Sunday morning Antarctica, and the future of transport

by Bryan Walker on August 28, 2013

Chris Laidlaw interviewed the new Director of the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Jane Francis, in his Sunday Morning programme on National Radio in the weekend. I thought the discussion worth drawing attention to as an exemplar of the kind of thoughtful interviewing climate science deserves but only occasionally receives. The listening public also deserves such interviews from the media if it is to understand the weight of the scientific consensus on climate change. Respect is due to Laidlaw’s understanding of the basic thrust of climate change and its implications, making him well equipped to elicit from Professor Francis a very clear account of her work on Antarctic forest fossils and more generally on the threatened sea level rise from melting in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Francis has a fascinating story to tell of her work on fossil plants in the Antarctic and the evidence from the fossils that the continent some 100 million years ago was forested in a period when the globe was in a warm period sufficient to melt polar ice. She discussed with Laidlaw the ways in which trees probably coped with the months of cold but not freezing darkness each year by moving into a kind of dormancy.

Melted polar ice meant much higher sea level and Laidlaw was obviously keen to include some discussion of the current prospect for ice melt in the region. Francis spoke of the huge amount of effort by many nations currently being put into trying to understand what’s happening to the big ice sheets in Antarctica, the changes that are going on, the reasons for them and what’s likely to happen in the future.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, she explained, is only pinned in three rocky places and is otherwise floating on the water where it is vulnerable to melting by the warming oceans: 


… climate modellers have been modelling the West Antarctic ice sheet, there’s lots of glaciologists studying the West Antarctic ice sheet, and they really do think that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which holds about six or seven metres of sea level rise across the world, is beginning to melt – and climate models do show that there can be a pivotal threshold point where the West Antarctic Ice Sheet might melt very fast.  So I think that’s something that really deserves a lot more research

At this point Laidlaw commented in terms with which I am entirely in sympathy:

The implications of that are sort of Armageddon, aren’t they?

Francis preferred something a little more prosaic:

Well the main implication is that sea level will rise by several metres around the world. I mean it’s equivalent to the Greenland Ice Sheet. The Greenland Ice Sheet is also melting but mainly from the top. But, you know, that few metres of sea level rise would affect a huge huge number, a huge population in low-lying areas around the world. So it really has a global effect          

We should hear or read many interviews of this kind in the media. They ought to feature regularly if the general population is to be properly informed of the range of science which supports an issue which should be a dominating feature of public life, not sidelined as it currently is. Perhaps the forthcoming IPCC report will usher in a new and abiding level of media engagement with the science. One hopes that there is a body of journalists sufficiently informed to take on the task.

Listen to the full Jane Francis interview

Talking of the IPCC, in the same programme Laidlaw also capably interviewed Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Perth and a lead author for transport on the IPCC. Newman is well aware of the climate change challenge in the transport area, but he also lays weight on the synergy provided by cultural shifts and the dawning realisation that successful cities centre on public transport, not automobile dependence. He says the cultural revolution of younger people getting out of cars is well under way and speaks of the demise of automobile dependence.  It will be no surprise to hear that New Zealand is one of the last places in the world to be continuing the tradition of car dependence, which is out of date.

“The days of building motorways in cities are over. Increasingly money is going into public transport.”

I won’t go further into the substance of the discussion here. It’s full of interesting detail and repays twenty minutes of listening, though I’m not sure that Steven Joyce or Gerry Brownlee would think so. Particularly cheering is the optimistic tone in which Newman speaks of the developments he sees as under way. While I was listening to him I recalled similar claims about declining car use by younger people in a piece by Lester Brown which I reviewed over three years ago. I checked back and realised how closely his conclusions mirrored what Newman has to say. For example, Brown wrote:

In contrast, many of today’s young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars. They socialise on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars.

I wondered in conclusion to my review whether Brown, ever the optimist, had been too quick to discern a trend. In Newman’s view he was evidently spot on.

