Leave fossil fuels undisturbed.

by Bryan Walker on August 9, 2011

A recent Forest and Bird Newsletter contrasted the anticipated loss of 100 jobs in the Department of Conservation with the announced doubling of the number of people employed in the Ministry of Economic Development’s unit aimed at expanding the oil and minerals industries. The newsletter comments that some of those who will lose their jobs with DOC are expected to be people with strong scientific and technical experience who know what would be lost if mining or other destructive developments were to take place on conservation land.

Forest and Bird are right to be suspicious. The Minister for Economic Development has given ample evidence that in the thinking of the government the economic gain to be had from fossil fuel exploitation balances any environmental damage it causes. They have had to backtrack from the initial plan to open up some of the most highly protected conservation land for mining, but there’s every indication that they will continue to hover and find other opportunities to prize open land that ought to be left undisturbed, in order to extract fossil fuel from it. The same Forest and Bird newsletter set out the organisation’s hope to save the Denniston Plateau from a proposed new opencast coal mine which would destroy 200 hectares and increase New Zealand’s coal exports by up to 63% per year. And that would only be the beginning. The Australian company holds mining permits across the Plateau, which would generate an estimated 50 million tonnes of coal.

The undervaluing of biodiverse ecosystems is bad enough, but the bland assumption that we can carry on with fossil fuel extraction as if it had no impact on climate change is wilful obstinacy of dangerous proportions. I’d been looking at a proposed paper by James Hansen and a stable of co-authors when the Forest and Bird newsletter arrived. I’ll take the opportunity to draw attention to it here. Hansen gave the Prime Minister the opportunity to read it when he wrote to him during his visit to New Zealand in May of this year, but I haven’t heard any indication that John Key did so. If he did he wasn’t impressed, as his lignite comments in June attest.

The paper is titled The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future. It has not yet been published but has been circulated in draft form for the past three months. It was written as the science basis to suits being filed in various states and countries and follows two recent scientific papers from Hansen  Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change and Earth’s Energy Imbalance and Implications  both of which, from different perspectives, point to serious impacts ahead, particularly from ice sheet disintegration and consequent sea level rise.

The Case for Young People and Nature has an impressive list of 14 co-authors, some from Columbia University Earth Institute, but others from a wide range of universities and research institutes. They include Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Stefan Rahmstorf and Jeffrey Sachs among others. The emphasis on young people in the title is clarified early in the paper:

“The climate system has great inertia because it contains a 4-kilometer deep ocean and 2-kilometer thick ice sheets. As a result, global climate responds only slowly, at least initially, to natural and human-made forcings of the system. Consequently, today’s changes of atmospheric composition will be felt most by today’s young people and the unborn, in other words, by people who have no possibility of protecting their own rights and their future well-being, and who currently depend on others who make decisions today that have consequences over future decades and centuries.”

Governments have recognized the need to stabilize atmospheric composition at a level that avoids dangerous anthropogenic climate change, as formalized in the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, but their actions belie their assurances.

 “The reality is that most governments, strongly influenced by the fossil fuel industry, continue to allow and even subsidize development of fossil fuel deposits. This situation was aptly described in a special energy supplement in the New York Times entitled ‘There Will Be Fuel’ (Krauss, 2010), which described massive efforts to expand fossil fuel extraction. These efforts include expansion of oil drilling to increasing depths of the global ocean, into the Arctic, and onto environmentally fragile public lands; squeezing of oil from tar sands; hydro-fracking to expand extraction of natural gas; and increased mining of coal via mechanized longwall mining and mountain-top removal.”

The New Zealand government fits perfectly into this characterisation.  I imagine that’s one of the reasons they feel so confident about continuing to expand the extraction of fossil fuel. They’re only doing what lots of others are doing. They have long indicated their desire to stay with the pack. But here’s the price, as the Hansen paper sees it:

“Burning all fossil fuels would have a climate impact that literally produces a different planet than the one on which civilization developed. The consequences for young people, future generations, and other species would continue to mount over years and centuries. Ice sheet disintegration would cause continual shoreline adjustments with massive civil engineering cost implications as well as widespread heritage loss in the nearly uncountable number of coastal cities. Shifting of climatic zones and repeated climate disruptions would have enormous economic and social costs, especially in the developing world.”

I often wonder what goes on in the minds of politicians who on the one hand say they accept the need to avoid dangerous climate change yet at the same time vigorously pursue the mining of the fossil fuels which we now know are causing the danger. If pressed I expect ours will say, “We’ll stop when the others stop”.  The logic of that is that no one in a position to mine stops until the resource is exhausted. And since it will be exhausted they’re interested along the way in seeing that alternatives are developed. The draft New Zealand Energy Strategy certainly envisages something like that, treating both fossil fuels and renewable energy as equal contributors to the growth of the New Zealand economy.

“New Zealand has an abundance of diverse energy resources. The Government aims to harness their potential to deliver a transformation of the economy.”

And first on the list of these diverse sources:

“Our geological history has provided us with rich mineral and petroleum resources, only a small proportion of which have been tapped to date.”

After that come hydro, geo-thermal, wind, solar, biomass. Even efficiency gets a look in. But there is no suggestion that the one topping the list will be dislodged any time soon.

The Case for Young People and Nature is packed with supporting scientific information which there’s no space here to outline. But let one paragraph serve to indicate the seriousness of the future it sees, challenging even the too-easily accepted rise of two degrees in average global temperature as somehow safe:

“The suggestion that 2°C global warming may be a ‘safe’ target is extremely unwise based on critical evidence accumulated over the past three decades. Global warming of this amount would be putting Earth on a path toward Pliocene-like conditions, i.e., a very different world marked by massive and continual disruptions to both society and ecosystems. It would be a world in which the world’s species and ecosystems will have had no recent evolutionary experience, surely with consequences and disruptions to the ecosystem services that maintain human communities today. There are no credible arguments that such rapid change would not have catastrophic circumstances for human well-being.”

Good on Forest and Bird for sounding the alarm. And good on the recent hui in Auckland which declared its determination “to stop the destructive expansion of fossil fuel extraction in the lands and waters of Aotearoa New Zealand.” Though I admit to a certain sense of disconnection in writing this on a day when the front page news item in our leading national newspaper is the pricing of All Black jerseys.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Allan August 13, 2011 at 11:49 pm

I typed “fracking” into your search box and only got two hits, so I don’t think it’s doing a particularly useful job. Anyway one of the hits was this article, so that’s why I’m commenting here. I could very well have missed any recent discussion about the following, so excuse me if I’m being repetitive, but did anyone else see Bryan Leyland’s letter to the editor in defence of fracking in last Monday’s (I think) paper edition of the NZ Herald? (I didn’t see it in the online edition.) I don’t remember enough of it to quote it here, but others here might think it worth discussing if they can dig up a copy. There was an article in the paper, I think the same day, which reassured us about how innocuous were the chemicals used, and stated that fracking has been used around New Plymouth for years. Can anyone shed further light on this?

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