The Gore synthesis: where we are now, where we are heading, and what we need to do

This is the five minute condensed version of the talk I gave in Gore at the Coal Action Network Aotearoa Summerfest (a somewhat optimistic title, given the chilly and wet weather last weekend).

It’s too late to avoid damaging climate change, because it’s already happening. Weather extremes — floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, and storms — are on the increase, dramatic melting of Arctic sea ice is affecting northern hemisphere weather patterns, and accelerating ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica points towards a rapid increase in sea level. And the climate commitment, the 30 years it will take the planet to get back into energy balance once atmospheric CO2 is stabilised, guarantees that we will see much worse long before we see any benefit from action we take today.

Everything we do now to cut emissions will help us to avoid the very worst impacts — the almost unimaginable stuff that will be happening by the middle of this century — so it’s really worth doing.

To avoid future damage being catastrophic, we need emissions cuts to be made as if this were wartime. The global economy has to be switched from fossil fuel burning to clean energy as fast as possible — as if our very civilisation depended on it, because it does. Every year of delay now is a year more in the 2040s and 2050s of the very worst the climate system will throw at us. Every year of delay will make the job harder.

We need to go beyond stabilising atmospheric CO2 levels, and remove much of carbon emitted since the industrial revolution if we are to avoid losing much of the low lying land to long term sea level rise.

We need to be working now to futureproof New Zealand (and everywhere else) as much as possible. We must not lock our economies into high emissions pathways by investing in fossil fuel extraction or emissions-intensive agriculture. We must put in place policies to deal with sea level rise as it happens, but they will have to focus on managed retreat — at least until atmospheric CO2 is on a downwards trend. We need to focus on developing economic and social resilience, to enable us to recover from the inevitable shocks caused by rapid climate change.

This has to be the reality that our governments confront. Getting them to face up to the full seriousness of climate change is not going to be easy, but it’s going to have to be done.


I often find that preparing a talk crystallises my thinking around an issue, and that was certainly the case here. Reviewing the climate events of the last year, looking forward to the near future, and considering our options as climate change begins to really bite left me feeling rather gloomy — but the energy and enthusiasm of the CANA crowd, committed to preventing lignite mining in Southland and to phasing out coal mining throughout New Zealand, did a lot to put a smile back on my face.

Below the fold is an expanded version of the notes I prepared for my talk, with links to supporting material (as I promised to the audiences in Gore)…

Continue reading “The Gore synthesis: where we are now, where we are heading, and what we need to do”

Hansen’s letter on lignite

At the suggestion of Slovenian colleagues, James Hansen has written to the President and members of the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia urging them to deny a state guarantee for a proposed European Investment Bank loan to fund a new lignite-fired power plant in their country.

He points out that they are considering a decision which will have significant effects, some irreversible, upon the world that today’s young people and future generations inherit. Such a strong statement, he says, however unlikely it may seem at first glance, is a clear conclusion of the most advanced climate science. That science he proceeds to summarise in his letter, and to describe in more detail in an attached paper The Case for Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change to Protect Young People and Nature.

Continue reading “Hansen’s letter on lignite”

Hidden treasure is fools gold

The Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) has launched a new document, Realising Our Hidden Treasure: Responsible Mineral and Petroleum Extraction. The title says it all, and it’s the same message as the government has been feeding us for the last three years.

First the treasure. The document sets it out in dollar terms. I’ll mention only the fossil fuels here. They estimate the potential value of the resources as $109 billion for coal, $248 billion for lignite, $187 billion for oil and $45 billion for natural gas.

Then the question of responsible extraction. The document is concerned with the environmental effects. There are plenty to be concerned about, but in this post I’ll focus on greenhouse gases, which the document addresses in a short section headed “Can We Manage Greenhouse Gas Emissions?”

Continue reading “Hidden treasure is fools gold”

The scientific yardstick for political policy

I was pleased to see the Labour Party’s announcement that it is opposed to the Southland lignite development planned by Solid Energy, and went looking for more detail in the party’s climate change policy.  The opening paragraph of the policy statement struck me as more direct than I expected:

Climate change poses an enormous global threat and severely threatens our way of life. It is occurring more rapidly than previously predicted. Humankind is pouring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere on a scale far greater than the ability of the environment to absorb them.

Against this background the decision to oppose the lignite development in spite of its claimed financial benefit makes perfect sense: Continue reading “The scientific yardstick for political policy”

A Week of Contradiction

We seem to have convinced the world that we’re right up in the forefront when it comes to tackling climate change.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon came to New Zealand this week to the Pacific Islands Forum and called at Kiribati en route.

“For those who believe climate change is about some distant future, I invite them to Kiribati.

“Climate change is not about tomorrow. It is lapping at our feet – quite literally in Kiribati and elsewhere.”

“We will not succeed in reducing emissions without sustainable energy solutions,” he said, and then he praised New Zealand as a global leader in sustainable development, with the vast majority of its energy coming from renewable sources. Continue reading “A Week of Contradiction”