been swimmingly hot, campers have left wet weather gear at home and cricket tournaments have confidently run their allotted days.

But it’s been a sad time – a harbinger of the years to come as the climate heats and this summer’s high temperatures appear, in retrospect, benign. Drought has left hungry animals in scorched pastures. Families dependent on agriculture for their incomes are likely to go hungry in their turn. The effects of drought are always long-term. We may be witnessing the beginnings of the drop in the standard of living predicted by those who say reducing fossil fuel use and reducing consumption will have profound societal impacts, and by those who foresee pain all round unless we implement some hard measures.

And yet summer began on a note of optimism. The Zero Carbon Act offered recognition that we have to make changes in order to mitigate even greater changes. It promised a tentative way forward. But our mild euphoria was quickly quashed by the billion dollar spend announced on roads – and no mention of electrified rail between the main cities, let alone increased public transport.

It seems we are doomed to drive – and in petrol or diesel vehicles for a while longer – thanks to NZ First and their rejection of the Government’s proposed feebate scheme for fast-tracking the uptake of EVs and phasing out diesel and dirty petrol cars – this without any suggestion of how the scheme could be improved.

Transport involves us all – of goods as well as people. We need urgently to find clean ways of remaining mobile because transport emissions are our second-highest.

Then we were offered a glimmer of wisdom with the Government’s announcement that KiwiSaver providers won’t be allowed to invest in fossil fuels. But National’s finance spokesperson, Paul Goldsmith, commented: “It shouldn’t be up to Jacinda Adern to tell Kiwis they can’t invest in a product they use legally every day … If she thinks it’s a sin to invest in oil and gas, does she also think it’s a sin to fill up your petrol tank?”

I wonder how he sees the future, how he imagines new technologies have ever advanced if it’s not through investment, especially in research and development. Is he happy with the status quo that appears to prioritise adaptation over actions to mitigate global heating?

It’s an attitude that has defeat as its subtitle. Or too hard. Or not now, not yet. Or I’m already doing what I can. Yes we need to plan for sea level rise. Survival will depend on a myriad new strategies of land use for food, of transport and energy production.

But there was another time 30-plus years ago when even mitigation was a no-no word because it too implied defeat. Those climate-seers who knew what was coming also knew what we had to do. In the US James Hansen was the first scientist, then working at NASA, to attempt to warn the US government of what lay in store. He wrote “Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty.” That was 1988. His book Storms of my Grandchildren, 2009, is a memorable and heart-breaking account of his work.

Fellow American Bill McKibben followed with The End of Nature in 1988. He has still not given up. Writing in the most recent New York Review of Books he records a “mammoth divestment campaign (that) has persuaded endowments and portfolios worth $12 trillion to sell their stocks in coal, oil, or gas companies…”

Paul Goldsmith has some catching up to do.

McKibben points out that, according to “the inexorable mathematics of climate change”, if governments had heeded early warnings the necessary cuts in emissions would have been “a percent or two each year” in order to meet the Paris goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees. As it is, he says, that goal requires emissions reductions of 7.6 percent annually for the next decade.

“Stop and read that number again,” he writes, “it’s almost incomprehensibly large”. “No individual country, not to mention the planet, has ever cut emissions at that rate for a single year, much less a continuous decade.”

New Zealand had its own small gang of climate-seers – even in the ranks of the Ministry for the Environment, which prepared a background paper for a seminar on climate change held in March 1988 in Wellington.

Titled Climate Change: the New Zealand Response, the paper appeared in the quarterly magazine New Zealand Environment No 58, of winter 1988. The forward-looking veracity of that article is stunning. Nothing has changed or proved the predictions wrong. Here’s the key paragraph:

“Global average surface temperature increases of between 1.5 and 4.5C are predicted by 2030. Computer models suggest that temperature increases will be greatest in the polar regions and least in the tropics … The global warming will cause sea levels to rise by 20 to 140cm by the year 2030, due to thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of glacial ice in the temperate regions.”

New Zealand’s early seers include former Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, who died unexpectedly on Thursday night. At that time she lectured in Environmental Studies and Energy Planning at Auckland University. She wrote two articles in New Zealand Environment numbers 58 and 59. The first discusses the merits of adaptation versus prevention and the second details energy policies that could be adopted to prevent the climate disaster occurring.

There was even in those early days a reluctance to commit to dealing with the causes of global heating. In the first article, her report on the 1988 Wellington seminar, she wrote:

“Two strategies for dealing with the situation were discussed – adaptation and limitation. Although it was admitted from time to time that we should do both, the emphasis was very strongly on adaptation, and the few voices who argued that prevention was better than cure were dismissed as naïve and idealistic.”

What has changed in more than 30 years? Back to McKibben. He reports on a move by the world’s largest financial firm, Black Rock, which announced it was taking broad, if still tentative, steps to include climate change in its analysis of potential investments. McKibben heralds this as the most encouraging news since the signing of the Paris climate accords. He writes:

“…if these pillars of global capital could somehow be persuaded to act, that action could conceivably be both swift and global.

“Anything is worth a try at this point, because we’re very nearly out of time.”

I wish our Government would try these actions:

1. Make the feebate scheme workable and ensure it doesn’t disadvantage the poor

2. Revamp the electricity market, make it 100 percent renewable and allow and enable independent community production

3. Expand and electrify KiwiRail

4. Reduce methane emissions by restricting dairy herd size, closing beef feedlots and assisting regenerative agriculture.

Auckland Council may be a step ahead. They have responded to their declaration of a climate emergency with the recent release of a 12-page document called Climate Impact Statement. Things could be looking up, at last.

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