Things are gonna change (the morning after)

On the morning after I was more interested in the rugby than agonising over the entrails of Saturday night’s election result, but today it’s worth traversing what new Zealand’s new political landscape might bring for climate policy. For the wider picture, I recommend Russell Brown’s take at Hard News and Gordon Campbell’s at Scoop; they summarise the politics of the situation nicely.

The big question, of course, is to what extent Rodney Hide’s ACT contingent – guaranteed a coalition deal, with Hide in cabinet – can persuade prime minister designate John Key to modify National’s policy on the Emissions Trading Scheme (keeping it, but watering it down even further).

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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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For the benefit of mankind

Last weekend I drew attention to Monbiot’s musings on financial and ecological crises. This weekend it’s ecological economist Herman Daly explaining in simple terms why economic growth has become uneconomic growth: we’re getting less wealth and more illth (hat tip: Things Break). That leads nicely to New Scientist’s special issue on The Folly of Growth – covered in detail at Things Break (follow the links there), and also under discussion at frogblog. There are limits to growth and we’re hitting them, but we lack the political and economic tools to deal with the problem. In that context, check out the recent PBS documentary Heat: it opens with an Indian scientist opining:

We are standing at the precipice of hell. If everybody else was to live as an American, we’re doomed.

See also: Nick “Report” Stern’s call for green solutions to the financial crisis. He can’t avoid the word growth, but at least he’s proposing less illth.

[Title reference: mp3]

In the land of make believe

NZETS.jpg Today’s lesson is taken from Jane Clifton’s Politics column in this week’s Listener (full text on the web next week). Her take on the current fuss over the Emissions Trading Scheme perfectly illustrates how the debate around this issue is being misunderstood and misrepresented, occasionally wilfully, sometimes from ignorance. This is not Clifton’s fault. She is reflecting only a certain kind of reality – the perception of the issue that is driving press coverage and political actions. Here’s a key passage:

“… most people have gotten the drift by now: to reduce carbon emissions means to reduce activities we currently benefit from and enjoy. And we will have to pay handsomely for our lack of pleasure.”

She then considers why the government is struggling with the scheme:

“It’s the ultimate non sequitur. A government that addressed this crisis seriously would become massively unpopular and lose office. A government that didn’t would be hideously irresponsible and deserve to lose office. Hard to avoid a certain fatalism.”

If the first part of the argument were true, then her “non sequitur” would follow. Happily, her assumption is completely wrong, so it doesn’t have to. But you’d be hard-pressed to glean that from the current discussion in NZ (or indeed from Clifton’s column).

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It’s a gas, gas, gas

arcticmethane.jpg It’s not good news. The USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has produced its annual report on greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide concentration continues its accelerated growth. And there are signs that methane levels are beginning to rise, after a decade of remaining more or less static. The BBC reports:

NOAA figures show CO2 concentrations rising by 2.4 parts per million (ppm) from 2006 to 2007. By comparison, the average annual increase between 1979 and 2007 was 1.65ppm.

The methane rise is worrying because it’s a very powerful greenhouse gas (23 times as effective at trapping heat as CO2), and there are a number of positive feedbacks that could come into play as the planet warms. From the NOAA release:

Rapidly growing industrialization in Asia and rising wetland emissions in the Arctic and tropics are the most likely causes of the recent methane increase, said scientist Ed Dlugokencky from NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. ”We’re on the lookout for the first sign of a methane release from thawing Arctic permafrost,” said Dlugokencky. “It’s too soon to tell whether last year’s spike in emissions includes the start of such a trend.”

Permafrost is one thing, methane hydrates are another. Sometimes called burning ice, methane hydrates (aka clathrates) are a mixture of ice and methane that exist in large quantities on the sea floor – and there are particularly large amounts in the shallow Arctic seas north of Russia and Siberia (more info at Climate Progress). At the recent European Geophysical Union conference in Vienna, a Russian scientist discussed the issue. From SpiegelOnline:

In the permafrost bottom of the 200-meter-deep sea [off the northern coast of Siberia], enormous stores of gas hydrates lie dormant in mighty frozen layers of sediment. The carbon content of the ice-and-methane mixture here is estimated at 540 billion tons. “This submarine hydrate was considered stable until now,” says the Russian biogeochemist Natalia Shakhova, currently a guest scientist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks who is also a member of the Pacific Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok.

The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become “a source of methane passing into the atmosphere.” The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere would increase twelvefold. “The result would be catastrophic global warming,” say the scientists.

The SpeigeOnline article is worth reading in full. Shakova’s observations of methane emissions hint at an explanation for the increase in global atmospheric methane. If that’s the case – and its too early to say for sure – then we may be seeing the beginnings of one of the most worrying of the positive carbon cycle feedbacks – one that could potentially make anything we do to cut CO2 emissions the equivalent of pissing in the wind.

[Hat tip for the Spiegel piece to No Right Turn – I’m frankly amazed the EGU paper hasn’t had much more coverage in the world’s media.]

[Update for the interested: The EGU abstract for Shakhova’s paper is here [PDF]. Here’s the last few words:

“…we consider release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time. That may cause ~ 12-times increase of modern atmospheric methane burden with consequent catastrophic greenhouse warming.”

“Abrupt release at any time”. That’s truly alarming.]