James Bell is a self-confessed sponge nerd, an interest he developed during his undergraduate research in Ireland. It has taken him around the world.

The professor of marine biology at Victoria University of Wellington visited Ireland last month for his long-term research project.

In that corner of Ireland, overlooking the Atlantic – at the semi-enclosed, underwater cliffs in Lough Hyne – the water temperature was already above long-term averages.

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Bell and his colleagues are concerned about the heat’s effect on marine creatures, particularly those that can’t migrate to cooler climes.

“We know organisms have the ability to withstand some increases in temperature, but the magnitude of the marine heatwaves this year will really test this resilience for many species.

“This could impact many commercially important finfish and shellfish species, and therefore people’s livelihoods.”

Source: The Copernicus Programme

As alluded to by Bell, marine heatwaves in the north-eastern Atlantic have been off the charts.

On June 21, daily sea surface temperatures peaked at about 1.6C above average – what you’d expect in late July.

Marine heatwaves west of Ireland, of 4C-5C above average, were categorised as “beyond extreme” by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

More widely, southern Europe, the United States and north Africa have been in the grip of extreme heat, which has sparked fires in Greece which led to the largest evacuation of tourists on the island of Rhodes.

“The climate crisis is already here,” prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told Greece’s parliament on Monday.

As more than 100 million Americans sweltered in areas with heat-related warnings or advisories, climate scientist Michael E Mann told MSNBC: “This is climate change. It’s not off in the future. It’s here, and we need to determine what we’re going to do about it.”

Deadly floods have hit India, and in South Korea, torrential rain triggered deadly landslides.

In New Zealand, heavy rain swelled rivers last weekend, shutting multiple roads, and flooding farmland. The State Highway 1 bridge over the Ashburton River was closed overnight on Sunday as a precaution.

Earlier this year, Cyclone Gabrielle killed 11 people and caused damage worth billions of dollars.

“There has been a plethora – an entire IPCC worth – of analyses to establish that, really, it’s down to us.” – Professor Craig Stevens

As detailed by the BBC, four climate records have fallen in this northern hemisphere summer: the hottest day on record, the hottest June globally, extreme marine heatwaves, and record-low extent of Antarctic sea-ice.

James Renwick, a professor at Victoria University, has been lead author of assessment reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and a Climate Change Commissioner.

He says the situation in the Mediterranean is concerning and shocking, but not unexpected.

Such temperature extremes accord with climate model projections for the mid-2020s.

Renwick recalls the European heatwave in 2003 that killed tens of thousands of people.

“It was estimated at the time that such a summer would be happening every other year by the 2040s, unless we take strong action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

“That action has not been taken, and we are seeing the consequences.”

We spoke to oceanographer Craig Stevens, a professor at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa)/University of Auckland Joint Graduate School in Marine Science, who says over the past six months the trajectory of global sea surface temperatures has moved off the charts.

That might be because it hasn’t been as windy, and the El Niño climate pattern, which warms surface waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean, has started.

(According to Niwa, in a typical El Niño summer, because of stronger or more frequent westerly winds, there’s a greater risk of higher-than-normal rain in the west, and drier conditions in the east.)

Extra heat has predominantly been the result of human-caused carbon emissions, Stevens says.

“There are natural processes in there but there has been a plethora – an entire IPCC worth – of analyses to establish that, really, it’s down to us.”

This year’s record sea surface temperatures have been unexpected, Stevens says, but they’re not outside the realm of possibility at any time.

“The elephant in the room is how much heat content is beneath the surface.”

More will be known once scientists crunch data sent from Argo ocean floats in the coming months.

Higher temperatures in the upper ocean are closely related to weather and storm development, Stevens says. They also affect the resilience of sea ice.

“Sea ice is really important for the planet because it’s the reflective bookends of the planet that reflects light back out into space. If that goes, the ocean is absorbing a lot more heat, and we’ll basically change how the planet will work.”

