Eric Dorfman is an ecologist. He has been aware of the science of climate change since his doctoral student days in the 1990s but he credits Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth with inspiring him to make a larger contribution towards addressing the issue. Hence his book Melting Point: New Zealand and the Climate Change Crisis, published last September.
The book is not long, and is written in a relaxed style accessible to the general reader. He begins with a brief overview of the global science, centring particularly on carbon sinks, carbon pumps and feedback loops as keys to understanding climate change. Debating whether climate change is real is senseless. Credible scientific opinion is unequivocal. The risk of doing nothing in the face of the predicted consequences is foolhardy, and the problem is not beyond us.
Turning his focus to New Zealand he begins with the climate, pointing out that unlike Europe which is experiencing unprecedented weather patterns we are likely to see an intensification of the weather patterns we already have, much of it driven by an an intensification of the pattern of westerly winds and warmer sea surface temperatures. He considers the effects of rising sea levels and details some of them; even one metre will cause an enormous and costly mess for the country – farmland around Invercargill inundated, salt water intrusion in many agricultural areas, water seep on to Wellington airport, Tamaki Drive under water, and much more.
He ranges through several aspects of New Zealand life explaining how they may be affected by the coming changes. Primary production, human health, natural ecosystems and socio-economic impacts are the main areas considered. He offers something of a plug for organic farming as a goal, and has an intriguing look at farm animal alternatives such as beefalo, ostriches and emus, and angora goats. He explains the habitat constraints likely to be experienced by species both on land and in the sea, and the extinctions which may result. Human health is also likely to be affected, though less severely than in developing countries. Mosquito-borne and water-borne diseases are surveyed and psychological health considered. Likely impacts on the economy conclude with a positive reference to the previous government’s stance on carbon neutrality and emissions control.
Comparatively speaking we will fare better than most countries, though this is scant reassurance in a world mostly worse affected. For instance, Dorfman asks at one point how NZ will react to the arrival of most or all of the populations of small Pacific Islands such as Tuvalu as rising sea levels make their islands uninhabitable. A chapter on choices covers a familiar range from making personal emission reductions to engaging in political pressure.
The book is a reasonable and relatively gentle discussion around what may already lie ahead for New Zealand in the uncertain future into which climate change is launching us. That very uncertainty makes it difficult to be precise or trenchant, but it is important to be thinking ahead and realising that we are preparing a different world by our greenhouse gas emissions. Hopefully Dorfman represents a wide group of people who are doing just that. Not that he is happy for us to continue along our present path. Far from it. He rests what hope he can muster for the future on the decisions of international forums and the actions of superpowers and the author sees an important lobbying function for New Zealand in these arenas. One hopes he is not being too optimistic about New Zealand’s readiness to lobby. We are getting mixed messages from government at present