We must change the way we think about the future, now

Hot Topic’s NZ election 2011 series continues with an excellent piece by Dr George Laking, an Auckland-based medical oncologist. George is a member of OraTaiao: New Zealand Climate and Health, a group of senior doctors and other health professionals concerned about the effects of climate change on population health. This article first appeared in the NZ Herald on Nov 17th.

This month the International Energy Agency published its latest World Energy Outlook. It says if high-carbon energy investment continues for more than five years, atmospheric carbon dioxide will unavoidably overshoot 450 parts per million and global warming will exceed 2C. The agency’s chief economist says “I am very worried – if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum. The door will be closed forever .”

The IEA is not a fringe organisation, and it is not alone in accepting the scientific work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The World Bank says “The countries of the world must act now, act together and act differently on climate change.”

Senior officers from the UK Ministry of Defence identify climate change as “an immediate, growing and grave threat” to global health and security. Leading international medical journal The Lancet calls climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. Risks include extreme weather events, loss of food and political security, and increased range of infectious diseases. The World Medical Association has urged doctors to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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You never give me your money

BillEnglish.jpg Bill English’s first budget has disappointed many by ditching promised tax cuts, but pleased a few by reinstating a Green home insulation initiative. The Science Media Centre has a handy summary here. There’s $321 million of new money for R&D through a “Primary Growth Partnership” (details due on June 2), which goes some way to offset the loss of Labour’s “Fast Forward” fund, but no money for the promised climate change research centre (it was going to be a “virtual” centre, now it’s actually gone). Reaction in the science community was mixed, as the Science Media Centre documents. Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, director of the He Kainga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme at the University of Otago, Wellington commented:

“I’m very pleased to see that there has been multi-partisan agreement about the importance of retrofitting insulation and install sustainable heating and that significant investment has been included in this Budget. There is going to be a ramp up over four years and by the end of that time it is estimated that over a quarter of uninsulated houses in New Zealand will be insulated.

“I think it’s important that the Government is requiring people to insulate their houses before they can access the subsidies for sustainable heaters. This makes physical and energy efficiency sense and is based on sound public health science. There has also been further attempts to increase the incentives for landlords to upgrade their properties, which is important for the 40% of householders that rent in the private sector.

Meanwhile, Prof Paul Callaghan at Victoria University was “disappointed” with the budget:

“If New Zealand is to turbocharge its way out of this recession, we have to develop new export businesses based on knowledge and innovation. What we need are significant new investments to build our innovation system. The 2009/10 budget has not addressed that issue.”

However, in a fairly clear signal that the Emissions Trading Scheme is going to survive its select committee review, Nick Smith announced increased funding of $6.9 million for developing the Emissions Trading Scheme, “including international linkages”.

[Beatles (rare long version)]

Sound of silence

jim_salinger.jpg The National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) has fired climate scientist Jim Salinger for “unauthorised dealings” with the media. Salinger has been one of New Zealand’s leading climate scientists since the 1970s, and his sacking has shocked many in the scientific community. The Dominion Post reports:

The Crown agency’s long-serving principal scientist was dismissed earlier this week, reportedly for trying to help TVNZ’s weatherman Jim Hickey with some “climate-related inquiries” and for doing an interview with Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint programme without permission.

He said he received a letter in March from management summoning him to a disciplinary meeting for an interview he did with TVNZ in February commenting on Auckland’s hottest day. The interview had not been approved and was labelled “serious misconduct”. He was also reprimanded for talking to TVNZ about glaciers for which he thought he had permission.

I covered the offending glacier story here: it was an excellent piece of journalism, reflecting well on both TV NZ and the NIWA staff working on the survey. Salinger was also one of the five NZ scientists who complained last year about being on Heartland’s list of people whose work didn’t support global warming: a move which gained Jim a lot of support in the NZ media — hardly surprising when for years he’s been one of the main “go to” men for a quotable opinion on climate and weather issues.

NIWA have not commented on the dismissal, and they are unlikely to in the short term given that an employment court case is in the offing. Whatever the ins and outs of employment law, the Crown-owned research institute is going to have to work hard to avoid the suspicion that — in an echo of attempts by the Bush administration to muzzle Jim Hansen — management fired Salinger because he was refusing to be gagged.

The Green Party has already called on NIWA’s shareholding ministers, Wayne Mapp and Bill English, to ask the CRI’s board to investigate the sacking, but Mapp has refused according to the DomPost:

Dr Mapp said he would not intervene. “The matter is an employment dispute, which must be handled by the chief executive and the board,” he said.

I think Mapp has this wrong. Salinger’s dismissal raises questions of free speech and academic freedom, and if the government is to avoid suspicions of censoring inconvenient truths — at a time when cranks are being given time to spout nonsense before the ETS Review committee — then it needs to act swiftly to reaffirm that New Zealand scientists are not being muzzled. The international reputation of our science could be at stake.

See also: Stuff, Herald on Sunday, and for a critical take on the burgeoning role of bureaucrats in NZ science, an opinion piece by Doug Edmeades in Australasian Science this week (via the Science Media Centre).

[Simon & Garfunkel]

Take care the road you choose

vote1.pngNow that one election’s out of the way, (a good result: Obama’s committed to 80 percent reductions by 2050) time to focus on what’s happening in New Zealand. I’ve promised several times to offer an analysis of the major parties offerings on climate change and emissions reductions, but I’ve been pre-empted by a very useful summary by Vote for the Environment (a joint effort by Eco and Greenpeace). They set up an “ideal” set of environment policies, and then surveyed the parties and scored their answers. The results are pretty close to my impression of the state of the parties…

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Taking tiger mountain (by strategy)

NZETS.jpgWith a final decision required next week, the Green Party has asked for public feedback on whether it should support the government’s emissions trading scheme legislation, and people have not been slow in coming forward. Jeanette Fitzsimons announcement on Thursday explained the dilemma facing the party:

“We set out to achieve a number of things, such as including transport and agriculture into the scheme earlier, a fund to insulate homes to keep power bills down, targets for emissions reduction and support for new innovations that offer significant carbon reduction. […] On some of the issues we have not been able to make progress. We have not been able to get agreement to phase in transport instead it will come in in one lump in 2011, so this has not changed. We have made very little progress on agriculture but we are still talking about this. Very importantly we have not found a way for Government to accept a biodiversity standard to ensure that planting pines does not destroy biodiversity.”

The usual suspects have not been slow to chip in. Business NZ wants them to vote against the scheme; Greenpeace believes they have no choice but to support it. The debate at frogblog and Chris Trotter’s new blog has been interesting, while No Right Turn provides a characteristically concise summary of the situation.

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