The climate science is sounding a warning to our political leaders. Will they listen? David Williams reports

In 2009, John Key made a U-turn, swapping jandals for a woolly hat.

“The circumstances have changed in recent weeks,” the then prime minister said of the “political momentum” that made him suddenly decide to attend the United Nations’ climate change conference in Copenhagen.

Not attending the leaders’ meeting would give the impression New Zealand wasn’t committed to “playing its part in the fight against climate change”, Key said. “The fact is that the Government is committed to doing something about climate change, balancing our environmental responsibilities with our economic opportunities.”

It was a classic political calculation, a line designed to appeal to the environmentally conscious and the economically sensitive. But it’s clear now there was no balance. There was no fight. No meaningful action was taken, and the economy ‘won’.

Now, it’s up to Jacinda Ardern’s Government to start cutting greenhouse gas emissions – work that should have begun years ago.

Hooker Lake in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Photo: Sanka Vidanagama/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Expectations might be low after the Government’s ho-hum transport announcement this week. Ardern, Climate Change Minister James Shaw, and Transport Minister Michael Wood unveiled news of a biofuel mandate, fuel efficiency standards, and $50 million for councils to switch to zero-emission buses.

The announcement seemed stifled by an underwhelming lameness.

“Over time this will prevent hundreds of thousands of tonnes of emissions,” Wood said, vaguely, in a press statement. An incentive for “clean cars” would be considered. “Officials will consult with the public and stakeholders to help the Government decide on a way forward before the end of the year.”

Ardern said transport emissions would be “an ongoing area of action” and applauded her Government’s “good step”. Shaw was more lively, saying the window for climate action on the “crisis” was “closing fast”. But he too turned tepid, describing the announcement as a “necessary first step”.

That’s because it was. It was also no surprise the media buried the story, preferring news of a community case of Covid-19.

Tomorrow, the Climate Change Commission – set up by the previous coalition government of Ardern and Shaw – will deliver its vision of what this country needs to do to meet its environmental responsibilities. (The commission, established by the Zero Carbon Act, has run the rule over our domestic emissions reduction targets: a 10 percent drop in methane emissions by 2030, a 24-47 percent reduction in methane by 2050, and net zero all other emissions by 2050.)

If the Labour Government decides not to take its advice, or water it down, it’ll no doubt be accused of Key-like pragmatism, despite its high-sounding rhetoric.

What politicians can’t avoid is the science about anthropogenic climate change. And the news isn’t good.

Climate change is having a profound effect in Greenland with glaciers and the ice cap retreating. Photo: Ulrik Pedersen/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Within the last week, two scientific papers have landed about global ice loss – a topic close to New Zealand’s heart, the Southern Alps. The numbers involved are so incredibly large, they’re hard to imagine.

The Earth is losing 1.2 trillion tonnes of ice a year, just-published research says, and the rate of loss has risen 57 percent since the 1990s. Increased melting comes from mountain glaciers, Antarctica, Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves.

The other paper found the retreat of more than half of 226 Greenland glaciers was controlled by warmer waters, which might mean ice loss is being underestimated by some computer models.

Victoria University of Wellington’s Nick Golledge, a climate modeller focused on ice sheets and sea level rise, says glaciers are very sensitive to the state of the atmosphere. As greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increase, and temperatures rise, mountain glaciers melt at a higher rate. That’s being seen in the Andes and Himalayas, from the alpine regions in New Zealand to Europe, and in Alaska and Canada

“We’ve known for the last two decades that the ice loss in Greenland has been accelerating and we’re beginning to see that acceleration now in Antarctica as well,” Golledge says. “Everywhere we look, basically, we’re seeing increasing melt of those glaciers, and that has some big implications for societies that depend on those glaciers, either for water resources, for hydro power, for tourism in many cases, and that’s something that we’ve seen very close to home.”

It’s no wonder the glaciers are melting. Globally, 2020 and 2016 were the warmest years on record, according to an analysis by NASA. The US space agency’s data says the past seven years were the hottest on record.

A boat sitting in the dried-out Doubs River in Villers-le-Lac, eastern France. Photo: Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

For New Zealand, where the climate is buffered by the ocean, 2020 was the seventh-warmest year on record.

“But the general trend is warming,” says Dr Inga Smith, co-director of He Kaupapa Hononga: Otago’s Climate Change Research Network, at University of Otago. She notes the oceans, particularly the Southern Ocean, are absorbing a large amount of global heat, and the latest Arctic sea ice “end-of-summer minimum extent” was the second-lowest recorded.

Smith recalls smoke from the Australian bushfires obscuring the midday sun in Dunedin on the first day of 2020. “Increasing wildfires are expected in a warmer world, leading to severe impacts on human societies, animals, plants and ecosystems that we all depend on.”

This country’s glaciers are wilting under the heat.

Buffeted by marine heatwaves and record temperatures in 2018 and 2019, some glaciers might be heading for extinction, NIWA scientist Dr Andrew Lorrey said. After an end-of-summer snowline survey last year, he estimated the Southern Alps had lost almost a third of its ice volume since the last 1970s. (There was a slight gain last summer, Lorrey said, but that’s not a sign of recovery.)

Last year, because of coronavirus-related lockdowns, global greenhouse gas emissions dipped an estimated 7 percent on 2019. But that’s still on par with 2011 emissions, and roughly 50 percent higher than 1990 emissions.

