Image from stuff.co.nz, 15 January 2018
It’s a beautiful Monday here in Eastbourne. By 9am it was already hot and a little muggy, under mostly clear skies and the faintest of cloud haze across the harbour. Yesterday the beaches were crowded, and many people were also finding the cool where they could – under trees at the edge of otherwise deserted parking lots, by and in the pools of the Hutt River, and inside with air conditioning.
We ate breakfast on the balcony on the cool side of the house, as the sun was already strong. We don’t remember eating outside very often last summer, as it was rarely warm or calm enough. This year, we’re mostly on the shaded side of the house escaping the heat, and seeking a breeze if it’s there.
Calm. Not really a Wellington particular. “The windy city” is a well-deserved title. Our spring and summer weather usually includes strong winds from November through January, easing for our “high summer” in February and March. This year, from mid-November to mid-December we had a spectacular period of fine and warm weather, including “almost” 30 days without rain[i], and very little wind. Better than our usual Februarys. And this weather pattern seems to be back again.
In other news, California has been burning through a series of major wildfires while the US East Coast is experiencing unusually cold temperatures and strong winter storms, while Australia is hit by heatwaves setting new records. The Sunday Star Times recorded these last 2, vastly different, events right next to each other in major articles[ii] without seeming to recognise either the linkages or the irony of the juxtaposition.
That’s the easily accessible information from mainstream New Zealand media. If I dug a little further, I have no doubt I would find abnormal weather conditions in many places on the planet. But I’m not going to dig further, because the purpose of this blog is to take events from current mainstream news, and use them to expand on the themes and ideas already expressed on this website and by other commentators. I’ll be doing this at about fortnightly intervals.
Global warming and its impacts
You may have guessed where I’m going with this?
What we are now getting is increasingly extreme local climate and weather conditions. Yesterday New Zealand’s southern-most city, Invercargill, reported its highest temperature ever, probably to be beaten today.
Last year New Zealand experienced major droughts in various places both early and late in the year, punctuated by extreme weather events and high rainfall in the middle of the year[iii]. Worldwide, the news-worthy extreme conditions include major hurricanes, droughts, wildfires and heat and cold events. In 2017, the US spent a record $US306 billion on weather disasters, including “three strong hurricanes, wildfires, hail, flooding, tornadoes and drought”[iv].
Some places (eg Wellington on a good day – like today) may get some benefits from these, at least in terms of nicer weather some of the time, or even better growing conditions for certain crops. But no-one can afford to get too comfortable – “Enjoy it while you can”.
These are the natural early impacts of runaway global warming. 2017 will be one of the warmest years in recorded history, after three consecutive record-breaking years. Average temperatures are now 1 degree above the pre-industrial average. They WILL rise at least another 0.5 degrees over the next 10-20 years, and ON CURRENT SETTINGS will rise by another 3 degrees at least within 70-80 years.
To compound this, the authoritative predictions by the International Panel on Climate Change on which these figures are based may be far too conservative. The authoritative science lags actual events – as it should! And every one of the Panel’s 5-yearly reports has increased the severity of its predictions.
The effects will range from catastrophic to even more catastrophic. You ain’t seen nothing yet when it comes to extreme weather events – Mother Nature is only just getting started. Their severity will increase exponentially as temperatures rise only gradually. If you’ve been through a really extreme event, imagine if twice as severe…imagine it five times as severe… And the heating will desertify larger and larger tracts of land while bringing more torrential and destructive rainfall patterns elsewhere. The effects on individuals, societies and economies will be massive and destabilising.
The warming is uncontestably caused by human activity, in particular fossil-fuel use. The scientific consensus on this is overwhelming, although a thriving industry of climate-change denial still persists, funded mostly by the fossil-fuel industry. However, more people than ever accept that human-caused climate change exists, and discussion of it is noticeably more present in the mainstream media, even since when I started doing detailed research for myself three years ago.
US President Donald Trump may even have done us a service. As climate-change-denier in-chief, I am sure he has convinced many people that it does in fact exist, because he is so fundamentally mistaken and unpleasant in so many of his beliefs that he must be wrong. He is moving rapidly on increasing opportunities and benefits for fossil-fuel extraction, but he is also simultaneously galvanising increased opposition.
For more on global warming, read Chapter 9 of “A New Place to Stand”.
So what do we need to do?
My son Ian tells me that I often use an undifferentiated “we” in my book, making it unclear who I am referring to. He’s absolutely right. Mostly, the “we” I refer to is my fellow fence-sitters, the people I am encouraging to take further action, but I’m inconsistent.