In the last decade, Arctic sea ice has suffered huge declines but Antarctica’s has remained stubbornly resilient. That is, until recently.

Niwa oceanographer Dr Natalie Robinson told The Detail podcast in April the changes seen at last year’s annual sea ice trip were unprecedented.

“The changes that will follow from this will be dramatic – are dramatic,” says Stevens, Robinson’s colleague.

“It changes how the oceans work at the end of our planet, basically. It’s going to affect ecosystems, it’s going to affect how oxygen gets into the deeper parts of the ocean, it’s going to have ramifications for centuries to come.”

Climate is top of mind, says Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

With that stark warning in mind, Newsroom asked the main political parties if the record-breaking northern hemisphere summer had made them reconsider their climate policies.

We also asked them to name their most important climate policy, and the difference it will make, as well as if they will push for greater spending on climate mitigation or adaptation and, if so, how that will be funded.

The first to respond was Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, who says its climate policy will be announced next month.

“Oranga tangata, Oranga whenua (wellbeing of people and the wellbeing of our environment) are the foundation of our policy platform.

“Absolutely, climate crisis is top of mind in our policy and influential sphere as a political movement. As the only indigenous (tangata whenua) party we know our role as kaitiaki must be to stop the path we’re on, recover and reset, providing a transformational way forward.”

Its already-announced policies include a $1 billion fund, Pūngao Auaha, for Māori-owned community energy projects, and solar panel and insulation installations.

Te Pāti Māori also promises to bring agricultural methane emission into the emissions trading scheme, phase out synthetic nitrogen fertilisers on farms by 2025, and end new onshore oil and gas permits and withdraw existing onshore and offshore permits within five years.

Act’s plan is to tie New Zealand’s carbon price to the prices paid by our top-five trading partners. (It has also promised to scrap the Zero Carbon Act, and the clean car discount.)

Climate change spokesperson Simon Court says the resulting carbon price will allow people to make their own choices. All New Zealanders will receive a carbon tax credit.

A record-breaking northern hemisphere summer shows why adaptation should be a priority, Court says.

“An increased risk of floods, storms and droughts requires an infrastructure response, enabled by simpler planning and consenting pathways.”

Co-leader James Shaw says the Green Party is the only credible political choice for protecting the planet. Photo: Marc Daalder

Green Party co-leader James Shaw has been Climate Change Minister since 2017. He says no other party is committed to such bold action on climate.

The party’s just-released election manifesto promises to create a standalone Ministry of Climate Change, strengthen the Zero Carbon Act by requiring government decisions to be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C, and introduce a price on agricultural emissions.

The Greens will announce its climate policies in the next few weeks.

Shaw says the party, which is already pushing for a wealth tax, will be pushing for greater government spending on climate.

“The Climate Emergency Response Fund should be spent on mitigation, and we need to find new ways of revenue to pay for adaption.”

National’s Simon Watts reiterates his party’s commitment to climate targets, including net zero by 2050. “The recent records make it even more important that this country takes effective action to reduce emissions and adapt.”

Its “Electrify New Zealand” policy promises to double renewable energy production by 2050 by promising to “cut red tape to drive investment”.

“Energy is one of the most significant emitting sectors in New Zealand, and decarbonising by embracing renewables is our only path to meet our climate goals in this area.”

On climate adaptation, Watts says National will lead the development of a national framework.

“If we are in the position to form the next government we will work constructively with Local Government, and other stakeholders such as banks and insurers to develop the best adaptation response.”

National’s website says the solution to reducing agricultural emission is through technology, “not by sacrificing our largest export sector or blanketing agricultural land in pine trees”.

One of those technologies, potentially, is the controversial use of genetic engineering, which is heavily regulated, but National says it will “remove the ban”.

However, GE Free NZ president Claire Bleakley panned a GE ryegrass trial by AgResearch, which was the poster-child for National’s policy, as “pie in the sky hope”, saying it hadn’t performed consistently better than nature, despite taxpayer funding in the tens of millions.