Listen to the full Peter Newman interview

Listening to people like Newman one is reminded that much may be going on under the radar in fighting climate change, and that we are not entirely in the hands of lumbering politicians who can’t or won’t see any way forward from fossil fuel dependence. If the need to reduce emissions is undergirded by clearly sensible economics there’s nothing to prevent the transition to clean energy other than the rearguard action of vested interests.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Macro August 28, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Prof Newman mentioned the the Mandjurah train that has recently been commissioned and how it is surpassing expectations in use. I can vouch that it is a marvelous mode of transport – as quick or quicker than a car from Perth to Mandjurah and much the same in cost. I was impressed by the huge up take of Solar PV and water Heating over there – Obviously the WA Government incentives had a lot to do with it, and the fact that a major Aussie manufacturer (Edwards) of Solar Hot water is based there. – the budget was spent in about a year.. but now they have in place a decent sized alternative energy infrastructure – and growing.
His comments on those white elephants of more motorways was also telling.

jh August 28, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Great that Chris Laidlaw gives a thoughtful interview on climate change and Antarctica. Really though it is people like Laidlaw who are the problem because they deny that population is an issue. A few months back he interviewed the head of an Australian environmental group where we learned: “we had the population debate some time ago and in some ways it’s a nonsensical debate as you can’t stop people coming here” (Laidlaw said nothing) . That is fairly typical of the left-wing who tend to dominate environmental politics with a the same (apparent) world view as the libertarian, where population and resources aren’t a problem (we just have to redistribute and demand higher wages). What needs highlighting is that while China does more than any other country to create green energy, by sheer population it wont be able to curb it’s greenhouse gas emissions as it lifts it’s population out of poverty. Also, we don’t have a moral duty to solve other peoples over population issues.

Thomas August 29, 2013 at 7:38 am

I guess whenever the in my mind very necessary discussion on population control comes up, the religious nutcases (every sperm is holy….) throw their toys out of the cot plus their soiled nappy too…. Hence the matter is rarely given the thought in the public debate it so clearly would deserve.

Population x Consumption of resources per person = The wicked Problem!

So both factors of the equation deserve attention for sure.
Generally population growth rate is said to reduce as people move out of poverty. This obviously is doing not much to the right side of the above equation as the drop in population increase rate is more than balanced by the rise in per person consumption.

Resource constraints will eventually bring the product of Population x Consumption down. We have the choice to do this intelligently and orderly or meet a Mad Max future where this choice will have been taken out of our hands.

Carol Cowan August 28, 2013 at 10:00 pm

” They socialise on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars.”

Well, I guess that could lower the population increase rate – fewer people conceiving in cars. It’s hard to get pregnant socializing on a smart phone :-)

Bob Bingham September 1, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Somebody on an American website was ranting about over population and was promoting the idea that the only solution was the culling of a billion people, such as the poor or Sudan or India. That would do no good at all as they use very few resources. to make an impact we would need to cull a million of the Worlds richest people as they use most of the resources. I cant see that getting much support as part of the manifesto in a political party.

jh September 1, 2013 at 2:03 pm

“That would do no good at all as they use very few resources”
the view that overpopulation isn’t an issue rather it is a resource distribution issue is a conceit the left use so they can wear their green hat.

1. Poor people given the ability to consume make the same choices as westerners.
2. Resources aren’t necessarily transferable.
3. It is patently obvious that some places are over populated e.g. the Philippines where the Catholic Church has opposed birth control or Solomon Islands where the birth rate has been 5.5.

Thomas September 2, 2013 at 11:53 am

I think that we need to address as humanity both factors of the equation, population growth AND per person consumption.
The first factor is primarily an issue for the developing world and the second is the issue primarily for the developed world.
There are no black and white solutions to this. It is time that our great thinkers tackle this issue. And end to religious nonsense being in the way of population control is needed just as an end to the holy cows of the consumer society paradigms.

jh September 2, 2013 at 8:19 pm

The problem (as I see it) is world view – (our paradigm) and what we consider the appropriate response. In our western society humanitarianism has a very high status (and we have state funded institutions). These institutions and ideas dominate politics. If you look at societies and nations from a biological perspective you are justified (I think) in maintaining a low population (and in NZ’s case we are unlikely to require a lot of people).

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