So, for the avoidance of doubt, in this section of this blog, “we” means “members of the world’s affluent societies – the comparatively well off 1.5 billion”.
Global warming is a humanity wide issue, affecting all 7 billion of us. But the solutions are in the hands of those who continue to consume most of the Earth’s resources, in economies based on massive use of fossil fuels. We can either continue on our merry way, consuming like crazy (and, incidentally, displacing many of the costs and effects of our consumption onto the other 5.5 billion – in the short term at least).
Or we can take up our responsibilities as citizens of this beautiful planet, and do something serious about moderating both our own consumption patterns, and the overall consumption patterns of the affluent nations.
Specifically with respect to global warming and fossil fuel use, we cannot rely on mainstream political and business activity to do it for us. While businesses are increasingly making noises about “sustainability”, their pursuit of profit and corporate psychology will always handicap them in acting for the overall social good[v]. And governments in our affluent nations – even the self-styled “leftist” governments – remain firmly committed to the neoliberal agenda of growth through profit seeking[vi].
Don’t get me wrong – they are making a lot more noise now about climate change. But the actions proposed are marginal at best, and still firmly within the paradigm of consumption and growth that got us here in the first place. Best estimates of the commitments made at the 2016 Paris Conference on Climate Change were that they had no chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees, despite the lofty rhetoric about trying for 1.5 degrees. And most proposals are for ameliorating the effects of warming, not slowing it down.
A lot of “local” solutions are of the same sort. Here in Eastbourne (which will eventually be made untenable by rising sea levels), solutions currently being proposed such as sea walls and tunnels are either stop-gap measures or unaffordable and inefficient. A recent article suggested that we would need to get solar power (for when the electricity grid goes down), strengthen our houses (for when the wind and rain velocity gets up), and better health and safety measures (to avoid heat stroke)[vii].
Yes, 1.5 to 2 degrees of global warming is pretty much inevitable, and we need to do some ameliorative work. But not at the expense of focussing on long term survival.
Strike that. Not “long term” survival but “survival beyond the next generation”. That’s how to see it. We as individuals may die before the worst of climate change hits us, but our children, or their children, will still be alive to suffer the worst effects. And perhaps die well before their natural times.
We have to stop runaway climate change – it is simply too destructive to be contemplated. And we can’t rely on the powers-that-be to do it. Unless we force them to.
That’s our mission, if we choose to accept it. Not just to act as greener citizens locally, but to join with others to create massive political pressure for a sea-change in the behaviour of the affluent countries:
- to pull the rug out from under the use of fossil fuels for transport and agriculture in particular, through disinvestment, legal challenge, protest action – whatever works; and
- to strengthen the debate about our consumption-based society, the dangers it creates for our long-term future, and how we need to seek alternatives.
This will have to include both targeted and mass actions. Mass action is unfashionable these days, but never doubt its ability to put pressure on businesses and governments. They don’t poll continuously for nothing. Public attitudes and pressure are, if not their main driver, at least their main moderator.
And finally, some good news. There are a LOT of people doing a lot of work in exactly these areas. Much of it isn’t very visible in the mainstream, and sometimes it shows how difficult some of this is going to be – witness the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, which created a wonderful movement, but were finally unsuccessful their immediate aim of stopping the pipeline. Thanks again, Mr Trump.
But organisations like Greenpeace and 350.org are doing sterling work, and need our help, as supporters and members.
For more on activist organisations, refer to the section on activism within the social sphere in Chapter 38 of “A New Place to Stand”.
And while you’re getting into the activist frame, enjoy the lovely weather that at least some of us are getting – while you can.
Oh well, first blog over. I hadn’t intended it to hit on such a big and central issue on Day One. But that’s where the news took me. Future blogs will probably be more specifically focussed, and not just on climate change, which I regard as simply the canary in the coal mine – “It’s not just about climate change”. Farewell for now.
[i] “Wellington welcomes arrival of rain”, Dominion Post, 13 December 2017
[ii] Page B10, Sunday Star Times, 7 January 2018
[iii] “New Zealand Climate Summary 2017”, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, 9 January 2018
[iv] US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, quoted in Dominion Post, 10 January 2018, page B3
[v] See for example “Capitalism’s First Strike Weapon – the Psychopathic Corporation”, chapter 18 of “A New Place to Stand”
[vi] See for example “The State of the Governance Sphere”, chapter 18 of “A New Place to Stand”
[vii] See “Climate Change’s Impact on New Zealand – Home Truths”, Dominion Post, 13 January 2018, page A5