Labour’s climate spokesperson Megan Woods says, “Emissions are starting to come down, and we’re on track to meet our emissions budgets.” Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Labour’s climate spokesperson Megan Woods, taking a leaf out of the Green Party’s book, says this Government had done more to fight climate change than any in New Zealand history.  

“Emissions are starting to come down, and we’re on track to meet our emissions budgets.”

Actually, an internal government report said the chances of meeting climate targets was “finely balanced”, with three-quarters of its 301 actions deemed to be tracking well. Also, the Government only re-considered its carbon price controls after being forced to by the High Court, in a case taken by Lawyers for Climate Action.

The Government’s recent announcements include taxpayer subsidies for big polluters Fonterra and NZ Steel.

After running through the Government’s many climate policies, Woods says: “These are all commitments we will continue to advance after the next election, and are at risk if there is a change of Government.”

She then goes on the attack.

“National and Act have pledged to scrap action on climate change such as the clean car subsidy, and partnerships with business to reduce emissions; they have yet to show how they would meet the commitment National signed up for in the Paris Agreement, so it’s likely New Zealand will pay many billions of dollars buying overseas emissions credits.”

Woods says the “Chris Hipkins Government” – a phrase that promises to be well-used during the election campaign – has put infrastructure at the centre of planning and investment decisions, including as part of the National Resilience Plan.

“We’ll be announcing further climate policy ahead of the election.”

By October 14, the date of the general election, one wonders how many more climate records will be broken.

The last to respond is Shane Jones, New Zealand First’s Northland candidate, who is a former minister of forestry and regional development. He notes the creation of the Climate Change Commission was part of the party’s 2017 coalition agreement with Labour – though he laments the commission’s descent into “zealotry”.

The emissions trading scheme remains important, he says, not only to change behaviour but as a source of revenue for the Government’s climate-related spending.

“We need a sharper focus on adaptation, ensuring that our stopbanks – we campaigned on this the last time around – our roads, our rail, they attract the level of engineering, level of infrastructure, so our economy can still function as we head down this path of greater volatility.”

Jones’ party, which had its campaign launch in Auckland last weekend, is focused on adaptation.

“We accept that we’re going to see volatility in our weather, whether it’s related to El Niño, La Niña, whether it’s the cumulative effect of more heat driven by excessive emissions … we’re an economy of about $380 billion in terms of our GDP, we’re living in arguably the most distant part of the South Pacific, and our ability to change the weather in the northern hemisphere, is incredibly limited.”

(That’s a bad-faith argument as climate change is global.)

“So we’ve got to invest, learn and cope with what Mother Nature is hurling at us.”

‘It’s never too late’

Climate activists would argue a collective problem requires collective action, and developed countries like New Zealand, with high standards of living and a greater proportion of historic emissions, have a responsibility to do more.

Academics have issued stark warnings about a much warmer world, and not just to politicians.

In its latest report, the IPCC said: “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

Ralph Sims, emeritus professor of sustainable energy and climate mitigation at Massey University, says it’s not just policy-makers who should take notice of climate change.

“All individuals and businesses are responsible for their carbon footprints. Sadly only a very small minority are taking any real action to reduce them.”

James Renwick, the climate scientist from Victoria, says unless strong action is taken to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, climate extremes will become more and more devastating, “until we reach a point that we cannot adapt”.

“Whole regions of the globe will become uninhabitable, probably leading to the breakdown of our civilisation.”

Professor Craig Stevens, of Niwa, says everything that can be done to reduce emissions now will help – “it’s never too late to make it less bad than it can be”.

Marine ecologist James Bell says extreme marine heatwaves are predicted to increase – in severity and frequency – across the world, unless greater action is taken to reduce emissions.

Linking extreme events to climate change is complex, he says, but they are certainly climate-related.

“[The events] highlight the need for governments globally to act on climate change immediately, as the impacts are being felt now, not in 10, 20 or 50 years.”

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

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