Ice near the coast of West Antarctica is seen from a NASA Operation IceBridge plane. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

These figures are important as under the Paris Agreement, governments around the world, including our own, committed to keep global temperature warming to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times, or, ideally, the safer level of below 1.5°C.

(New Zealand’s Paris Agreement target, known as a nationally determined contribution, is “insufficient” according to Climate Action Tracker.)

“We’ve already hit 1.15°C and getting on to 1.2°C,” says Professor James Renwick, head of Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences. “At the current rate of warming, we’re going to be at 1.5°C in something like 10 years.”

Renwick, a member of the Climate Change Commission, says the weight of emissions on the climate system is about 100 times of what it was a century or so ago.

“Once we get above 2°C we’re pretty much guaranteed to melt the West Antarctic ice sheet and, certainly most of Greenland, and bits of east Antarctica.

“That will take hundreds of years, or maybe 1000 years to play out but we would have locked it in by the time we get to 2.5°C, let’s say. And that means we would know that we’ve got five to 10 metres of sea level rise in the pipeline.”

By the end of the century, sea level might rise by as much as a metre, displacing tens of millions of people. “I think it would displace half the population of Bangladesh, and would seriously compromise a lot of Pacific Island nations, not necessarily just from the coastal erosion and the loss of land, but the salination of fresh water.”

Without big emission cuts, all tropical corals could be dead by 2050, Renwick says, as heatwaves on land and in the ocean increase, leading to more frequent wildfires and species extinctions.

Humans are forcing the temperature up, Professor James Renwick says. Photo: Climate Change Commission

Golledge, the climate modeller, says whenever a system – such as that involving glaciers – is accelerating, bad things are going to happen. The system is responding faster and faster to the “forcings” it’s under – in this case, anthropogenic climate change. “It’s like a speeding freight train. How do we stop it?”

For him, the concern is large ice shelves, like Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, and the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea, which will dictate the pace of ice loss from West Antarctica.

“Some of these ice shelves are 1000km from one side to the other,” Golledge says. “So if they go then we lose a large part of West Antarctica, and that raises global sea level by many metres. That’s what we’re focused on.”

American climate scientist Michael Mann, a distinguished professor from Penn State University, says the dip in 2020 global emission means limiting warming to 2°C, and avoiding the worst climate change effects, is plausible, depending on how countries respond.

However, ice sheet loss, the associated sea level rise, and extreme weather events seem to be exceeding projections in the last climate assessment report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014. (The next IPCC assessment report, the sixth, is due to be published next year.)

This might suggest, Mann says, that climate models aren’t capturing some real-world factors amplifying these impacts.  

(For the record, Renwick says the science is clear – humans are forcing the temperature up. Natural variations are important and can drive ice ages, but they operate over timescales of 10,000 years to 100,000 years. “The rate of change is a giveaway,” Renwick says. “We’ve got over a degree [of temperature rise in just over] a century, and carbon dioxide levels are higher than they’ve been for three million years, and that’s happened in about a century as well.”)

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, left, listens to US President Joe Biden speak on tackling climate change. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Rapid changes to the climate have been paired with growing public concern.

A United Nations survey released this week shows two-thirds of people believe climate change is a global emergency.

“Since we signed the Paris Agreement there’s rapidly growing public awareness and public support for tackling climate change,” says Bronwyn Hayward, a professor of political science and international relations at University of Canterbury, and the director of its Sustainable Citizenship and Civic Imagination: Hei Puāwaitanga research group.

“The whole debate has shifted in that we’re no longer having to debate it is happening.”

Now, there’s growing frustration, exemplified by climate strikes led by young people, at government inaction. That’s pretty much what New Zealand’s done for the last 30 years, Hayward says – “put off and put off and put off” climate action. That tactic won’t be acceptable to many.

There is a real expectation now that governments take real, on-the-ground action, Hayward says. That is, to reduce emissions, not buy international carbon credits or plant trees.

“Everything [needs to change] from the way in which we build our buildings to the way in which we produce our food.”

If our climate record gets worse, consumers around the world might choose to boycott this country’s exported goods.

A helicopter drops water on the Bond Fire in California last month. Photo: Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Another danger for climate laggard countries is the reassertion of climate leadership by US President Joe Biden’s administration, including the appointment of Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry.

Mann, the climate scientist from Penn State University, whose new book The New Climate War is scheduled for release in New Zealand this coming week, says Biden’s renewed commitment will pressure other world leaders.

“One thinks immediately of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who flirts with climate change denialism and has displayed a decided lack of enthusiasm for meaningful climate action. But even leaders like Jacinda Ardern, who are on the right side of the climate issue, might nonetheless need to demonstrate greater ambition in lowering New Zealand’s carbon emissions.

“I believe that Biden’s bold action on climate will help facilitate that.”

A good first step for Ardern’s Government would be to show the public, and the world, it takes seriously the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations.

“We really need action this decade, between now and 2030,” Renwick says. “If we fritter away this decade, or most of it, it’s… I hesitate to use expressions like ‘game over’ but we would be locking in really devastating consequences in the second half of the century.

“We are talking hundreds of millions of people displaced, big crop failures, food shortages, water shortages – it would be catastrophic around the world on a scale that human society has not had to deal with before.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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