WelCom November 2016:
The South Pacific faces enormous challenges resulting from climate change over the next half century and beyond according to Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy at Victoria University. Professor Boston strongly welcomed the Caritas State of the Environment Report for Oceania 2016, and commended Caritas on their excellent research and presentation. We invited his opinion about our immediate responsibilities as New Zealand neighbours and as a Christian community.
The most recent scientific evidence suggests that there will probably be sea-level rise of a metre or more over the coming century. This means that low-lying atoll states like Tuvalu and Kiribati and territories like the Marshall Islands face a loss of nationhood by the middle of this century or not long afterwards.
Within the South Pacific we will be faced with 130,000 people or more in need of a new place to live, which poses an international challenge. Given New Zealand’s location and responsibilities as a developed nation we must step up and take a leadership role in sorting out how the needs of these displaced people are going to be met.
Part of the challenge we face is that climate change is a gradual process rather than a one-off event. Often a ‘slow-motion’ catastrophe is more difficult to deal with than an instant catastrophe such as an earthquake, which forces an immediate governmental response.
For many small island states the challenges are going to be very severe over the next century.
Sea-level rise is only one of many problems. Others will include more protracted droughts and more severe storms that will do enormous damage, as witnessed with Cyclones Winston and Pam. On top of that they face a gradual loss of their coral reefs due to both the warming and the acidification of the ocean.
Another problem is the enormous and growing volume of plastic waste in our oceans and the disintegration of larger plastic items into micro-plastics. Such processes pose huge risks for the whole ocean food chain and will impact negatively on the food sources of many small island communities. Coupled with ocean acidification, some of these communities will face a severe loss of fresh fish, which is a big part of their current diet.
Again, unlike dramatic and catastrophic events like earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, most of these ‘slow-motion’ impacts are localised with quiet, unknown suffering, which is largely out of sight and out of mind and which the developed world finds it easy to ignore.
One of the challenges for the Christian community, therefore, is how to bring these out-of-sight events into focus. One of the positive things about the 21st century is that we have extensive social media networks. So there are ways for New Zealand and Australia Christians to be informed about the plight of their Pacific Island brothers and sisters.
We don’t know the precise timeframes or locations of where the negative impacts of climate change and other environmental problems will occur. These slow-motion disasters and emerging problems are not limited to sea-level rise and ocean acidification. Another challenge in the South Pacific is the obesity pandemic. It is so easy to be aware of dramatic events, like hurricanes, but to ignore the silent, creeping ones.
It concerns me that the vast majority of New Zealanders, including Christians, do not understand the gravity of the risk posed by climate change and how little time is left if we are to meet the internationally agreed goal of keeping global temperature increases to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This goal was agreed to in Copenhagen in 2009 and reaffirmed in Paris in 2015. But the implications are poorly understood.
The fundamental point is that to keep within the 2°C warming cap there is a relatively fixed cumulative carbon budget for the planet. In other words, only a certain amount of carbon dioxide can be emitted before it becomes very likely that the Earth’s mean surface temperature will rise by more than 2°C.
Leading scientists, via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have calculated that to have a 50 per cent chance of keeping within the 2°C warming cap, the global budget is about 840 billion tonnes of carbon. This takes into account the warming caused by other greenhouse gases, like methane, at least partially.
Since the industrial revolution, humanity has emitted about 580 billion tonnes of carbon, with annual global emissions currently close to 10 billion tonnes. This means there is about 260 billion tonnes left – or roughly 25 years at current rates of emissions. Beyond about 2040, therefore, the global budget will be exhausted – unless emissions are reduced.
To have more than a 50 per cent chance of meeting the global goal, our cumulative planetary budget is smaller and runs out sooner. Likewise, if annual global emissions rise further and plateau at a higher rate, our budget will be exhausted well before 2040.
Given what we know now, there is no excuse for developed countries like New Zealand taking more than their fair share going forward.
Accordingly adopting a firm commitment to reach zero net carbon dioxide emissions before 2050 is the bare minimum of a credible and defensible policy for New Zealand.
No doubt many people hope the issue of climate change will go away. But it won’t. Action on carbon dioxide emissions cannot be postponed, no matter what we do about agricultural emissions. We must all take the problem extremely seriously and act now.
Parts of Professor Boston’s opinion were published in The Dominion Post, 11 October 2016.