Pat Baskett reviews a new book about the climate crisis that leaves no room for speculation, examining what’s really coming as a result of our actions over the last 200 years. This might be our very last chance to turn mass extinction around, she writes. 

COMMENT: Our final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency is not a book of total doom but it is a reality check. I wondered, as I turned the pages, what it would take for the words “crisis” or “emergency” to spark effective, immediate action in the way that Covid-19 has done.

And then came news of thousands of people leaving their homes to escape wildfires across northern and central California. Multiple lightning strikes combined with an intense, late-season heat wave and the effects of drought, are triggering these catastrophic events.

Temperatures reaching the late 30s are causing electricity blackouts as people turn up their air conditioning. Those with respiratory problems and the most vulnerable to Covid-19 suffer with each breath because air quality from smoke is at dangerous levels.

More than 80,000 hectares have burned – at what is said to be the beginning of California’s wild fire season. Yet this is what local media are describing as “the new normal”.

It put a stark perspective on what I was reading: of summer fires in Arctic regions – in June 2019 more than 100 fires were burning across Alaska, Siberia and northern Canada; of large areas of ocean in the Arctic where the reflective sea ice has melted, leaving darker-coloured open water which soaks up solar radiation like a sponge.

A warmer ocean fuels hurricanes and extremely heavy rainfall, making severe storms and floods part of this new normal for people in China, the US and parts of Southeast Asia.

We can be thankful in New Zealand that our immediate problems are related to the virus – whether to go for elimination or live with containment, and how to do this. To expect our focus, and that of stressed politicians, to aim further ahead appears unreasonable. But complacency about the climate crisis can’t rest on having passed the Climate Change Response Amendment Bill. Just as Covid-19 reached us from outside, so will we not remain exempt from disasters of the magnitude being experienced in California.

“While 2 degrees will stretch many ecosystems to breaking point, 3 degrees will usher in a wholesale mass extinction.”

It’s possible our geographic position provides some, maybe temporary, protection. We are cited, after all, as the “lifeboat country” by those who know what’s coming.

So what is coming? How certain can we be of the effects on the biosphere of what we’ve been doing over the last 200 years – taking carbon out of the ground and turning it into a blanket of gas covering the earth’s atmosphere?

The author of Our Final Warning is Mark Lynas, an English journalist with several books to his credit. This one follows a 2007 version of the same subject – Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. The earlier work enables him to make valid comparisons, showing how much more havoc we’ve caused in the few years between the two books.

Each chapter takes one degree of heating since the pre-industrial average and considers the effects on aspects of the planet. It’s not difficult reading. Lynas writes a narrative that isn’t disrupted with tables, graphs or footnotes. He quotes his sources as he goes and devotes 72 pages at the end to succinctly displaying his references page-by-page. Admirable.

Thus we begin where we are now – 1 degree hotter than our great-great forebears. The official announcement of this grim milestone coincided, Lynas points out, with the 2015 Paris conference and although people there seemed to get it, when they got back home, their inadequate Nationally Determined Contributions proved more difficult to achieve than finding a needle in a haystack. Emissions, here and world-wide, have done nothing but rise.

If one degree seems hardly worth worrying about, read that chapter. It gives a guided tour of what we, down under, might not have noticed. Greenland, once a frozen wilderness, is now a landscape of lakes. In the summer of 2018 almost the entire Northern Hemisphere experienced drastically elevated temperatures, with Oman having the highest minimum night temperature ever recorded, of 42.6C.

Closer to home is his prognosis for the Great Barrier Reef. Its final demise, he says, may come sooner than even many scientists expect because coral reefs everywhere are failing to reproduce.

And then, in case you didn’t know what is happening in the Whanganui National Park, he quotes our very own southern beech (Nothofagus) as an example of how ancient forests world-wide are dying.

The CO2 is there to stay, for centuries. Nothing can return us to that old normal.

Chapter two is crucial – 2 degrees hotter. You might remember that what we’re supposed to be aiming for is keeping the increase to 1.5 degrees. To do so, he writes, requires extraordinarily rapid rates of emission cuts in a world where policy is moving in the opposite direction. So 2 degrees it will probably be, like it or not. But don’t despair – yet.

So much depends on what happens in the Arctic where we’re heading towards an ice-free North Pole – for the first time, Lynas points out, in about three million years. This matters because drastic reductions in sea ice are already playing havoc with atmospheric circulation and the world’s weather.

Historic levels of CO2, found in sediment cores from the Arctic sea floor, explain this likelihood. Summer sea ice was absent when atmospheric CO2 levels were about 450 parts per million (ppm). In 2019 we were at about 408 ppm and rising at between 2-3 ppm per year. Thus, at current rates, we could reach 450 ppm and an ice-free Arctic when my oldest grandson will be 31 (in 2034).

“While 2 degrees will stretch many ecosystems to breaking point, 3 degrees will usher in a wholesale mass extinction,” Lynas writes “…. human societies can aim to survive the 2-degree world in some semblance of their current condition. Another degree, however, will stress our civilisation towards the point of collapse.”

My advice is to skip the following chapters on increases of 3, 4, 5 and 6 degrees but read every word in chapter 7, The Endgame. It begins “It is not yet too late to avoid the worst, but we don’t have much time … It is the hard stuff in the real world that matters: tarmac, pipelines, refineries, gas turbines, petrol engines and coal boilers ….This is where the future is decided.”

Here, at the bottom of the world, the closest we have been to a major climate emergency, give or take a drought or two and the Port Hills fire, is last year’s Australian bushfires. Seeing the smoke darkening our own skies brought them almost home. So we need to take Lynas’ words to heart and act upon them.

This means:

1. Rapidly phasing out our gas- and coal-fired power stations and NOT building or planning any new gas-fired ones. Electricity, which will provide increasing proportions of our total energy, must be renewable. To achieve this we have to act upon the recommendations of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority and use it conservatively. To ensure supply we must enable community-based renewable production by wind and solar.

2. Reducing emissions from transport. This can be achieved by prioritising electrified public transport and electrified rail between the main cities, over new motorways. It also requires resolving issues around the Clean Car legislation which was scrapped thanks to Winston Peters and NZ First. It’s high-time we restricted access for diesel-powered vehicles into cities by enacting congestion charges.

3. Transforming agriculture. Evidence of the pernicious effects of all kinds of industrial agriculture is indisputable. We HAVE to restrict dairy herd sizes, prohibit beef feedlots and provide help for farmers to transition to genuinely regenerative forms of agriculture.

The forthcoming election is important not only for how we deal with the threat posed by Covid-19, but for policies that will help keep the earth habitable.

· Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency by Mark Lynas, 4th Estate, London, 2020

* Pat Baskett is an Auckland writer and current convenor of Our Climate Declaration

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