Welcome words from a politician

“This is a century in which we will recognise that living within your means can no longer just be about money, but also must be about first living within your carbon means and second living within the natural world’s ability to support humankind over issues like fishing and deforestation.”

I took pleasure in the these words from UK Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, reported in the Guardian today, while realising that I open myself to the accusation of being too ready to credit that a politician can mean what he or she says.

Benn is calling for a way to be found to price the impact of our decisions on biodiversity in the same way that the international community is finding a way of pricing carbon. He warns that the world may be going through its sixth great extinction event.  He’s hoping that a report being prepared for the European commission by the Deutsche Bank economist Pavan Sukhdev into the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity may “do for our understanding of the natural world what Nick Stern did for the understanding of the economic impact of climate change.”

“Stern made people sit up and take notice. Stern said ‘this is the cost of dealing with climate change and this is the cost of not dealing with it.’ Stern brought this issue to the attention of business people and economists. We have to realise we live in a world where we can no longer take without consequence”.

Earlier in the month Benn contributed an opinion piece in the BBC’s Green Room series explaining his biodiversity concern at greater length. He was careful to conjoin it with climate change: “Climate change and biodiversity are inextricably linked. We ignore natural capital at our peril.”

Benn is only saying what many scientists have been pointing out for some years.  But it matters that politicians should be saying it.  The general populace needs to hear it from them.  It’s called political leadership and it has often mattered at critical times in the past.  I commented in an earlier post on the willingness of the Milliband brothers and Gordon Brown to speak unequivocally about climate change to the UK electorate. John Prescott was similarly outspoken and active in the lead-up to Copenhagen.

Admittedly the Copenhagen experience was dispiriting in relation to the rhetoric we were increasingly hearing from political leaders beforehand.  Benn will address that fact in a speech he is due to deliver tomorrow, when he will say that a way has to be found to reverse “the collective loss of personal, economic and environmental optimism”.

Our own political leadership is not given to statements like that of Benn’s which opened this post.  I realise they make a virtue of not wanting to promise more than they can deliver, but the New Zealand electorate needs to hear unequivocally from the government (and from the main opposition party for that matter) that climate change and biodiversity loss are supremely important issues, with the corollary that our catching up with Australian incomes is a rather lesser matter.

Dealing with sea level rise: retreat, defend, or attack?

As a handy follow-up to Bryan’s post yesterday about calls to plan for sea level rise of about two metres over the coming century, a new report, Facing up to rising sea levels [PDF], examines how two British coastal cities, Portsmouth and Hull, might cope. According to the Guardian coverage, Hull could become a “Venice-like waterworld” (which is a considerable challenge to my imagination) and Portsmouth a new Amalfi (ditto). Set aside the hyperbole, however, and the report — a joint effort by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Institution of Civil Engineers — is an examination of how the cities could respond to sea level rise by building defences, managing a planned retreat, or by building out and over the sea as it rises. The results are a fascinating look at how ingenuity in the face of a severe challenge can create interesting environments — if not, perhaps, a new Venice in northeast England.

Finding better words

ClimatechallengeA sidelight to Gareth’s post about the 4ºC map launched in London last week is the strength of the language used at the event by the Miliband brothers — foreign secretary David (left) and climate change secretary Ed. The Times reported that David Miliband accused the public of lacking a sense of urgency in the face of the potentially devastating consequences of climate change. People have grown apathetic, he said, when they needed to be galvanised into action before Copenhagen.

“For a lot of people the penny hasn’t dropped that this climate change challenge is real and is happening now. There isn’t yet that feeling of urgency and drive and animation about the Copenhagen conference.”

Continue reading “Finding better words”

Four degrees too far

The British government has stepped up its pre-Copenhagen campaign for a global emissions deal, yesterday releasing this interactive map of what a 4ºC temperature increase would mean for the world. Click on the map to explore the impacts listed across the bottom. A larger (full page) version is available here, and background here and here. At the launch in the Science Museum in London, Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary emphasised the urgency:

“Britain’s scientists have helped to illustrate the catastrophic effects that will result if the world fails to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees. With less than 50 days left before agreement must be reached, the UK’s going all out to persuade the world of the need to raise its ambitions so we get a deal that protects us from a 4 degree world.”

The 4ºC projection can be thought of as a plausible worst case scenario – the sort of outcome that we have to take seriously when deciding on emissions reductions. Based on modelling done at the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre (discussed at this recent conference, BBC coverage here), the map shows what could happen if global emissions continue to rise unchecked — but not when we would get there. Some model runs suggest it could be as early as the 2060s. One key point to note: a 4ºC rise in the global average does not mean a 4ºC rise everywhere. Some places (like NZ) will be shielded from the full warming by cool oceans, but in the Arctic, for instance, the rise could be as much as 15ºC, and over continental interiors such as the USA and Asia 6 – 8ºC. Large parts of central Australia will be 6ºC hotter — as will much of Antarctica. The planet will be radically transformed, and not in a good way. More coverage at the Telegraph, Independent and Guardian.

Take a giant step

The UK’s Committee on Climate Change, established to advise the British government on emissions targets and to report to Parliament on the progress being made towards achieving those targets, has just published its first annual report: Meeting Carbon Budgets – the need for a step change. It warns that the current rate of emissions reductions, running at about 1% per year, needs to be increased to 2% and perhaps 3% if the UK is to hit its relatively ambitious 34% emissions cut by 2020. Here’s how the Guardian reports it:

A green and pleasant land, with millions of electric cars powered from wind turbines and travelling between super-cosy homes and offices: that is the vision for Britain in 2020 set out today by the government’s climate watchdog.

That cleaner, greener country, playing its full part in averting disastrous global warming, is both possible and affordable, says the Climate Change Committee – but only if the government acts immediately to implement radical policies on energy efficiency and low carbon technologies, as well as dealing with the threat of the recession to carbon trading schemes.

The Times is more concerned with the suggestion that motoring taxes could be increased, but Richard Black at the BBC provides a good overview.

The report is well worth a read, not because the policy suggestions are directly relevant to NZ’s position (though encouraging household energy efficiency, electric vehicles and boosting renewables should be part of what we do), but because the Committee itself is a policy body that New Zealand sorely needs. Instead of arguing in parliamentary committee rooms about the existence of warming, this body takes the best scientific advice and applies it to determine credible policy objectives. That’s one reason why Britain’s current targets are amongst the most aggressive in the developed world. But the committee does much more: it reports on the progress being made, and establishes a “reporting to budget” process that would be familiar to anyone who has managed anything other than the smallest of businesses. And as this first report shows, if it looks like the budget forecasts are going to be missed, they are not afraid to recommend policy initiatives.

To me, that looks like a rational way to approach the issue. What a pity that instead NZ has leaders who are unwilling to lead, no effective mechanism for emissions reductions, and a government in thrall to big emitters. Climate policy needs to be made on the basis of rational analysis, not National’s paralysis.

[Taj Mahal]